A lot of attention is focused on the anti-extremism and counter-terrorism elements of the Queen’s Speech, including the apparent return (again) of the Snooper’s Charter. As a libertarian, I can’t say I’m a big fan of the latter element in particular.
However, the Government’s new programme does contain another Bill from Theresa May which should please those interested in freedom before the law – the new Policing and Criminal Justice Bill. Maybe good news on police accountability isn’t as exciting as clampdowns on terrorists using Snapchat, but it seems to have been largely ignored in today’s press.
Nonetheless, it matters. Here are just a few of the proposals which will be contained within it:
- Time limits on police bail. As I noted in November, many in the press have been shocked at the way their colleagues, whether under investigation on suspicion of hacking, paying public officials or other offences, have had their lives put on hold for extraordinarily long periods of time. This isn’t unique to journalists – indeed, once an abuse of power has reached Fleet Street you can be sure it has been suffered by plenty of less powerful, less fortunate and less articulate people already. It turns out that being condemned to arbitrary, unlimited time on police bail is essentially used as a routine pressure tactic to “encourage” people to confess – until your bail ends you can’t go on holiday, move house, get car insurance, get on with your life or indeed have your say in court. It’s right and proper that such an illiberal approach is stopped – instead we’ll see a normal limit of 28 days, which can only be extended with proper judicial oversight.
- Strengthening the Inspectorate of Constabulary. It’s been a regular frustration for Home Secretaries and the public alike that HMIC often hasn’t had the clout, full independence or resources to properly investigate failures in policing. Hopefully we might be about to get a better watchdog.
- A better disciplinary process. This is nuts and bolts stuff, but it’s important. There will be new protections for police whistleblowers, new opportunities for the IPCC to investigate and give evidence, and – crucially – disciplinary rules will now apply to former officers as well. So the sight of people accused of abusing their position only to toddle off into comfortable retirement rather than face proceedings should cease.
- Create a new offence for professionals who fail in their responsibility to protect children. One of the most shocking things about the recent child sexual abuse scandals has been the collective failure of institutions and people charged with protecting the victims. At best a variety of council and police officers were devastatingly incompetent – at worst they deliberately turned a blind eye. The law gives people special facilities and powers to protect – it’s only right that a wilful failure to do so should be punishable.
- New scrutiny for the Police Federation. May’s battles with “the Fed” are well-documented, and it’s fair to say the organisation has got out of control in recent years. Last year she told it, “If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you.” Well, here’s part of that change – the Federation will now be subject to Freedom of Information, and its precise mission will be enshrined in law. It will find it rather harder to spend a fortune going off-piste into political campaigns as a result.
This is the Home Secretary at her best, just like when she reformed the much-misused power of Stop and Search. That was a great achievement which we picked out as one of our reasons to be Tory earlier this year. These are just and positive reforms, too, which should please libertarians and conservatives alike – and which show she is no hang-em-and-flog-em authoritarian by instinct. There may be other battles to come, but on this she deserves applause.