Civil liberties and freedoms

Explore current debates around civil liberties including the retention of DNA data, regulation of CCTV cameras, detention without trial, and the need to balance national security and individual freedom.

The Protection of Freedoms bill

In 2012, Parliament passed the Protection of Freedoms bill which ruled on a number of issues relating to civil liberties and personal freedoms. These include:

Access to DNA data - Police will no longer be allowed to retain DNA data taken from people who are arrested for a criminal offence without being charged or convicted. There will be some exceptions to this rule. For example, DNA data from a person aged 18 or over arrested for (but not convicted of) certain serious violent and sexual offences could be retained by police for three years, with the possibility of a further two year extension. (At the moment, the police can retain DNA data taken from an arrested person indefinitely even where he is not subsequently charged with or convicted of an offence).

Biometric data in schools - Schools will not be able to use students’ biometric data (such as fingerprints) without the written consent of parents. Even with parental consent, the data must not be processed if the student objects.

Detention without charge of terrorist suspects - Police will no longer be able to hold terror suspects for more than 14 days, before charging them with an offence. Previously, the police had been able to hold suspects for up to 28 days without charge in some circumstances.

Stops and searches to prevent acts of terrorism - Police have several stop and search powers and most require 'reasonable suspicion' about the individual being searched. However, the power under the Terrorism Act 2000 does not. Under the new rules, the police would still be allowed to stop and search people with no suspicion, but in more limited circumstances and with tighter controls. The senior officer could only authorise the searches for an area if he reasonably suspected that an act of terrorism would take place and reasonably considered that the authorisation was necessary to prevent that act.

Regulating CCTV - Ministers must create a code of practice to regulate the millions of CCTV cameras in the UK, setting out how they can be used and how the images can be processed. (Previously, there was no code of practice.)

What are the issues?

Security - Some personal freedoms are restricted to protect the freedom and safety of others. Can your students think of examples?

Personal freedom - European conventions protect an individual's right to privacy in many areas of their lives. Can your students think of examples where the right to personal freedom and the need for security may come into conflict? What is the best way of balancing these two principles?

Fairness - Is everyone treated equally? Are some people's liberties restricted more than others

Political context - Does the balance between freedom and security change over time? Can your students think of events in recent years that may have affected this balance?

Further information


Note that the article above was produced in spring 2012. More recent parliamentary debates about civil liberties, amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill, or the publication of new select committee reports may have taken place since then.

Classroom resources

Discussion cards and classroom activities exploring issues of civil liberties and personal freedoms are also available: