Why the Protection of Freedoms Bill does not protect freedoms
The Protection of Freedoms Bill, as it currently stands, is something of a fudged effort that does little to neutralise our alarm at the prospect of the state as the master and we as its servants
One of the better known planks of the Coalition Government’s programme in May 2010 was the abolition of various policies, introduced in piecemeal fashion by Labour, which had abrogated individual freedoms in this country.
The trumpeting of the “Protection of Freedoms” Bill by the current government would suggest we are in the process of having a new Magna Carta impregnated into our national DNA. The reality is that large parts of the Bill in its current genesis are disappointing, lacklustre and with little in the way of real teeth.
Speaking of DNA, take for instance the retention of DNA samples from those who have not been convicted of a crime. This has been a hot potato for some time now with this country having the unique bio-chemical fingerprints of millions of citizens on a national database. The Bill proposes that those who have been charged but not convicted of a certain crimes – an offence of violence, a sexual offence or a terrorist offence – can have their DNA retained for three years with a further single two year extension on application by the police to a judge.
Of course, even if we accept that there was enough to evidence to charge these individuals, is it right that a man charged for being part of a punch-up for instance, which collapses before trial or which sees the individual acquitted by a jury, should still have the stigma and state sanctioned injustice of his personal DNA being retained?
Where is the finality even if the maximum period for retention is five years as opposed to life? Where is the presumption of innocence and the fact that those are acquitted are, well, acquitted?
There must normally be some decent evidence in existence for a charge, and cases collapse or end for a variety of reasons. That said, the Bill, much more insidiously in the context of adult offenders, states that a suspect, merely arrested and not charged with a serious offence, can have their DNA retained for a period of three years on a successful application by the police (which can be contested by the person arrested). This application is to be submitted to the new Orwellian sounding Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material, with a further two year extension on an application to a district judge.
Although this Commissioner is supposedly independent the application really ought to be undertaken with independent judicial oversight.
In addition, bearing in mind nothing but reasonable suspicion is required to arrest someone and the reasonableness of that suspicion is wholly subjective, surely the government if it wanted to show it was serious about protecting freedoms would have simply barred the retention of DNA from arrested but released citizens.
The cheer then, for this Bill supposedly protecting our liberties taken away under the previous Labour government, is a muted one. For the Bill, as it currently stands, is something of a fudged effort that does little to neutralise our alarm at the prospect of the state as the master and we as its servants.
Julian Hunt is a barrister and has been practising law since 2005. He was a Crown Prosecutor and Senior Crown Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service between 2008 and 2011 but now defends. He lives in South London
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