Civil Liberties in Recent Years
Recently, there has been a growth of a human rights ‘culture’ amongst judges, perhaps as a result of measures such as the HRA. Judges increasingly see themselves as the protectors of human rights and are increasingly willing to challenge ministers. This is often a response to the perceived trend of governments to expand their own powers at the expense of rights/liberties. Examples are below.
Civil liberties under Labour: _(adapted from politics.co.uk) _The Labour government elected in 1997 was frequently accused of running a “nanny state”, but by the time of the 2010 general election, criticisms had increased to more serious accusations of excessive state interference and state control, infringements of civil liberties and a gradual erosion of the rights of the individual. One of the main concerns was the enormous number of new criminal offences brought in by Labour. Between 1997 and 2009, 4,289 new criminal offences were created, approximately one for every day the party was in power; and the number continued to increase, rising from 27 new offences a month under Tony Blair, to 33 a month under Gordon Brown.
Further concerns about infringement of civil liberties were raised by the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), dubbed the ‘snoopers’ charter’. The Act creates a regulatory framework to govern the way public bodies, such as the police and security and intelligence services, use covert techniques when investigating terrorist threats and other serious crimes, the purpose being to ensure investigatory powers are used in accordance with human rights.
There were numerous other measures introduced by Labour, claimed as necessary to fight the so-called “war on terror”, which was seen as perhaps the most serious threat to civil liberties. Tony Blair suffered his first defeat as prime minister in 2005 when MPs rejected his call for the pre-charge detention limit for terror suspects to be increased from 14 to 90 days. The move had attracted warnings of a possible infringement of habeas corpus. MPs later agreed on an increased time limit of 28 days. A further attempt in 2008 under Gordon Brown’s leadership to increase the time limit to 42 days was thrown out by the Lords.
The introduction of ID cards together with an accompanying national identity register was widely opposed, as was the increased retention of data on the DNA national database, particularly the decision to store the DNA of large numbers of innocent people. Excessive use of stop and search powers also caused concern. Any police force authorised by the Home Secretary could randomly stop and search any person or vehicle on suspicion of terrorism under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Civil liberties under the Coalition: _(adapted from politics.co.uk) _The Coalition came to power promising to restore the rights of individuals. The use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allowed police to carry out random stop and search acts - and which had been ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in January 2010 - was repealed by the Coalition and replaced with a more limited power under the Protection of Freedoms Act introduced in 2012. Other measures in the Act include reducing the pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects to a maximum of 14 days; requiring schools to obtain parental permission before taking fingerprints of children; and ending the storage of DNA of innocent people.
However, not all civil liberties concerns have been addressed by the Coalition and the spectre of another ‘snoopers’ charter’ has raised its head in the form of the Draft Communications Data Bill published in June 2012. The Bill proposes to allow security services access to all communications data – i.e. records of all emails, texts and phone calls – and for communications service providers (CSPs) to collect the data which will be stored for 12 months.
The right to protest and the policing of protests is another issue which constantly raises questions about infringements of civil liberties, one current bone of contention being so-called ‘kettling’ where demonstrators are contained within a particular area by the police. The Ministry of Justice has also had to defend cuts to legal aid, included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act passed in May 2012, a move which has provoked outrage from civil liberties campaigners, disability groups, the legal profession and others. Liberty warned that publicly funded legal advice and representation “will be put beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population” and the Labour peer, Lord Bach, led a Lords rebellion against the cuts.
Conflicting Views of Civil Liberties
There are competing ideas as to which rights should be protected, and about civil liberties generally. One view, which tends to be upheld by judges, civil rights campaigners and Liberal Democrats, can be seen as:
- Civil liberties should not be weakened or ignored under any circumstance
- They are fundamental and inalienable
- They serve as the basis for democracy
- They are vital to protecting people from government
- The focus here is on individual rights
However, others, for example, government ministers and many Conservatives, take a different view of civil liberties:
- Rights are relative
- The rights of an individual must be set against the rights of others
- Civil liberties go alongside civil responsibilities and duties- the duty to pay tax, to vote, to act responsibly
- Some rights may be more important than others
- It is up to elected Parliament to decide on rights issues
Liberty is also known as the National Council for Civil Liberties and was founded in 1934. Their aim is to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK, believing that the values of individual human dignity, equal treatment and fairness are the foundations of a democratic society.
Liberty ‘promote(s) the values of equality, dignity, fairness and accountability in all that we do’ according to its own website, and is free from government involvement. Liberty campaigns to protect basic rights and freedoms through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community, through a combination of public campaigning (for example in favour of maintaining the HRA and against the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’), test case litigation (for example acting as solicitors for those bringing a case), parliamentary work (for example meeting MPs to discuss issues and providing committees with evidence), policy analysis and the provision of free advice and information to citizens concerning human rights.
- Which King signed the Magna Carta in 1215?
- Your answer should include: King / John
- Which Act established a public ‘right to know’, and allowed for a more open government?
- Your answer should include: Freedom / of / Information / Act
- How long did Tony Blair want to hold terror suspects without charge for?
- Your answer should include: 90 / Days
- Which important civil liberties measure was established in 1998, and came in to law in 2000?
- Your answer should include: Human / Rights / Act
- Which civil liberties group was founded in 1934?
- Which radical Islamic preacher was blocked from being deported from the UK under the Human Rights Act?
- Your answer should include: Abu / Qatada
- What does is the word for rights which cannot be taken away under any circumstance?
- What was the Draft Communications Data Bill (proposed in 2012) nicknamed by civil liberties pressure groups?
- Your answer should include: Snoopers / Charter