What does the Protection of Freedoms bill mean for free speech?

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.

Illegal use of section 44

Thousands of people across Britain have been stopped and searched illegally by police using Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Office has revealed.

One of the most flagrant of these illegal uses was in London in April 2004, involving 840 people.

Fourteen police forces in the UK including the Metropolitan Police, City Police and Thames Valley misused powers on 40 separate occasions between 2001 and 2008. The Home Office said a number of “administrative errors” led to police chiefs not getting the proper authorisation to carry out searches. The Act allows officers to stop and search people without having any “reasonable suspicion” they are about to or intend to commit an act of terrorism.

The errors involve paperwork. Someone didn’t sign something or fill in the right bit. The errors came to light after the Metropolitan Police had to dig around its archive thanks to a Freedom of Information request.

If you define terrorism as the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve a goal, then you can make that definition fit police actions whenever they invoke Section 44. The European Court of Human Rights ruled the blanket use of Section 44 across London was unlawful. The law is too loose and open to abuse.

Home Office admission to the illegality of stops and searches under Section 44 does not mean a government admission to the illegality and inhumanity of that very act. Messing up on an administrative level only means that police forces around the country will tighten up their bookkeeping. It does not mean they will cease stopping and searching members of the public they arbitrarily deem a threat to the status quo.

It doesn’t take guts to question what a police officer is doing to you once he invokes Section 44. It takes knowledge.
So what can you do?

• You do not have to give your name and address or explain why you are where you are. You can’t run off, but you can go limp and stay silent.
• Police can only give you a pat down, remove your outer clothes, search your bags and have you empty your pockets. Women cannot be touched by male police.
• Police cannot take your DNA, nor do you have to agree to be photographed or recorded.
• Take notes about the officers searching you — name, number, police force — and the time and events before the search.
• Remember the wording used by police to explain their search and ask them why they are searching you.
• Always get a receipt. And speak to a good lawyer.