More special powers for government repression

FRFI 177 February / March 2004

Following the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Labour government is set to bring in yet another act of Parliament giving it further sweeping powers to suppress dissent. The Civil Contingencies Bill gives government unprecedented power in ‘an emergency’ to ban people from leaving or entering any area, to deploy troops, ban gatherings, requisition property and disregard existing legislation.

Local and regional authorities will be required to draw up detailed plans for dealing with ‘events’, ‘situations’ and ‘catastrophes’. This will involve the creation of a new tier of regional civil defence organisations, described as ‘resilience bodies’ to co-ordinate the response on a local and national level.

Under the new provisions each Regional Coordinator will be assisted by the Regional Military Commander, a police Chief Constable and a Regional Controller from a local council. This group will have colossal power to impose its will on the region it oversees. This is a blueprint for future rule by martial law.

The Bill was published in draft form in June 2003 and was met with alarm and outrage from civil liberties groups, who quite rightly saw the proposed definition of an ‘emergency’ as a blank cheque to any government faced with strikes, demonstrations and a lack of confidence in its abilities to rule by decree.

The parliamentary Joint Committee on the bill took up these criticisms, with the result that when, on 7 January, the government published its response to the consultation, it did so to praise from previously critical MPs and the pressure groups Liberty and Justice. Editorials in The Guardian and Independent, expressed delight that parliamentary democracy was working so well for a change and ‘ministers have listened’. Ironically, as Michael Howard asserts a new Tory agenda, the only daily newspapers to dissent from the back-slapping were the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, which described Labour’s plans as ‘draconian’ and ‘the foundations of a new tyranny’.

In fact the ministers haven’t listened at all, and as the magazine Statewatch points out, the amended Bill ‘has preserved nearly all the powers it originally proposed – albeit in a different form – and added new contentious provisions which were not in the first draft’.

The original Bill defined an emergency as any event that ‘presents a serious threat to human welfare, the environment, political, administrative or economic stability, and the security of the UK or part of it’. The amended version removes ‘political, administrative or economic stability’ from that definition, but redefines ‘human welfare’ as ‘disruption of a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel’. New clauses are then inserted giving the government power to use emergency regulations for ‘protecting or restoring the activities of banks and other financial institutions...activities of Her Majesty’s government [and]...the performance of public functions’. In other words, preserving the political, administrative and economic status quo.

The previous requirement for states of emergency to be declared by royal proclamation is removed and the power to invoke emergency powers given to ministers. As Statewatch argues:

‘The issuing of an “order” that a “situation” or “event” exists or is about to occur is not the same as a “declaration of a state of emergency”. It would allow governments enormous discretion and allow them to mix ongoing business in normal times with powers that are intended to deal with peacetime emergencies. This new “normality” could see parts of cities or whole towns subject to exceptional laws and controls in the same way that emergency laws have been in place in Northern Ireland for more than thirty years.’
Nicki Jameson


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