Labour gets it wrong on Human Rights.

There is an almost inevitable tendancy for governments, even when they start out the other way with a localist or pro freedom and human rights agenda, to become less committed to it, and increasingly centralist as they go on.

For the first few years a government is in power, it is not unknown for them to remember what it was like in opposition, or to remember some of their election promises about devolving power, or both. But as time goes on, frustrations when ministers have trouble getting a policy implemented, and are afraid of being blamed when things go wrong, be it a terrorist attack, general crime, or the economy, tends to make them very authoritarian.

Hence if a government doesn't make any moves towards decentralism, localism or greater freedoms in it's first eighteen months in office, it never will.

Even the last Labour government, which by the end of its' thirteen years in office had become one of the most authoritarian and centralising governments in the last hundred years, began by devolving signifiant powers to Scotland and a small amount of power to Wales and Northern Ireland, and with a genuine attempt to implement a human rights agenda even if the main mechanism they used - incorporating the ECHR into British law - was to spectacularly backfire on both Britain and the Labour govenment themselves.

The Coalition government has started down that road to more freedom and localism. They have begun this process by scrapping ID cards, with the Localism bill which gives more responsibility and flexibility both to local councils and to residents of particular areas within council areas, and with the "Protection of Freedoms" bill against which Ed Miliband made an irresponsible and populist attack at Prime Ministers' Questions yesterday.

Heaven help this country should someone who is already ready to drop his promises on human rights in favour of authoritarian populism while still leader of the opposition ever be elected Prime Minister. And that is what Miliband did yesterday.

WHen Ed Miliband spoke to Labour conference at Manchester after becoming party leader, he was keen to show that he had learned lessons from Labour's defeat. Including a move away from the authoritarianism of the Brown administration and the later Blair years and a more liberal approach to freedom. But his attempt to score cheap points on rape yesterday threw that approach out of the window.

Let's get this absolutely clear, rape is a serious, horrible crime and I want to see those who are actually guilty of this and other serious crime convicted and given an appropriately serious punishment. So does the government, which is why the Prime Minister announced yesterday that it will not pursue proposals for a 50% discount in the prison tariff for an early guilty plea.

However, precisely because rape is a serious crime which should carry a serious punishment, and for which even an accusation leaves a horrible stigma, we should also be careful to minimise instances when innocent people are arrested for it. Not just to protect innocent men from having their lives wrecked, which a false charge of rape can do, but to more effectively protect innocent women from being raped by focussing police attention on the actual rapists.

Ed Miliband attacked the government's proposals to dramatically reduce the number of people who have not been convicted of any offence but whose DNA is retained on government records on the basis that this might improve the chances of serial rapists escaping conviction.

As I posted here on Monday 13th June under the title, "The DNA Database and catching rapists" there is hard evidence that the Scottish DNA database - operated on the basis which the "Protection of Freedoms Bill" wants to move towards - actually produces a BETTER chance of a DNA match than the current DNA database for the rest of the UK does.

It is worth recapitulating what the proposals in the bill actually say for serious crimes such as rape:

For those arrested for, but not charged with, a serious offence

The provisions of the Protection Of Freedoms Bill as introduced in Parliament provide that the police will only be permitted to retain DNA and fingerprints in very tightly controlled circumstances. The government will establish an independent commissioner to oversee DNA retention and they will make a decision whether retention is necessary, taking into account the age and vulnerability of victims of the alleged offence and their relation to the person arrested.

For those arrested for and charged with a serious offence, but not convicted

The provisions of the Protection Of Freedoms Bill as introduced in Parliament provide that in these cases the government proposes to retain the DNA and fingerprints for three years, with the option of a single two-year extension by a court.

For those convicted of an offence

The provisions of the Protection Of Freedoms Bill as introduced in Parliament provide that all adults convicted of any recordable offence will have their DNA and fingerprints retained indefinitely.

In other words, if there is REAL EVIDENCE that they may be dealing with a serial rapist, the bill does give the police options to keep an accused person's DNA evidence on file for a number of years. That's why the comments made by Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper in an attempt to make the government look soft on rape are both wrong and irresponsible.

Where there is no such evidence, and particularly where there is reason to believe that an individual was accused on the basis of mistaken identity or a malicious accusation, their DNA records should be destroyed and the bill makes this more likely.

I'm not going to claim it's a perfect bill from the human rights viewpoint or in terms of catching criminals viewpoint, but I do think that a balanced policy such as is provided in this bill is more likely to deliver justice, both in reducing the number of false accusations and in freeing up police time to catch the guilty, than a one-sided policy in either direction would be.


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