The long-awaited Protection of Freedoms Bill – aka "the great Repeal Bill" – has been published, to much trumpeting of liberties restored by the Coalition, and a sharp intake of breath from everyone else, who is rapidly reading the small print.
Top of the list of freedoms restored is the right to volunteer without being checked to the nth degree by the state. The much-derided vetting and barring scheme introduced by New Labour is to be rolled back, so current government estimates of 9.3 million individuals needing to be vetted will be reduced by one half or more. In addition, the entire edifice of vetting and criminal records checking will be subject to a review, with hopes that a combined and more effective system will roll out at the end of the process.
The Home Office also announced that:
- millions of householders are now to be be protected from town hall snoopers checking their bins or school catchment area (a reference to the increasing use of RIPA legislation to check on minor matters);
- Section 44 powers (under the Terrorism Act 2000), which have been used to stop and search hundreds of thousands of innocent people are to be scrapped;
- the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects will be reduced to 14 days;
- DNA samples and fingerprints of hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be deleted from police databases;
- thousands of gay men will be able to clear their names with the removal of out-of-date convictions for consensual acts; and
- thousands of motorists will now be protected from rogue wheel-clamping firms.
Other measures brought forward under this Bill include an end to the fingerprinting of children in schools without parental consent; a shiny new code of practice for CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems (matched by a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner to oversee the code); a sharp reduction in the powers of government and other public bodies to enter private homes and other premises for investigations; the repeal of powers to hold serious and complex fraud trials without a jury; the liberalisation of marriage laws, allowing people to marry before 8am or after 6pm; and an extension and strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act.
So far, so good. Introducing the Bill to the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said: "The first duty of the state is the protection of its citizens, but this should never be an excuse for the government to intrude into people’s private lives.
She went on: "I am bringing common sense back to public protection and freeing people to go about their daily lives without a fear that the state is monitoring them."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had publically identified himself and his party with the cause of the Repeal Bill, said: "This is a landmark Bill which will result in an unprecedented rolling back of the power of the state.
"Freedom is back in fashion – 2011 will be the year that the coalition government hands people their liberty back. I have campaigned for this for many years and I am delighted that we have been able to deliver the Freedoms Bill in government.
"The Protection of Freedoms Bill follows the review of counter-terrorism and security powers and the scrapping of ID cards as the coalition government delivers on its agreement to put traditional British freedoms at the heart of the Whitehall agenda.
"It also drew on views put forward by the public through the radical Your Freedom website set up after the coalition government came to power."
The Protection of Freedoms Bill is being introduced with the aim of gaining Royal Assent by late 2011 or early 2012. ®