Today the Protection of Freedoms Bill became an Act: a landmark for the campaign to roll back Labour’s surveillance state. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for this piece of legislation, proposing a “Freedom Bill” more than five years ago when Nick Clegg was the party’s Home Affairs Spokesman.
The Act will protect millions of people from unwarranted state intrusion in their private lives, building on some of the things we’ve already achieved like the ending of ID cards and the destruction of the National Identity Register.
I just want to highlight a couple of things that will now happen. Firstly, we will end the storage of DNA of people who are innocent by reforming the DNA database along the lines of the Scottish model. There were 6m people on the DNA database in the UK – nearly 10% of the population. This Act does the right thing by removing the data of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. In future, the DNA of people arrested and charged but not convicted of a minor offence will no longer be kept and a three-year limit will be put in place for the storage of the DNA of people charged, but not convicted, of a serious offence.
This Act puts an end to the misuse of counter-terrorism legislation. We all campaigned against 28-day detention without charge because it was disproportionate and the longest period in the democratic world. This Act will now reduce the maximum period of detention without charge to 14 days.
We are replacing the powers to stop and search persons and vehicles without reasonable suspicion with a power that is exercisable in significantly more restricted circumstances. Did you know that for almost 10 years, all of Greater London was designated as an area in which anyone could be stopped and searched without suspicion? As Brian Paddick has been pointing out in his campaign, this power divided communities because the police have used it mainly against people from ethnic minorities.
Millions of law-abiding householders will be protected from town hall snoopers with this Act. It introduces new safeguards in the use of surveillance powers (the notorious Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – RIPA) to better protect the public from disproportionate surveillance. RIPA was set up to deal with organised crime and terrorism. In reality, however, it has been used to spy on ordinary people, their children, their pets and their bins. Only 8 public bodies were able to use RIPA when it was first passed – now it’s over 900.
A new statutory code of practice for local authorities and police on the use of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition will improve effectiveness and ensure proportionality. The Coalition Government will also appoint a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner to provide, for the first time, a single framework within which all users of such systems can operate. Don’t forget that thanks to Labour, Britain had 1% of the world’s population but a fifth of the world’s CCTV cameras.
These are some of the headline issues, but there are many more things in here which will make life a little bit easier for everyone. For example, it will ban wheel-clamping on private land and it will return the Vetting and Barring Scheme and the disclosure of Criminal Records to common sense levels. At the same time, it will be made possible to transfer CRB checks – where they still apply – between jobs to reduce bureaucracy.
It will become easier to get information from public bodies by amending the Freedom of Information Act. The Act will ensure that public authorities proactively release datasets and extend FOI requirements to companies wholly owned by two or more public authorities. Lastly, any man with a conviction for consensual gay sex in cases that would now be considered legal, will be able to have it wiped from police and other official records.
Privacy International ranked the UK as the only “endemic surveillance society” in Europe. That put us on a par with Russia, China and Malaysia. The Protection of Freedoms Act is a hugely significant leap in the right direction. It’s something Liberal Democrats can be proud of: a lasting legacy in the fight against the security and surveillance state.
* Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons