Leading article: A victory for civil liberties – and a challenge for Labour

Will the new leader, Ed Miliband, attempt to defend the indefensible?

Thursday 10 February 2011 01:00

The Coalition's Freedom Bill will be introduced tomorrow. Presuming it is passed, this promises to be a significant victory for civil liberties after more than a decade of depressing reversals.

The Bill's reach will be broad and deep. The national identity register will be formally abolished, signalling an end to the threat of Britons being required to carry ID cards. The police's DNA database will be restricted, too. At the moment, the police automatically take a sample from anyone who is arrested and keep it whether or not the person is subsequently convicted of a crime. The new Bill is expected to implement the safeguards that exist in Scotland, where samples are destroyed if a person is not convicted.

The thickets of official bureaucracy that have sprung up around those who work with children will be drastically cut back too. The Vetting and Barring Scheme will be reined in, henceforth applying only to those who have intensive contact with the young. This follows the scrapping, over the summer, of the ContactPoint database, which was designed to collect and store the details of every child in the country.

There will, apparently, be measures to stem the proliferation of CCTV, plus new safeguards of the right to protests and restrictions on the libel laws. The notorious RIPA law that allows local councils to spy on residents suspected of lying about where they live will be struck out.

We await the full detail of the Bill before passing final judgment. Last year, we were told that the Coalition would end the storage of the public's internet and email records without good reason. But there remain fears about the security of patients' information on the NHS Care Records database.

And the giant "Big Brother" database – which was proposed to store information on every phone call, email and internet visit in the UK – could yet be resurrected. It is also unclear how the Coalition will curb the expansion of CCTV when most of the cameras are put up by local councils. But the direction of travel from the Coalition has been encouraging.

The fact that ministers have been able to demonstrate their liberal credentials merely by dismantling the work of the previous government should be an acute embarrassment to Labour. The party is now under new leadership. But it still needs to demonstrate that it has learned the lessons of where it went wrong in power. Labour became convinced there were legislative fixes to complex social problems. Ministers exhibited a blind faith in computer technology, no matter how often those projects proved to be expensive failures. They convinced themselves that every terrible crime needed to be met with a hyperactive response. When the police and the security services asked for extended powers, the instinct of ministers was not to ask questions, but to acquiesce.

But it was, at heart, a problem of values. Labour was careless over civil liberties because it did not, ultimately, think they mattered. In his memoirs, Tony Blair described the civil liberties objections to ID cards as "absurd". His successor, Gordon Brown, extended the detention period for terror suspects solely in order to present himself as "tough" on terrorism in the belief that this would win him support in the right-wing press.

Labour's illiberalism was reflexive. It is this casual attitude towards traditional British freedoms that Ed Miliband needs to root out of his party if Labour is to be fit for government again. This Freedom Bill presents a test for Mr Miliband. Will he attempt to defend the indefensible? Or will he turn the page on an ignoble chapter in Labour's history?

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