Government outlines plans on privacy and surveillance

Out-Law News | 13 May 2010 | 3:56 pm | 2 min. read

The new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition Government said that it will beef up freedom of information law and reduce the number of people whose details are held on the Government's DNA database.

It will more closely regulate CCTV; reduce the amount of information on usage held by internet service providers (ISPs); and reform libel laws to ensure more protection for publishers, it said in a document outlining its legislative programme.

A statement from the new Government said that its plans were intended to change the way in which people's information was gathered and stored.

"The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion," it said in an outline of the policy agenda agreed by the two parties.

That agenda includes extending the scope of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to "provide greater transparency". Introduced by the last Government, FOI laws have helped to increase the public's access to information about public bodies.

Labour plans in recent years to restrict access by ensuring that organisations could only access a certain amount of information in a year were opposed and later dropped.

The new Government also plans to adopt "the Scottish model" for the national DNA database. DNA records are kept in England and Wales for anyone arrested, even if they are never charged or are found innocent of a crime. In Scotland only the records of the guilty are kept, along with the records of those arrested for some very serious crimes.

The new Government has also pledged to reform libel laws "to protect freedom of speech". All three main political parties had pledged libel reform, saying that recent high profile cases showed that the law gave too much protection to the reputations of people and organisations and was stifling investigations and free speech, especially in the worlds of science and academic study.

The Government has also said that it will put an end to the identity card programme and its accompanying National Identity Register. Privacy activists had expressed concern that the database of personal details could have adversely affected citizens' rights to privacy.

Rosemary Jay, a data protection law expert at Pinsent Masons, said that though the ID card scheme had been scrapped, some kind of identity programme would have to be undertaken in the future.

"It is encouraging to see that the issues of surveillance and privacy have moved into the forefront of political vision," she said. "We will have to see how the difficult issues of identity assurance will be handled as the current ID scheme is rolled back. It seems inevitable that any Government will have to grapple with that challenge at some stage."

Jay said that caution should be exercised on these issues by legislators.

"It might be better not to expect immediate action in some contentious areas. Privacy choices can often involve difficult technical issues as well as political ones; areas where thoughtful mature decision-making is at a premium," she said. "Many of the new intake of MPs will be coming to the detail of these issues for the first time. We should not under-estimate the task they face in getting to grips with them among all the many other things they have to deal with."