Yet another milestone in the passage of the controversial Civil Contingencies Bill has been passed, with the most contentious clauses to do with Emergency Powers and Regulations having been debated in Committee of the House of Lords.
Our concerns and worries about the Emergency Powers aspects of the Bill still remain.
Unfortunately, despite learned and eloquent opposition by various Lords and Ladies, the unlimited powers that the Government of the day could use this legislation to grant itself under the pretext a real or imagined national emergency have not been delayed or struck out or amended in Committee.
Read the debates for yourselves, since the national press and media seem to be ignoring this incredibly important legislation.
- Amendments debated in Committee - almost no substantive amendments have been passed nor any of the most controversial clauses have been removed from Part 2 of the BIll.
- Tuesday 19th October 2004 House of Lords Civil Contingencies Bill Committee Stage debate on the controversial Clause 19
- Thursday 22nd October 2004 House of Lords Civil Contingencies Bill Committee Stage debates in the morning and in the afternoon
It looks as if the Government's ability to modify any legislation without any or with minimal reference to Parliament, by means of Emergency Regulations and Orders, which do not even need to be written down, is still in place.
Nobody apart from constitutional lawyers can understand if and when the so called "triple lock" protections might come into force, as they are deliberately not spelled out clearly within one clause of the Bill, but refer to various bits and pieces, some of which are not even written into the Bill, like the assumption that "Ministers will always act reasonably" will simply not be believed by the general public. The dubious reason for having no test of "reasonablness" is that other bits of legislation do not have this safeguard - well perhaps it is high time that they did have !
The debate on why the Commisioners of the Treasury can declare an Emergency was interesting, but the Government yet again prevailed. To expect the Government Whips i.e. the governing party's aparatchnikls who impose voting discipline on backbench Members of Parliament to declare an Emergency, along with the Prime Minister or the senior Cabinet Ministers, but not to allow junior Ministers or deputies in say the Home Office or Department of Health to do so, is ridiculous. If by the Commissioners of the Treasury they really mean the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, then why is it so difficult to name these two offices only (especially as the office of Prime Minister is specifically mentioned separately) or to exclude the Whips ?
The unamended power of various clauses to allow the Government to re-define the language and definitions of terms to be included in under the legislation, or to act "in good faith" on dubious "45 minute claim" style intelligence, there will , in practice be no effective contitutional barrier to a future elected dictatorship.
If anybody in Government or the Civil Service or the Emergency Planning teams thinks that this Bill is worded in the language that is simple, clearly understood and unambiguous i.e. suitable for an Emergency crisis, then they are deluding themselves and they have already failed in their public duty to the British people.
In practice, there is going to be inertia and backside covering by commercial companies and civil servants. Would you really begin the evacuation of a major city simply because of an unwritten, unauthenticated oral order from one of the Government Whips ? How many people even know their names ? How can you be sure that such an order is not in fact a terrorist hoax ?