Liberties in the aftermath of the atrocities
|The steady erosion of civil liberties in Britain before 11/09/01|
|The Anti-Terror, Crime and Security (ATCS) Act 2001|
|Allowing confidential information to be disclosed to the police|
|Giving the MoD police jurisdiction over the entire UK|
|Retention of communications data for use by the police/security agencies|
|Extending anti-terrorist/criminal justice laws by decree|
|Indefinite Detention of foreign nationals|
|On the time-limits in the ATCS Act|
|Other measures in the pipeline|
|Conclusion: Looking to the Future|
Clearly, preventing this sort of thing occurring is now a priority for the worlds intelligence and security agencies. It is natural for laws to be revised in dealing with this threat. Unfortunately, there is also a danger of the governments involved using the response to the terrorist threat to push through legislation that they want on the books to increase their power, rather than to tackle terrorism. It is my contention that in the British government has done precisely this.
Civil liberties in the UK have been considerably eroded since 1990 under both Tory and Labour administrations. Now, the current governments response to the attacks on the World Trade Centre has been yet another serious attack on civil liberties and a significant accumulation of power by the executive. In the long run, the accumulation of arbitrary power by the state over the individual could prove at least as serious a threat to our way of life as that of the terrorist threat posed by the likes of Al-Qaida, if not a greater one. History shows us what can happen when the state acquires arbitrary power to do as it wantsNazi Germany and Stalinist Russia provide cautionary examples where the state acquired total power to do what it wants.
Some may think that the response to September the 11th requires some civil liberties to be curbed, at least on a temporary basis, whilst we deal with the threat posed by groups such as Al-Qaida. However, whilst this view might have some merit, I shall argue that much of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, the governments main legislative response to September the 11th, goes far beyond any such necessary measures and represents, not a genuine attempt to deal with terrorism, but a dangerous acceleration of a long-running trend whereby the fundamental freedoms and protections from arbitrary state power in Britain are being progressively dismantled.the HMSO website. In a trend stretching back at least until the 1980s, and which has accelerated strongly since the year 2000, the basic protections for the individual against state power have been steadily eroded in Britain, with all of the following occurring prior to September 11th 2001:
Many people will be aware of the most publicised measure of the ATCS Act 2001, namely the indefinite detention of foreign nationals certified by the Home Secretary to be suspected international terrorists.
Were the Act to contain this measure alone, I might not have written this article, though I do find it rather objectionable (Ill return to this later). However the Act contains 129 clauses, and those clauses that implement this measures constitutes only 15 of them. There are many other measures hidden in the Act such as:
Thus, on the basis of the flimsiest of excuses, the police can get access to confidential information and use it for their own purposes, and pass it on to other police forces.
Whilst some of this information may be useful in the fight against terrorism, it is not necessary for it to be made so easily available, or for it to be made available for investigating non-terrorist petty offences. The scope for abusing this power is considerable. If the police wish to get hold of information simply to discredit someone or undermine their position, they can do so now using flimsy pretexts and with no scrutiny.
The ATCS Act (Sections 98 to 101) gives them the power to assist local police forces when requested. It also gives the MOD police the power to arrest people anywhere in the UK, on suspicion of committing any offence in circumstances where they believe their purposes would be frustrated by having to obtain the local police forces permission ,and where they believe lives may be saved, or injuries prevented by doing so. Note that because this is based on what the MoD police officers believe, it therefore gives them considerable leeway to use their powers anywhere in the UK and then think of an excuse to justify it afterwards.
Unlike the normal police forces in the UK, the MoD police are not accountable to the Police Complaints Authority and nor do they answer to the magistrates and councillors of a police authority. The MoD police is accountable only to a Whitehall department. Thus, this clause effectively creates a national paramilitary police force accountable only to the government. Thus, it becomes a direct tool of the government that is not subject to the normal controls of the normal police. The scope for the government to abuse the power thereby acquired is considerable.
Is it necessary for the fight against terrorism? No, because the normal police have all the powers they need (and that the MoD police would have) to arrest suspects and question them, and they have armed response units should they face armed terrorists.
Nor is this measure restricted to fighting terrorism -- the MoD police could be called out to police a march or to deal with any offence.see below).
Again the scope of this is not restricted to terrorism. Moreover terrorists are likely to use communications channels not covered by this, or communicate anonymously using code, or otherwise circumvent this measure. This will leave law abiding citizens with their communications being monitored and trawled by the police, but perhaps thats what the government wants.
Thus, the Home Secretary can make arbitrary changes to any legislation passed prior to, or in the same session as the ATCS Act 2001, if those changes somehow supplement or follow on from the ATCS Act or its purposes. The purposes listed in the preamble to the ATCS Act include extending both terrorist legislation and criminal justice legislation in general. The orders come into effect without prior parliamentary approval (though they can be subsequently annulled). Thus, the Home Secretary has obtained the power to extend our anti-terrorism and criminal justice laws by decree!
This measure is not necessary for fighting terrorism, since Parliament can pass legislation quickly in response to terrorist acts (as shown by the ATCS Act itself) and otherwise has full legislative power. Allowing the executive to pass such laws without prior parliamentary approval is a dangerous increase in executive powerit means that legislation does not get scrutinised or approved by Parliament, thus removing an important check on arbitrary state power.
Nor is this measure restricted to terrorist legislationgeneral criminal justice legislation falls within the remit as well.
Not only does this measure require part of the European Convention on Human Rights to be suspended but it puts any foreign national in the UK at risk of being locked up. Yet a terrorist could relatively easily circumvent this by acquiring a false (or even a geunine) identity as a British citizen so its usefulness against terrorists is questionable -- note that the Sept 11th hi-jackers had well established false identities. Furthermore the definition of terrorism used is that in the Terrorism Act 2000 which covers various forms of protest and does not require anyone to have harmed, threatened to harm or intended to harm anyone. Thus the measure (like others in the ATCS Act that rely on this definition) is not restricted to terrorism.
However it must be remembered that the Prevention of Terrorism Act, originally introduced in 1973, was supposed to be temporary. Successive governments renewed it annually and, eventually, its powers were extended and entrenched in permanent legislation in the form of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Moreover, the government has the power to amend the legislation to remove the limits via section 124, enabling amendment of the legislation, or any other legislation passed prior to or in the same session as the ATCS Act. This could happen without prior parliamentary approval.
Section 122 and 123 provide for review of the Act by a parliamentary committee which can recommend that provisions be repealed and, if the report is not responded to within 6 months, the provisions automatically die. Whilst this does provide some oversight of the legislation, given the amount of control the executive has over parliament, it is unlikely to make much difference. Moreover Section 124 could be used to remove sections 122 and 123 should the Home Secretary so decide!
What will the impact of all this be? The short to medium-term answer seems quite clear to me. There will be increased miscarriages of justice, and an increase in the abuse of state power enabled by the laws concerned.
People will be spied upon, arrested, interrogated, and even imprisoned without good cause, possibly for offences that dont even exist in their own country. Information that people give in confidence to government bodies (e.g. their medical and financial records) will be trawled for even the most petty criminal offences, and some of those with access to it will abuse the privilege, and use the information they gain against those they do not like, or who challenge their power.
People will be blacklisted with the authorities merely for attending certain political protests. The authorities will trawl records of who people phone or email, what websites they access or which files they download, under the slightest pretext. State officials will be able to perform such trawls for their own purposes under minimal pretexts.
Furthermore, the ability of people to hold the authorities to account, whether it be through court cases to assert their rights, through political protests against government policies or decisions, by supporting political groups who engage in campaigning, or even through writing articles/letters in newspapers or on the web, will be undermined by laws restricting freedom of speech, freedom of association, the rights to peaceful protest, and by laws which diminish the role of elected bodies in scrutinising and approving legislation.
In short, individual political freedom will be seriously undermined, and a police state is emerging. In the long term, if the attacks on civil liberties and accumulation of arbitrary power by the executive continue, then we will find ourselves living in a totalitarian police state. I hope this doesnt come pass. However, I fear the legislation the government has put forward as a domestic response to September 11th will push us ever closer to that destination.
© magnacartaplus.org 2002, 11 june
the address for this document is http://www.magnacartaplus.org/http://www.magnacartplus.org/9-11aftermath/index.htm