A kicking for us all
By Kevin Ovenden
GUILTY UNTIL proven innocent. That reversal of the official description of the workings of the law has always been the reality for many working class people. Now home secretary Jack Straw wants to change the law to give police the power to take away someone's liberty even if they have not been found guilty of any crime at all.
His proposals to deal with football violence, published on Friday of last week, give the police astonishing powers. They allow the police to confiscate the passports of people who have not been convicted of any offence but who they "suspect" of travelling abroad to cause trouble at football matches. Those targetted include those who make "V" signs or have "threatening tattoos".
Straw wants to rush the bill through parliament in the next three weeks. If passed, it will allow the courts to impose ten-year bans on travelling to football matches at home or abroad on those who may have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. The government says the new law is in response to rioting by England fans during the recent Euro 2000 tournament.
That violence was sickening. Some England fans acted out the jingoism and racism of papers such as the Sun. They attacked German fans and anyone of Turkish or North African origin. Straw condemned the violence. But he and New Labour have played their own part in encouraging the kind of nationalist ideas which lead to a minority of people thinking that it is alright to beat up foreigners.
Now Straw is threatening a major attack on civil liberties under the guise of clamping down on those who take his nationalism to an extreme. The police in Belgium and Holland arrested 965 England fans during Euro 2000. Many of the arrests were simply about rounding up large numbers of people to keep them away from opposing fans.
The Belgian police said at least some of the England fans they arrested were not part of the violence. But under Straw's law all of those 965 people could be banned from leaving Britain in the future. Preventing foreign travel and taking passports away were disgusting aspects of the totalitarian states in Eastern Europe and Russia before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During the 1950s the US government refused actor and singer Paul Robeson permission to leave the country, as well as stopping comedian Charlie Chaplin from entering. New Labour says no one except hardened football thugs has reason to fear that they will be banned from travelling to other countries. Who can guarantee that the police powers will not be extended to include wider groups?
Will people travelling abroad to anti-capitalist demos be next on Straw's list? The 1936 Public Order Act which people are arrested under at left wing demonstrations was brought in supposedly to deal with the threat of fascist violence. The recent laws against stalking have been used against environmental campaigners and pickets. Straw's law will also encourage employers to discipline or sack workers on flimsy evidence of alleged hooliganism-as Royal Mail did in London last week (see page 14). New Labour is widening police powers in other areas as well. It is pushing a new law on "terrorism" through parliament.
It stretches the definition of terrorism to include "the use or threat... of action which involves serious violence against any person or property" for the purpose of advancing a "political, religious or ideological cause". That could mean people like campaigners against GM crops being labelled terrorists.
The terrorism bill increases the length of time people can be held without access to a lawyer to two days and allows children to be held without charge for seven days. It also puts the onus on defendants to prove their innocence, rather than the state proving their guilt, in several key areas. Every time the government tramples on civil liberties, it says that there are pressing circumstances and that its measures apply only to tiny numbers of people.
But add up each of these new laws and a picture emerges of more and more power in the hands of the police and courts, which both show their utter contempt for ordinary people daily.