THE GOVERNMENT set out major attacks on people's liberties in last week's Queen's Speech. They include abolishing, for some people, the centuries-old right to a jury trial, and extending catch-all 'anti-terrorist' laws.
Home secretary Jack Straw is following up his attack last year on ordinary people's access to legal aid with an assault on the right to a jury trial. Straw's new criminal justice bill will remove a defendant's right to choose to be tried by a jury for a range of serious crimes. These include theft, burglary and handling stolen goods.
At the moment you can opt in these cases to be tried by a jury in the crown court or by a magistrate. If Straw's attack goes through then the magistrate will choose for you. The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, slammed Straw, saying, 'This will destroy a vital and historic legal right. Jury trials provide a better form of justice.'
Magistrates are notoriously biased against working class and black people. Straw has even built class bias into his changes. He has said that magistrates can take the defendant's 'reputation' into account. So a crooked businessman will be given the nod to go before a jury, whereas an unemployed black man will be dealt with by a magistrate.
JACK STRAW says defendants are 'manipulating the sys tem' by pleading not guilty, going for a crown court trial and then changing their plea on the day of the trial. The government has quoted figures that supposedly show that 24,000 defendants choose a jury trial and two thirds of these then plead guilty.
But Professor Lee Bridges from the University of Warwick points out that Straw's figures are totally flawed. Bridges wrote, 'There are not 24,000 defendants who elect jury trial a year. The latest figure is just 18,000, a number that has been cut in half since 1993.'
We're all targeted
THE POLICE, customs and MI5 are to get vast powers to target anyone they consider 'domestic subversives', including environmental protesters and left wing groups. The powers will also be used to target political exiles and human rights activists who criticise dictators around the world.
The definition of terrorism produced by Jack Straw could cover virtually anyone who criticises capitalism. It includes 'the threat to use violence to intimidate or coerce the government, the public or any section of the public for political, religious or ideological ends'. Someone who called for the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s would be branded a 'terrorist' under this measure.
When freedom means chains
HOME SECRETARY Jack Straw's new bill on freedom of information will do nothing to end the secrecy inside government. The Campaign for Freedom of Information says the new bill is 'a recipe for a cover up culture'.
This is because the government's get out clause in the new bill allows it to continue hiding information from ordinary people. Part of the clause covers information 'that would, or would be likely to, prejudice the maintenance of the convention of the collective responsibility of ministers of the crown'.
Many top people will have the power to decide what they believe should be covered up. The list includes cabinet ministers, the London mayor, the speaker of the Commons, the first secretary of the Welsh Assembly and the presiding officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police authority will also have the power to veto any information which is potentially damaging.
Straw's senior adviser has been exposed advising the department of the environment to use the get out clause to stop people being warned about plans to sell their homes for motorways or rail links. That revelation came in a confidential Home Office document leaked to the Guardian.