Will the Freedom Bill actually increase our freedom?

It’s beginning to happen. Gears are grinding, levers are pumping, and the Freedom Bill is making its way slowly and steadily towards becoming law. The Daily Mail reports that the forthcoming code governing CCTV use will constitute a Blow for Big Brother Britain.

In truth, it does appear at first glance that there is some cause for optimism. The Home Office is making the right noises by saying:

The aim should be to enable any individual wishing to know more about an overt surveillance camera to be able to obtain that information easily and readily, whilst the personal data itself is appropriately safeguarded.

A commissioner will be appointed to monitor the application of the code and to ensure good practice and transparency. A consultation will take place over the next 12 weeks, givingĀ  — we assume — members of the public an opportunity to voice suggestions about the content of the code. So far, so encouraging.

Civil liberties campaign group No CCTV, however, raises numerous doubts about the efficacy of the new legislation in this detailed analysis. Looking more closely at the bill, the aforementioned ‘consultation’ looks a little less impressive. The secretary of state is sworn solemnly to consult with a rich and varied cross-section of the populace, namely:

(a) such persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be representative of the views of persons who are, or are likely to be, subject to the duty under section 33(1) (duty to have regard to the code) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate,
(b) the Association of Chief Police Officers,
(c) the Information Commissioner,
(d) the Chief Surveillance Commissioner,
(e) the Surveillance Camera Commissioner,
(f) the Welsh Ministers, and
(g) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

Er … what? That looks rather like a list of the keenestĀ  and most powerful advocates of CCTV to us — along with a few token additions, of course. So the secretary of state will be consulting intensely with the people most likely to want CCTV installed in any and all circumstances. Brilliant. What next? A consultation with business leaders about how much tax they’d like to pay? Don’t answer that.

Surely, though, the surveillance commissioner will stand up against such excesses? That’s his job, after all. To curb the scourge of unnecessary CCTV. Apparently that part of the job description is a little vague.

First of all, the code of practice he enforces may or may not take precedence over the voluntary code of practice already overseen by the information commissioner. It’s entirely possible that the two codes could be in conflict, a possibility that the Freedom Bill does not even begin to address. Secondly, the fearless surveillance commissioner’s powers would make a paper tiger look fierce. Bodies who breach the bill could – wait for it – “be mentioned in judicial proceedings”. Grr.

In summary, it looks very much as though the coalition’s supposed commitment to regulating CCTV is actually little more than a public relations exercise. Indeed, Conservative MP Phillip Davies is already touting the supposed benefits of cameras to all and sundry. Hardly, we would think, the actions of a man who is deeply concerned with the civil liberties aspect of CCTV usage.

Of course, the bill deserves a fair hearing. It’s possible, given the vague wording of certain sections, that some genuine good will come of it. Nonetheless, Nick Clegg’s puppyish enthusiasm for it looks distinctly excessive given the equally likely possibility that it will make very little difference.

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