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Parliamentary wash-up washes away liberties

'Tough on crime' test passed handily

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In the mad rush that is "parliamentary wash-up", it is traditional for civil liberties to be trampled to demonstrate that no party fails the "tough on crime" test – and 2010 is no exception.

Thus it was that on 7 April, the House of Commons approved the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010 – which categorises mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as class B drugs, from 16 April.

The next day, it was the turn of the Lords, pushing through the last stages of the Crime and Security Bill 2010 (pdf), which is likely to have serious future implications through the introduction of police powers to control the movement of persons in and out of specific areas, and attempts to settle the issue of retention of DNA samples.

The control of movement, like many such proposals, is ostensibly for a noble cause. First, there is the new Domestic Violence Prevention Order (DVPO) – more popularly known as a "go order" – which will give to any police officer of superintendent rank or above the power to order a person to be removed from specified premises in order to protect potential victims of domestic abuse.

On the surface, this is a good thing. However, as Liberty notes in its briefing (pdf) on the subject, it is not clear what loophole such an order will plug, since existing "non-molestation" orders provide much the same powers already – but with the safeguard of court involvement.

Legal commentators will also note that as with so much New Labour law, the provisions for the DVPO are laid out in a level of operational detail more reminiscent of a management handbook than a UK Law. Nonetheless, parliament has now spoken, and DVPOs are with us.

Similar concerns have been raised about new powers for police and local authorities to apply to a county court for an injunction against young people over 14 to prevent gang related violence. This allows a gang member to be prevented from meeting other named gang members or going into a particular 'territory'.

When it came to the retention of DNA samples, the precise purpose of the parliamentary horse-trading is unclear. According to Big Brother Watch, Home Secretary Alan Johnson threatened "to remove the fixed retention time for innocent DNA profiles of 6 years from the Crime and Security Bill if the Tories and Lib Dems did not support the DNA provisions in the bill".

The Tories blinked first, and withdrew their opposition despite previously having held out for a maximum retention of three years, in line with the Scottish model. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling justified this reversal by his party, saying: "We will not seek to block this bill because the indefinite retention of innocent people's DNA is unacceptable and has been ruled illegal."

So have the Tories gone soft (or rather, hard) on their opposition to the retention of DNA from innocent individuals? Grayling added: "DNA data provides a useful tool for solving crimes. A Conservative government will legislate in the first session in order to make sure that our DNA database will only include permanent records of people who are guilty, instead of those who are innocent, and to go further than the government to help fight crime."

This suggests that one of the first acts of an incoming Tory government will be to over-turn the DNA provisions in the current Bill. Watch this space.

Also opening the door to potential future abuse are provisions in the Bill for retention of DNA where an individual is re-arrested within the retention period. While this may sound "tough on crime", it is likely that many individuals arrested for very minor offences – or those arrested for taking part in political activity – may find themselves caught up by this provision.

On the plus side, the bill brings in a licensing scheme for wheel clamping companies and an independent appeals process for motorists who feel they have been wrongly clamped. British citizens injured or bereaved by a terrorist attack overseas may now apply for compensation.

However, one measure that looks positive comes with a sting in its tail. The Bill reduces the amount of information that the police must collect when stopping and searching an individual. What the upbeat Home Office Press Release omits to mention is that the period within which an individual can now request a copy of their stop and search form is reduced – from 12 months to three. ®

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