Home Secretary, Theresa May, yesterday announced radical government action to end the creeping threat to civil liberties in the UK brought about by counter-terrorism legislation and increased powers for the security forces – by replacing her existing powers with even better counter-terror legislation and new powers for the security services.
That is the conclusion drawn by Big Brother Watch director, Alex Deane, who also expressed the view that the Lib Dems have had the wool pulled over their eyes once more.
At first sight, the results of the review, announced to the House of Commons yesterday afternoon, were a libertarian dream: detention without trial chopped in half; an end to the hated s44 stop-and-search power under the Terrorism Act 2000; and strict limits to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
Now read the small print:
- Detention without trial is being cut back – but under a technical legislative device passed by the last government, it already sits at 14 days, with powers to extend it in times of emergency. Theresa May likes things pretty much as they are.
- Section 44 stop-and-search powers are to go, to be replaced by "tightly defined power that would allow a senior police officer to make an authorisation of much more limited scope and duration for no-suspicion stop-and-search powers". This looks suspiciously like s60 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which has already proven so devastating to eco-campaigners, and gives wider powers to local police.
- RIPA powers are to be cut back, at least insofar as they are used by local councils. In future, local councils will need a magistrate to authorise snooping. So no more spying on dirty dog-walkers? No. But if the snooping is for serious crime (defined as anything with a potential prison sentence of six months or more, like selling of alcohol to underage drinkers or benefits fraud) it will be business as usual.
- The government will not be seeking additional powers to mix up terror and hate crime legislation, which possibly goes more to traditional Tory distrust of the latter than any great commitment to civil liberties... On the other side of the equation, they are to continue to deport foreign nationals suspected of terrorism and other nastiness – and will seek to negotiate the deportation of even more nationals to more countries than before.
- Last but not least is a commitment to replace the hated control order regime with a package that is "better focused and has more targeted restrictions, supported by significantly increased resources for surveillance and other investigative tools". So long, restrictions that have an impact on an individual’s ability to lead a normal life. In their place will be measures more akin to measures used to deal with “existing powers used in the civil justice system, for example to prevent sexual offences and domestic violence". On the plus side, individuals will now need to meet a test of "reasonable belief" as opposed to "reasonable suspicion" as now. They won’t be excluded from whole boroughs (only specific addresses, streets and postcodes). They also have greater access to communications, including a mobile phone and a home computer with internet access – just as long as they hand over their passwords to the authorities.
In her first major outing since being elevated to Shadow Home Secretary, Labour MP Yvette Cooper gave these proposals a predictably dusty response. True: she did lend her support to proposals to widen the scope of deportation, and she was not too unhappy with bringing RIPA powers under some sort of legal control. Otherwise, though, she was sceptical, describing the Home Secretary’s policies as "a complete shambles" as well as "irresponsible".
She would say that – but she may have had a point, as she questioned whether it was wise to leave the possible extension of detention without trial to the vagaries of emergency legislation being rushed in at a time of national crisis.
The Lib Dems were just as predictably upbeat. Their European justice & human rights spokeswoman and London MEP Sarah Ludford said: "With strong Liberal Democrat input, this review overturns Labour's trampling on crucial freedoms.
"The end to harassment and snooping on protesters, photographers and ordinary people under guise of counter-terrorism is particularly welcome."
In the end it was left to Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch to land some rather more telling blows on this package. He said: "This is a classic case of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'."
In respect of control orders, he suggested there was little real change – and what there was was essentially for the worse, with orders only needing to be renewed every two years, as opposed to every year, as now.
Additional powers – such as curfews and movement restrictions – are still there, if needed. And the bottom line is that however many assurances are given by the government, this remains a serious curtailment of individual human rights without due legal process: in essence the very breach of civil liberties that his organisation found objectionable in the first place.
He ends by suggesting that yet again, the Lib Dems have fallen for what is little more than an illusion by their senior partners in government. He writes: "So: nobody will be fooled by this childish slight of hand – except perhaps the Lib Dems, because none are so blind as those who will not see – they can now pretend that they haven’t broken their manifesto commitment." ®