Civil Liberties

The coalition government promised to ‘reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion’ to what extent has the coalition delivered on its civil liberties agenda?

During New Labour’s time in power we lost many civil liberties. Blair justified such authoritarian measures as a necessity for more security; even Ed Balls now recognises that Labour got the balance between national security and civil liberties wrong. The coalition embarked on an ambitious policy of undoing these human rights infringements; however they have failed to meet their own targets and in some cases, caused even greater damages to our freedoms.

The coalition’s plans for secret courts, which were recently pushed through parliament, are a heightened example of the coalitions failure to ‘reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties’, rather, they are adding to it. The Justice and Security Bill, refers to “closed material proceedings” which mean that in the trial of terrorist suspects and serious criminals, the accused would not be present, nor would their lawyers or the press and the public. The victim is left unable to question or challenge the evidence or even find out why they lost. This is undemocratic and terrifying. This wasn’t mentioned in either the Liberal Democrat or Conservative manifesto, or in the Coalition Agreement. The coalition have no mandate to threaten habeas corpus as they are  and the resignations of Jo Shaw MP and Dinah Rose QC, who represented Binyam Mohamed, express the dissatisfaction with the coalitions attacks on civil liberties. The coalition has failed to deliver here because the right to a free and fair trial and equal and open justice, principles which have been a pivotal in British justice system for hundreds of years, are under great danger. The coalition has had some success in other aspects where they have rolled back the power of the state. The Identity Documents Act of 2010 reversed the introduction of Labour’s ID cards (Identity Cards Act 2006) and removed the profiles of one million innocent people held on the national DNA database. The coalition was by praised campaign group Big Brother Watch for reversing the authoritarian scheme.

Though the coalition got rid of control orders, they did just replace them with another very similar policy; Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures. The coalition has failed to roll back the power of the state in this instance because TPIM’s include electronic tagging and an overnight residence requirement, heavy restrictions on where they go, but still allows for restrictions to be imposed on who they can meet and where they can go, including foreign travel bans. The main problem is that TPIM’s will still be initiated by the Home Secretary and will be run outside of the criminal justice system of investigation, arrest, charge and conviction. Liberty believe that the TPIM’s “place dehumanizing sanctions on people based on suspicion rather than evidence.” This is a violation of civil liberties and has been instituted by a supposedly liberal government. Although there are some circumstances where the coalition have reinstated civil liberties back into the law, they have not entirely “reversed the substantial erosion” like they pledged to. One such example is the Protection of Freedoms Act (2012). Introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May, the Act concerns many fields such as biometric data, regulation of surveillance and counter-terrorism measures. The Act benefits civil liberties as it removes the ‘stop and search’ regulations of the Terrorism Act 2000. The Terrorism Act was one of Labour’s most controversial acts and the stop and search powers were so extreme that they were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

The government plans to cut £350 million from legal aid meaning it will no longer be available for tens of thousands who cannot afford legal representation. Ken Clarke believes mediation can be used in less serious cases. The legal aid reforms could affect the right to a fair trial (Article 6, Human Rights Act 1998) because one may not be able to take a particular person or issue to court due to lack of funding available. The Coalition believe the British legal aid system was too ‘generous’ and put this exaggeration before the needs of the most vulnerable in society. It is in effect an attack on civil liberties.  When questioning whether the coalition has delivered on its civil liberties agenda it’s interesting to note that the coalition has gone even further in some cases. In the case of the Intercept Modernisation Programme, the coalition has actually continued the “substantial erosion of civil liberties”. This is because the IMP previously applied to terrorism alone but has now been extended into other conventional crimes. Rather than giving back civil liberties the Coalition is continuing to further hinder them. A success of the coalition’s record on civil liberties is the extension of the Freedom of Information Act (2000). This shows Clegg is keen to expand our right of access to information held by public authorities.

The particularly Conservative, but Coalition nonetheless, plan to remove the Human Rights Act shows the erosion of civil liberties is set to continue. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling wants the Human Rights Act to be scrapped; this would rid the ECHR convention from British law. The Home Secretary, Theresa May wants to go further and proposes leaving the court as well as the convention. Both of these senior Conservative ministers have no regard for the rights which the HRA gives citizens. These liberties include rights to freedom, free speech and freedom of religion. Each is fundamental and losing the Act would be a terrible blow for civil liberties in the UK. Cameron says he would be making much quicker progress on removing the HRA if it wasn’t for the opposition it has been met with by his Coalition partners; so there are some liberal tendencies remaining in the Liberal Democrat Party. One cannot be fooled by such a pledge to replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. What would the Bill of Rights entail that the Human Rights Act doesn’t already cover? Clearly Cameron plans to include restrictions on civil liberties in the Bill of Rights or there would be no need to introduce it. One of the most influential changes Nick Clegg has made during the coalition is reducing the pre charge detention limit from 28 days to 14. This is a step in the right direction. There has been some progress toward reversing Labour’s authoritarian tenure

The coalition is yet to meet their promise. In terms of secret courts, the coalition seems less concerned about national security and instead worried about what happened under Labour happening again. Embarrassingly the government had to admit British intelligence services had been complicit in rendition and torture. Civil liberties were supposedly an aspect of policy where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats saw eye to eye… Unfortunately this hasn’t proved to be the case as reform is slow and minimal. The Coalition has failed to deliver on its civil liberties agenda.

Jane Eagles

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