Civil liberties helped bring the Coalition partners together three years ago, and since then, has threatened to drive them apart. It was a major campaign theme for both parties in 2010, as they drew attention to many of Labour’s more unpopular anti-terrorism and anti-crime measures.
In his ‘Restoring British Liberties’ speech in January 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: Our Labour predecessors will be remembered as the Government who took your freedoms away. We want to be remembered as the ones who gave them back.” Reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron said in his speech following the 2010 election results: ‘We share a common commitment to civil liberties and to getting rid immediately of Labour’s ID card scheme’.
However, once in Government and faced with the challenges of combating crime and terrorism, the Coalition has had difficulty in turning pre-election pledges into reality. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’, championed by Theresa May as part of the Draft Communications Bill, would require phone and internet companies to store information on customers’ web and phone use for security services to use in tackling serious crime.
A scrutiny committee warned that ministers would be able to demand ‘potentially limitless categories of data’ unless the draft Bill was amended. It also said that the Bill paid insufficient attention to respecting the right to privacy. The Deputy Prime Minister and former Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, called for a complete rewrite, to which David Cameron conceded in December 2012. However, Nick Clegg rejected the rewritten plan in April 2013, and as it was not included in the 2013 Queen’s Speech.
Of equal controversy is the Justice and Security Act’s provision to hold court cases covering national security issues behind closed doors. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said that anyone interested in justice and democracy will be ‘very troubled’ by this. A January 2013 paper by Andrew Tyrie MP called on the Government to rewrite these plans, saying they are ‘neither just nor secure’, and Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, has also spoken out against it.
Delegates at the 2012 Liberal Democrat Party Conference voted overwhelmingly against ‘secret courts’, and at the Lib Dem Spring Conference, Parliamentary Candidate Jo Shaw quit the party due to its support for the proposal. The Act, however, received Royal Assent on 25 April 2013.
David Cameron has defended both the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and ‘secret courts’, saying that the advancement of technology left significant gaps in Britain’s defences, and using intelligence information in a court of law sometimes endangers national security.
The Liberal Democrats have also been criticised for damaging civil liberties since entering Government. Following the recommendations of the Leveson report on press reform, Nick Clegg joined sides with Ed Miliband in proposing a Royal Charter demanding a self-regulatory body backed by law. This caused a major ruction in the Coalition, which was healed in an 11th hour deal by which the Conservative effectively accepted the Lib Dem/Labour proposal for a new press regulator.
The Index on Censorship called it a ‘sad day for press freedom’, and the American Campaign to Protect Journalists, which includes senior figures from ABC News, NBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, wrote to David Cameron warning that Britain could lose its ‘moral authority’ on press freedom if it goes ahead with plans.
The verdict on whether the Coalition has done better on civil liberties than its predecessor is fairly split. In a June 2012 Guardian poll asking ‘Who’s got the worse record on civil liberties: Labour of the Coalition?’, 51% said the Coalition. Despite these criticisms, the Coalition has made very good progress on its civil liberties pledges, achieving 9 out of 14. The reason for its high score is largely due to the fact that five of the completed pledges were covered in provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act, which received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.
Status: Not achieved – Although the Coalition has repealed some specific measures such as the ID card scheme and the National Identity Register, its rollback of the previous Government’s security regime has been selective. Furthermore, new legislation such as the Communications Data Bill and the Justice and Security Bill has been harshly criticised by civil liberties groups.
Pledge: We will introduce a Freedom Bill.
Status: Done – The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012.
Pledge: We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.
Status: Done – the ID card scheme, National Identity Register and ContactPoint database were all scrapped by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The Coalition has also scrapped the next tranche of biometric passports, saving an estimated £134 million.
Pledge: We will outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
Status: Done – The finger-printing of children at school without parental permission was outlawed under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.
Pledge: We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
Status: In progress – The Coalition has made some progress here, extending the Act to cover academy schools, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Financial Services Ombudsman, and more than 100 companies wholly owned by one public authority. However, the process is ongoing; the Government admits that it is not likely to be until 2015 that the Act is extended to bodies with public functions.
Pledge: We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
Status: Done – Reforms of the DNA Database based on the Scottish model were introduced as part of the Protections of Freedoms Act 2012.
Pledge: We will protect historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
Status: In progress – This is an open-ended commitment which is, as yet, unbroken. However, the Coalition has threatened another widely touted cornerstone of British justice - the right to a public trial – through plans for secret courts in the Justice and Security Bill.
Pledge: We will restore rights to non-violent protest.
Status: Done – The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 repealed the provisions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which banned unauthorised protest within 1 kilometre of Parliament. However, it placed new restrictions on protest near Parliament. It is a crime to engage in a ‘prohibited act’ in Parliament Square where directed otherwise by a police officer. Meanwhile police tactics employed against protestors such as ‘kettling’ have been criticised by groups such as Liberty as a violation of the right to non-violent protest.
Pledge: We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
Status: Done – The Government did undertake a review of libel laws, and introduced a draft Defamation Bill in the second session of the current Parliament.
Pledge: We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
Status: Done – The Government undertook a review of anti-terrorism legislation, and restricted use of stop-and-search and pre-trial detention powers as part of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.
Pledge: We will further regulate CCTV.
Status: In progress – The Government has legislated for the creation of a surveillance-camera code of practice, and a Surveillance Camera Commissioner, as part of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.
Pledge: We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.
Status: In progress - The draft Communications Data Bill required Internet Service Providers to store data on electronic and phone communication, ready for Government access.
Pledge: We will introduce a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
Status: Done – The Government created a Criminal Offences Gateway in 2010, to vet potential new offences. Furthermore, it has repealed a growing number of offences: 188 over 2011-2012, compared with 155 over 2010-2011.
Pledge: We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.
Status: Done – The Government established a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights in March 2011, but this failed to reach any consensus. Two Commissioners advocated withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, while two opposed any Bill of Rights in case it was used to achieve precisely that. Either way, it seems unlikely that any Bill that might emerge would build on our obligations under the Convention.