27 February 2006

PM defends his record on civil liberties and so do I.

The Inquiries Act 2005 is (according to Liberty Central) a draconian piece of legislation that erodes our civil liberties. It threatens the independence of inquiries and leaves the power to have them solely at the discretion of the government.

It was supported by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party in it's passage through parliament.

Where was the opposition on grounds of civil liberties? Where also, was the vocal opposition to the Civil Contingencies Act (that gives emergency powers at short notice) and the new bill before parliament, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (that bypasses parliament for legislating offences with penalties less than 2 years)?

So the first thing to acknowledge is that, if new Labour are authoritarian, so too are the opposition parties.

Voting against Labour because of their civil liberties record, would be like voting for the Tories (who support the Iraq War even more) to register disapproval of the War.

But then you have to ask; why were the opposition in support of the government on these bills?

There are three possible answers, which of these the opposition parties are, I leave up to you to judge;

1. They don't actually think the laws are authoritarian, because they think they protect the liberties of the majority from terrorism.
Or, 2. They think they are authoritarian, but are necessary in the new age of terrorism.
Or, 3. They don't care whether they are authoritarian or not and therefore couldn't be bothered to oppose the bills.

The PM's position is;

"If the nature of the threat changes, so should our policies. That is not destroying our liberties, but protecting them."

and he also outlines where he has devolved power;

"This government has introduced the Human Rights Act, so that, for the first time, a citizen can challenge the power of the state solely on the basis of an infringement of human rights, and the Freedom of Information Act, the most open thing any British government has done since the Reform Acts of the 1830s. We have devolved more power than any government since the 1707 Act of Union introduced transparency into political funding and restricted the Prime Minister's right to nominate to the House of Lords. In other words, I have given away more prime ministerial power than any predecessor for more than 100 years."

One of the main arguments used against this government by the obsessive absolutist libertarians who run Liberty Central, is that, it is not that this government is necessarily going to abuse these new powers, but that some future government might. The major flaw in this argument is of course that, if such a government did get power, the last thing we would have to worry about would be what was currently on the statute book, but what they would add to it. This highlights the true problem with our present system, that we need a written constitution to make it harder to erode civil liberties and we need an electoral system that doesn't allow a party to win absolute power on just 19% of the eligible electorate's support.

The biggest disappointment I have with this government (and there are plenty), is that they didn't honour their pledge on a referendum for electoral reform of the Westminster elections. But saying that, there has been progress, both constitutionally and in addressing poverty and public service underfunding. This is progress that the only realistic opposition - the Tories, never would have provided.

Under first past the post, I have a choice of two and a half parties, and realistically two possible governments, Labour or Tory. Under that system, if you want a more egalitarian society with our liberties protected, there is only one choice, a Labour government. Voting Lib Dem in most seats only helps elect a reactionary Tory and as a consequence a Tory government. Hoping for a coalition government under first past the post, is like playing russian roulette with the country's future.

Under proportional representation, we are all free to vote for the party closest to the policies we truly want and know that our vote will elect representatives of those parties. Until that time we have to vote Labour and campaign for change of the Labour party both from within and through outside pressure groups. If Liberty Central is a pressure group that just campaigns for civil liberties they need to make crystal clear that they see fault in ALL the main parties and not just Labour. If they do that, I wish them luck. However, first impressions are that the impact of their campaign will be little more than anti-Labour propaganda, and that won't help our civil liberties one bit.

7 comments:

  1. I have given away more prime ministerial power than any predecessor for more than 100 years.

    Yeah and he probably believes in Father Christmas as well.

    Tony Blair has shown more distain for Parliament and the Constitution than any other Prime Minister ever.

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  2. William Norton27/2/06 1:13 pm

    Your line on the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill seems to be "the innocent have nothing to fear". I've heard that one before.

    Some questions for you:

    If the Bill is just a simplifying measure for deregulation, why does it contain no requirement for any orders to actually reduce the amounts of red tape and regulation?

    Why does the Bill give the power to create new law, including new criminal offences, to the Law Commissions, which are unelected quangos appointed by Ministers?

    If the Law Commissions are supposed to be staffed by impartial technical experts, why are Ministers taking the power to amend the recommendations of the Law Commissions before they are fast-tracked into legislation?

    Why do protections in the Bill against new laws to permit forcible entry, search, seizure or compelling people to give evidence not apply to reforms recommended by the unelected Law Commissions appointed by Ministers?

    If the Bill allows Ministers to “amend, repeal or replace legislation in any way that an Act might”, does this not give them an unlimited power to ignore a democratic Parliament and legislate by decree?

    If the Bill is so sensible, why has Parliament used a different way of making laws for 700 years?

    If the Bill is meant to retain Parliament’s ability to scrutinise regulations and regulators, why does it not contain a provision for automatic sunset clauses in orders issued under the Bill?

    If the Bill gives Ministers powers to charge fees by decree, is that not a charter to bring in unlimited stealth taxes?

    As the Bill permits an order to be made by a Minister under the Bill provided its effect is “proportionate” to his “policy objective”, since when in our history as a democratic country has a Government Minister’s “policy objective” directly received the force of law?

    What guarantees are there that the Bill could not be used to bring in ID Cards by the back door?

    Why does the Bill give the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly a veto over Ministers’ power to change the law which it denies to English MPs?

    Why does the Bill change the current procedures for the enactment into our law of EU legislation?

    What guarantees are there that the Bill could not be used to bring in the EU Constitution by the back door?

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  3. The first point you make, that the Inquiries act was not authoritarian because it was supported by the other parties, misses the point. That is, in fact, exactly why we need stuff like Liberty Central.

    All three main parties (two and a half if you prefer) did vote to allow the executive to have sole control over inquiries into their own behaviour.

    In the case of real corruption, scandal, or incompetance, governments are now able to resist holding potentially embarrassing inquiries, for rational reasons of self interest, even when th evidence would lead an independent body to conclude that one was necessary.

    This act, in short, makes it more difficult to hold the executive to account.

    An independent ability to investigate allegations against the executive is essential for healthy democracy. Liberty Central will, I suspect, attempt to make this point to all MPs.

    As for your major flaw, it again misses the point. The executive can be one man with a small group of supporters. The House of Commons, on the other hand, is 646 people. If the executive can act in a way that is unconstrained by parliament, it is much easier for the small group of people who make up the executive, including a future one, to abuse that power or introduce draconian laws.

    If someone seriously troubling was elected, a key safeguard is that many MPs from all sides could oppose him or her and that authoritarian measures could thus be defeated. It is one of the fundamental protections of a democratic system. Checks and balances. Blair, often with Tory and sometimes with Lib Dem cooperation, has dismantled many of these checks and balances. Furthermore, he has already introduced legislation which a future despot could use straight away. The terrorism laws are so broad that legitimate protest could be (sometimes is) stiffled.

    On a more positive note, I agree with you about electoral reform.

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  4. William, if the Labour Party did any of these things they would lose the next election.

    I agree lets campaign for more civil liberties, the POWER commission has got Gordon Brown's interest. Lets hope he listens. David Cameron completely ignored it. There is still no option but to vote Labour. Government authoritarinism started with Thatcher. Labour is still our best hope of winning back power to the people.

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  5. William Norton28/2/06 4:00 pm

    Saying 'if any Govmt did any of these they would be voted out' misses the point - these are all questions raised by what the Bill actually says. Go and read it (not the press release).

    I'm not surprised Cameron ignored the Power Commission. Having read it's main recommendations, this is just the usual Rowntree-funded guff. These are the nutters who thought that regional government was a brilliant wheeze (rejected by 78% to 22% in the only electoral test it has ever received).

    (1)A responsive electoral system for the House of Commons, House of Lords and local councils to replace the first-past-the-post system.
    English translation: Pro-PR propaganda to rig the system.

    (2)The closed party list system to be replaced.
    It was the people who pushed PR who landed us with that daft idea in the first place. This is more pro-STV PR propaganda.

    (3)The Electoral Commission to encourage women, ethnic minorities, people on lower incomes, young people and independents to stand.
    More tick-box governance and form-filling. The Electoral Commission is a waste of space and should be abolished.

    (4)The voting and candidacy age should be reduced to 16.
    A cretinous idea.

    (5)Automatic voter registration at age 16 to be introduced.
    Ditto. Would boost voting fraud possibilities.

    (6)Donations from individuals and organisations to parties to be capped.
    I mean, we can't have people spending their own money the way they want to, can we? What about limits on political campaigning by pressure groups?

    (7)State funding for local activity by political parties.
    Beats working for a living by persuading people to actually give you their own money.

    (8)Text voting or e-mail voting only after other reforms.
    Even ODPM concede this is a fantastically uneconomic idea.

    (9)70 per cent of the House of Lords should be elected by a 'responsive electoral system' for three parliamentary terms.
    English translation: let's rig the Lords via PR and we don't have to worry about losing control of the Commons.

    (10)Select committees should get enhanced powers.
    Not a bad idea - how did that get through?

    (11)Limits on power of the whips.
    What powers are those? Can they arrest anyone? Put backbenchers to death? The whips run things because there are enough backbenchers open to persuasion. This probably means - a licence for grandstanding has-been backbenchers.

    (12)Parliament should be able to initiate legislation, launch inquiries and act on petitions.
    Actually, it already can, it's just that the ability to do so has been strangled by the refusal of backbenchers to stand up to the whips, and a cynical use of standing orders. Change the standing orders.

    (13)A decentralisation of powers.
    I was wondering when our old friend regional government was going to make an appearance. I don't think they mean privatisation/abolition, do you?

    (14)Local government should be able to raise taxes and administer its own finances.
    Sounds a good idea, but only credible in a system where central taxation is reduced and the state does less. So, this probably means in English: let's have a local income tax and a return to loony-left councils.

    (15)Meetings of ministers with business, including lobbyists, to be listed every month.
    More tick-box governance.

    (16)All public bodies to involve the public in their policy- making processes.
    A charter for pressure-group politics and a licence for know-it-all busy-bodies.

    (17)Citizens to initiate legislative processes, public inquiries and hearings into public bodies.
    A charter for pressure-group politics and a licence for know-it-all busy-bodies.

    (18)Rules on plurality of media ownership to be reformed.
    I mean, we'll never sort out the country's problems until we've smashed Murdoch, will we?

    (19)Public service broadcasters to involve viewers in matters of public importance.
    A charter for pressure-group politics and a licence for know-it-all busy-bodies.

    (20)MPs to be required and resourced to produce annual reports and hold AGMs.
    More tick-box governance.

    (21)A new independent National Statistical and Information Service to provide information free of political spin.
    My God - another sensible idea!

    So, out of 21 recommendations, only about two-and-a-half are really any good, and 2 of them really require a 'cultural change' among political parties rather than anything structural. The rest are duff. You wouldn't hire a stockbroker on that basis. I'm not surprised Gordon Brown likes them.

    People will start voting when they have something worth voting for (or against).

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  6. William: There are actually 30 recommendations.

    People didn't reject regional government, as you well know! People rejected the crappy version of regional government (with limited powers) that was put forward, that is a totally different thing.

    You right wingers are such liars.

    You say you want devolution of power, but oppose it as a 'charter for busy-bodys'.

    I don't believe a word you say about democracy.

    How can you oppose decentralisation of power and resources to individuals and local communities?

    You don't care about democracy or liberty at all, you are just using it as a convenient stick to hit this government with. Just like David Cameron and the right-wing press, you are shit scared of real democracy.

    Democracy to you just means tax cuts and public service cuts and an inevitable rise in the number of poor and destitute. But you don't care about what happens to them, as long as you've got your second home and yacht.

    Instead of just criticising everything, lets hear some of your proposals for once?

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  7. Actually the people of the North West rejected an elected regional assembly; none of us have had the opportunity to express their opinion on the regional quangos which are already in place. But the rejection of the elected assembly is still the only real test of the public’s views on the regionalisation process, and dress it which way you want it was a thumbs down.

    Your point about the other parties also being authoritarian, is reasonable, which is why the idea behind Liberty Central is to be non political party based. It is not a movement against Blair or Nu-Labour but against authoritarian policies, it would be no benefit to elect another authoritarian Labour government or to replace them with a similarly authoritarian Conservative government. However this does not mean that we are therefore forced to accept a Nu-Labour authoritarian government, if the other parties want our vote they must offer a different policy and a rejection of authoritarianism, if the Labour party want our vote they must do the same.

    Blair’s quote about protecting liberties is mixing up the control of the power of the executive, with basic liberties of the citizen v the state. Any government that can do anything it wants is a danger to civil liberties. The problem is that Blair believes he has the right to remove the due process of law from the equation.

    I would disagree with your comment about the possible abuse these new powers by a future government. You have made the point that Nu- Labour is building on the authoritarianism started by Thatcher, if this is the case then you conflict with your own argument.

    I commend the sentiments expressed in your final paragraph “If Liberty Central is a pressure group that just campaigns for civil liberties they need to make crystal clear that they see fault in ALL the main parties and not just Labour.” Etc.

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