To What extent have Civil Liberties been eroded in Recent Years?
A Civil Liberty is a right that the state gives to the public which helps to ensure their human rights. In recent years there has been an argument to say that they have been eroded. This is especially true in connection to anti-terrorist legislation, the majority of which came from New Labour.
Due to the War on Terror Tony Blair was able to argue that it was necessary to make changes to Civil Liberties in order to protect the ultimate Human Right, the right to life. After the 1998 Human Rights Act all of these rights should have been enshrined in statute books. However, in times of war and to protect national security the Government can choose to derogate from these rights. One of the main arguments is whether the War on Terror is a genuine war, and a constant threat to national security. This is especially true in 2011 several years after 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings.
The first big erosion of Civil Liberties came with the Terrorism act of 2000, which gave police the powers to stop and search any person they wished if they felt that they were a terror threat. However, this was soon abused by the police who used “Article 44” to stop and search people who clearly posed no terrorist threat. In 2009, over 100,000 searches were conducted; however none of these resulted in people being arrested for terrorism offences. Although people 504 were arrested for other offences. In January 2010 the stop-and-search powers granted under Section 44 were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. It held that Article 8 of the ECHR had been contravened, particularly during the case of two people who, in 2003 were stopped outside the ExCeL convention centre in London, which at the time was hosting a military equipment exhibition. The Court found the powers lacked "adequate legal safeguards against abuse”. The Coalition Government has plans to reintroduce similar powers under the Protection of Freedoms Bill. Teresa May has made a remedial change to the 1998 Human Rights Act. One of the interesting things about this particular piece of terror legislation is that it was introduced before the 9/11 attacks which, as I’ve already mentioned were the start of the anti terror legislation ‘era’.
In 2001 the Labour Government introduced the next piece of legislation which seemed to erode civil liberties, this was the Anti Terrorism and Security Act. This was passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this gave the government the opportunity to sneak in measures which had been rejected from the 2000 Terrorism Act, it allowed Military police to operate outside of military bases even for cases that weren’t related to terrorism. While this doesn’t strictly affect civil liberties, as they’re acting as normal police officers would, it is more of a matter of principle. This is an example of the government using the public outcry for terror legislation to move in unnecessary measures by the back door, so to speak. One of the other measures that were introduced was the ability to detain foreign terror suspects indefinitely without them having to identify the charges. This is a genuine erosion of civil liberties, as people should have the right to know why they are being imprisoned and also the indefinite imprisonment is quite a serious infringement on civil liberties. This was reinforced by the Law Lords, who on the 16th December 2004 ruled that Part 4 allowing the indefinite detention of foreigners was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Overall it is fair to say that this Act seriously impinged on civil liberties.
Following the Law Lords ruling on Part 4 of the Act the government introduced control orders in 2005 as a part of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The control order is similar to an ASBO, but the restrictions placed on an individual can be far more extreme and ‘harsh’. There is quite a serious erosion of civil liberties, when an individual can have any restrictions at all placed on them for 24 hours.
In the same year the government attempted to introduce the Terrorism Act of 2005 which proposed the detention of terrorists for 90 days. This however was seen as far too extreme an erosion on civil liberties, particularly as this was so much longer than any other European countries. This was eventually voted against by the House of Commons, actually making this the first defeat for Tony Blair in a House of Commons vote. To overcome this embarrassment faced by Tony Blair and his Labour government the period of time that Terror suspects could be detained for was reduced to 28 days and this was passed by the House of Commons. These periods of time are both far longer than those of similar democracies, and thus represent a serious issue facing civil liberties in the UK, namely one of the oldest rights; Habeus Corpus, which was set out in the Magna Carta.
One of the most contentious and perhaps disregarded acts from the Anti Terror legislation was the Serious Crime and disorder act. This is possibly most famous because of Brian Haw, the anti war protester who spent ten years camped in Parliament square, he didn’t have to move because he had been camped prior to the Act coming into force in 2005. The act banned people from Protesting within 1 kilometre of Parliament. This specifically clashes with the Right to Protest, very clearly. One of the reasons given for this measure was that bombs could be hidden in placards by would-be Terrorists. Another freedom that was challenged by this Act was freedom of speech, Lembit Opik said of the issue; “I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom.” This freedom of speech seemed totally removed by the act when, in December 2005 Maya Evans was arrested simply for reading out the names of dead soldiers killed in Iraq. This clearly posed no terror threat, nor was it a noisy or unruly protest, she had simply not requested authorisation from the police. All of this represents a massive erosion into civil liberties, and ones that clearly have very little benefit into say anti Terrorism activities.
One of the final pieces of legislation that I am going to consider in relation to the erosion of civil liberties is the 2008 Counter Terrorism Bill. This Bill had some issues that were so controversial that it took from January 2008, to 26 November 2008 for the Bill to be given the Royal Assent. One of the more controversial provisions in the act was the prohibition of the photographing of policemen and other similar workers, photographer and journalists protested about this outside Scotland Yard claiming that this power could just be abused by the police, and I share that opinion. Two provisions were abandoned from the Bill, these two were possibly the most damaging to civil liberties, the 42 day detention idea was opposed almost completely by every single sentient entity in the UK. And the secret coroner’s inquests which would take place without a jury faced much debate outside of parliament, because a jury based legal system is one of the most important aspects of our democracy.
When all of these things are considered, it is clear that civil liberties have indeed been eroded in recent years. And even the right to protest about the loss of civil liberties has been somewhat reduced. This post 9/11 paranoia, as it were, is apparently a way of making the country safer for people who aren’t suspected of being terrorists based of flimsy evidence. But I think that the real test of civil liberties should be whether they are afforded to people who we dislike and would rather not be dealing with, like terrorists, and unfortunately I think that this country doesn’t treat those people well at all.