Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Freedom Bill and Scotland Bill - two landmark measures which showcase Lib Dem values

Today the Scotland Bill gets Royal Assent. The biggest transfer of powers to Scotland for 300 years (all right then, 295) it's been called by some. A stepping stone by others. Michael Moore has made it clear all the way along that this Bill, based on the proposals which came out of the Calman Commission, was not the end result, but that further devolution would follow in the future. This is what he had to say when I interviewed him for Lib Dem Voice last year:
Our approach and thinking towards devolution doesn’t end with the Scotland Bill. We want to take the work done by the Steel Commission, which set out some key principles for further devolution, to the next stage.
 It was thought at one stage that the Bill wouldn't make it on to the statute book. The SNP described it as a dog's breakfast and all manner of other unkind things. After the Holyrood elections last year, they demanded six changes to it, none of which were eventually forthcoming but they ultimately voted for it.

This Bill, which will make the Holyrood Parliament much more accountable for the money it spends from 2015 was just one bit of good Liberal Democrat inspired legislative tidings today. The other is the passing of the Freedom Bill, getting rid of some of the greatest civil liberties abuses of the last couple of decades.

The Labour Party set up a system that allowed schools to take and keep records of children's fingerprints without their parents' consent, the retention of innocent people's DNA, enabled Councils to use CCTV cameras to spy on people to find out whether they cleaned up after their dogs, what they put in their bin and whether they lived in a school catchment area.

The Act sweeps a way a lot of this. Here are some of its key measures:

a)      Ends the storage of DNA for people arrested and charged but not convicted of a minor offence and limits the length of time DNA can be stored for those charged but not convicted of a serious offence to three years

b)      Requires parental consent before schools can obtain or use the fingerprints of children under the age of 18

c)      Imposes stricter regulations on CCTV and number plate recognition

d)     Restricts the use of Stop and Search to ensure it is only used where there is reasonable suspicion

e)      Reduces the maximum period of pre-charge detention from 28 to 14 days

f)       Restricts the use of CRB checks to those working with children and the vulnerable and allows checks to be transferred between jobs to cut down on needless bureaucracy

g)      Deletes historical convictions for men who have had consensual gay sex with someone who was over 16

h)      Protects the principle of trial by jury in complex fraud cases

i)        Makes stalking a criminal offence

j)        Ends wheel clamping on private land

k)      Restricts the power of bailiffs to enter homes

l)        Stops town halls snooping on people, checking their bins or school catchment area

As with the Scotland Bill, this isn't the end of the road on the fight towards greater civil liberties by any manner of means. 14 days' pre-charge detention is around 12-13 days too long - but it's a darned sight better than the 90 Labour originally wanted.

Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman Tom Brake said:

This is a milestone in the fight to claw back our civil liberties. Under the Labour government, our civil liberties were steadily eroded by an increasingly over-bearing security state. “Liberal Democrats have done the right thing to clear up Labour’s mess by ending these shameful practices with the Protection of Freedoms Act.
 “The Coalition Government has already scrapped ID cards and destroyed the National Identity Register and is now making another leap forward with this Act to end Labour’s surveillance state. “The Act stops councils snooping, ends the storage of the DNA of innocent people, reduces the bureaucracy of CRB checks, curtails 28-day detention without charge and bans schools from taking children’s fingerprints without parental permission.”

LGBT + Lib Dems are also pleased at the deletion of the convictions  for consensual sex which Labour failed to do. Chair Adrian Trett said:
“The Protection of Freedoms Act is a major win for the LGBT rights. Gay and bisexual men who were convicted for acts that are now perfectly legal will finally be able to get them deleted from their criminal records. It marks the end of the overhang from a bygone era when being gay was still criminalised.
 “It shows the determination of the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition Government to do the right thing. The march for equal rights is not over yet but with today’s news and the consultation on how to introduce equal marriage, we’re steadily chipping away at the final hurdles.”

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