UK: The Civil Contingencies Bill - Britain's "Patriot Act"

- in the "wrong hands" it could undermine or remove democracy
- Royal prerogative and Privy Council to authorise emergency powers
- Scope of new law extended to protect the government, the state and financial institutions

Update 28.11.03: The Joint Committee on the Draft Civil Contingencies Bill (of Commons and Lords) published a report today which has concluded that the proposed Civil Contingencies Bill means: "Our democracy and civil liberties could be in danger"

The Committee's report says:

"We recommend the bill explicitly prohibit regulations which would contravene any inalienable rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights or the Geneva Conventions... In the wrong hands, it could be used to undermine or even remove legislation underpinning the British constitution and infringe human rights."

A key clause says that Regulations can be made to:

"(f) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, assemblies of specified kinds, at specified places or at specified times;
(g) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, travel at specified times;
(h) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, other specified activities;
(i) create an offence of:

(i) failing to comply with a provision of the regulations;
(ii) failing to comply with a direction or order given or made under the regulations;
(iii) obstructing a person in the performance of a function under or by virtue of the regulations"

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"This is Britain's Patriot Act. The powers available to the state would be truly draconian. Cities could be sealed off, travel bans introduced and all telecommunications cut off. Demonstrations could be banned and the news media be made subject to censorship. New offences against the state could be "created" by government decree. At a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism"

1. Report by the Joint Committee on the draft Civil Contingencies Bill published 28.11.03: Full-text (pdf)
2. The draft Bill and Explanatory Note:
Full-text (pdf)
3. Full-text of the Emergency Powers Acts 1920 and 1964 and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986:
Full text
4. The origins of the Emergency Powers Acts (EPAs) in the UK (extract from "The Political Police in Britain" by Tony Bunyan):
Origins of the EPAs

BBC News (28.11.03): "Disaster plans "open to misuse" (link)
Guardian citing PA (28.11.03):
'Anti-terror law threatens democracy'
Statewatch story filed on 20 June 2003

The UK government has published a draft Civil Contingencies Bill together with Explanatory Notes.The Bill would repeal the Emergency Powers Acts of 1920 and 1964 and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986. The proposal is now open to consultation until 11 September and responses should be directed to: Civil Contingencies Bill (Consultation), First Floor, 10 Great George Street, London SW1P 3AE or e-mail:

The first part of the Bill on Civil Protection is one thing but the second part on Emergency Powers brought the following editorial comment from the Guardian newspaper on 20 June that this represents:

"the greatest threat to civil liberty that any parliament is ever likely to consider"

The original 1920 Act was passed at a time of great political and industrial unrest and gave the government draconian powers which can be introduced under the royal prerogative and adopted by "Orders in Council" - that is, by a meeting of any two Privy Counsellors (all cabinet ministers are automatically made Privy Counsellors on appointment). Parliament has to agree new powers adopted but all real power is delegated to government ministers and state officials. The 1964 Act made permanent provisions in wartime Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations 1939 to allow military personnel to replace civilian workers. In 1972 a Civil Contingencies Unit was set up in the Cabinet Office and when an internal crisis arises it operates through the operational centre known as "COBRA" (Cabinet Office Briefing Room).

The scope of the Bill goes well beyond that of the 1920 Act. This Act was concerned solely with:

"the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life"

The new Bill does include the "essentials of life" for the population (Art 17.1.a) but massively extends the scope under Article 17.1 to:

"(c) the political, administrative or economic stability of the United Kingdom or of a Part or region or (d) the security of the United Kingdom or a Part or region"

Article 17.1.c. is defined in Article 17.4 as covering the "activities of Her Majesty's government", "the performance of public functions" and "the activities of banks and other financial institutions".

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"What is extraordinary is that the government in reviewing an 83 year old law still wants to rely on the ancient powers of the monarch. Moreover it intends to change its purpose from a law to provide the essentials of life for the population to one that also covers the protection of the government, the state and financial institutions.

Most people will not be aware that under emergency plans put in place in the late 1970s travel bans can be introduced, food rationed and all telecommunications cut off under the Telephone Preference System - the whole of the civilian population can be cut off from the outside world with no access to phone-calls, e-mails or the internet at a stroke."


1. The draft Bill and Explanatory Note: Full-text (pdf)
2. Full-text of the Emergency Powers Acts 1920 and 1964 and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986:
Full text
3. The origins of the Emergency Powers Acts (EPAs) in the UK (extract from "The Political Police in Britain"):
Origins of the EPAs
4. Further reading: see: a) The Political Police in Britain by Tony Bunyan, 1977; b) Troops in Strikes by Steve Peak; c) Emergency Powers in Peacetime by David Bonner and d) States of Emergency by Keith Jeffery and Peter Hennessy.
5. 3rd edition of "Dealing with Disaster", Cabinet Office is on:
Disaster (link)
Regulatory impact - Part 1 (link)
Regulatory impact - Part 2 (link)
Consultation document (pdf) The consultation period has now ended

9. House of Commons, Defence Select Committee: Report (pdf file)
10. Evidence presented to the Joint Committee on Human Rights:
Evidence (link)
11. Joint Committee on Human Rights, report issued 21 July 2003:
Report (link)

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