The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) today publishes its report on the Protection of Freedoms Bill.
The Bill is due to have its remaining stages in the House of Commons on Monday 10 and Tuesday 11 October.
The committee welcomes the enhanced human rights protection which the Bill would provide, by proposing to repeal or reform measures which impinge on rights and freedoms, but believes that this protection should be strengthened further in some areas.
Powers of entry
The committee welcomes the current Government's review of existing powers of entry to private properties, including homes. It is however deeply concerned that the proposed breadth of proposals in the Bill could create new risks to individual rights by authorising the Government to extend existing powers of entry or further restrict safeguards. It notes that the Home Office has published a list of around 1200 statutory powers with associated powers of entry, and calls on the Government to publish a final, authoritative, list of such powers as a prelude to finalising its review, and before the Bill progresses to the House of Lords.
The committee concludes that the provisions in the Bill relating to biometric material create a less intrusive mechanism for the retention of DNA and fingerprints. However, the committee is concerned that the Bill creates some unjustified risks to the individual right to privacy and calls on the Government to provide further justification or amend the Bill significantly:
- Under the Bill, DNA profiles and fingerprints taken from innocent people arrested but not charged will be retained in "prescribed circumstances" for up to 5 years. The committee concludes that in some cases this may create a significant risk of incompatibility with the right to privacy and calls for further evidence that this approach is justifiable.
- The committee criticises a proposal that the police should have a broad discretion to retain biometric material – by means of unlimited 2 year renewals – for reasons of national security, concluding that the Minister has not shown this to be proportionate or necessary. Without further justification, the committee calls for these proposals to be removed from the Bill.
- The committee also calls on the Government to amend the new safeguards in relation to the processing of children’s biometric information. While broadly welcoming the provisions, it recommends that the Bill be amended to enable children of sufficient maturity and understanding to decide for themselves whether their biometric information should be processed.
The Report also makes a number of other recommendations.
- The committee welcomes the proposal for a surveillance code to regulate the operation of CCTV by public authorities. However, it concludes that it is difficult to assess whether the code will strike an appropriate balance between an individual’s right to a private life and the wider interest of prevention and detection of crime without seeing a final draft of its proposed content.
- The committee welcomes the permanent reduction in the maximum period of pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects to 14 days. However, it questions whether the need to provide for a contingency power to extend the period of pre-charge detention beyond 14 days in the event of a future emergency is supported by the evidence.
- On the Vetting and Barring scheme, the committee recommends that the restrictions on the jurisdiction of the Upper Tribunal in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 be repealed to provide for an appeal by those on the barred list.
- The committee also supports amending the Bill to change the Public Order Act 1986 to remove all reference to public order offences based upon insulting words or behaviour. This amendment would enhance human rights and remove possible incompatibilities with the right to freedom of expression.
Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the Committee, said:
"The Protection of Freedoms Bill goes some way to enhance legal protection of human rights and civil liberties by removing or repealing provisions which the JCHR had previously criticised.
However, there are a number of ways in which it could go further. My committee is deeply concerned at the extension of powers of entry conferred by governments over recent decades.
The current Government's review goes some way to addressing this, but the proposals in the Bill are overly broad and give Ministers carte blanche to change powers of entry as they see fit. This power needs to be limited to provide real protection for individual privacy, and existing powers of entry need to be examined carefully to reduce their scope and number.
We are also concerned that the Government wants to continue to retain the DNA profiles and fingerprints of innocent people who have been arrested then released without a clear justification of why this is necessary or justifiable.
Retention of this type of sensitive material must be governed by a clear statutory framework which limits retention to circumstances which are justified in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. Unfortunately, the Government’s current proposals for a "catch-all" discretion for police to retain material for undefined reasons of "national security" does not appear to meet that standard."