This morning (1 July 2010) I want to talk about freedom. For too long new laws and regulations have taken away people’s freedoms, interfered in everyday life, and made it difficult for businesses to get by. The state has crept further and further into people’s homes, the places they work, their private lives. That intrusion is wrong; it’s illiberal; it’s disempowering and it’s going to change.
This government is putting freedom under the spotlight. We want the British people have their say on where the state should step in, and where it should butt out. We are asking people for ideas on restoring hard won liberties that have been lost, on repealing unnecessary laws that have no place on the statute book, and on stripping away the excessive regulation that stops businesses from innovating.
Your views will shape directly the steps we take. It is a radically different approach.
Because this coalition trusts people to get on with their lives. We don’t think every problem can be fixed by passing a new law. We understand that Whitehall doesn’t have all of the answers, and doesn’t have a monopoly on the best ideas. So gone are the days of know-it-all, do-it-all government. Because a liberal society, a prosperous society, is one where citizens and businesses have the space and power to thrive. Today I am asking the people of Britain to help us to begin building that society. Protecting civil liberties, repealing unnecessary laws, and cutting restrictive red tape.
First, civil liberties. One of the coalition’s immediate acts was to halt ID cards.
Plans are underway to restrict the storage of innocent people’s DNA; to properly regulate CCTV; to restore the right to non-violent protest; to protect trial by jury.
To end the scandal of children being fingerprinted at school without their parent’s consent. The vetting and barring scheme for people wanting to work or volunteer with children is being scaled back to common sense levels. And we are looking again at counter-terrorism and security legislation to make sure it can provide the necessary powers to the police and the security services without inhibiting the freedoms it’s meant to protect.
As someone who has spent years campaigning for these changes, I am enormously proud to see them in motion. But I want us to go further. Our ambition is to create a society where no law-abiding individual ever feels intimidated by the state, just for going about their day-to-day business. Where people aren’t cast under suspicion simply because of who they are, or where they’re from.
But that means redoubling our efforts to restore the great British traditions of freedom and fairness. The culture of snooping and mistrust has become so ingrained that we must tackle it with renewed vigour. Don’t accept it. If you’re sick of the state prying into your private affairs, tell us. If you feel harassed when you haven’t done anything wrong, tell us. If there are ways that we can better protect your dignity, tell us. And tell us what you want us to do about it too.
This isn’t just about the laws that make you feel under threat. This is also about the laws that serve no real purpose. Obsolete rules that are out of date or that are duplicated by other laws.
Take seditious libel - a 17th Century offence, under which writing something contemptuous about the government could be punished by life imprisonment.
Not only do such laws make a mockery of our justice system. Just having them on our statute book gives succour to regimes in other parts of the world that use similar offences to restrict freedom of speech. That’s why I was delighted to see campaigners successfully work to get those particular laws abolished last year.
And there are other laws that are now completely obsolete. It’s a little know fact, for example, that under old laws that are still in place, failing to report a grey squirrel in your back garden is technically a criminal offence. That’s one I think we could probably do without.
We need to work through legislation to identify laws we don’t need. Looking, also, at how they work on the ground. And, my colleague, Eric Pickles, will shortly be asking councillors and council staff to identify outmoded, outdated and obsolete secondary legislation which could be cut down to size.
On laws that have fallen into disuse, some people may ask ‘what’s the point?’ Why bother getting worked up about a law that just sits there and does no any harm?
But I say: that misses the point. Squirrels aside, whether seemingly harmless or not, laws that serve no purpose obscure what legislation is for in the first place. Over the last decade thousands of new laws have been added to the statute book. Thousands of new ways of turning us into criminals. Laws for the sake of laws - as if every problem can be solved by an act of Parliament.
But it doesn’t work; it’s a distraction. The purpose of the law is to protect and empower citizens. That is the only time the state ever has the right to restrict your behaviour. As soon as we forget that we open the door to state intrusion. We lose that kneejerk indignation we should all feel when the state sticks its nose in where it doesn’t belong. And that complacency is dangerous.
And so to end the habit of compulsive law-making, all new criminal offences and civil wrongs will now be specially screened. They will only come into effect if we can demonstrate that they are needed, that there is no alternative, and that existing penalties are not sufficient. And, because no one has been keeping track of new offences, we will start to keep count, making that information public.
Third, regulation. Regulation is enormously important; not least in protecting employees and ensuring standards. But we have to get the balance right.
Too many of the business and voluntary groups I meet tell me that they feel overwhelmed with forms to fill out and boxes to tick, whether it’s a fledgling business looking to take on more staff or a charity struggling with the complex record checks their volunteers have to undergo. And too many ordinary people are burdened with costly bureaucracy. Which is why, within weeks of coming into office, the coalition scrapped home information packs - pointless red tape that was hampering the housing market.
We need regulation that makes sense. Regulation that we can afford and that people can have confidence in. Ensuring businesses and organisations are run fairly, offering high quality services, but also allowing them the space to be creative and to adapt to changing circumstances.
According to the British Chamber of Commerce, the cumulative cost to business added since 1998 has now reached £88 billion. That is an unacceptable drain on the entrepreneurs and innovators we need to get the economy back on track. Today, our new Reducing Regulation Committee, chaired by Vince Cable, is meeting for the first time. Their immediate task will be to look at all of the regulations approved by the previous government which are due to be introduced this year, to establish whether or not they are really necessary.
They will be central in helping to develop a one-in-one-out rule. Ministers intending to bring in a new regulation will have to get rid of an existing one. They will also need to convince the Reducing Regulation Committee that their proposed regulation is necessary. That’s a fundamental shift in Whitehall: regulation will be the last, rather than the first, resort. And I would also like to highlight the very good work that is going on in Defra, where an industry-led task force has been set up to reduce the burden on the farming community specifically.
More broadly, we are looking closely at the timing and implementation of new EU rules so that British businesses are not at a disadvantage compared to their competitors abroad.
But the key to all of this is you. You - the small business owner, the social entrepreneur, the volunteer. You know better than government departments, better even than Vince, what rules and regulations are holding you back. The whole point of this exercise is to get Whitehall out of the driving seat. We want to know where regulation works, where it doesn’t, and what we can do to help.
And it isn’t just the outcome of this process that is important, it is the process itself.
This is the most ambitious online crowd sourcing exercise ever attempted by any British government. It is an entirely new way for government to engage with people.
One we want to make a habit of. And we will shortly be asking for your input into how we improve our public services and make savings to help get the public finances in order. Something we started last week when the Prime Minister and I wrote to 6 million public sector workers - doctors, teachers, nurses - people on the front line who know best.
Our aim is for the best suggestions on freedoms and regulations to be included in parliamentary bills, this year and in the future. As for what they’ll look like, I don’t know. The government may have got the ball rolling, but now the debate is totally out of our control. We don’t know what ideas are going to end up on the site; how they will spread across other sites and forums; which of them will capture imaginations and which won’t. If a specific reform is popular, ministers won’t be duty bound to act on it, but we won’t be able to hide it either; it will be right there for everyone to see.
And, yes, there will be clashes - arguments over which ideas are good and which are bad; over what we can do and what we can’t. But it is precisely because this process is so unpredictable that it is worth doing at all. Real democracy is unspun; it is the raucous, unscripted debates that always throw up the best ideas.
The Your Freedom project is part of our bigger political reform agenda. It is one of a series of ways of transferring power away from government and the state and into your hands - part of the most radical shake up of our politics for decades. The other steps we are taking include, among other things, fixing parliamentary terms, giving people a choice over the system they use to elect their MPs, reforming the House of Lords, introducing the power of recall, getting big money out of politics, and I will be making further announcements on some of that next week.
But today, let me end by saying this: This government is determined to give people back their freedom. But we cannot do it without you. So be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom, and this is your chance to have your say.