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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 9:40 pm, 1st March 2011

We have had a very lively debate, and I hope Members will forgive me if I cannot respond to every point that was made. We heard from Mr Leigh, my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, the hon. Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend Pamela Nash, the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), for Belfast East (Naomi Long), for Salisbury (John Glen), for Witham (Priti Patel), for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) and, last but not least, Mr Cash. The question I ask myself, however, is: where is the Deputy Prime Minister? We were told that sweeping away all these measures was going to be his big achievement in government. Having heard all the rhetoric, I was expecting to see the right hon. Gentleman burst the doors open and ride into the Chamber on a trusty white steed, with his shield of truth and his sword of virtue, telling us he was going to lead us all to some promised land of freedom.

Sadly however, that was not to be the case. All we have had is a handful of Liberals in the Chamber all evening, but we would have thought they would be piling in to support this Bill since it is their key platform—it is the major plank of their contribution to the coalition Government. [Interruption.] Well, that is the source of the Bill. We support some aspects of it, as some of them are sensible, yet there are others on which we will want to ask questions and some on which we will challenge the Government position.

Throughout the debate, we have heard Members say that this is about balance, yet first and foremost, it is about balancing the coalition and appeasing Liberal Democrat Members. It is also about the need to hold together the coalition, and I wonder what some of the Tory Members, who are shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, will do when they are asked to vote for measures that in normal circumstances they would not support.

Over the past few decades, this House has been called on to act to protect people in the face of threats of many kinds, and to legislate on matters such as those addressed in this Bill. Public opinion has been strong on many of them, including the threat from international terrorists who have carried out atrocities on an unprecedented scale, increased concerns about public protection and the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the proliferation of closed circuit television, and freedom of information. At the same time however, new technology and advances in science have challenged us to legislate on, and regulate, their uses. We have faced demands for new scientific and surveillance techniques to be made available to those charged with the task of keeping the public safe.

This debate, like those that have gone before it, is about the balance that should be struck in respect of the civil rights of ordinary citizens to live without fear of harm or interference or becoming a victim of crime, and the need to protect the civil liberties of those individuals and hold back the state from intruding in their private lives. Events have led us to legislate on the issues we are debating today. We will be judged on our actions in respect of these events, the balance to be struck and the issues addressed in the Bill.

We have heard from Members on both sides of the clamping argument. The hon. Member for Colchester spoke very forcefully. The residents of one estate in my constituency are concerned because they live close to a railway station where commuters want to park and they fear that their estate will be turned into a car park. By contrast, a private road in my local town centre is policed by a cage fighter in a van who sits at the bottom of the road like a trapdoor spider waiting for anybody to park illegally on that private land. So a balance needs to be struck on this issue.

The same is true on the use of biometric information in schools. Labour Members accept that it is sensible for parents to be consulted and we welcome the proposal. However, on protecting individuals’ rights in schools, these powers have been used to protect young people who receive free school meals from being identified and stigmatised. So as much as we may want to see this sensible change made, we will want to see how far it goes in protecting the rights of those individuals too.

On the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, CCTV and surveillance, councils have played a vital role in creating public areas that the public consider to be safe. Such measures have been used to tackle issues relating to speeding cars, town centres and antisocial behaviour. So our attempts to legislate to regulate the use of CCTV and surveillance must not limit the ability of local authorities to play their important role in ensuring community safety. I have never had anyone come to me asking for the removal of a CCTV camera, and many colleagues have said the same.

We all accept the principle that some individuals who are innocent will have their biometric details retained, and I hope that the Home Secretary accepts that. Tonight’s debate is not about all innocent people having their biometric details destroyed, as some have claimed; it is about where we set the balance. The Government have clearly come down on the side of reducing the amount of biometric information that we retain, but I suggest to Government Members that events will cause us to revisit this issue. Can any Government Member say that the changes to reduce the scope of biometric details that will be retained will not result in one of their constituents saying that had the changes not been made, their family member or friend would not have suffered a serious criminal assault? Nobody here tonight can say that so we must think carefully about what we are about to do. The media will make a great deal of the issue if those circumstances come about, and Government Members will have some serious questions to answer. How many children need to be attacked for it to be worth some people in our communities suffering the intrusion of having their biometric details retained on a DNA database?

I shall now discuss barring and vetting. The protection of children is one of the most important issues that can come before us on the Floor of the House. This is about setting the balance between the need for people to volunteer and for us to encourage people to play their part in their local communities, and the need to ensure that the right framework is in place to create a safe environment where parents can be sure that their children will come to no harm. This is not only about the risks from people who have unsupervised contact with children; it is also about the people who can come close to vulnerable children and groom them. Such people are among the most dangerous individuals in our communities and they go to great lengths to gain our trust in order to deceive the most vulnerable. So it is again important that we strike the right balance between the need to protect those individuals and the individual rights that the Home Secretary has said that she is seeking to protect.

We all want to protect children and vulnerable adults in our communities but it is important to get the balance right. The previous Government’s record was to leave crime down by 43% and satisfaction rates with the police at record levels. We now face cuts of 10,000 police officers and some will question why the Government have chosen to take away some of the most important tools the police have in their toolkit when they are also facing a reduction in resources.