Lord Sumption has said some silly things lately, a reminder that even experts – once they move beyond their expertise – can be as daft as the rest of us. Still, on the issue of the government’s use of powers to bypass or limit scrutiny to the absolute minimum he is absolutely correct.
- 5 hours to debate the Act implementing the UK-EU Trade Agreement, an Act containing a number of Henry VIII powers allowing the government to change the law without any recourse to Parliament. Swiftly followed by the closure of the Brexit Select Committee so that the effects of this Act and the Agreement could no longer be considered in any detail.
- The Coronavirus Act: as set out here a wholly unnecessary law since everything that has been done under it could have been done under the Civil Contingencies Act, brought in specifically to deal with emergencies such as a pandemic. Its only value is to limit Parliamentary scrutiny of the government.
- The way regulations imposing some of the most far-reaching curbs on freedom (criminal offences, mind) outside wartime have been published, often barely minutes before coming into force. They have often been unclear, inconsistent and incomprehensible, certainly to the public and, more worryingly, to the police tasked with their enforcement. The fact that the CPS has had to withdraw so many of the proposed prosecutions because they were based on a complete misunderstanding of the law is testimony to that. What might have been understandable in the early days of the pandemic has continued throughout the year.
- The refusal of the government to comply even with after the fact Freedom of Information requests for how it has spent taxpayers’ money. Its latest example: the cost of informing the public of who Dido Harding has met while on official business, estimated at £600, is too great a sum and effort. No such concerns for taxpayers’ money bothered Matt Hancock who spent ca. £200k defending a case his own lawyers told him he’d lose. Meanwhile the £37 billion spent on Test and Trace, according to Nick McPherson “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time” need not concern us.
- The government’s determination to limit access to the courts for those seeking to challenge government decisions. This is despite the fact that the number of judicial review claims has been falling and the government wins the vast majority of them.
Now we have its latest proposal: severely curbing the right to protest in the latest Police Bill. Section 59 is really quite grim.
- It gives the police powers to stop any protest, even by one person, if serious inconvenience or alarm or distress or annoyance “may” be caused to anyone in the vicinity. Or disruption to any organisation nearby.
- The threshold is very low, much lower than in the current 1986 Public Order Act.
- It applies to passers-by. If the noise could have “a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession”, the police can impose restrictions.
- People can be prosecuted if they “ought to have known” of the restrictions, unlike now where they must “knowingly” breach the restrictions.
- The proposed sentence is harsh: a maximum of 10 years.
- Finally, the Home Secretary is giving herself the power to change the meaning of the phrase “serious disruption” in the 1986 Public Order Act by means of a statutory instrument. This is a grotesque abuse of SI’s, which are used to implement a piece of legislation. Not to allow a politician to change the fundamental meaning of a different Act of Parliament without any effective Parliamentary scrutiny.
The use of that word “impact” is lethal to protest because making an impact is precisely its point. Protestors are there to make themselves heard, to disrupt and inconvenience so that people – MPs, passers-by, people in nearby offices – are forced to listen and ask “What is going on? Why?“
The demonstrations by Jews against Labour anti-semitism could have been stopped by such legislation. Or Extinction Rebellion. Or BLM. Or women worried about their daughters’ safety. Or people protesting against a war. Or against hunting with dogs. Or for the countryside.
It does not matter whether or not you support these causes. The government is effectively saying that being silent and making no impact is the precondition for being able to protest. It is asking us to trust the police and limiting our ability to challenge them. It is absurd and dangerous for our freedoms and our democracy.
There is a pattern here: it is of a government which has, since it was formed in July 2019, sought at all stages to avoid scrutiny and challenge, whether by Parliament, the courts or the public. It has taken back control – to itself. It refuses to understand that challenge and scrutiny are essential to freedom and democracy. It claims to want to protect free speech but seeks to deny people the opportunity to say things the government does not want to hear.
The PM claimed last year that the British were a freedom-loving people when he delayed imposing restrictions which would have saved lives. Why then, now that we have a means to control this virus, is he proposing to curb our freedoms even more? He claims to admire America. Well, let him heed these words by a great American:
“They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; ….. that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”
But what of public order you ask?
“They knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.”
Protest, dissent, challenge, having a different opinion are like water in a house. If there is no outlet for it, it will eventually rot its foundations. In seeking to suppress or curtail any challenge to its views, the government is allowing our freedoms and democracy to rot. It assumes its own infallibility.
Labour have said they will vote against. Let’s hope that Starmer casts off his mimsy nit-picking style and eloquently demolishes the rotten thinking behind this Bill. Let him hurl invective at all those MPs claiming to believe in Britain, its freedoms and Parliamentary democracy while voting to limit and curb those same freedoms and acquiescing in their own irrelevance. Let him show up for the hypocrites they are those MPs crying crocodile tears over Clapham yesterday while asking us to trust the same police today. If he needs the words, he could use those of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.
” A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes – will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”