Saturday, 28 November 2015

Move to outlaw dissent with attacks on civil liberties through the Trade Union, Investigatory Powers Bill and repeal of the Human Rights Act

The attack on civil liberties, evident in the Trade Union Bill (TUB), needs to be viewed in the wider context of an increasingly authoritarian government determined to outlaw any form of dissent.

The anti-libertarian elements seen in the TUB also find resonance in the Investigatory Powers Bill and the efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a watered down Bill of Rights. The measures taken together amount to an attempt to advance the powers of the authoritarian state at the cost of the rights of the citizen.

Liberty, Amnesty International, the TUC and Conservative MP David Davis are amongst those who have condemned the negative impact that the Trade Union Bill will have on civil rights if it is made law.

The thrust of the TUB is a direct attack on the right of trade unions to exist and operate effectively in the workplace and beyond. The right to strike is being made more difficult, with the new thresholds of a minimum 50% turnout and at least 40% of those eligible needing to vote in favour.

Then there are the efforts to restrict assembly by insisting that a picket supervisor must be appointed with a letter of authorisation to that effect. Details of the supervisor have to be provided to the police. The supervisor also has to wear an armband or badge identifying themselves. Unions are to be required to give two weeks notice of industrial action rather than the present seven days.

Conservative MP Davis questioned the need for pickets to give their names to the police force. “What is this? This isn’t Franco’s Britain, this is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain,” said Davis.

Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute for Human Rights have described the TUB as “a major attack” on civil liberties.
“By placing more legal hurdles in the way of unions organising strike action, the TUB will undermine ordinary people’s ability to organise together to protect their jobs, livelihoods and the quality of their working lives,” said a statement by the three organisations. “It will introduce harsher restrictions on those who picket peacefully outside workplaces - even though pickets are already more regulated than any other kind of protest.

“It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people.”

The thread of denying the most basic civil rights is taken forward in the Investigatory Powers Bill or as it is more commonly known the “Snoopers Charter.” The Bill seeks to make phone companies keep records of websites visited by every citizen for 12 months so that they can be accessed by police, security services and other public bodies.

The Bill makes explicit in law the power of the police to hack into and bug computers and phones. The phone companies will also be required to assist with the operations to bypass encryption.

Judges are to be given a role but this is not to authorise or dismiss interception requests but instead to oversee whether politicians are exercising that power correctly.
“We expect the State to obtain a warrant before entering our homes, never mind searching them and taking away our belongings.  Why should it be any different when it comes to our communications?” said a Liberty spokesperson

The authoritarian intent of the government has been clear since it won office last May, declaring it wanted to do away with the Human Rights Act. This head of steam to take away human rights was engendered by some selective reporting of particular cases brought under the Act by the right wing media and tapping into a xenophobic anti-Europeanism.

The Conservative Government wanted to pull out of the HRA, which simply enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. The ECHR has nothing to do with the European Union and is something that Britain has been signed up to since its creation post World War II. Ironically, Britain played a major role in the creation of the ECHR in the first place. The HRA merely gave the full power of the ECHR at first instance through the British domestic courts. Prior to incorporation of the ECHR individuals had to appeal their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In the first instance, the government realised that it was not going to be able to get repeal of the HRA through the House of Lords. However, Justice minister Michael Gove now appears to have revived the idea, with a consultation underway on a Bill of Rights.

These three developments are symptomatic of an overall effort to clamp down on dissent. Over recent years, there have been ongoing efforts to make public protest more difficult. Most recently this saw the Metropolitan Police seeking to make protest organisers pay for the policing of their own events.

There has been a steady drip drip approach to taking away human rights over recent years, on the basis of the need to provide security. Former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson has warned that this has been the claim of dictators down the years. He was not wrong.  

One dictator who knew the value of this mantra was Adolf Hitler, who said: “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousands, tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.”

Some would argue that it is this erosion of rights process that is now underway, with the most  visible evidence coming with the moves to implement the Trade Union Bill and Investigatory Powers Bill and repeal the Human Rights Act. Human rights organisations certainly seem in little doubt.  
“Cracking down on civic space is a global phenomenon that is deeply worrying to Amnesty, and it’s very concerning that it’s happening in the UK too.  Recently, we’ve seen the UK government pursue a shameless policy of prioritising business interests over human rights concerns,” said James Savage, director of Amnesty’s Human Rights Defenders Programme. “As the British government rolls out the red carpet for autocratic leaders, it is rolling back the rights agenda here in the UK, through its threat to replace the Human Rights Act with a weaker British Bill of Rights, placing growing restrictions on rights of assembly and association with the Trade Union Bill, and ever-more-invasive infringements on the right to privacy via expanded surveillance powers and practice."
Liberty claim that “just six months in the government is showing an arrogant disregard for our rights and freedoms.”
While the Investigatory Powers Bill will undermine the security and freedom of everyone who uses a computer or phone. Combine with this vindictive Trade Union Bill, attempts to curb the Freedom of Information Act and the proposed scrapping of our Human Rights Act and it seems the Government is intent on dismantling the most effective tools ordinary people have to protect themselves against the whims of the powerful,” said Bella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty.

 What is for sure is that human rights are under attack across the board, failure to stand up and fight for these hard won protections will severely damage everyone in the long run. 

* Basic rights under threat - Tribune - 6/9/2015

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