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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 9:50 pm, 1st March 2011

This has been a good debate. The passion shown and the wide-ranging nature of the debate has underlined the fact that freedom of speech is very much alive and well in the House. I take heart from the broad support across the House for many, if not all, of the Bill’s provisions. There is a clear recognition from Members on the Government Benches—and, indeed, by a number of Opposition Members—that the previous Government’s approach during their 13 years in office eroded a number of freedoms and, importantly, failed to enhance our security. Freedom was not enhanced by the creation of a leviathan national identity register containing the personal details of every adult in the country. Civil liberties were not protected by creating a database holding the details of every child. The vulnerable were not safeguarded by requiring more than 9 million employees and volunteers to register with a Government agency. Justice was not served by including more than 1 million unconvicted individuals on the national DNA database, and community cohesion was not strengthened by the police stopping hundreds of thousands of people under anti-terrorism powers but making only a handful of arrests for terrorist offences.

I remind Opposition Members of the Leader of the Opposition’s words to the Labour party conference:

“But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them.”

This Government will not be casual about liberty. That is why the Bill sets out a different approach that will protect our communities while defending personal freedoms.

This has been a good debate and I thank hon. Members on the Government side, including my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and for Dartford

(Gareth Johnson), as well as my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood, whom I welcome as the successor to Evan Harris, although there have been some comments in support of the activities that Evan continues to do outside the House. I thank also my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), for Salisbury (John Glen), for Witham (Priti Patel), for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Stone (Mr Cash). In addition, I thank many Opposition Members for their contributions, including the light relief provided by the vision of his brush with Oddjob described by Mr Straw, who did not specify whether his fingerprints were taken by Goldfinger. I know that Ms Winterton would have liked to take part in the debate on wheel-clamping, and we appreciate her support for those measures.

I am conscious of time and I will do my best to cover as many as possible of the points that have been raised, but I apologise if I am not able to get through them all. On CCTV, I welcome the support of many hon. Members for the introduction of a statutory code of practice and the appointment of an independent surveillance commissioner. Those measures will help to maintain and strengthen public confidence in the use of CCTV systems and will ensure that the millions of pounds invested in such systems deliver value for money. Some hon. Members have commented on whether this trust and confidence is required, and I highlight the comments of Sara Thornton, the chief constable of Thames Valley police, in her review of Project Champion concerning CCTV usage in Birmingham. She said:

“As a consequence, the trust and confidence that they”— in other words, the local people—

“have in the police has been significantly undermined.

There is a real opportunity to learn from Project Champion about the damage that can be done to police legitimacy when the police are seen to be acting in a way which prizes expediency over legitimacy.”

That is the context in which we should consider the provisions in the Bill relating to CCTV.

My hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington and for Oxford West and Abingdon highlighted the application of the CCTV code of practice. The code is intended to benefit all system users. The specific requirement to have regard to the code is initially limited to the police and local authorities as the principal operators of public space CCTV systems, but the use of privately operated cameras in private or semi-public spaces is more complex. We wish to achieve a consensus on key issues before considering whether to extend the duty to have regard to the code of practice to other operators—for example, in shopping centres. I take on board the comments that were made. I can offer my hon. Friend the Member for Witham an assurance that we recognise the important role played by CCTV in detecting and deterring crime.

An issue that was raised which is not in the Bill was section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. It is essential to consider in the round whether current laws strike the right balance on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to manifest one’s religion and the need to protect the public. In its report, “Adapting to Protest”, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary suggested that changing the law was not the answer. In many ways it was the constant changes to the Public Order Act that had led to operational confusion. The Government will continue to review the law throughout the course of this Parliament to ensure that it allows competing rights to be properly balanced.

Comments were made on the provisions for safeguarding vulnerable groups. Some Opposition Members expressed concern that reforms to the vetting and barring scheme would put children and vulnerable adults at greater risk. We do not consider that that will be the case. The remodelled scheme set out in the Bill will cover those who may have regular or close contact with children or vulnerable adults. It will provide for a more proportionate and efficient scheme in tandem with a refined criminal records disclosure service. The creation of a huge database to monitor millions of ordinary people created an artificial sense of security. We are moving back to a common-sense approach.