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Freedoms and Civil Liberties

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to restore individual freedoms and civil liberties.

My Lords, the Government are taking urgent action to address the erosion of civil liberties and freedoms. We are committed to protecting our citizens from the big government approach that has created an intrusive, bureaucratic state. We have already introduced a Bill to scrap ID cards and the national identity register. We will also introduce a freedom Bill and repeal a number of unnecessary laws.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s reply. Bearing in mind that even during the darkest days of the war, we allowed the right of conscientious objection against military service, should we not, when passing laws, try to provide for those who might find observance difficult on grounds of conscience? We must surely never again drive out of business organisations such as Catholic adoption societies, which were doing most valuable work in society, when their objections to placing children with gay couples could easily have been accommodated due to the very large number of other societies that support gay adoption.

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the principle enunciated by my noble friend. This is a country that stands for freedom of conscience and the right of individuals to exercise it. We are certainly committed to upholding those principles and to allowing people such freedom to hold religious beliefs. However, we have to strike the right balance and ensure that we do not allow discrimination on any grounds. When it comes to offering public services, the law of the land must be obeyed. We do not have plans to change the current law, the effect of which, when it comes to Catholic adoption agencies, will take effect when the Equality Act is commenced. I see no contradiction, however, between that and the principles enunciated by my noble friend.

My Lords, the noble Baroness declared war on big government. She also said in her previous answer that she saw no conflict with her answer to the preceding question. It rather conflicts with her statement of a war on big government. At the same time, in law and order, we are looking at 5,000 fewer prison officers and a 25 per cent cut in the police budget. Can the noble Baroness explain why that is not a lessening of the war on crime and why, in that area, the Government are doing far less their predecessor?

I think we are straying from the Question. I think everyone would accept that we have an extremely tight financial situation. It is not possible to continue with all departmental budgets at their previous levels, which were not funded, in any case, by the previous Government. It is for the police to decide where the operational effect will take place. We are, however, absolutely committed to effective policing.

My Lords, reverting to my noble friend Lord Waddington’s Question, does the Minister agree that the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, under the convention, strike a perfectly fair balance in deciding, as the court did last week, that gay couples are entitled to the full protection of family life respect? The decision of our own Supreme Court in the United Kingdom yesterday was that gay asylum seekers also need protection on the grounds of their sexuality. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that if we want to protect civil rights and civil liberties, the best protection of the minimum standards lies in the European convention, the Human Rights Act and the devolution statutes?

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to yesterday’s ruling from the Supreme Court. I think that vindicates the position of the coalition Government. We do not intend to remove people from this country and send them home expecting them to hide their sexuality to avoid persecution. We will certainly be looking to protect people’s rights in that respect. I entirely accept that the European convention is part of the framework of human rights in this country, but it is also interpreted by British legislation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that when your Lordships next consider legislation in this area, it will be important to recalibrate the balance between, on the one hand, enabling the police and security services to work effectively and, on the other, not creating the impression of counterproductive legislation which encourages extremism and martyrdom?

My Lords, how will the Government explain to the victims of serious crime the gross injustice caused by the reduction in the number of convictions which will inevitably occur following the reducing of the DNA register?

My Lords, we do not accept that that will be the case. The Government intend to ensure that the all those who have committed crimes are on the DNA register, which was not the case under the previous Government.

The noble Baroness mentioned identity cards. At Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, I was delighted to have one because I did not have to take a passport, a council tax bill and my driving licence. One needs to be wary about this because we do need to prove our identity. My question relates to the totality of security and defence of the nation. The human rights aspect is part of that. Do we now have a date when the new national security strategy will be in place? Clearly, it is absolutely fundamental to the strategic defence and security review. One is slightly concerned about the timescales, bearing in mind that the review will have to come up with answers for the CSR by October. Do we have a date when that new strategy, which underpins everything, will be in place?

My Lords, we are straying far from the Question. However, that is being worked on at the moment in conjunction with the strategic defence and security review. We will certainly produce both papers in the autumn.

Is the Minister aware that vulnerable and elderly people in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom feel much safer where there is an effective system of closed circuit television? Will she give an assurance that the coalition Government will maintain all the existing systems and, indeed, expand them?

My Lords, it is clear that CCTV, if properly used, is valued by the general public as a way of increasing their sense of security and providing evidence—provided it is working—should an incident take place. Equally, it is strictly in the interests of proportionality, and to retain public confidence, that it is properly regulated. It is the regulation of CCTV on which we shall focus.