The health of civil liberties

Remember when the only social isolation we needed to worry about was having a crappy blue passport that doesn’t allow you to live or work in other European countries? Ah those were the days. But Brexit hasn’t gone away. In news you may have missed – what with the toilet paper apocalypse and the supermarket running out of lettuce because eejits are panic buying vegetables with a shelf life of a couple of days – the British government has announced that it’s not going to delay Brexit despite the talks on the trade deal between the UK and the EU being cancelled due to the health crisis. Because sunlit uplands, 50p coins, and Big Ben bongs. By the way, I’ve never found any of those 50p Brexit coins in my change. It seems that they’re exactly like the benefits of Brexit. We were told that there was going to be loads of them, but no one has ever seen any.

Brexit is going to go ahead come what may because a small number of extremely wealthy and influential individuals are going to make a lot of money out of it, at the expense of the rest of us. But those extremely wealthy and influential individuals not only have the ear of the British government, they have it in their pocket. Shares in Brexit unicorn farms are still holding up despite the volatility of the markets.

British democracy was never very robust to begin with. It was always more show than substance, as much a pageant as the state opening of parliament, baubles and pseudo-mediaeval rituals covering up a sclerotic state without a written constitution where the powerful can write the rules to suit themselves in a parliament without any real checks and balances on the power of the Prime Minister. Democracy in the UK, more than in any other European democracy, rested upon the common sense and decency of politicians and their willingness to abide by a set of precedents and customs which were never codified or made the law. Without any real safeguards in place, British democracy was always more at risk than most of being perverted by big money and unscrupulous politicians who don’t hesitate to lie and deceive.

During a time of extraordinary crisis such as this, it’s reasonable that extraordinary measures are taken for the public good. No one can seriously object to steps which have a real effect on saving lives, preventing infections, and stopping the spread of a dangerous disease. These steps will have an immediate and significant impact upon our civil liberties. However given the fact that we have a British government led by chancers and charlatans who cannot be trusted, it’s equally reasonable to feel more than a little disquiet about the restrictions on civil liberties contained in the British Government’s new Coronavirus Bill. This bill, which is expected to pass into law by the end of this month, has the greatest impact on our civil liberties at any time since WW2.

The emergency Coronavirus Bill will be presented to the House of Commons on Thursdays. The powers contained within the new bill are wide ranging. They allow for the closure of ports and airports, giving the police to detain and isolate persons they believe to be infected, and giving the government the power to restrict or prohibit public gatherings. There will be new powers over funerals and registering deaths, as well as changes to the operations of courts. There will also be changes to mental health act provisions. You can read a summary of what the new bill proposes here :

It’s important to note that while a particular emergency may be unforeseen, the fact that emergencies will arise is not. There is already significant emergency legislation in force to deal with emergency situations, such as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. It is therefore not necessarily the case that a new emergency requires the passing of a new law which will have a huge effect on civil rights and liberties. Laws passed as a knee jerk reaction to an immediate set of circumstances are invariably bad laws. The Civil Contingencies Act gives the government the legal authority to introduce emergency measures to combat an emergency situation. These measures are typically restricted to 30 days duration, unless Parliament votes to extend the period.

Incredibly, Boris Johnson is seeking greater emergency powers than were available to the British government during WW2. The emergency powers available to the British government during WW2 had to be renewed annually by Parliament. What the new coronavirus bill will do is to allow ministers to exercise emergency powers for up to two years instead of the 30 days permitted by the Civil Contingencies Act. Furthermore there is no longer any need for these powers to be scrutinised by parliament and for parliament to vote to renew them. It is to be left to the discretion of ministers to decide when the powers are no longer needed. Ministers could, should they see fit, keep the additional powers for the entire two year period even though the coronavirus crisis may have long passed.  Do you trust Priti Patel to give up extra power?

Given the widespread lack of trust in Boris Johnson and his government, it is all the more important that these special measures must be kept under constant review and scrutiny by our MPs and by panels of experts. They cannot be entrenched in such a way as to leave them to the discretion of British government ministers to revoke at some unspecified time in the future, or to keep in force long after the coronavirus crisis has passed. We are dealing with a government which has already shown its willingness sidestep parliamentary scrutiny, as Johnson did when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament in an attempt to force through his Brexit plans.

This Act will allow the executive to seize even more power for itself. We have seen with terrorism legislation that British governments are quite willing to cite emergencies as an excuse to strengthen the powers of the Prime Minister and to reduce the power of parliament and the ability of MPs to hold the executive to account. Once they have seized the power, they are highly reluctant to give it up again. We cannot allow Boris Johnson to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to grab and to keep power. At the very minimum, this bill should be amended so that the extra powers given to ministers and other agencies will expire as soon as the public health authorities announce that the coronavirus epidemic has been successfully dealt with.

The greatest challenge of the coronavirus crisis is not just to deal with the emergency, it’s also to ensure that how we deal with it now does not destroy our rights and liberties once we are on the other side of it. British democracy was always a fragile creature. We can’t afford to allow an unprincipled and untrustworthy Boris Johnson to shatter it.  To state the obvious yet again, this crisis merely highlights the need for a written constitution and the strict separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.  It highlights the need for Scotland to have governments that the people of Scotland can hold to account.  There’s only one way that can happen.

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33 thoughts on “The health of civil liberties

  1. Pingback: The health of civil liberties | speymouth

  2. The period of two years would seem to indicate that this Government expects the corona virus problem to exist for quite some time to come. Initially I thought that talk of a second wave later in the year was just that – chatter from the ill-informed who looked at the 1918 influenza outbreak and drew wrong conclusions. Perhaps that’s not the case – though I dearly wish that it is.

  3. Oh hell, that’s worse than the virus itself…we’re doomed if the big fat greedy liar gets his own way. No doubt a plan which his arselick devised.

  4. ‘Coronavirus: Thousands of armed forces staff could be put on standby over COVID-19 spread’

    ..”At the extreme end, proposals have even been considered to cope with the breakdown of civil society. “It feels like we’re getting ready for war, but this time at home,” one senior source familiar with the plans told Sky News.”..

    ”Defence Secretary Ben Wallace might be forced to reveal some of the detail when he answers “defence questions” in the House of Commons later but the government is keen not to give away too much too soon – so as to avoid panic. The military document is loosely based around Operation Temperer, the military plan that is enacted in the event of a major terror incident. It is being seen as a template that can be adjusted and altered depending on the effect of the ongoing crisis.”..

    • I don’t see what else they could have done under the circumstances, William. Postponed until the repercussions of this coronavirus disaster becomes clearer, has been effectively dealt with and with the knowledge of an end in site. Any other action taken right now would be seen to be absolutely ludicrous and would most definitely lose us support, imo.

    • The SNP should state that it is putting a mandate for independence in its manifesto for 2021 Scot parliament Election. That assumes the crisis is over and Johnson does not use his emergency powers to stop the election.

  5. Truly frightening to think that this crowd are going to have these powers, Paul. Meanwhile we have no idea of the course that Brexit is taking now either. Utter disaster on top of absolute cataclysm necessitating getting out of this ASAP.

    It also looks as though the Tories aren’t as kind and caring as they’d like us all to believe.

    ..”So why has Sunak gone down this route when it is so obviously wrong? There is one very simple, and obvious explanation. What he is very obviously seeking to do is keep this business support package off the government’s spending account, and instead is seeking to describe it as a loan, which the means that he can put it on its balance sheet. As a result he can pretend that the deficit is not going to be impacted by coronavirus, which no doubt this Tory government is desperate to do so that it cannot be compared with Labour in 2008.”..

  6. O/T

    A warning to anyone using WhatsApp from an IT friend.

    A video comes out tomorrow called martinelli. DO NOT OPEN IT. It hacks your phone and nothing can fix it.

    If you receive a message to update WhatsApp to WhatsApp Gold DO NOT CLICK ON IT TO DO SO.

    Please pass around.

  7. In the next few months around 3-4000 Scots could die. Tens of thousands ill. Worthy of thought you might think. Rather than blame the SNP for not holding a reverendum some should face up to the auld reaper which may head your families way. It’s called priorities. Safety, health first.

  8. Re- the emergency Coronavirus Bill to be presented to the House of Commons on Thursday and as described here:

    Can anyone explain the following for me?

    The above source states: “The proposals set out in the bill will significantly enhance the ability of public bodies across the UK to provide an effective response to tackle this epidemic. We are therefore aiming for it to reach the statute book and begin to take effect from the end of this month.”

    However, from the description in scope it appears to include taking or changing powers that relate specifically to Acts of the Scottish Parliament:

    “.. temporarily relax local authorities’ duties in relation to their duties to conduct a needs assessment and prepare an adult carer support plan/young care statement under the …… , the Social Care (Self-directed Support) (Scotland) Act 2013 and the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 to enable them to prioritise people with the greatest needs”

    It also includes taking or changing powers in relation to what would seem to be devolved matters, namely over education legislation:

    “.. provide powers to require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open or relax some requirements around education legislation in order to help these institutions run effectively during the event of an emergency.” – I see nothing in the text to suggest other than a blanket UK-wide power.

    So does anyone know what’s going on? Why are these changes to Acts of our Parliament not being made in Holyrood but in Westminster? Are the scrutiny and amending powers of the Scottish Parliament being by-passed? Or am I missing something?

    • Whilst not for one moment putting it past LBJ and his crew to claw back devolved powers to our Senedd and your Parliament, stewartb, I do notice at least one chink of light for you ‘up there’.

      The Bill apparently seeks, inter alia, to:


      enable the departments of health in Northern Ireland and Scotland to make regulations for additional measures to be introduced to help them delay or prevent further transmission of COVID-19. Equivalent powers already exist in England and Wales and these provisions would bring them in line with the rest of the UK.


      Keep your eyes and ears open however for anything that smacks of returning powers to London.

      • Indeed, many thanks for that! The Bill’s wording – i.e. ‘enable the departments of health’ – in what are already devolved areas raises more questions around what the current limitations in Scotland and NI, but not Wales (?), are at present.

        And notably your ‘chink’ does not let light in to explain the Bill’s intrusion into Scottish education legislation and into Scottish local authority duties under carers support legislation passed by Holyrood. So still puzzled.

  9. Well WGD I cannot fault your analisis of the possible/probable of the nasty party granting themselves these powers.

    I do how ever object strongly to you continually describing the waste monster as a democracy.

    Holyrood for all its faults is as democratic as we have, where normally the people’s representives are required to convince sufficent others that their proposal has merit and is to the benefit of the people for it to be generaly accepted and become the rule or law.

    The Waste Monster is an elective dictatorship i.e. 50%+1 means that the executive can push through anything that takes their fancy.
    Currently with 50%+80 I fail to see how all of the other MP’s together can cause BBC to make any changes to the duration or powers they plan to grant themselves.

    Something I noticed regarding the help Holyrood and the Waste Monster are proposing to make available.

    The Waste Monster is offering government guaranteed loans at low interest rates, and mortgage holidays.
    All of which require to be repaid over extended periods which will obviously cost individuals and business more before the term ends. Possibly forcing people and companies into fore closures and repossessions long after the Coronavirus crisis is over.

    Holyrood is offering grants.

  10. I presume, because this legislation impacts on Devolved responsibilities, will have to go before the Scottish Parliament.

  11. They do have a track record of granting themselves powers they don’t require.

    The last para? THAT.

    Don’t say you weren’t warned people.

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