Tom Brake MP writes… A landmark achievement in fight for our civil liberties

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

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12 Comments

  • Simon Beard 1st May '12 - 6:38pm

    This sounds like a great start!

    I only wish it had come out before, rather than after, the government decided it wanted to expand its powers of on-line survailence and the party leadership destroyed my (and I understand many other Lib Dem’s) faith in their commitement with its utterly pathetic bleating that a privately held database was somehow all fine and dandy.

    Still I good start as I say. If the government can only build on it then I, and hopefully others, may have our faith restored.

  • Daniel Henry 2nd May '12 - 8:33am

    That’s a common argument Derek, one that assumes that our security services are perfectly competent and honest, that the individuals they employ won’t lose, sell or misplace a laptop containing your data on a train.

    Since these organisations do misuse and abuse data, it’s essential that we regulate them.

  • Stuart Mitchell 2nd May '12 - 9:10pm

    “Don’t forget that thanks to Labour, Britain had 1% of the world’s population but a fifth of the world’s CCTV cameras.”

    No it didn’t. ACPO – who were the original source of this particular factoid – admitted last year that the figure was complete nonsense, based as it was on an entirely non-scientific extrapolation of a survey conducted on a single street in a busy shopping area. They now estimate that we have fewer than half that many cameras. I am very surprised that Tom Brake is apparently unaware of this. (By the way, the Protection of Freedoms Bill will not bring about the removal of a single camera.)

    “This Act will now reduce the maximum period of detention without charge to 14 days.”

    Not really. If the government wishes to detain suspects for longer than 14 days, it can do so using either the Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (Temporary Extensions) Bills or the Civil Contingencies Act.

    The government’s approach to civil liberties is to (a) hysterically exaggerate the extent to which our liberties were curtailed under Labour, (b) equally hysterically over-hype the degree to which the coalition is “giving freedoms back” to us, and (c) say one thing while doing the opposite. This article is full of examples of all three. The most obvious example of point (c) is the government’s new snoopers’ charter, which goes much further than anything Labour ever did (according to Liberty). A less well known example is the fact that this government has massively increased the amount of Home Office-approved snooping under RIPA, while at the same time telling us how terrible RIPA-sanctioned snooping is.

    It’s all smoke and mirrors I’m afraid. If you are a law abiding person who has no great wish to get married late at night, there is nothing in the Bill which will enhance your stay upon this Earth.

  • Richard Stow 3rd May '12 - 9:50am

    Very Orwellian and cynical – announce the “Protection of Freedoms Bill” whilst planning totalitarian email and internet monitoring for the whole population. These Coalition proposals for the surveillance state will be in the Queens speech on 9th May, despite being totally contrary to core Lib-Dem values.

    If Lib-Dems in Parliament vote for the surveillance state you are finished as a party based on strong principles.

  • Whilst this is a welcome and significant step in the right direction, I do wonder if a missing person (or child) were to visit the UK in twenty plus years, under a totally different identity, whether we would be able to detect it.

  • My attention has been drawn to your statement “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.”

    You have subjective views of the use of RIPA by local authorities – but you should be aware that such views are not shared by those conducting objective oversight of its use (see the reports of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner).

    The Commissioners do not share your view that disproportionate surveillance is a generic issue with local authorities’ use of RIPA. The reality of RIPA is that it has NOT been used to spy on ordinary people, their children, their pets and their bins. Evidence from isolated minority instances with knee-jerk reactions to media hysteria do not provide sound platforms for legislative changes.

    RIPA was NOT “set up to deal with organised crime and terrorism”. ONE of the nine grounds for which surveillance conduct could be granted was “in the interests of national security” – authorisations could also be granted “for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime [any crime] or of preventing disorder”.

    Your statement “Only 8 public bodies were able to use RIPA when it was first passed – now it’s over 900” is fundamentally incorrect. RIPA, as enacted, provided for 28 public bodies to conduct surveillance etc (including 40+ police forces and hundreds of local authorities). Where you get ‘over 900’ from is a mystery.

    As Sir Christopher Rose, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, said in a speech in 2009, the newspaper headline ‘Anti-terror laws used against dog fouling’ … “encapsulates in a few words all that is worst in popular journalism. It is inaccurate, emotive and grossly misleading”.

    Your ill-informed and distorted views unfortunately perpetuate the myths, misconceptions and misinformation surrounding RIPA.

  • All records should be destroyed.

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