Great Reform?

The one thing about the Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill that we can be sure about is that it will not become the Freedom (Great Repeal) Act. In the United Kingdom, the “short title” of an Act of Parliament must accurately describe its purpose; there is no room for vague aspirations or rhetoric.

Contrast this with legislatures in the United States, which can use acronyms (for example, the USA PATRIOT Act 2001) or hyperbole (my favourite is New York’s  Libel Terrorism Protection Act 2008).

Still, at least we are beginning to have some idea of the government’s plans. These days, the Prime Minister’s Office publishes the detailed background to bills in the Queen’s Speech; until quite recently, this information was available only to trusted reporters who were given the so-called “lobby notes”.

This is how the bill is introduced:

A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill would address concerns around what has been described as a tidal wave of criminal justice legislation in recent years. It also provides an opportunity to strengthen the accountability of bodies receiving public funding in light of lessons learnt so far from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act.

And the “main benefits” of the bill?

  • Restoring freedoms and civil liberties.
  • Providing for greater accountability of the State to citizens.
  • Reducing the burden of Government intrusion into the lives of individuals, by repealing unnecessary criminal laws.
  • Strengthening the accountability of bodies receiving public funding in light of lessons learnt so far from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Introducing new legislation to restrict the scope of the DNA database and to give added protection to innocent people whose samples have been stored.
  • Allowing members of the public to protest peacefully without fear of being criminalised.
  • Ensuring anti-terrorism legislation strikes the right balance between protecting the public, strengthening social cohesion and protecting civil liberties.
  • Protecting privacy by introducing new legislation to regulate the use of CCTV.
  • Ensuring the storage of internet and email records is only done when there is good reason to do so.

Sounds promising – but, as always, the devil is in the detail. So here’s the government’s second attempt at setting out the bill’s main elements:

  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • The reform of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • The repeal of unnecessary criminal offences.
  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register and halting second generation biometric passports.
  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

Some of this is clear enough (scrapping ID cards, adopting the DNA database along Scottish lines). Indeed, there is a surprisingly firm commitment to “destroy the National Identity Register” in a stand-alone bill (surely the government is not going to enact this twice?).

But other promises are utterly subjective – which criminal offences, for example, does the government regard as “unnecessary” and how far should libel be watered down to protect freedom of speech?

And the rest is conveniently vague: does the “defence of trial by jury” require parliament to abolish existing laws that allow trials to be heard by judge alone if there is a risk of jury nobbling? Or does it merely mean that the government will retain juries for all fraud trials?

What “good reason” will be required for keeping email records? How much “further regulation” of CCTV is needed? What “safeguards” against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation? Misuse by whom, incidentally?

And where is the legislation to implement the most eye-catching announcement in last week’s coalition programme for government:

We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “wait and see”. Not because the government doesn’t want to tell us, but because it doesn’t know.

Imagine the chaos in Whitehall over the past few days as the LibDems grabbed all the chocolates in the sweet-shop. Before long, they’ll find out that some of them are bitter, while others have remarkably hard centres.

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