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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 6:47 pm, 1st March 2011

I welcome the Bill. How could one not support clamping down on the wheel clampers? Some of my constituents have had terrible experiences at their hands.

Although I listened carefully to the shadow Home Secretary’s arguments, and although she made some fair points about DNA, one cannot, on civil liberties grounds, oppose removing the DNA of innocent people from the DNA database. It is a fundamental principle of British law that when people are found innocent by the courts, they are innocent.

My speech will be rather like the speeches that we used to have at Conservative party conferences, which said that the motion was fine, but did not go nearly far enough. Much of the Bill is, frankly, pretty unexceptional. Compared with the Deputy Prime Minister’s rhetoric last year about bringing in a Bill to

“protect our hard won liberties” much of it is a bit tame. What happened, I wonder, to the 14,000 ideas that were suggested by members of the public via the “Your Freedom” consultation? It is like a scene from “Yes Minister”. An enthusiastic new Minister says, “I want to have a Freedom Bill,” and 14,000 replies come in. One can imagine Sir Humphrey, in his most mellifluous tone, advising the Minister that freedom can be a very incendiary device when it comes to Government.

I suggest that the Bill should go further, and I hope that I will get support not only from those on the Government Benches, but from Opposition Members. The Leader of the Opposition has admitted that Labour was

“too draconian on aspects of our civil liberties”.

Where can we go further? I am particularly worried about freedom of speech. I believe that political speech and debate, even in this place, are becoming very bland. There is a chilling effect on free speech, because people are discouraged from expressing unpopular opinions that do not fit with the winds of political fashion. Did not George Orwell once say:

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”?

I would add that the right to speak against received wisdom is the only way to make social progress, as I hope many Opposition Members would agree. We have to protect the ability to express widely differing opinions in strong terms in the public square.

One reason why I was worried about the Phil Woolas case, as I said at the time on the Floor of the House, is that if someone has a British National party candidate standing against them, for example, they have to be able to denounce them for what they are without fearing legal sanctions. We have a more and more active and activist judiciary, not just in the Supreme Court and the lower courts but in the European Court of Human Rights. Again, that has a somewhat chilling effect. We should examine some of the debates that there used to be during general elections, certainly 100 years ago but even 50 or 40 years ago. They were a lot more robust than they are now.

With that in mind, and in the spirit of warm and cosy friendship with my Liberal Democrat friends, I wish to try to persuade the Home Secretary to give some thought to adopting a Liberal Democrat proposal for inclusion in the Bill. It was made by Dr Evan Harris, who at the time was the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. May I say how much we all miss him? Although I disagreed with him on virtually everything, he was a kind of foil to some of my arguments. In March 2009, he tabled an interesting proposal to amend the Public Order Act 1986. He wanted to delete the word “insulting” from section 5, because he was concerned that that section was being used to trample on free speech. As I have said, I did not agree with a lot of what he said, but I did agree with that.