Monday, 17 May 2010

Civil liberties policy: more liberal than conservative?

A few days on from the tumultuous events of last week and the UK is settling down to coalition government. Details of specific policies have yet to emerge, but the signs are hopeful as regards human rights and civil liberties.

It was plain that repeal of the Human Rights Act would be a deal-breaker for any Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition and so we have seen no mention of the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to replace it. At point ten of the document summarising the deal between the parties, the new government commits itself to passing: 'A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill'. This policy has Liberal Democrat fingerprints all over it as the party was touting a draft Freedom Bill at its last conference. It seems that many of Labour's measures which are perceived as anti-civil liberties are to be trashed. Out will go ID cards, the National Identity register and biometric passports. Also included is the reform of the libel laws and the Freedom of Information Act, the restoration of rights to non-violent protest and greater protections for the DNA database.

Perhaps part of the reason for the Conservative swing towards a more liberal civil liberties agenda is to save cash. Both parties claim savings can be made by scrapping the ID cards scheme - described as a 'laminated poll tax' by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats also claimed in their manifesto that £795 million could be saved by cancelling the prison-building programme and replacing prison sentences of less than six months with community sentences. Such measures play well with those close to penal policy who know prison is hopeless at rehabilitation. LAG believes an opportunity exists to take on the mistaken policy assumption that 'prison works' and go for real reform.

There is much sense in what is proposed by the new government and there are some opportunities for reform, but such measures will need to be passed quickly while goodwill for the new government exists and discipline on the Conservative backbenches remains firm.

Photograph: Legal Action Group

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