Posts Tagged ‘government’


Government bills represent a threat to our rights to protest and to hold the government to account

We are becoming accustomed to authoritarian regimes restricting the rights of their citizens by a variety of means. These include restrictions on the right of assembly, weakening judicial control and either ignoring or neutering human rights laws. The UK government has introduced three bills which seek to do similar things and this post is to highlight the dangers for everyone in the country.

Our human rights are our personal freedoms. You can’t see or touch them, but they should always have your back. Think of them as your invisible armour. If you don’t find yourself thinking about your rights much, that’s a good sign that they’re there for you and doing what they should be: making you feel safe, accepted and free to enjoy your life with dignity and without fear. But what if someone quietly took your armour away, bit by bit, and you didn’t realise until it was too late? How would you protect yourself?  

That’s what’s happening right now, right under our noses – and the UK government doesn’t want you to know about it. As we speak, they are trying to introduce new laws and make changes to existing ones that will result in less freedom for ordinary people, more power for people in authority, and even greater inequality in our society. These changes will also make it harder for you to stand up for yourself if your human rights are being abused. And on top of that, in many cases it will be society’s most vulnerable people who are the worst hit by the changes. Our freedoms are under attack from all angles: this is a raid on our rights.  

If you’re still not sure what all this means in practice, you’re not alone. That’s exactly what people in power want, as a lack of public understanding makes it easier for them to sneak through changes that will negatively affect people’s lives without them realising (until it’s too late). We’re here to shout about the changes and make sure as many people as possible are aware of them, as we need your help to fight them.  

 
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill   

The right to protest is fundamental to a free and fair society.  In its current form, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill for England and Wales, would be an enormous and unprecedented extension of policing powers which would put too much power in the hands of the state. It would give both police and Government ministers the powers to ban, limit or impose any condition on peaceful protests – on the grounds that they might be ‘noisy’ or cause ‘annoyance.’  
 
The Bill not only targets the organisers of any protest, but also anyone who takes part in them on the basis that they “ought to have been aware” of any restrictions, conditions or prohibitions placed on any given event, risking criminalising large numbers of people for activities that otherwise would be perfectly lawful.  

Our rights, enshrined in international and domestic law, can only be infringed in very limited circumstances considered to be both proportionate and necessary.  Measures in this Bill are neither. Police already have wide ranging powers to manage public order and prevent public assemblies from causing serious harm. This Bill sets out to crackdown on explicitly nonviolent dissent.  

This will likely disproportionately impact people who are in a minority and increase the racism and discrimination which is experienced by many.  The thresholds in the Bill that will be applied to any policing action are vague, undefined and open to such wide ranging and discretionary interpretation that they will give rise to even more inconsistent approaches to how protests and demonstrations will be managed in future.  

Communities who already face wide ranging racist and discriminatory over policing will likely be at even greater risk. Already, research by the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights shows that 85 % of Black people in the UK are not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the police.  

This is worsened by other parts of the Bill, including greater police powers to enhance stop & search and to collect and share information, all of which are likely to entrench institutional racism within the criminal justice system. These structural inequalities need to be dismantled not re-built.  
 
We are concerned by restrictions on the right to roam which would seriously affect Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who could see their entire way of life criminalised. These proposals risk further criminalising homelessness or protesters using nonviolent occupations, peace camps or sit-ins to challenge injustice.  

This Bill covers a huge number of things, many of which have been heavily criticised by different sectors and requires a serious rethink. In many ways, it is so problematic that it would better be that it was dropped. Any welcome provisions in it could be delivered through different legislation. If the Bill proceeds, we are calling, alongside over 250 civil society organisations and 700 legal academics and counting, for the removal of Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill that relate to protest and the right to roam. We are similarly calling for the removal of measures relating to enhanced stop and search powers and data gathering and sharing requirements, which if enacted would likely increase structural racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. At an absolute minimum, the relevant parts of the Bill (Part 2 Chapter 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 10 Chapter 1) must be substantially amended. 
 
Disappointingly the Bill has passed through the Commons, but this is not the end. In autumn the Lords will now have the opportunity to amend the Bill, before it returns to the Commons. 

This Bill affects England and Wales directly, but people from Scotland and Northern Ireland will travel to London to protest.  As Amnesty activists we are concerned about restrictions to freedom of expression and rights to assembly wherever they happen in Bogota, Bangalore, Belfast or Bristol. 

The Salisbury group will be writing to our MP, Mr John Glen, to express our concerns about this and other proposed pieces of legislation.


Dangerous new bill proposed by the government

The right to protest is fundamental to a free and fair society.  It’s a right we have fought long and hard for.  Without the right to protest, accountability and freedom suffers.

A New Policing Bill

The Government’s new policing Bill gets the balance dangerously wrong.  Such an enormous and unprecedented extension of policing powers will put too much power in the hands of the state, to effectively ban protests – including peaceful ones – should they see fit.

Vigil for Sarah Everard

Worse still, this Bill alongside other efforts by the UK Government to threaten and dilute other fundamental rights and freedoms.  The claims of excessive force used by Metropolitan police against women attending a vigil for Sarah Everard on 13 March, beggars belief, and is a stark and timely warning about precisely why Parliament must not grant police further powers to stop peaceful protest.

Racism and discrimination

As well as preventing peaceful protest, sections of this Bill will most likely disproportionately impact  people who are in the minority and increase the racism and discrimination that is experienced by many of them.  For example, measures to enhance stop & search and restrict the right to roam, precisely at a time when the UK Government should be working to address these issues.

This is not the path to a free and just society.  This is the path to a clampdown on our centuries old rights of freedom of movement, expression and assembly.  This is entirely incompatible with the UK’s self-image as a place of liberty.

We cannot allow this clampdown to happen.  Take action and call on our Prime Minister to put the brakes on the Bill and stop the assault on our freedoms.

Text taken from Amnesty International


The appointment of Suella Braverman as Attorney General raises further fears for our human rights

The Attorney General is an important legal post in the UK and is responsible for advising the Crown and the Government on legal aspects affecting their decisions.  They are not usually present in Cabinet meetings to preserve a degree of independence although the previous incumbent, Geoffrey Cox, did so because there were frequent matters to do with Brexit to discuss.  The appointment matters therefore and their views and opinions on issues such as human rights are important.

The new person in the role is Suella Braverman and she has strong legal credentials having been a barrister for seven years.  Her views on human rights are worrying however and are worth examinining.  In an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled: Britain is so obsessed with human rights it has forgotten about human duties (16 December, 2015) she sets out her thinking.

  • the mission (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has failed.  She instances the lack of equality for women in the Islamic world, political authoritarians in Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela
  • the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay means the United States has lost credibility on civil liberties
  • the plight of millions of people belies the noble ambitions of the Universal Declaration.

She goes on to explain that the one reason for this is that Universal Declaration was never a treaty in the formal sense and never became international law.  Another reason is that the rights are ‘described in imprecise, aspirational terms which allow governments to interpret them in any way they see fit’.

And there are:

hundreds of international human rights – rights to work and education, to freedom of expression and religious worship, to non-discrimination, to privacy, to pretty much anything you might think important in a perfect world.  The sheer volume and array of rights imply an all-embracing protection.  This is impossible, because there will always be trade-offs in which some rights are sacrificed to uphold others.

She marries this with an approving comment about Prof. Eric Posner of Chicago who has written a book called Twilight of Human Rights in which he dismisses the value of these rights.  It is clear that Suella Braverman has taken his ideas on board since they crop up frequently in her writings and posts.  For example, the comment above about the sheer volume of rights is a Posner point as is the fact it was never a treaty.  But the significant and chilling example is the issue of torture.

Torture

Posner explains that a poor country has a choice or trade off.  So if the police are torturing its citizens to obtain confessions, then the state can decide to spend its entire budget in eliminating this practice by retraining and monitoring the police’s behaviour.  Then it would have insufficient funds to improve the medical care of its people.

Braverman puts it thus in an echo of Posner’s argument:

In Brazil, there have been several cases of the use of torture by the police in the name of crime prevention.  They justify this by putting a general right to live free from crime and intimidation above their rights and those who are tortured.  To wipe out torture, the government would need to create a robust, well-paid policing and judicial services to guarantee the same results.  The government might argue that this money is better spent on new schools and medical clinics, protecting wider rights to freedom of education and health.  These sorts of value judgements, inherent in the practical application of human rights (whether we agree with them or not), undermine their universality.

We should be horrified that someone who has been appointed to become our new Attorney General, one of the high legal offices of the land, promotes the view that there is some kind of trade-off as far as the use of torture is concerned.  She has clearly swallowed Prof Posner’s arguments without pausing for one moment to think of the moral issues or the fact that torture is neither efficient nor effective in getting to the truth.

The practice was abolished in Britain in the long parliament of 1640.  Yet here we have a barrister, a member of parliament and now a senior law officer, responsible for advising the government and cabinet, that, under some curious reasoning, it might be justifiable because the money might ‘better spent elsewhere’ rather than eliminating it.

Her other main complaint is about the judges.  She was a keen proponent of Brexit and in Conservative Home she says:

Restoring sovereignty to Parliament after Brexit is one of the greatest prizes that awaits us.  But not just from the EU.  As we start this new chapter of our democratic story, our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts.  For too long, the Diceyan notion of parliamentary supremacy has come under threat.  The political has been captured by the legal.  Decisions of an executive, legislative and democratic nature have been assumed by our courts.  Prorogation and the triggering of Article 50 were merely the latest examples of a chronic and steady encroachment by the judges.  Conservative Home 27 January 2020  [Dicey was a Whig jurist and wrote an important book on the British constitution]

Clearly, she and others in government are still smarting from the decision of the Supreme Court not to allow Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament.  In August, Prime Minister advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament from the end of 9 September until 14 October.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that this advice, (and the prorogation that followed), was unlawful and of no effect because it had the ‘effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the power of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions’.  Gina Miller has also left her mark.

A review of her comments and articles paints a worrying picture of someone who does not truly value human rights. They Work for You concludes that she consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights.  She voted against largely retaining the EU Charter on Fundamental Human Rights for example and for more restrictive regulation of Trade Union activity.

UPDATE:

This blog was written before Nick Cohen wrote about Braverman in the Observer.  It seems her career and claims of experience have been markedly exaggerated.  

 


Government plans ‘seriously concerning’

Plans by the Conservative Government to modify the Ministerial Code are ‘seriously concerning’ according to Rights Watch.

The ministerial code issued in 2010 says;

Overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life

The plan is to omit from the new code including international law and treaty obligations.  Phillippe Sands QC, a professor of law at University College London described the changes as ‘shocking’.  The government claim that this is merely a matter of simplification.

Why it matters

It matters because of the promise by the Conservatives in their text blockmanifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with the British Bill of Rights a draft of which has yet to see the light of day.  Removing the international law will reduce the respect for judgements by international courts such as the European Court in Strasbourg.

Another aspect is that going to war and the use of things like drones are covered by international treaty and the UN Charter and not by UK laws.  Removing the international element therefore leaves ministers free to use this kind of weaponry unfettered.

In 2014, the government – then in coalition – wanted to remove what was termed an ‘ambiguity’ in the rules.  This has now been changed to simplification.

An observer of these events was Paul Jenkins who was a Treasury solicitor and he witnessed the intense irritation felt by the Prime Minister over our need to comply with foreign legal obligations.  This was largely in connection with the arguments over prisoner voting but the prolonged tussle over Abu Qatada was also likely to have been an irritant as well.

In a letter to the Guardian, the former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Frank Berman QC said ‘it was impossible not to feel a sense of disbelief at what must have been the deliberate suppression of the reference to international law.’

What is troubling about these changes is that they have to be seen in context.  We have restrictions on Freedom of Information; reductions in the ability of people to receive legal aid; court charges; and the threat to the Human Rights Act.  We will soon have the ‘snooper’s charter’ which will enable the security services to eavesdrop communications however they wish.

All these changes add up to an assault on the ability of individuals to hold the executive to account.  Ministers were quick to celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta when it suited them but now seem keen to reduce freedoms wherever they can.

Sources: The Guardian; Rights Watch; the BBC; Financial Times; Daily Mail

UPDATE

Further responses and condemnation of this change in the code

British Institute of Human Rights warning


Teresa May, Home Secretary

Teresa May, Home Secretary

The government announced its fifth attempt to introduce the snooper’s charter in the Queen’s Speech a few weeks ago.  Called the Investigatory Powers Bill, it looks to be more wide ranging than was previously expected.  Most people seem to be quite relaxed about this.  There few signs of a grass roots campaign taking place and there do not seem to many letters to national papers on the subject.

In conversation people will say things like ‘if they want to listen in to me chatting to a friend they are welcome’ and ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular refrain or they accept that it is a price we have to pay for increased surveillance of terrorist threats.  Some do not believe it possible with the millions, nay billions of emails; phone calls; Skype sessions; tweets and so forth, that it would ever be possible for the security services to do this, perhaps not understanding that it is metadata they are after.

There are few who would disagree with the need for our security services to look out for possible terrorist threats or indeed other major crime activities such as people or drug smuggling.  The justification by ministers for the need for increased surveillance has been based on the fear of terrorist activity especially after the terrible outrage on 7/7 almost 10 years ago.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of trust.  We cannot know much of what the security services do for fairly obvious reasons and this means the notion of transparency does not have much relevance.  We want to trust however that the intelligence services do the right thing to protect us.  We want to trust them to be concerned with terrorists and serious crime.  We would like to be reassured that someone is in overall control who is able to ask the relevant questions.  It is here that there is a problem: namely if you ask people ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a dusty answer.  The sweeping powers demanded by ministers and in turn the intelligence agencies, gives them considerably increased powers to pry into our lives.  The powers are sweeping in nature and in effect treat everyone as a suspect.

The report by David Anderson QC published this month is entitled ‘A Question of Trust’ tackles this issue head on.  There have been a succession of scandals over the years which mean trust in politicians and those at the top of our society is extremely low.  The Leveson enquiry revealed an unholy alliance between senior Metropolitan Police officers and sections of the media.  Anderson proposes that oversight shall not be by politicians but by senior judges.  Many would agree with this.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.  UN Declaration of Human Rights

The whole issue of trust emerged on 15 June with the results of the investigatory powers tribunal into

GCHQ

GCHQ

GCHQ.  It emerged that this agency has been covertly monitoring two human rights organisations, one in South Africa and one in Egypt.  The case was brought by Privacy International, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Liberty.  It made ‘no determination’ on whether GCHQ intercepted these latter organisations illegally.  It is left open therefore whether they (we) are being monitored and their messages being intercepted.

So while ministers talk of terrorist threats to gain support for ever widening intrusion, their agencies intercept and monitor journalists, whistleblowers, human rights groups and defence lawyers in what has been termed a ‘scandalous misuse of terrorism legislation’*.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee has observed that ‘the UK has lost the high moral ground and is doing things even the NSA weren’t’.  We need to be extremely concerned at the government’s proposals.

Sources:

Liberty; Amnesty International; The Spectator*; The Guardian