Tom Brake writes: The Freedom Bill is a staging post towards an even freer society

The Freedom Bill is clear evidence of the Liberal Democrats setting the political agenda and making a positive difference to how we live in Britain.

It’s our robust answer to unwelcome and unwarranted intrusions into our everyday lives. It starts the dismantling of an overbearing surveillance state and restores British civil liberties that we used to be able to take for granted.

At the heart of the Bill is a commitment to safeguarding and protecting individuals and national security. What has felt to many like an obsession of the state to monitor our every waking moment is broken down by the Bill to common sense levels. It puts an end to the unnecessary scrutiny of law-abiding individuals.

These are the steps we are taking.

Criminal Record Bureau checks and keeping records of those barred from working with children or vulnerable adults is a useful tool in protecting personal safety. But for everyone who’s had to apply for a Criminal Records Bureau check knows, going through a CRB check can be one of the most effective barriers to working with children and vulnerable adults.

The CRB check has proven to be at times infuriating, inconsistent and inappropriate. Mothers wishing to volunteer to help with reading at their local school, for example had to complete a check, which could take months to clear. An experienced playgroup leader would need a new check with each new job. CRB checking morphed from a sensible idea to lumbering bureaucratic overkill.

The Freedom Bill merges the Criminal Records Bureau with the Independent Safeguarding Authority to run a proportionate vetting and barring system and criminal records checking service. And those who are cleared can now take their clearance with them from job to job. This simple measure removes up to nine million people currently working or volunteering with children from the clutches of the state’s surveillance apparatus.

And similarly, we’ll continue to keep on file the DNA of convicted criminals. It’s a vital resource in modern policing. But the storage of DNA, from more than a million innocent people, undermines both the effectiveness of the system and our confidence in its use. The Freedom Bill outlaws the industrial scale retention of DNA from people who haven’t been convicted.

And the modern day scourge of inner city life – the proliferation of CCTV cameras, is at last tackled head on. CCTV does play an important role in crime prevention, but we have more cameras per head of population than any other industrialised Western state; some run privately, others by councils, some not monitored, others with round the clock monitoring. The need for regulation has been left in the wake of the unchecked growth in CCTV usage.

The Freedom Bill introduces a Surveillance Camera Commissioner, to provide for the first time some clarity on who’s using what, when and how. Then we can get some perspective on how cameras can be used effectively, not just intrusively. As part of the measure, we’ll introduce a statutory code of practice for local authorities and the police to follow on CCTV use.

Intrusion into the most personal aspect of our private lives will also cease. Men who received a conviction for consensual gay sex can now apply to have the conviction entirely wiped from Home Office records.

Disproportionate surveillance is further dealt with through the introduction of changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. New safeguards in the Bill mean that councils won’t be able to go through our rubbish to deal with minor offences, using laws designed for counter-terrorism purposes.

And in keeping with the Government’s wider commitment to transparency and openness, the Freedom of Information Act will be amended to require public authorities to proactively release data, so that we can see how they are spending our money and what they are doing on our behalf.

The Freedom Bill is a great leap forward, but it must be seen as a staging post towards an even freer society.
We must not stop here. The Public Order Act still needs overhauling, to stop the criminalisation of insulting behaviour, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act must be updated, dispersal orders in the Anti Social Behaviour Act require amendment.

These and many other measures will have to be covered in the Freedom Bill 2.

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17 Comments

  • The Freedom Bill seeks to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which I find baffling.

    Section 43 allows certain serious and complex fraud trials to go ahead without a jury if a Crown Court judge decides that the ‘test ‘ in undernoted Clause 5 is met. That decision is subject to the subsequent approval of the Lord Chief Justice

    5)The condition is that the complexity of the trial or the length of the trial (or both) is likely to make the trial so burdensome to the members of a jury hearing the trial that the interests of justice require that serious consideration should be given to the question of whether the trial should be conducted without a jury.

    So basically repealing the act will bring back jury trials for a few cases which tends to benefit the defendant but are burdensome for the jury members whose life might be put on hold for months. Do the jurors have no rights?

  • @EcoJon – Jurors have lots of rights and in these cases would often be able to get out of serving if expected to sit for this long if they had reasonable grounds (I did once and sat on a shorter case).

    However, you have touched on a broader problem which has been going on for decades whereby artificial selection for longer cases leads to a similar artificial selection – reversed – in shorter cases. Hence I sat on a jury composed almost entirely of professionals which for the defendent could hardly have been said to be a jury of peers.

  • It’s hard not to notice just how few people are listening.

    No headlines, no TV pieces, no interviews.

    Just caustic, all-encompassing apathy.

    What could have been a relevant and important piece of legislation has been roundly ignored. “Freedom is back in Fashion”? Freedom is seen as irrelevant when you sell your bill with such hyperbole.

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Feb '11 - 4:19pm

    “And the modern day scourge of inner city life – the proliferation of CCTV cameras, is at last tackled head on.”

    I’m afraid your comment suggests that you are somewhat out of touch with the concerns of people who actually live in inner cities. I could reel off a list off the top of my head of around a hundred things that are a far greater scourge to inner city life than CCTV cameras.

    A far greater problem round my neighbourhood at the moment is the prolific dog fouling which, alas, means that I have now had to remove my children’s “freedom” to play out on the local streets. No matter – the Freedoms Bill explicitly reinforces the culprits’ right to do as they please without fear of detection from the local council, so THEY must be very happy about it, even if my kids aren’t!

    Cameron used to talk a lot about rewarding people who “do the right things”. Alas, 90% of the Freedoms Bill seems to be about making life much, much easier for those who do the wrong things.

  • @Henry

    Yea – the jury selection process can be c ircumvented – with the complex fraud cases it’s my personal experience that professionals and the middle classes avoid them like the plague because of the time issue involved and also the defence don’t want professionals on the jury either and do their best to dumb it down.

    @Cuse

    You’re totally correct and as I pointed on another thread on this subject there seems to be no freedom or right to a job, keeping your home, your welfare benefits, a wage increase, university education for poorer kids, your employment protection the NHS et alia.

    These are the things that matter to the public at large and not being able to now get married at 6.01pm.

  • Does this apply to the private sector or individuals putting CCTV up. I ask because this, ‘uncecked growth of CCTV,’ might be something else. Around near my house, there is a shopping precinct which had a problem with vandalism, mess, damage etc. Not crime of the century, sure, but nothing nice. The owners (granted, perhaps at the insistence of the insurers) put up CCTV. The problem went away. Sadly, just round the next corner to the local park. There are good arguments to be had about CCTV, but this does not seem to tackle the issue as a whole, just a selective bit. For that matter, I’m not even sure that private individuals should be stopeed from using CCTV on private property.

    As to CRB, again, this is tackling symptiom not cause. I can come on here, wag my finger at New Labour and chant hooray for Liberty all I want to. The stark reality is that the state has not barged its way into our lives, it has been actively beckoned in because we no longer appear able to regulate our relationships. We demand the state do it through criminal record checks, immigration controls, speed cameras and the like. Fear is a driver – fear of child molesters, fear of immigrants, fear of crime. Like it or not, the people have demanded that, ‘something must be done.’ Whatever I think of these changes I have this nagging feeling that what is being addressed here is symptom, not cause. As such, this is massively vulnerable to the next (heaven forbid) terror attack.

    Oh – and as for the crank’s charter that is FoI – less dogma, more reality on that squalid piece of legislation. But that;s for another day.

  • “and also the defence don’t want professionals on the jury either and do their best to dumb it down.”

    “being professional” wouldn’t be ground for challenging a juror and in any case there would be no way of telling this at the time the juror was selected.

  • @Hywel

    Basically I’m saying that professionals in my experience tend to self-select themselves off juries and not just the complex fraud cases. Yea I think peremptory challenges have gone although there have been some under-currents for a while that the American voire dire system should be used in a limited form although that is one that would need a lot of thought.

    But the real issue here is that jurors are having a right removed from them by the repeal of a section of the 2003 Act and I just don’t think that’s right. I firmly believe that the driving force for this legislation change could well be monetary as the legal profession makes a lot more dosh off longer jury trials than shorter ones before a judge.

    Of course some may have other reasons but I’ve got to say I’ve not seen one that would persuade me to force ordinary members of the public to spend forever on a complex fraud trial – I seem to remember one lasting almost 2 years and six months for many of the serious ones is normal.

    There’s maybe only 6-12 a year of these cases because they seldom get to court because they are so complex but that’s still a lot of people inconvenienced and losing their current legal right to escape this burden. I find it difficult to understand how LibDems can support this move.

  • OK – but that’s not what you said which was:
    “Yea – the jury selection process can be c ircumvented – with the complex fraud cases it’s my personal experience that professionals and the middle classes avoid them like the plague because of the time issue involved and also the defence don’t want professionals on the jury either and do their best to dumb it down.”

    I don’t think you can have had any personal experience of the latter which does affect the credibility I give to your views.

    “Of course some may have other reasons but I’ve got to say I’ve not seen one that would persuade me to force ordinary members of the public to spend forever on a complex fraud trial – I seem to remember one lasting almost 2 years and six months for many of the serious ones is normal.”

    A survey of the (collapsed) Jubilee Line trial jurors found that “Most jurors were pleased to have served on the jury despite personal cost;”

    There was a terrorism trial which lasted several months – and yet when the jury went for deliberations they deliberated for days if not weeks – so much so that when the verdicts came through I thought the trial had long finished

    My impression is that jurors are treated rather poorly by the courts in general – when really they should be treated as the most important people there.

  • @Hywel

    My main point here is that existing rights are being taken away from jurors and I think that’s wrong. What is your position on that point which is the main one – my personal experience or your perception of it aren’t actually the main point and only it would appear a means of avoiding the issue.

    I would also make it clear that I am only referring to complex and/or serious fraud trials and no other jury trials.

    I also have a lot of personal experience that juries are often treated as badly as witnesses and seldom as badly as the accused – you can believe that or not but what really interests me is the main point: Do you believe it correct to remove existing rights from jurors.

    It’s a bit like the LibDems supporting the Tory Coalition move to cut increase from 12 to 24 months the period before any UK worker can take an unfair dismissal case to an employment tribunal – I think that is a shocker. How do you feel about that? Bts I haven’t polled every UK worker to find out what they think – I just know it’s wrong like I know it’s wrong to remove protection from jurors.

    You mention the collapsed Jubilee Line Trial: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article1294769.ece

    You fail to mention that this case is not one that would fall within the section 43 remit as you will see from the link so although of interest I don’t actually see its direct relevance.

    Some long-running fraud trials aren’t complex and aren’t difficult to understand but some are to re-use a phrase totally Byzantine in complexity and it’s these case that section 43 dealt.

    I note that you haven’t given a citation for your Jubilee Line material but anyone who reads it I’m sure will see why I have been banging on about this – I haven’t read the actual study and will given time but I learnt a long time ago not to sieze on phrases such as ‘Most jurors were pleased to have served on the jury despite personal cost’.

    I look at other comments in the article I cited and see that jurors also said: ‘Long-term friendships were formed and the experience was likened to the “Big Brother house’ and more ominously: ‘

  • oops hit wrong button.

    I look at other comments in the article I cited and see that jurors also said: ‘Long-term friendships were formed and the experience was likened to the “Big Brother house’ and more ominously: ‘Trial had big impact on their lives and particularly careers, sometimes months later’.

    I also note that: ‘some felt that there should have been financial compensation for their losses or to make up for what they had sacrificed financially’.

    Further, Stephen Wooler, the chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘his own report had recognised that some cases may be “of such complexity that they are not manageable within existing arrangements, although the Jubilee Line case did not fall into that category”.

    I don’t have detailed personal knowledge of the Jubilee Line Case but my memory of it was that it wasn’t so much that it was 21 months of wall-to-wall evidence but that the duraction of the trial was more to do with the times the court wasn’t sitting for a variety of reasons.

    As I say I think a poor choice to use in this case but it still doesn’t answer my question – Do you believe the existing rights of jurors should be scrapped? A simple question and a simple answer will suffice – I’m actually beginning to think you must be a politician at the way you don’t actually deal with the salient point.

  • I’ve not addressed your point because it’s a spurious one. You couch it in terms of the “rights” of jurors. This issue is not about the rights of jurors because there aren’t any in the situation you are talking about. s43 doesn’t contain any reference to the rights of the jurors IIRC.

    The link you refer to above is the same one I was referring to – though I remember reading a longer piece at the time which I don’t have a source for.

    There are already rights to refuse (postpone really) Jury service when it would have an impact on your employment as I postponed jury service when I was summoned for a period covering party conference (when I was working for the party at the time).

    I don’t totally accept the argument that fraud trials are overly complex. Fraud is actually a fairly simple offence for a lay person to understand – compared to say assessing the difference between GBH/ABH/battery etc. There may be complex evidence showing where the money came from and where it went but at its heart the issue is the person A got something that they weren’t entitled to.

    Jurors deal with a lot of complex evidence in other trials – eg DNA and other forensic evidence and there aren’t any issues raised about their ability to understand these. The fundamental strength of the jury system is that no matter what Parliament legislates for it has the ultimated safeguard that you still have to persuade a jury that someone has done something wrong. One reason for the relaxation in pornography laws was that it was becoming difficult to get convictions for offences involving mainstream pornography as juries seemed to take the view that there was nothing particularly wrong with the material they were shown.

    Your right about the length of the jubillee line trial – but courts tend to be bedevilled by delays even with the best case management and it is hard to avoid repititious evidence where there are multiple defendants.

    One option which has certainly been suggested if not actually put into practice is that the trial only sits for part of the day or week – thereby allowing jurors to continue working around the trial. The other time could be used for legal argument on points which didn’t need the jury present.

  • @Hywel

    You do not seem to accept that Section 43 fraud trials are a unique beast – they are not like ordinary fraud trials and nothing can be gained by comparing them to other types of offences. We are talking about cases which are so burdensone to jurors that the absolute right to a jury trial has been withdrawn from the accused.

    The LibDems wish to repeal S43 and I see that as the removal of a right from a juror – you appear to argue a juror gains no rights from S43 and presumably by extension doesn’t lose any rights.

    S43 Clause 5 states:

    5)The condition is that the complexity of the trial or the length of the trial (or both) is likely to make the trial so burdensome to the members of a jury hearing the trial that the interests of justice require that serious consideration should be given to the question of whether the trial should be conducted without a jury.

    I fail to see how you can believe this doesn’t give a right to a juror not to have to sit through a burdensome S43 trial – as far as I’m concerned it’s a no brainer. If you think differently please explain but only in relation to S43 trials and not a whole host of extraneous matter which has nothing to do with S43 trials.

  • I think I’ve set my views out in sufficient detail above. This has become a bit circular so I’m going to leave it here and we’ll just have to agree to disagree :-)

  • @Hywel

    I don’t see it as circular at all – I am only asking why you think no right is granted to jurors under Clause 5 of S43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Its a very simple question.

    I don’t attack your right to form the view that S43 doesn’t give any right – all I am asking is how you reach that conclusion in view of the wording of S43 which to me is crystal-clear.

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 10:59pm

    I do not feel free in modern Britain. But that is not because of CCTV or CRB checks or council workers who might snoop through my bins. No. I do not feel free because like many workers I live in fear of joining the millions of unemployed or because of fear of crime in the local area or because my local library may soon close unless the local people “volunteer” to run it. No part of this “Freedom Bill” addresses those issues.

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