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Protection Of Freedoms

Volume 400: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2003

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1.38 pm

I beg to move.

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require each item of legislation to be subject to a statement as to how each measure included in it affects the freedom of expression, assembly, conscience and association; and why the benefits of the measure outweigh any loss of freedom.
Despite the current noise caused by Members leaving the Chamber, I am pleased to say that the Bill has attracted considerable support on both sides of the House. Not only has it received support from within the House and, indeed, the other place, but I am pleased to say that it has secured the support of the free country campaign inThe Daily Telegraph and the campaign group, Liberty, and its director John Wadham.

It is fair to say that the natural instinct of any Government, of whatever political persuasion, is to seek more powers. However, the flow of legislation has grown dramatically in recent years. During the 1970s, the average number of measures passed by the House equated to between 1,000 and 1,500 per annum. Yet in the past five years, the average annual number of measures passed is now 3,866, or 15 new laws every working day, and that figure excludes what I can only describe as a continuous tidal wave of directives from Brussels.

That ceaseless flow of rules and regulations has eroded the true role of the House as a champion of liberty. Instead of a presumption in favour of freedom, there is a constant demand that "something must be done". All too often, that "something" is to interfere in or intrude into our lives, to restrict, to restrain, to control and to direct. In short, we have become a legislative factory in which producing more laws is an end in itself.

Of course, in the current uncertain and insecure climate, it is not surprising that people wish to see strong government. After all, the terrorist threat is at home, as the Prime Minister highlighted in his earlier statement. The problem, however, is that all too often legislation strays from its original purpose. Members will be familiar, for example, with the draft Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which came before the House late in 2001. That Bill included powers that would have enabled intrusive investigations not into someone found guilty of perhaps a terrorist crime, but into anyone suspected of any crime whatever. Fortunately, after considerable pressure, that ill-considered and authoritarian part of the Bill was removed. The fact that it was included in the first place and was defended robustly by Ministers, however, highlights the potential danger of security measures. In seeking to protect us, Government can undermine the freedom that they seek to defend.

My case is not to deny that there will be times when a Government need to take on new powers. My argument is rather that, when the Government of the day judge that they need to act, there must be a counterbalance and a specific requirement that they justify why we should relinquish our freedom. My Bill would protect our freedom by creating a liberty test. That test would be simple to administer, but it would have the widest of implications.

My Bill would require a sponsoring Department to identify how each measure affects our freedoms. The Bill lists four specific freedoms, as those are already established in law, but they should not be regarded as exclusive. The responsible Minister would have to publish the assessment and state to the House why the benefits of the measure outweigh any loss of liberty.

The advantages of the Bill would be threefold. The first advantage would be openness. As I said earlier, with nearly 4,000 Bills or statutory instruments passing through the House each year, it is impossible for us to identify, let alone challenge, each incursion into our freedom. The issue would be forced into the public domain by including the results of the liberty test in the Bill. While we all tend to focus on the big issues—for example, compulsory identity cards—we should not lose sight of other laws that erode our freedom bit by bit. Those include the following: the laws allowing closed circuit television; the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; the heavy-handed regulation of parish councillors under the Local Government Act 2000; the banning of hunting; and, of course, the sweeping powers of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. Each of those measures chips away at our freedom to go about our lawful daily lives without fear of Government interference. This Bill would enable everyone—Members of the House, media and public alike—to understand how each and every proposed law would affect us.

The second benefit of the Bill would be to effect a lasting cultural change in Whitehall and to re-establish a presumption of freedom. At present, there is no requirement on our civil service or Ministers to give specific consideration to the impact of legislation on freedom, or for Ministers to explain why a new law is justified in diminishing our liberty. My Bill would help to change that culture, and would put every demand that "something must be done" into the context of a presumption in favour of existing liberties.

The third benefit would be improved accountability. The ministerial statement that I described earlier would, of course, help the House in its efforts to scrutinise each and every measure. Just as importantly, however, the Bill would enable us to measure the overall impact of new rules and regulations, right across Government. This measure—what I call a "liberty audit"—would enable us and those we represent to understand how the balance is changing year on year between our personal freedom and the power of government. After all, we already count the cost to business of legislation in the form of regulatory impact assessments, so is it not now time that we measured the effect of government on our freedom?

All too often, Parliament today resembles a legislative factory, acting always with good intentions but often in the misguided belief that new laws are the answer when all too often they are the problem. This Bill would reverse that trend. By making our freedom an explicit factor in the preparation of Bills, the Bill would help to change the culture of Whitehall. By requiring Ministers personally to justify any loss of freedom, it would improve accountability, and, by applying this test across all UK laws, it would, for the first time, allow us to measure the overall impact of laws, rules and regulations in our lives.

I believe that this Bill would provide a simple, but effective means of restoring the true role of Parliament as the champion of liberty in our country. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mark Prisk, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Peter Lilley, Angela Watkinson, Mr. George Osborne, Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Marion Roe, Mr. Bill Wiggin and Mr. Stephen O'Brien.