Freedoms Bill published: now you will be able to marry at 6:01pm

Earlier today, the Protection of Freedoms Bill was published which, in the words of Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, “brings to fruition proposals which were first drawn up by Nick Clegg four years ago, and demonstrates our commitment to rolling back unnecessary and intrusive laws introduced by Labour”.

Key provisions of the Bill include the enactment of some previously announced decisions alongside some new, additional proposals:

  • an end to the routine monitoring of 9.3 million people under the radically reformed vetting and barring scheme
  • millions of householders protected from town hall snoopers checking their bins or school catchment area
  • the scrapping of Section 44 powers, which have been used to stop and search hundreds of thousands of innocent people
  • the permanent reduction of the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 14 days
  • DNA samples and fingerprints of hundreds of thousands of innocent people deleted from police databases
  • thousands of gay men able to clear their name with the removal of out-of-date convictions for consensual acts
  • thousands of motorists protected from rogue wheel clamping firms
  • an end to the fingerprinting of children in schools without parental consent
  • the introduction of a code of practice for CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems (overseen by a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner) to make them more proportionate and effective
  • restrictions on the powers of government departments, local authorities and other public bodies to enter private homes and other premises for investigations and a requirement for all to examine and slim down remaining powers
  • the repeal of powers to hold serious and complex fraud trials without a jury
  • the extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and strengthening the public rights to data

And also, dramatic drum roll please … the liberalisation of marriage laws to allow people to marry outside the hours of 8am-6pm, which does rather pose the question, what was the point of previously banning marriage at 6:01pm?

Nick Clegg has said of the Bill,

Freedom is back in fashion – 2011 will be the year that the coalition government hands people their liberty back. I have campaigned for this for many years and I am delighted that we have been able to deliver the Freedoms Bill in government.

Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone has said of the radical reform to the vetting and barring scheme,

I came into this department and was immediately struck by the need to look again at the vetting and barring scheme and criminal records regime.

I feel the changes that are now being made strike the balance between our own personal liberties whilst ensuring vulnerable people are protected.

One of the many examples of what was wrong with the vetting and barring scheme was the point I picked up in 2009 about the scheme’s guidelines:

Paragraph 5.6.1 of “Guidance Notes for Barring Decision Marking Process” … states in part: “even where a jury has found someone not guilty of having done something, you must always remember that, at most, this means is that the court did not find that someone did something “beyond a reasonable doubt” (the criminal standard of proof).”

My concern is simply this. When a jury acquits it may do so for all sorts of reasons. One may be that it thinks someone was probably guilty, but not “beyond a reasonable doubt”. But another is that it has decided that there is no credible evidence at all for the case.

Imagine the situation where you have been framed for a criminal act, but the truth comes out in court, the jury is completely convinced that you are innocent and you are acquitted. Can you really, hand on heart, say that in such circumstances you would be quite happy for someone to say that all your acquittal means is that “at most all the court has done is decide you didn’t do it beyond a reasonable doubt”.

It was one of the more farcical moments under Labour when official guidelines were issued saying that innocent can’t mean innocent. Thankfully those guidelines were subsequently changed and now the flawed legislation behind them is being put right.


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