Is the Coalition really giving us a freer society?
PUBLISHED October 2, 2012
We should all be feeling a little bit freer today. This month, key provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act come into force; so now we can smoke in a pub, walk in the street without being followed by dozens of CCTV cameras, and not have our phones, emails and other communications tracked by GCHQ. Or maybe not…
Perhaps we expected too much from the Coalition's efforts to turn back the tide of autocratic legislation introduced by Labour. So far, wheel-clamping on private land has been banned; restrictions on live music performances in small venues have been lifted; and it will be possible for the first time since 1836 to get married at night in England and Wales. Measures to control the expansion of surveillance cameras are in place, and there is to be a review of the powers of bailiffs and others to enter private property. In one of its first acts, the Coalition scrapped Labour's ID card scheme; it has subsequently pared back the ludicrous vetting and barring system which threatened to require about 11 million people to register on a database in order to take the kids to school or to football practice.
All of these reforms are welcome. But what began life as something of a crusade for liberty, championed by Nick Clegg, at some stage morphed into a hotchpotch of deregulatory measures put together by the Home Office. In Opposition, the Tories and Lib Dems were justifiably critical of the growing intrusiveness of the state and its authoritarian instincts. They wanted to rebalance the relationship between government and citizen. As Mr Clegg put it: "Be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom."
But the Protection of Freedoms Act did not quite turn out that way. It is testament to the extraordinary amount of illiberal legislation introduced during Labour's 13 years in power that we are still prepared to put up with restrictions that previous generations would have found intolerable.
For instance, the Government flatly refused to countenance any amendment to the ban on smoking in public places. Campaigners proposed making the law more flexible to let some pubs welcome smokers, or at least have a room where they could go instead of standing outside in the rain and cold. But they might as well have not bothered, because the Government had already decided that freedom extends only to those of whose activities it approves.
Other reforms include removing the DNA of people not convicted of an offence from the national criminal database, though the police do not like this measure, and are unlikely to expedite it voluntarily. As to CCTV cameras, although the Act restricts their expansion, those we have will stay, whether or not they make any difference. During the recent search for Megan Stammers, the 15 year-old who ran off to France with her maths teacher, TV newsreaders were shocked to report that they had no grainy images to pad out their broadcasts, because there are far fewer cameras on the Continent than the millions we have here. And who is right? Our cameras show incidents that have already happened, when they are supposed to prevent crime, not record it. Meanwhile, the vetting and barring scheme, while scaled back, continues to affect about five million people.
Still, at least the Protection of Freedoms Act shows that the Coalition's heart is in the right place, doesn't it? Not quite. Before Parliament now is a Communications Data Bill whose scope for snooping is immense. It will require telecoms companies to store details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming interactions, in addition to emails and phone calls. The data include the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of the device from which it is made. Britain is the only country in the world attempting to gather communications data in this way.
To all intents and purposes, this is the same measure that Labour proposed a few years ago, only to back down in the teeth of opposition from the very parties now making up the Coalition.
Ministers say it differs insofar as it does not involve developing a giant state database. But this is splitting hairs. The police, tax inspectors, security services and other officials will be able to use search engines to trawl for information to build up a picture of suspects' internet browsing habits, contacts and movements.
The communications companies say the Bill is too unwieldy and fraught with dangers; campaigners say it could compromise journalistic sources, deter whistleblowers and increase the risk of personal details being hacked. Of course, law enforcement agencies need access to communications data when they are investigating a crime - but they already have powers to do so under warrant. Mass collection of data, however, allows for fishing expeditions, which will lead to errors and to guilt by association. To see what can go wrong with supposedly infallible systems, consider the recent case of the young man who spent five months in jail because his DNA was re-used in the analysis of a swab from a rape victim.
Fortunately, this Bill is in draft form, and will first be scrutinised by a joint parliamentary committee which can make recommendations. It would be no surprise if it proposed scrapping it altogether.
Yes, a freer society is one in which we can marry at night should we wish to. But it is also one where the state does not assume that we are all potential criminals.