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Freedoms Bill may infringe on individuals' privacy rights, Parliamentary committee says

Parts of a proposed civil rights law threaten the UK's compliance with human rights obligations and infringe on individuals' rights, Parliament's Human Rights Joint Committee has said.11 Oct 2011

The committee of MPs raised privacy concerns about proposals laid out in the Protection of Freedoms Bill in its "legislative scrutiny" of the Bill.

It said that the Bill's proposal that DNA on people who are detained by police but not charged or convicted of a crime might be in breach of a right to privacy under European Convention on Human Rights. It also said that some measures weakened the privacy rights of children and gave police overly broad rights to enter and search properties. 

"Overall, we welcome the Bill for its enhancement of legal protection of human rights and civil liberties," the Committee said in its summary.  

"However, we raise a number of concerns about specific measures which may not go far enough to ensure compliance with the UK's human rights obligations or may risk new infringements of individual rights," it said. 

The Protection of Freedoms Bill was first proposed in February and seeks to reform the way that records on individuals are kept and used, amongst other things. The Bill will reduce the number of people who will have to undergo criminal records checks; reform the law on investigations into individuals; reduce stop and search powers, and reduce the allowed period of pre-charge detention to 14 days. 

The Bill orders the destruction of DNA material in most cases where a person is not charged or convicted of a crime. For those whose samples were taken while detained under the Terrorism Act they must not be immediately destroyed, though. They can be kept for three years, or indefinitely in the case of people who have already committed a serious crime. 

Samples taken from people in the investigation of other serious offences and from people who have been previously convicted of serious offences can also be retained, some for three years and some indefinitely, the Bill said. 

The Bill also contains provisions reforming the use of technology for surveillance, including CCTV systems and automatic number plate recognition systems. 

The Human Rights Joint Committee said that some of the proposals for storing DNA may impact on individuals' right to a private life. That right is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and in the UK's Human Rights Act. 

"We are concerned that the Bill contains a mechanism whereby profiles from those arrested but not charged may be retained in 'prescribed circumstances' where the Biometrics Commissioner consents," said the Committee. "This may create a significant risk of incompatibility with the right to respect for private life." 

"We are concerned that the Bill would create a broad 'catch all' discretion for the police to authorise the retention of material indefinitely for reasons of national security," it said. "We are concerned that the Minister has not provided a justification of why this power is necessary and proportionate, particularly in light of specific measures targeted towards retention in relation to counter-terrorism and immigration." 

"Without further justification or additional safeguards, these measures should be removed from the Bill," the Committee said. 

The Committee also said that the Government should gather, and then publish, information about how the proposed new laws will affect the operation of the national DNA database so that it can properly assess the "proportionality of the measures". 

A clause within the Bill threatens children's privacy rights, the Committee said. The Bill's proposals state that that making parental consent to the processing of children's "biometric information" must be obtained unless "it is otherwise not reasonably practicable". 

This clause should be removed from the Bill because it has "unnecessarily weakened" the requirement to obtain parent consent, the Committee said. The MPs did recommend that children of "sufficient maturity" should be able to decide for themselves whether their biometric information should be processed. 

A planned new surveillance code that could set out rules on the operation of CCTV by public authorities should also be used to regulate other organisations' use of the technology, the Committee said. 

"We recommend that the code should include information on the use of CCTV in schools, residential care homes and healthcare settings. We also recommend that the Information Commissioner is closely consulted in the finalisation of the code," the Committee said. 

The MPs expressed concern that the Bill's proposals on police powers of entry were "overly broad" and said further amendments were needed to either "introduce new safeguards against inappropriate use of powers of entry or repeal existing powers". 

The Bill should also include measures to repeal the right of police to use "all-premises and multiple entry warrants" as they "create new and unique risks for the right to respect for privacy," the Committee said.