Mixed Messages

01 March 2011
Communications Officer

This week the House of Commons will be faced with two extremely important debates.This week the House of Commons will be faced with two extremely important debates.

The first concerns the ambitiously titled Protection of Freedoms Bill, which promises promotion of civil liberties and human rights in an omnibus bill. The second is in many ways the complete opposite – a debate on a statutory instrument which will extend the poisonous control order regime, and so continue to undermine our fundamental freedoms.

Heralded by the Deputy Prime Minister as the vehicle by which the Coalition will “restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness”, Liberty had high expectations of the long-awaited Protection of Freedoms Bill. It does contain a number of hugely welcome provisions, many changes having become necessary after hard-fought Liberty campaigns and legal challenges. For example, the return of pre-charge detention from 28 to 14 days and the repeal of stop and search without suspicion powers.

The Bill is predominantly about privacy - a more proportionate approach to the retention of innocent people’s DNA on the police database is proposed; as is regulation on the use of CCTV; a requirement for magistrate approval for local authority covert surveillance in relation to particular offences; and a requirement for parental consent before taking the fingerprints of school children. If passed, the Vetting and Barring Scheme will also be reined in, and procedural safeguards will be introduced to the current system of criminal record checks.

These developments are a significant step in the right direction, but more should be added if the Bill is to live up to its ambitious title. And the pledge to restore our fundamental rights and freedoms rings a little hollow when the following day brings a vote on whether to renew control orders for the fifth time running.

The control order is a blot on the human rights record of the UK. Subjecting a person – and their family – to indefinite house arrest with punitive restrictions on their liberty, without there ever being a criminal charge or prosecution, is a shocking breach of their human rights. The control order system has also proved to be dangerously unsafe and frequently unworkable in practice. It has been steadily eroded and derided by the judiciary, and has proved the most costly of all of the counter-terrorism measures – and those costs are enormous.

Worse still, the Government now proposes to replace the temporary control order scheme with a ‘control order lite’ which will sit permanently on our statute books. Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) will still be outside of the criminal justice system and continue to potentially punish the innocent while the truly dangerous may remain at large in the community.  Though the conditions of punishment may be improved, TPIMs are still punishment without trial, and control orders by any other name.