The Union Jack's Patriot Act
Shortly after September 11, 2001 many western governments pushed through legislation ostensibly aimed at combating the emergence of a worldwide 'terrorist' threat. Americans got the USA PATRIOT Act, Canadians got Bill C36 and here in the UK we got the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. Each of these sought to balance civil liberties against perceived security threats, usually incurring a curtailment of the former. In the wake of 9/11, many regarded such sacrifices as acceptable.
And yet, two years on, the legislation gravy-train continues here in the UK, using the same justifications to further cripple people's liberties enshrined in law. The Civil Contingency Bill, the UK government's new legislation currently under consideration for dealing with national emergencies, not only builds upon previous post-9/11 lawmaking, it greatly surpasses it, potentially giving unprecedented powers to the government. Up until this week, media coverage has been sparse. While UK Home Secretary David Blunkett's national ID card scheme gleaned some attention in the press, the draft bill, released this summerhas remainedaway from the public eye.
Some of the main features of the Bill include:
*The ability to destroy an individual's private property without compensation. Derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights.
*The power to suspend all primary Legislation (in other words derogate from any previous legislation).
* The government's ability to "prohibit assemblies of specified kinds," including peaceful protest, during a declared 'emergency'.
The changes proposed in the Bill go beyond anything previously deemed appropriate for the safety of the British people even through such periods as World War II and the Cold War, not to mention decades of Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Aside from sweeping powers the bill massively widens the scope for application of 'anti-terror' legislation. "[T]hese powers can be invoked not only to deal with terrorist threats, but could have been used during the fuel strike, the foot and mouth epidemic, and the fire-fighters strike," according to Liberty, a UK based human rights and civil liberties organization. This means that the government can effectively scupper any kind of civil disobedience it deems as sufficiently disruptive.
Indeed, the ease with which the government could activate these new powers may give one more pause than the powers themselves. The British government has declared a state of emergency twelve times since 1920, and in each case during times of industrialunrest. Since September 11, 2001 the government announced a 'technical' state of emergency with the introduction of the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. This has allowed the government to indefinitely detain suspects without trial. Under this legislation some men have languished in British prisons for almost two years now without charge or trial. This fact makes the British government's token objection to British prisoners being held by the American military at Guantanamo Bay entirely laughable.
In July 2002 the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled the detention unlawful and discriminatory. In October 2002 the Court of Appeal overturned this ruling on the grounds that the individuals did not hold the status of British nationals. The selectiveness of British Law and Justice appears prominently in other areas too; it includes the abuse of anti-terror legislation against peaceful protestors. Liberty documents a particularly glaring incident at RAF Fairford, a military base popular for protests against U.S. and UK military action. "Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth told David Drew MP that during the period from 21st February to 11th April 1995 stop and searches had been made as a result of policing at RAF Fairford," states the Liberty report(view PDFhere). Despitethe invasivesearches, the police failed to find a single terrorist, and protestors have increasingly come to regard the use of these powers as attempts to intimidate and dissuade legitimate protest.
The report also details how the police physically prevented three coaches of protestors from reaching their destination, (RAF Fairford), stopping and searching everyone on the coaches and then escorting them back to London. "They were not allowed to stop, and passengers could not even visit the toilet en route." According to the testimony of one person detailed in the report: "The return journey to London was organised by the police to make us look like we were terrorists. A convoy of police accompanied our buses and the motorways were sealed off to the public. Even the roundabouts leading towards and away from the motorway were sealed off."
So plenty of precedents for abuse have occurred - what could trigger off the powers detailed in the draft civil contingency bill? The range of possibilities remains disturbingly vague and subjective. The requirements do not even include a threat towards, or an effect upon a large proportion of the population. The document uses the words 'serious' to determine what justifies an 'emergency' without actually defining what 'seriousness' means. The decision itself can remain an entirely subjective matter, as Liberty notes:
"To make such an order...the minister needs only to believe that there has been an event or situation which present a serious threat to the population, the environment, the political or economic infrastructure, or the security of the United Kingdom. There are limits on the ability to make a declaration if he believes that existing laws could deal with the situation sufficiently, and an order can only be made if it is considered necessary to deal with the situation or some part of it. However, all these considerations are effectively the subjective opinion of the minister."
Liberty goes on to note:
"Although unlikely in this country, it is chilling that the Government could, in principle, declare a state of emergency and suspend all primary legislation if faced with potential political instability. Political and economic instability is generally the consequence of declaring a state of emergency rather than the pre-conditions for one.....The possibility of emergency regulations because an emergency is about to occur, based on an event which may cause a particular threat, is worryingly twice removed from an immediate risk." [Emphasis mine]
Britons may feel particularly aggrieved because the government claims to have carried out one of its so-called 'public consultations' on the matter, a complete misnomer given previous so-called 'consultations'. The government supposedly carried out a similar 'public consultation' on the issue of ID cards last year. It recently released a summary of its findings: "We commissioned wider research which involved both focus groups and polling which confirmed, as independent polling has done, 80% of the general public were in favour of identity cards, including comparable levels of support among the four main minority ethnic groupings."
The legitimacy of considering government arranged 'focus groups' as 'public consultation' seems ambiguous at best. And the scope for genuine dialogue with the public outside of the government's select sample becomes unlikely given that knowledge of this 'consultation' remained at an all time low, despite the best efforts of human rights and privacy watchdogs such as Privacy International and Stand. These organisations promoted a public response to the proposals, with Stand providing an online response facility and Privacy International providing 'for' and 'against' phone lines. Both groups found widespread opposition to the government's plans.
Despite assurances made at the time, the Home Office has refused to take the results of PI and Stand's efforts seriously, as stated in an official response: "They will be counted in the same way as other inspired samples or surveys of opinion which by their nature cannot be representative of the population as a whole." Critics could easily point out that the sort of people who visit PI and Stand will naturally have an aversion to such schemes, but this misses the point. The government has taken its own study as a valid representation and concluded that 80 percent of Britons remain in favour of ID cards, irrespective of the 96 percent opposed in the Stand study. Moreover, the government can hardly claim a 'public consultation' when no one knows about it.
Meanwhile the House of Lords has rejected another attempt to limit Jury trial, (the aim of the proposed legislation to remove Juries for many cases). A new attempt by the government will follow shortly. "The Bill now returns to the Commons, where MPs are expected to again vote to reinsert the measure in the Bill and send it back to the Lords.... Mr Blunkett has made it clear that he would not compromise on the substance of his plans." The last attempt occurred in July. And this occurs despite very obvious public support for maintaining Juries as they stand. Blunkett appears to want to keep shooting until he hits a target.
More bad news: Whilethe House of Lords have (so far) stopped the Jury 'reforms', they have allowed the so-called 'Snoopers Charter' - the 'Five Statutory Instruments on Interceptions of Communications and Data Retention' to pass. This increases government's power toforce telecommunications providers to store and keep details on people's email and phone activity, giving the government unprecedented access. The only concessions remained limited to some paltry oversight additions. Blunkett originally raised the spectre of this Bill in 2002 and faced such opposition that the Home Office had to retreat from its plans. Despite this, the latest incarnation of the legislation actually strengthens the proposed powers Blunkett previously backed away from. The original proposals made cooperation by Telecoms providers "voluntary." This has now changed to "mandatory."
It gets worse: In its apparent fascination with the idea of micro-managing the lives of its citizens, the government also has proposed the 'Sexual Offences Bill'. This Bill, among other things, "will classify sexual touching of any kind among under 16s as an offence, including kissing and touching with full consent," according to the youth advice organisation, Brook. Yes, it'sthat bad.
Like his counterpart across the pond, Blair has managed to gain a world-round trip's worth of mileage out of the fear generated by the September 11 attacks. The new wave of smaller-scale terrorist incidents that are occuring with increasing regularity across the globe, has, ironically,only helped their cause. At the time of this writing two car bombs have just hit the British Embassy and an HSBC bank building in Istanbul, Turkey. The Prime Minister and the President have used the attacksfor animmediate photo op and maximum rhetorical advantage. While protestors gather in the tens ofthousands in the capital to protest against Mr. Bush, the media's gaze turns eastward, yet again.
Danny Weston is Guerrilla News Network's UK coordinator.