Civil Liberties Under Threat

A female protestor raising her hand in protest at the Women’s march on London on 21 January 2017
A female protestor raising her hand in protest at the Women’s march on London on 21 January 2017 – image courtesy of Liberty

The Government has published four new bills, some provisions of which will severely restrict our Civil Liberties. Some of these bills have originated from the Government’s anger at protests against Brexit after the Referendum and at civil disobedience in protests against climate change. The Government is taking advantage of the public’s anger against the effects of the latter to attack fundamental rights of the public to demonstrate peacefully.

However, in mid-January 2022, the House of Lords rejected by large majorities many of the Government’s proposals, noting that the Conservative party had not mentioned these changes in their Election Manifesto in December 2019. The Bills may shuttle  between the two Houses of Parliament, with the possibility that, if agreement is not reached, the Government will impose its version.

The four Bills are:

  • the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
  • the Election Bill
  • the Nationality and Borders Bill; and 
  • the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. 

The Police Bill

This is the most important of these four Bills. It grants wide discretionary powers to the Police and to Ministers to restrict demonstrations and individual demonstrators, if they consider it or them disruptive or noisy. This is undoubtedly aimed at preventing repetitions of the impressive demonstrations in 2018 and 2019 against Brexit and for a vote on the terms of our departure from the EU.

Peoples Vote March, London, 23/6/2018 – photo by SymeonV Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

At two demonstrations in London with over 1 million people at each, people of all ages marched peacefully through Central London, ending in Parliament Square. The Bill would enable the Police to exercise their subjective discretion in controlling peaceful demonstrations. The Police are reported to be most reluctant to have these powers. The Courts would have powers to impose long prison sentences on people who have demonstrated peacefully.

The Election Bill

This bill would require all electors to produce photographic identity at elections before voting. Whilst strong arguments exist for this, and for all citizens to carry identity cards to combat electoral fraud such as impersonation, poorer people would be less likely to obtain the photographic identity and so such people would be disenfranchised. The Bill would also impinge on the independence of the Electoral Commission.

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The Nationality and Borders Bill

This aims to increase the fairness of the system to protect and support those in need of asylum and deter illegal entry into the UK, according to the Government. However refugee organisations have criticised the Bill for breaking our obligations under international treaties.

The Guardian, 31 March 1939: "Refugees who had been refused permission to stay in England figured in a distressing scene at Croydon airport yesterday. They were so distraught that the pilot of their 'plane thought it unwise to leave, and they will be sent to Copenhagen by train and boat."
Jewish refugees at Croydon airport 1939 – photo AP/World Wide Photos; public domain

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill

This would reform the rules governing Judicial Review. The Government wishes to ensure that Judicial Review is not abused to conduct politics by other means, and so restores the balance between the Government, Parliament and the Courts. Parliament would be able to overrule the results of Judicial Review if Ministers did not like the results. If some of the proposals in these Bills pass into law, the UK’s international reputation as a defender of moral values would be severely damaged. 

UK Supreme Court, Court No. 1 – photo by Rwendland; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

It is important that more people understand that the Government’s proposals would weaken our Civil Liberties. They would show that the Government cannot be trusted on Constitutional Reform. The Electorate should be reminded of the dangers to our liberties and the warnings made by Lord Hailsham (a former Lord Chancellor) in the 1970s of the growth of an elective dictatorship in our country.