This article assessed the balance between security and liberty towards the end of the period of Labour government and proposed future directions. It formed part of the Labour Future series edited by Malcolm Wicks MP and published on October 15th 2009.
Future Directions for Security and Liberty
As we get closer to a General Election Labour needs seriously to assess what we have done since 1997 and then to put forward recommendations about what needs to be done now.
In the area of security and liberty many argue (and I agree) that there has been too much legislation. Despite that, our political opponents are intending to campaign on a raft of radical measures, such as the creation of a new Bill of Rights and elected police commissioners, which will certainly consume a good deal of time and energy, probably unconstructively.
Labour's proposals have to start from our ambitions in 1997. These were enormous and they were quickly implemented and legislated much of it in the 1997 - 2001 Parliament.
Levels of crime and anti-social behaviour have decreased significantly, as we strengthened the ability of the police to fight crime. We established crime-fighting partnerships between the police and other agencies, increased police numbers and created Police Community Support Officers within a neighbourhood policing strategy. We funded better technology, including CCTV and a DNA database. We established new penalties like on-the-spot fines and ASBOs. And we established the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
We enacted the Human Rights Act, and subsequently created a Supreme Court, breaking the link between the legislature and the judiciary. Consequential legislation included the Regulation of Investigatory Practices Act (RIPA) which for the first time regulated previously unreported surveillance by public authorities.
We passed the Freedom of Information Act (now the source of so much difficulty for those like Parliament who didn't think carefully enough about how to meet its requirements), the Data Protection Act and legislation on transparency of party political funding which has shone a spotlight and brought some order into very murky areas, though often at the cost of the reputation of politics.
Most of this legislation was opposed by the Conservatives and supported by the Liberal Democrats. Its overall effect has been to strengthen the judiciary at the expense of the legislature, to weaken the executive, to empower the media and to discredit the political process. Despite these unwelcome consequences I continue to believe that the changes were right in principle and should not be reversed.
But all these measures shook up the existing system, often substantially. In many cases a new stable settlement still has to be established. We now know how well our measures have worked, or not, and understand the difficulties which remain. The next Parliament is the time to make whatever modifications are necessary to create and secure that stability.
Moreover since 1997 society has evolved, most significantly in the increasingly rapid march of technology and increased globalisation; and of course the 9/11 attack and its implications have dramatically changed our approach to our own security.
So the next Parliament needs to consolidate the new constitutional relationships, establish consensus about the powers of the police and security services, and address the issues relating to identity.
In the constitutional area the implications of the new Supreme Court and the way in which the Human Rights Act has worked in practice require an open discussion between the judiciary and the legislature, particularly to clarify where responsibilities for security lie. We need a franker and more direct, relationship between Courts and Ministers. All levels of Government need to be far more open about the use of their powers, and the operation of both RIPA and the FoI should be reviewed to create greater clarity and less bureaucracy. Proposals for a new "Bill of Rights" are not thought through and would make an already confused situation far worse
The dilemmas in relation to police and security service powers will always remain and are of course increased by the sharp security threats under which we live. On the one hand we all want the police to have the powers they need to apprehend criminals, including mass murdering terrorists, and, preferably, to prevent such crimes. On the other hand there will always be concern that such powers might be abused against the innocent. Of course the debate around these matters has been intense since 9/11, during this Government, but it will not go away.
The 9/11 and then 7/7 atrocities demonstrated both the terrorists' ruthlessness and our vulnerability. The various legislative responses, including the controversial Control Orders and proposals for 90-day pre-charge detention etc, were intended to address these very real threats in a proportionate way under judicial overview. It would have been best (as I promised in 2006) to consolidate current counter-terrorist legislation (including that relating to Northern Ireland) with a comprehensive new Act. This would respect international commitments and remove some aspects of existing legislation which have caused concern, such as the over-use by police of their counter-terrorist powers to stop and search, or to constrain free movement. The partisan and incoherent 42-day proposal in 2007 replaced the all-embracing review which was necessary and should have taken place in this Parliament, but the need remains.
In most local communities, effective neighbourhood policing has reduced both crime and fear of crime, and there is no good case for reducing the ability of crime reduction partnerships to use techniques such as ASBOs and the extension of CCTV to cut crime and anti-social behaviour. Partnership working across the country still needs to be improved, supported by a stronger police focus upon the front line.
The police also need to strengthen their capacity to deal with serious and organised crime, such as people-trafficking and drug-dealing. These remain a major threat to the security of many communities and stimulate gun and knife crime. Effective intelligence, collected within the proper legal safeguards, remains absolutely essential to combat the criminal gangs' intentions and practices, as is better international co-operation, particularly across the European Union.
The controversy about Identity cards has been politically potent. However the debate has been beset by misleading and even duplicitous arguments.
The truth is that technological change means that massive identity databases already exist. An immense range of data has been collected about almost everyone by a large range of public and private organisations, including banking, pensions and benefits, health, travel and employment records, and of course the records held by the police and security organisations.
The operation of these databases determines some pretty fundamental practical questions about the ways in which we live and on top of that there is an understandable constant public demand to establish more databases to strengthen protection, for example against sex attacks on children. Moreover the ability to share data remains an important weapon both in fighting crime and in addressing other social problems.
As all this expands rapidly, the government needs to establish a coherent data regime which places the individual at the centre, with the practical right to see the data which is held upon them, correct it if necessary, see who and when any changes have been made to the data which is stored, and give permission for the sharing of any data which is held.
This will involve simplifying many of the systems, such as the Criminal Records Bureau checks, reviewing the operation of the National Identity Register and Data Protection Act and similar legislation, and then amending the legislation.
So in conclusion Labour should reject proposals for further radical change in the area of security and liberty. Our priorities should be to put the new constitutional judicial system on a sound footing; to consolidate and revise existing Counter-Terror legislation; to continue reducing crime through more modern policing including a more rational structure of police forces and more consistent partnership working; and to revise our identity and data protection legislation to put the rights of the individual at the centre.
I believe that our fourth term radical priorities should be to meet the challenges which we have put in the "too difficult" box in our first three terms. That means creating a fair system of prisons and probation which is designed to reduce re-offending; completing democratic constitutional change by strengthening the role of Parliament (including electoral reform and fixed term parliaments), finishing reform of the Lords, creating an accepted and open system of funding party politics and restoring the balance between national and local government.
It is now time to address this major agenda and create sustainable change. It is a programme for a fourth term Parliament.