Theresa May and civil liberties


Home Secretary Theresa May announced in the House of Commons this week that the Coalition government would review invasive security legislation developed under the Labour government in response to terrorist attacks at home and abroad throughout the past decade. May stated that the government would work to “restore ancient civil liberties” that were increasingly at odds with Labour’s national security agenda.

A comprehensive overhaul of such legislation is badly needed, government power has increased spectacularly at the expense of civil liberties. Whereas prior to 2000 detention without charge was limited at twenty-four hours, the Terrorism Act 2000 permitted the police to detain any person without charge for up to seven days. This limit was increased to fourteen days in 2003, and to twenty-eight days, the longest of any Western democracy, with the passage of the Terrorism Act 2006. Parliament has also granted the police the right to stop and search any individual without cause, issue control orders, and exercise broad surveillance powers that extend to every type of communication. Britain has the highest density of CCTV surveillance cameras in Europe, and, with the power to forcibly extract and indefinitely hold DNA from anyone merely arrested on suspicion of having broken the law, the nation’s government maintains the largest DNA database in the world.

Though the review is ultimately meaningless without action, it appears that the Coalition government is serious about its commitment to restore civil liberties in the nation. Legislation scrapping the national identity card has been introduced, and May has pledged to better regulate information accumulated from CCTV cameras. The government will consider ending the use of control orders, twenty-eight day detention without charge, and stop-and-search. It appears that after years of suffering increased restrictions, liberty might finally enjoy some room to breathe.