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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:37 pm, 1st March 2011

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making about his experience in relation to the Omagh bombing. I believe that it is possible to shorten that period to ensure that we can recall Parliament in such exceptional circumstances if that is needed. It would be wrong for hon. Members to expect that the only circumstances in which that would be required would be towards the end of a 14-day period of pre-charge detention. The period that would be available for the recall and for the new measures to be put through might be a little longer than the right hon. Gentleman is considering.

I want to move on to stop and search, which is the other aspect of counter-terrorism legislation that we will deal with in the Bill. As well as scaling back the excessive counter-terrorism legislation of the past, we need to stop the misuse of these laws. The extensive and disproportionate use of stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is one example of that misuse. It has eroded public trust and dented public confidence. But the evidence, particularly in Northern Ireland, has demonstrated that when there is a credible threat of an imminent terrorist attack, the absence of such powers might create a gap in the ability of the police to protect the public.

The Bill therefore repeals section 44 and replaces it with a tightly defined power which would allow a senior police officer to make a targeted authorisation of much more limited scope and duration for no-suspicion stop-and-search powers. These would be authorised to prevent a terrorist attack only when there is a specific threat. The new power to search a person or vehicle would be subject to a number of additional safeguards, including a requirement that a senior police officer should reasonably suspect that an act of terrorism would take place and that the use of these powers was necessary to prevent the act of terrorism. The duration of any authorisation must now be no longer and no greater than is necessary to prevent the act of terrorism.

The purposes for which an officer may search a person or vehicle will be limited to looking for evidence that the individual is a terrorist or that a vehicle is being used for the purposes of terrorism. The Secretary of State would have the option of amending the authorisation, rather than only accepting or refusing it, as previously. Finally, the Secretary of State will be required to prepare a code of practice containing guidance on the use of the powers. These changes will provide the police with the powers that they need to deal with terrorist threats, while also ensuring that the public are not needlessly stopped and searched. The measures will also prevent the misuse of stop-and-search powers against photographers, which I know was a significant concern with the previous regime.

As recommended by the counter-terrorism powers review, I have considered whether the police need these revised powers more quickly than the Bill would allow. Given the current threat environment, I have concluded that they do. The most appropriate way of meeting the legal and operational requirements is to make an urgent remedial order under section 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 to make immediate changes to the legislation. I will be doing this shortly. This is only an interim solution. The proposed new powers will remain in the Bill to ensure full scrutiny of the provisions.

Another important area where we will roll back the state’s power to common-sense levels is in the vetting and barring and criminal records regimes. The previous Government created the vetting and barring scheme with reasonable intentions, but, as with much that they did, their implementation was disproportionate and over-reliant on the state. There is no doubt that a small minority pose a risk to vulnerable people, including children, but requiring more than 9 million people to register and be monitored is not an appropriate response. We should be encouraging volunteers, not treating them like criminals.

The Bill will therefore introduce a new regime, whereby employers will be given a much more central role in ensuring safe recruitment practices, supported by a proportionate central barring scheme. We will retain the sensible features of the vetting and barring scheme, but will not require registration or monitoring, which means that there will no longer be an intrusive state-run database containing the details of 9.3 million people. The scheme will cover only those who have regular or close contact with vulnerable groups. This will create a more convenient and proportionate system for both employers and voluntary organisations and the people seeking to work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults.

On the criminal records regime specifically, the Bill will enable criminal records disclosures to become portable, through a system which allows for continuous updating. This would enable an employer to establish whether new information had been recorded since the certificate was issued. It will also remove the provision requiring a copy of a certificate to be sent directly to an employer. This will allow an applicant legitimately to dispute the information released on the certificate, without this information already having been seen by the employer.

To administer the new scheme, the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority will be merged into a single, new organisation. These changes will ensure the continued protection of vulnerable people and children, while at the same time allowing those who want to volunteer to do so without fear or suspicion. It will end the unnecessary state scrutiny of law-abiding people.

As well as dealing with recent illiberal laws, today’s Bill rights historic wrongs. Consensual sex between men over the age of consent was decriminalised in 1967, yet more than 40 years on, gay men can still be penalised and discriminated against because of convictions for conduct which is now perfectly lawful. It is right that we should change the law and wipe the slate clean. The Bill establishes a scheme whereby an individual with a conviction that would today not be considered an offence would be able to apply to the Home Office to have the conviction and caution disregarded. If an application were approved, details of the conviction or caution would be removed from police records and the individual would be able legally to conceal their previous conviction in any circumstances. It would also no longer appear on a criminal record disclosure.

Greater transparency is at the heart of our commitment to open up government to greater scrutiny and to allow public authorities to be held to account, so the Bill makes a number of changes to the Freedom of Information Act to extend its provisions. We will consult the House authorities on these provisions before the Committee stage to ensure that parliamentary copyright is properly safeguarded. The Bill also makes changes to the Freedom of Information Act and to the Data Protection Act to enhance the independence of the Information Commissioner.