What does the Protection of Freedoms bill mean for free speech?
Judith Townend: What does the Protection of Freedoms bill mean for free speech?
17 Feb 11

The UK government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill is highly relevant for anyone interested in Article 10 rights. While the bill gives the impression of positive steps for the protection of civil liberties, critics are quick to warn of its limitations and the government’s piecemeal approach. The bill, now in between first and second reading stage in the House of Commons, looks at:

  • freedom of information – extending the freedom of information regime to cover companies wholly owned by two or more public authorities
  • right to data – creating an obligation on departments and other public authorities to proactively release datasets in a reusable format

SA Mathieson, news editor of Guardian Government Computing, is optimistic that this will give a “bit more freedom” to government data.

Photographers will be especially interested in the part on counter-terrorism:

  • This Part introduces safeguards against the misuse of counter-terrorist legislation by permanently reducing the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 14 days and replacing the powers to stop and search persons and vehicles without reasonable suspicion in section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 with a power that is exercisable in significantly more restricted circumstances.

In the bill’s consultation stage [PDF], civil liberty groups and the National Union of Journalists raised concerns about stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act and that “police on the ground were not sufficiently aware of restrictions on how the law should be applied”. Cian Murphy writes on the Guardian Legal network:

Section 44 was a wholly illiberal provision which allowed police officers to stop and search individuals in designated areas without having to show reasonable suspicion. The subsequent sections elaborated on that power. The government has been committed to repealing the section since last summer – but only after the European court of human rights held that it was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

But don’t celebrate too soon. As Murphy reports:

Nonetheless, police powers abhor a vacuum, and as signalled in December, the section 44 power is replaced with new stop and search powers provided for by sections 59 to 62. The proposed new powers, at first glance, may be an improvement on section 44. But they have already been criticised and will require more considered scrutiny over the coming months – especially in light of possible amendments as the bill moves through Parliament.

The issues extend beyond the scope of this bill. Index on Censorship is currently in discussions about freedom of expression protection in the Public Order Act and Communications Act. We’re also interested in hearing your thoughts about the new bill, and its effect on free speech. Tweet us @indoncensorship, or leave a comment below.