- Created: Monday, 11 May 2009 19:52
- Written by Nicki Jameson
The Labour Party’s programme for Tony Blair’s final year as Prime Minister was set out in the Queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament on 15 November 2006. She announced that the government would be pressing ahead with the introduction of ID cards and a stack of repressive measures, some new, others previously rejected and now being reintroduced. NICKI JAMESON reports.
Border and Immigration Bill
This increases the powers of immigration officers. Home Secretary John Reid plans to ‘reform’ the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (see FRFI 193), ‘streamline’ the appeals system to speed up deportations and create a new category for people who are claiming asylum but have committed serious crimes. This last measure is in response to the case of a group of desperate asylum seekers from Afghanistan who arrived in Britain in a hijacked plane. Despite attempts by ‘negotiators’ to persuade the hijackers and those who came with them to leave immediately, those who remained in Britain won an appeal against deportation, outraging the government. Anyone in this category will be barred from access to jobs, housing and benefits.
The new legislation will also give immigration officers direct powers of arrest without the need to call the police to assist, and further powers to seize cash and assets from suspected people smugglers. It will also extend the power to take biometric data, such as fingerprints, from foreign nationals.
Criminal Justice Bill
This is a continuation of the ‘Respect’ agenda announced by Blair in January 2006 and of its campaign against ‘anti-social behaviour’. It is expected to boost police powers to close ‘anti-social premises’, such as noisy pubs and clubs, within 48 hours and force young people to move away from public spaces. It will also introduce a generic community sentence for young offenders, an idea previously abandoned along with the Youth Justice Bill in 2005.
The new Bill contains proposals that are outrageous even by British government standards, including a clause that would prevent the Court of Appeal quashing convictions on ‘technicalities’ when the defendants were ‘plainly guilty’. There is also a plan to put a £500,000 cap on compensation paid out to wrongly convicted people who are imprisoned.
It will also double the maximum penalty for carrying a knife to four years’ imprisonment and expand the use of ‘conditional cautions’ (on-the-spot punishment, handed out by police without trial or legal process). A new ‘violent offender order’ will be introduced, which imposes severe restrictions on people released from prison after completing their sentence. These orders are a bizarre hybrid between an ASBO and a life sentence and effectively mean that anyone who has served a prison sentence for a violent crime can be returned to prison for an indeterminate period of time on the flimsiest of ‘evidence’ that they have breached the order.
Mental Health Bill
This proposed controversial law, allowing people with ‘untreatable personality disorders’ to be detained, even if they have not committed a crime, is being revived. The previous draft Mental Health Bill was axed in March amid much opposition but some of the key proposals are back here in a plan to update the 1983 Mental Health Act.
Offender Management Bill
This will allow the Home Secretary to further expand the use of private firms within the state criminal justice system. In addition to running several prisons and all the immigration detention centres in their entirety, these companies (GSL etc) already handle court security, inter-prison escorts, and electronic tagging for the Home Office.
The Bill provides for part-privatisation of the probation service and an increased role for the private firms in policing those released on licence. John Reid has already said that about one third of the probation service will be contracted out within the next 18 months.
There will also be further measures aimed at preventing mobile phones being smuggled into prisons, including body-scanning of visitors and criminal penalties for those who bring them in. Prisons are full of smuggled mobile phones and prisoners found with them receive harsh punishments including up to 42 days loss of remission or 21 days cellular confinement. Contrary to John Reid’s hyped-up argument that they are in the main used by drug dealers and gang bosses, the vast majority of calls are made by prisoners desperately trying against the odds to maintain ties with loved ones. But the prison authorities hate them as they cannot monitor the calls and cannot make money out of selling the credit. Unlike drugs, phones are not illegal outside prison, so far more people, including prison staff, are prepared to bring them in.
Surprisingly, no anti-terror bill was actually mentioned during the Queen’s Speech but the government has made it clear that yet more legislation is in the pipeline. John Reid is conducting a review of all the current laws and is likely to formulate a new bill which combines all of them, plus some new or previously rejected measures, in particular 90-day detention without trial for terror suspects.
The limit on detention without trial is currently 28 days, having been increased from 14 following a debate in November 2005 on a proposed increase to 90 days in which Labour suffered its biggest parliamentary defeat. At the time of this debate, the organisation Liberty argued in favour of making evidence obtained by phone-tapping admissible in court on the basis that this would somehow render lengthy detention without trial less necessary. The stupidity of this stance is even more apparent as Reid sets out the government’s plans to put both 90-day detention and admissibility for phone-tap evidence into the new Bill.
Since coming to power in 1997 Blair’s government has introduced eight new pieces of anti-terrorism legislation, and 22 criminal justice bills. It has created 3,000 new criminal offences and increased the prison population, already among the highest in Europe when Labour took over from the Tories, to a record 94,700, with thousands more subject to ‘community punishments’ involving surveillance, curfews, complex licence conditions and electronic monitoring. It is waging a bloody and brutal war against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and has gone all out to criminalise anyone in this country who mounts meaningful opposition to that war. The final year of Blair’s ‘presidency’ is set to see more of the same and worse, as Labour lurches further down the road of social fascism.
FRFI 194 December 2006 / January 2007