Islamic Human Rights Commission
20th January 2004
The Civil Contingencies Bill
The events of September 11, 2001 allowed many western governments to push through legislation that was apparently aimed at combating the threat of terrorism. The UK government, being no exception, declared a state of emergency and passed the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. It allowed the government to indefinitely detain suspects without trial. It did so amidst serious concerns of the curtailment of civil liberties. However, in the climate of fear and insecurity, generated by the New York tragedies and fuelled by media frenzy, many came to regard it as a necessary sacrifice.
Despite the enormous powers available under the 2001 Act, in 2003, the Government introduced an even more draconian piece of proposed legislation in the form of the Civil Contingencies Bill. Again, the Government relied upon the same justifications of combating terrorism.
The Bill proposes to widen the definition of emergency and to increase the scope of powers available in such situations. It would allow ministers, for the first time, to declare regional as well as national emergencies, and then seek parliamentary approval with 30 days of the decision. Its reach however extends far beyond terrorism and gives Government ministers unprecedented powers which were not deemed necessary even during the turbulent times of the Second World War II, the Cold War, or the decades of Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
What are the main features of the Bill?
Despite considerable improvements to the Bill to protect civil liberties, following consultation with some civil liberties organizations, the Bill still retains terrifying proposals.
Aside from the immense widening of the scope for application of ‘anti-terror’ legislation, it gives present and future government ministers the power to exercise wide powers in situations of ‘national emergencies’. For example, the new powers could be exercised during natural or manmade disasters such as train crashes, flooding, epidemics, internet attacks. So past events such as the protest against petrol costs and the foot-and-mouth crisis could trigger these new powers.
The Bill allows ministers to order any sort of action by police, military or civil service. It gives them the power to order confiscation and destruction of private property without compensation; power to evacuate areas, impose no-go zones; and to ban peaceful protest. Moreover, ministers will have the power to suspend all primary legislation and to create criminal offences for failure to comply with the powers.
The draconian powers available under the proposed Bill will mean that Government ministers will effectively be able to crack down on any kind of civil disobedience they consider to be disruptive, they will effectively be able to seal off cities, impose travel bans, censor news media, and have all telecommunications cut off.
When would these powers be used?
The grounds when these powers can be invoked remains alarmingly unclear and subjective. Unlike the definition of a state of emergency, as contained in Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the definition of emergency in the Bill is not one which threatens the life of the nation. Instead it is much wider and describes an emergency as “an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the United Kingdom or a place in the United Kingdom.” Previous references to the threats to “political, administrative or economic stability” have not been included, as a result of consultation with various organizations. However serious problems still remain.
Problems with the definition of ‘Emergency’
The definition is problematic for several reasons. The Bill does not require the event or situation to be serious nor does it define what serious is. The test is of a subjective nature, to be decided by a minister, thus providing him with excessive powers to decide when to exercise such powers and to what extent.
Although there are limits on the situations in which he can invoke the use of such powers i.e. when he considers sufficient laws to exist to deal with the situation, again, it is the subjective opinion of the minister that draws the limit on its use.
Moreover, Parliamentary scrutiny of these measures would not be for a few days of the making of the regulations, by which time it may be too late to prevent their impact.
The serious effect of emergency legislation on civil liberties, and the likelihood of abuse of powers, is apparent from the arrests and detentions under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. It has resulted in many being held in high security prisons, without charge, and with many other basic rights being denied.
The Civil Contingencies Bill is similar to the US Patriot Act 2001 that was rushed through by the Bush administration. Few believed that it would undermine the freedoms and rights of innocent citizens and that it would only be used to combat terrorist threats. However, since the introduction of the legislation, it has routinely been used in criminal issues that have nothing to do with terrorism.
The Patriot Act has given the US government the power to invade people’s privacy, imprison without due process, punish political opposition and seize or destroy people’s property and assets. This is an alarming precedent that the UK seems set to follow on the road to an increasingly authoritarian state.
Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
Telephone (+44) 20 8904 4222
Fax (+44) 20 8904 5183