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.