SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Clamping down on civil liberties

OVER THE last few years the New Labour government has introduced increasingly authoritarian laws which threaten civil liberties. They are introduced ostensibly to combat ‘terrorism’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’ or ‘illegal immigration’ but can be, and in some cases already have been, used against protestors and trades unionists. They have also been used to whip up prejudice against minorities such as the Muslim community.

Even before 11 September 2001, for example, the Terrorism Act 2000 extended definitions of terrorism to include ‘the threat’ of ‘serious damage to property’, in ways ‘designed to influence the government’ for a ‘political cause’. It also gave the police powers to stop and search anyone in a named area. These powers have been used against people travelling to anti-war protests, arms fair and anti-capitalist protesters.

As in the USA, the British government used the 11 September attacks and the ‘war on terror’ as an excuse to strengthen repressive measures with the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. This allows internment without trial of non-UK citizens as ‘suspected’ terrorists where, on safety grounds, they could not be deported to their own country. There is no requirement on the part of the authorities to disclose evidence. Since internment breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the government claimed there was a ‘national emergency’ as an excuse for derogation (opting out) of that part of the ECHR. Using this act, the government continues to detain suspects at Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons.

There was a set-back for the government in December, however, when the Law Lords ruled that detention without trial was ‘disproportionate’, and also discriminatory against foreign nationals. The government’s response has been to propose further legislation which will be extended to include UK citizens. If everyone loses their rights, then no one is discriminated against!

Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is proposing new powers to detain people indefinitely, under house arrest without trial. His ‘control orders’ will also allow him to use other measures against ‘terrorist suspects’, such as electronic tagging, preventing access to phones and the internet, and banning contact with other named people. They will be imposed by the Home Secretary without recourse to the courts or even referral to a judge, and again the suspect will not have the right to know the ‘evidence’ against them.

Gareth Pierce, a lawyer who represents some of the detainees, commented that Clarke "is giving himself the powers of a dictator". Detentions without trial and house arrest have often been used by brutal dictatorships.

Large-scale use of these powers against Muslims could add to the feeling of isolation many already feel. The majority of arrests under anti-terrorism laws and all of those detained are Muslims. Young Muslims in particular feel alienated. There was, for example, a 41% rise in the number of Asians stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police between 2001 and 2002.

This is a thin end of a wedge. At some stage, anti-terrorism measures could also be extended to include political activists, trade unionists, etc. Already The Guardian (9 February) reported Clarke as saying that "in extreme cases animal rights activists and other forms of domestic terrorism might be subject to lower levels of control orders".

There has been considerable opposition to this from within the legal profession. Ian MacDonald QC, who was on a government-appointed panel of lawyers who represent terrorist suspects, resigned saying: "My role has been altered to provide a false legitimacy to indefinite detention without knowledge of the accusations being made and without any kind of criminal charge or trial. Such a law is an odious blot on our legal landscape and for reasons of conscience I feel that I must resign".

Even Tory leader, Michael Howard, feeling the pressure, has questioned it! He and the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, were set to meet Tony Blair on the issue but it remains to be seen what concessions, if any, they get.

These proposals, alongside all the others from the Labour government, amount to a huge attack on civil liberties. For example, the proposed ID cards and national ID database could be used to harass individuals suspected of being ‘terrorists’, ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘criminals’ and store a large amount of information on people. Even the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights said that it raises "a number of serious questions of human rights compatibility".

The government’s proposed Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill could also be used against protestors. It has added the offence of ‘economic sabotage’, aimed initially at animal rights protesters. The Bill also creates a new criminal offence of trespass on a ‘designated site’ on grounds of ‘national security’.

The Bill also widens Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), by allowing more organisations to seek them against individuals. Already, protesters have being issued with Asbos by the police and local authorities. Asbos are civil law banning orders, which can be imposed on people without allowing them the right to defend themselves in court. Breaching an Asbo, however, is a criminal offence and can result in imprisonment. Asbos, warns Liberty, can list things "such as being in a certain area or even waving banners"!

Recently, Blair publicly apologised to those wrongly convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings. As Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "On the day when the prime minister apologises for past miscarriages of justice his government is paving the way for many future injustices. The proposal to bring in house arrest for those suspected of terrorism is the latest in a long line of assaults on the right to a fair trial".

The Prevention of Terrorism Act, introduced in the 1970s, led to the detention of more than 7,000 people in Britain. Of these, the vast majority were released without charge. The act was often used to harass trades unionists and ordinary Irish people. IRA terrorism was the excuse for many measures that eroded civil liberties: internment without trial, the non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts, and the interrogation methods of the British army in Northern Ireland.

Labour Peer, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, pointed out in The Guardian (27 November) how changes in the law in relation to terrorism are then absorbed into the law in general: "The right to silence was first emasculated in terrorism cases in Northern Ireland in 1988, but the erosion of the right was extended into all domestic law in the UK in 1994".

All of these measures represent a threat to trade unionists, socialists and anyone who may want to protest against governments and big business in the future. What is used against ‘terrorists’ today can be used against others tomorrow. As this government attacks the living standards, jobs and services of workers, it also seems to be bringing in laws that could be used to repress resistance to those attacks.

The argument that human rights do not apply because we are in a ‘state of emergency’ (and have been since 11 September 2001) is a very handy one for any government that might want to suppress political opposition or workers’ struggles. How much easier it will be for a future government to argue that a general strike or mass movements were a ‘state of emergency’. Of course, how much a future government could get away with the use of such powers will depend on the strength of the movement of the working class.

We have to argue against the government’s use of the fear of terrorism to push through these measures. Socialists, trade unionists and civil rights campaigners need to continue to fight all these repressive laws.

Steve Score


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