UK Civil Contingencies Bill published - Britain's "Patriot Act"

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The government has published the Civil Contingencies Bill. There are a number of changes to the draft Bill presented last year and which was strongly criticised by a number of parliamentary committees. The changes to the Bill include:

a. When defining what is an "emergency" the definition: "presents a serious threat" is replaced by "an event or situation which "threatens serious damage".

b. The category in defining an emergency of "political, adminstrative or economic stability of the UK" (the protection of government and financial institutions) has been dropped. However, the government response to the parliamentary Joint Committee on the Bill says that powers would still exist for Regulations to be made which are designed "to protect or restore the activities of Her Majesty's government".

c. A limitation is placed under "Conditions for making emergency regulations" (clause 20) stating that "existing legislation might be insufficiently effective"

d. Responding to criticism clause 24 sets out that the Council on Tribunals must be consulted before a tribunal is set up under a Regulation.

e. There is still no provision that parliament can vote on the declaration of an emergency - it is simply recalled. The procedure for adopting Regulations remains that of Statutory Instruments - which can, at a Minister's discretion, be approved if there are not sufficient MPs to force a vote (ie: a Regulation can be adopted by a "negative" vote, that is where no vote is successfully demanded). A new clause (26.3) says that if parliament agrees a Regulation "with a specified amendments" this shall be enacted. However, it is not at all clear that under the Statutory Instruments procedure amendments will be permitted - a precedent would have to be created to allow this.

f. The extensive powers to prevent "assemblies" (protests), travel and "other specified activities" (undefined) are unchanged.

g. The contentious clause 25 in the draft draft concerning the Human Rights Act 1998 has been dropped (this would have precluded judicial review).

h. If Regulations are passed which apply to Scotland the Scottish Ministers are to be only "consulted", there is no reference to the Scottish Parliament. The same goes for Northern Ireland. For Wales the Welsh Assembly has to be "consulted" (clause 28)

i. The Schedule on "Responders" (those to act under the Regulations or at the "direction" of government Ministers) now includes a wider definition (Schedule 1, Part 3, 22.1) which extends the definition of telecommunications to cover not just phones but also expressly "the transmission of data" (e-mails, websites etc).

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"The concessions made by the government in no way change the fundamental objections to this Bill. The powers available to the government and state agencies would be truly draconian. Cities could be sealed off, travel bans introduced, all phones cut off, and websites shut down. Demonstrations could be banned and the news media be made subject to censorship. New offences against the state could be "created" by government decree. This is Britain's Patriot Act, at a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism"

Bill published on 7 January 2004: Full-text (pdf)
Explanatory Notes to Bill - part 1 (link) Explanatory Notes to Bill - part 2 (link)

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