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- Civil Contingencies Bill: Britain's Patriot Act - revised, and just as dangerous as before
Civil Contingencies Bill: Britain's Patriot Act - revised, and just as dangerous as before
01 January 2004
- some clauses dropped but overall powers remain a great danger to democracy
- government, not head of state, to declare "state of emergency"
- powers to ban protests and travel unchanged
- powers to control or withdraw e-mails and websites services added
On 7 January the government published their response to a highly critical report by the parliamentary Joint Committee on the Civil Contingencies Bill. Douglas Alexander, Cabinet Office Minister, appeared on TV news broadcasts saying that the government had "listened to concerns about civil liberties". Lewis Moonie MP, chair of the Joint Committee, said the changes were: "better than I feared and as much as I'd hoped for". The overall message was that the government had listened to criticisms that the Bill might give governments draconian powers and amended it accordingly (eg: "MPs welcome rethink on anti-terror plans", Guardian, 8.1.03). The government's approach was also praised as a good example of pre-legislative scrutiny.
The draft Civil Contingencies Bill and Explanatory Notes had been published in June 2003 and the Joint Committee reported on 28 November 2003. The proposal would replace the 1920 Emergency Powers Act.
The government's response to the Committee's report and the formal Civil Contingencies Bill came out on 7 January.
The new Bill meets a number of the concerns raised by the parliamentary Committee and civil liberties groups. The scope of the Bill now no longer covers: "the political, administrative or economic stability of the United Kingdom" and the controversial Clause 25 which could have excluded judicial review is gone too. The term "human welfare" applies in both Parts of the Bill, regulations made under an emergency should not be allowed to change criminal procedures and the creation or use of Tribunals is set out.
On the face of it the new Bill was presented, and widely accepted in the media, as having been significantly changed to respond to criticisms that it could be misused by a right-wing/authoritarian government in the future. But was it?
Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:
"The draft Bill would have allowed the imposition of an authoritarian state. The new Bill is only better in that it paves the road to an authoritarian state. The government is really naive if it thinks people will not read the fine print of the new Bill and realise that it has preserved nearly all the powers it originally proposed - albeit in a different form - and added new contentious provisions which were not in the first draft"
The Bill has two Parts, Part 1 covers "local arrangements for civil protection" and Part 2 is an entirely new proposal which would protect the state, government, financial companies in times of crisis/emergency and give exceptional and extensive powers to the government and state.
The Emergency Powers Act 1920 is 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"
This new Bill, like its predecessor, extends power to as to protect the government, state agencies and financial institutions.
The definition of an emergency - Clause 18
The "meaning of "emergency"" (Clause 18) is defined as "an event or situation" which "threatens serious damage" to:
(a) human welfare,
(b) the environment or
(c) the security of the United Kingdom.
Under all three headings this may affect the whole UK, part of it, or a region.
The clause 18 now excludes "the political, administrative or economic stability of the United Kingdom" which was defined in the first draft as covering the "activities of Her Majesty's government", "the performance of public functions" and "the activities of banks and other financial institutions" (however, see below).
Clause 18.2.e, where an event or situation affects "human welfare" has been changed to: