Why we need a Freedom Bill
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs presses the case for the need of a Freedom Bill to protect civil liberties and freedom in our society and argues that more thought should be put in introducing laws.
The current Labour government is addicted to legislating; this has led to the curtailment of freedoms, confusion in business and crisis in our public services. In less than a decade in power the Blair government has clocked up over 50 Home Office Bills and created more than three thousand new criminal offences. They have added over a hundred thousand new pages of legislation to the statue book; the equivalent of more than two hundred copies of ‘War and Peace.’
The Liberal Democrats believe that it is time that this legislative tide was reversed, and that is why the Liberal Democrats are proposing a Freedom Bill. Our Freedom Bill is designed to repeal illiberal or irrelevant legislation and ensure proper scrutiny of future legislation. It would restore traditional British liberties that have been curtailed by this government and would prevent government from continuing to stack up legislation as a proxy for real government.
What would go ranges from the now obviously out-dated, such as the blasphemy laws; to laws that attack our fundamental rights and traditions, such as those which place limitations on the right to protest in Parliament Square and on the right of individuals to congregate in public. We are also looking for ideas from the general public about laws they believe should be scrapped. So far there have been thousands of responses which have covered a wide a variety of areas – although I fear the person who suggested we repeal the 1688 Bill of Rights has perhaps other objectives in mind.
It is not just this current Labour government that has proved a little too willing to legislate; the past Conservative government was too. Legislation passed by previous governments would get the axe as well. The ban on the Right to silence introduced by the Conservative administration in 1994 would be abolished, thereby reinstating the long-held principle of defendants not being forced to incriminate themselves.
The Freedom Bill also represents a restatement of the Liberal Democrat’s core liberal values. On some occasions we too have been over-enthusiastic about the use of legislative solutions, and this proposal marks an increased sense of discipline inside the party. In future our parliamentarians and policy makers will think more widely about reducing the burden of legislation across all portfolios. Our commitment to the Freedom Bill represents our determination not to fall into the trap that the previous two administrations have of believing that a new law will solve any and all problems.
Clearly there can be a need for new legislation, and an incoming Liberal Democrat government would certainly have its own legislative agenda. But just as important is a need for legislation to be carefully thought through and scrutinised. Legislation should be a considered response to a specific and identifiable problem or issue – it should not be a knee-jerk reaction to an incident or an attempt to garner favourable headlines.
We are also proposing a change to the way legislation travels through parliament. Meaningful scrutiny is not possible when the government is attempting to pass too many laws. We would transfer parliamentary timetabling to an all-party Business Committee, which would be required to ensure that all bills received proper scrutiny. Where the government proposed more Acts than could be scrutinised effectively, the Business Committee would be able to block proposals.
There would also be a Joint Committee which would consider petitions by members of the public to have laws repealed. This would provide a direct mechanism for public involvement in the process of limiting the amount of legislation on the books. To reduce legislative build-up, we would encourage the use of sunset clauses for all non-constitutional legislation. In addition we would introduce post-legislative scrutiny by parliamentary committees; this would be a key function for a reconstituted House of Lords.
A true liberal party needs to take repealing legislation as seriously as we take passing it. For government to be accountable legislation needs to be clear and transparent. That is what the Freedom Bill will deliver.
Top Ten to Go
Restrictions on protests in Parliament Square
Extradition to the US without proper evidence
Police power to impose conditions on public assemblies of 2 people or more
Criminalising trespass in areas designated by the Home Secretary
DNA retention of those not charged, or found innocent
Removal of the public interest defence for whistleblowers
Removal of the right to silence under arrest
Admissibility of hearsay evidence in court