Socialist Worker

Terror laws attack all our rights

New Labour is using fear of terrorism to pile up more repressive laws.

Issue No. 1880

'OUR DEMOCRACY and civil liberties could be in danger.' That verdict on New Labour's proposed Civil Contingencies Bill is not from some left wing group or human rights organisation.

It came last week from a committee of MPs chaired by New Labour's former defence minister Lewis Moonie.

The government outlined plans for new emergency powers laws in last week's Queen's Speech, and has published a draft bill.

Lewis Moonie warns that the bill 'could be used to undermine or remove legislation underpinning the British constitution and infringe human rights'.

The Guardian agreed, warning that the proposed bill is 'the greatest threat to civil liberty that any parliament is likely to consider'.

It is a far cry from the hope and promise when Labour was elected back in 1997.

Then there was talk of ending the near two decade long assault on democratic rights and civil liberties under Tory governments.

But the New Labour government has turned towards authoritarianism in every field, and sought ever greater curbs on liberty.

The government claims new laws are needed to meet the threat of terrorism, for which existing powers are not adequate.

In fact the government and police already have enormous powers.

And every previous emergency powers law has been used primarily against workers, trade unionists and those who protest against government policy.

The new bill gives the government wide-ranging powers to declare a state of emergency and to suspend all normal democratic rights.

It allows the government to bypass even normal parliamentary scrutiny and simply declare such an emergency.

It can set up Local Resilience Forums, based on police force areas, under no democratic control at all.

These would have the power to 'require' people to follow instructions or supply information in the event of a 'civil emergency'.

These orders can include a ban on any assembly, including peaceful ones.

Anyone defying such orders is guilty of a criminal offence. They can be jailed for up to three months by special tribunals set up under the state of emergency. The definition of a state of emergency is horrifyingly wide.

It is 'any event or situation [which] presents a threat to political, administrative or economic stability'.

And this is anything which 'causes or may cause disruption to: (a) the activities of Her Majesty's Government; (b) the performance of public functions; (c) the activities of banks or other financial institutions.'

As Shami Chakrabati, director of the Liberty civil liberties organisation says, 'It is quite possible this measure could be used to suppress or curb any demonstration or protest.'

Innocent rounded up and imprisoned

HOME SECRETARY David Blunkett appointed himself judge and jury in the case of the man arrested last week in Gloucester under anti-terrorism laws.

Blunkett commented that the man was 'a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country'.

Most of the media piled in, publishing full details of the man arrested.

But Blunkett's remarks have led to an investigation into whether they are a contempt of court by the New Labour appointed Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.

The chairman of the lawyers' Bar Council, Matthias Kelly, warned that Blunkett's comments could mean 'a fair trial is not possible'.

The police operation in Gloucester has outraged many local people. It has created a feeling among local Muslims of being under siege.

This was expressed at an angry meeting in Gloucester on Monday evening.

The police also arrested a man in Manchester and another in Birmingham under anti-terrorism laws on the same day.

There has been little publicity about the fact that police have since released both men without any charges at all.

When the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced it was supposedly aimed at combating an IRA bombing campaign.

It was used to persecute anyone of Irish origin.

In the first three months three people were charged under the act. Two then had all charges against them dropped.

Some 489 people were arrested and detained at police stations under the act during this time. Only 16 were ever charged with any offence at all.

New Labour's Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, which built on their Terrorism Act of 2000, was a supposed response to the 11 September attacks in New York.

The 2001 law gives the government powers to lock away anyone with a non-British passport indefinitely without trial.

At least 300 people have been arrested in Britain since this law came into force.

Only three of them have ever been convicted of any offence-not for terrorism, but membership of a banned organisation.

Nine Algerian men were arrested in December 2002 amid claims that they were planning a terrorist attack in Britain with the ricin poison.

Blair declared, 'What these arrests and the finding [of ricin] show is the need for us to be vigilant.'

No ricin was ever found. All the men were later quietly released. All criminal charges were eventually dropped.

One of those arrested, Hocine Ouldzauche, explained, 'The police told me that I was top of a British intelligence list of terror suspects. I'm a Muslim and I totally oppose terrorism. It was racism and discrimination aimed at Muslims to back the war in Iraq. I was pulled because I was Algerian.'

At least 16 people are being held without charge, some for two years, in high security British jails under anti-terror laws, according to Liberty.

No one knows how many more are being held as lawyers have been refused that information on the grounds of 'national security'.

Justice was hijacked

ALGERIAN PILOT Lotfi Raissi was accused of training the 11 September hijackers, and was arrested under the new terrorism laws in Britain.

He was entirely innocent, and eventually all charges were dropped. He had spent five months in jail.

The 'evidence' against him was that he had not told the whole truth about an old injury when applying for a pilot's licence.

That, and his name and origin, were enough to land him in jail under laws supposedly aimed at terrorism.

Fact file

Powers used to hit strikes

THE PROPOSED new bill is an extension of existing powers, enshrined in the 1920 Emergency Powers Act and the 1948 Civil Defence Act, and amendments to these.

During the First World War the government imposed a Defence of the Realm Act, giving it huge powers to effectively ban strikes and throw people in jail.

It wanted to keep these powers after the war. So in 1920 it rushed through an Emergency Powers Act.

That allowed it to 'assume such powers and duties as Her Majesty may deem necessary' to 'restore order and maintain supplies' or 'for any other purposes'. But New Labour doesn't think this catch-all is draconian enough!

The Emergency Powers Act has only ever been used against trade unions and striking workers.

1920: Mine owners announced wage cuts and locked out miners to force through those cuts. When several unions threatened a strike in support of the miners, the Liberal prime minister Lloyd George invoked the emergency powers legislation. He declared a state of emergency and sent troops to working class areas.

1926: During the General Strike the state of emergency remained in force for eight months even though the strike itself lasted just nine days.

1948-9: A Labour government invoked emergency powers against striking dockers.

1955: A Tory government again invoked emergency powers, against striking rail workers.

1966: Labour prime minister Harold Wilson used the Emergency Powers Act against the seafarers' strike. At the heart of that strike was a young shop steward from Hull, John Prescott. He is now deputy prime minister in a government pushing for even more repressive powers.

1970s: Heath's Tory government used the laws against strikers. But the tide of resistance swept them from office.

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Article information

Sat 6 Dec 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1880
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