'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Travels In A Political Arena: CJB Nearly Law
Squall 7, Summer 1994, pg. 3.
As SQUALL goes to press, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill wears its final way through the House of Lords and is likely to be finished there by early July. The Bill then returns briefly to the Commons for final adjustments before going to the Queen for the autograph that seals royal assent. This process is likely to have been completed before the end of July. The Bill will then be an Act and a new law will crouch on the statute books ready to be used.
The only Part 5 (Public Order) clauses not immediately usable are those associated with interim possession orders against squatters. In order for these to be effective, the Lord Chancellors' department has to change the rules of court. At the moment these court rule changes are the subject of yet another consultation paper and are unlikely to be formally issued until a month or more after the Bill becomes an Act.
However, the clauses on violent entry, on aggravated trespass, on unlawful camping, unlawful festivals and caravan site repeal, will all be immediately applicable.
In the last edition of SQUALL we reported the disquiet amongst certain Labour backbenchers that their own party might abstain at the House of Commons report stage of the Bill, as they had done so limply at the second reading. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, their fears became a reality when the ‘soft on crime’ ogre once again overwhelmed any official Labour stance on the issue. A meagre 44 MPs had enough personal integrity to vote against the Bill. The other members of the ‘opposition’ (an increasing misnomer) abstained. Tony Blair, Shadow Home Secretary and likely to be the new leader of the Labour Party, even suggested to interested backbenchers that he would table further amendments, including ones attacking the new clauses on violent entry. He didn’t.
The five stages of a bill in the House of Lords are similar to those for its passage through the House of Commons, described in the last issue of SQUALL. There is a first reading (a formality), a second reading (almost a formality), a committee stage (potentially the meaty bit), the report stage (the last opportunity to table any amendments) and the third reading (a formality). Unlike the process in the Commons, the Lords’ committee stage consists of all members of the house.
As SQUALL goes to press, the committee stage in the Lords has drawn to a close. The two areas of the Bill forecast to receive the most opposition were the clauses removing of the rights of silence and those setting up penal institutions for young offenders. The extent of that opposition however, was less than expected.
Lord Runciman, an independent peer and Chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, and Lord Alexander of Weedon, a Tory peer and Chairman of the cross-party law reform group Justice, joined with other peers from various parties to give the Government a few flutters over the clauses on the removal of the rights of silence. The Government were keen not to lose any of the votes in the Lords, particularly after the roasting the Police and Magistrates Bill had recently received in the upper house and its consequent adverse media coverage.
In the end however, opposition was diffused when Michael Howard gave assurances that he would investigate measures decreasing the chance of miscarriages of justice (rest assured? - I think we cannot). The clauses introducing penal institutions for young offenders were the subject of some vocal opposition but were eventually voted through unamended.
Part 5 of the Bill was never looking to be a battle any party was prepared to pour much intention into. Lord Macintosh of Haringey (Labour’s Home Affairs spokesman in the Lords) and Baroness Mallilieu spoke of how the clauses on aggravated trespass would seriously undermine the British citizens’ right to conduct peaceful and effective protests. Lord Avebury (original author of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 - to be repealed by the Bill) spoke up for provisions that should be made for travellers and for the disappearing right to protest. Lord Desai tabled amendments prepared by the campaign group SQUASH concerning the clauses on squatting.
No-one was under the illusion that this opposition would have the affect of altering Part 5 of the Bill. The Lord’s committee stage debates (May 23/24th and June 7th) were very poorly attended. The few Lords who did speak in opposition to these clauses did so articulately enough but their words were neither effective in amending the Bill nor were they subject of any media attention.
All that remains of the bill’s passage is a brief House of Lords report stage, then back to the Commons for final Government adjustments, to the Queen for a signature and then …...LAW.
- The removal of the rights to silence, a five-fold increase in the maximum fines for the possession of marijuana, new stop and search powers for the police, the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 18 but not to 16, as well as all the Part 5 public order clauses against travellers, squatters and ethical protesters.
Of course, regarding the clauses in Part 5 of the Bill, there is always the question of how far the police will want to be nationally responsible for its application. All of a sudden, the Bill will place an onus on the police to be the national instruments of multi-evictions and multi-arrests, a responsibility the Police Federation have already said they do not want. Never the less the fact that the Law will be sitting there as ammunition, means there is destined to be ‘much grief to much folk’ whose lives do not need any more of it.
The Friends, Families and Travellers Support Group and the Labour Campaign for Travellers Rights are now looking at ways of encouraging local authorities to allow travellers to establish their own sites, something that has been made difficult in the past by obstructions in planning permission. It is undoubtedly the case that, although much campaigning around the issue has not softened the tone of the Criminal Justice Bill, it has alerted many people to the fact that we have a varied population of travellers in this country, all facing huge amounts of racial hostility but unlikely to just disappear in the face of the new Bill. It is already the case that illegal evictions of traveller sites have been conducted under the eyes of the police in Avon, Somerset and Gloucestershire in recent months. Certain local authorities have been acting as if the Bill is an act already, but recourse to the law for travellers, as ever, is severely limited by both finances and familiarity with the legal process. The efforts to establish sites that cannot be evicted is a positive initiative towards the creation of oases for travellers in Britain.
Undoubtedly the Criminal Justice Bill will be making life harder for whole communities of people, and that certain members of those communities are likely to be extremely angry and frustrated, having witnessed the campaigns on their behalf for more compassion and tolerance fall on deaf and disinterested ears.
Travelling will still exist and the best hope lies in transit and long stay sites existing on land owned by travellers themselves or by sympathetic landowners. If this option is thwarted by further obstructions in planning procedures there will be boiling over points around the country, as travelling families can stand the evictions and harassment no longer. These boiling points will serve only to fuel the already festering relationships between sedentary conservative localities and nomadic visitors.
SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) are researching the possibility of a judicial review of the court rule changes associated with the interim possession order clauses of the Criminal Justice Bill. The use of ex-parte (private) court procedures to grant possession are, according to a number of legal organisations, both ‘an offence against natural justice’ and a contravention of the European Commission of Human Rights’ declaration that everyone is “entitled to a fair hearing”.
It is still unclear what court rule changes the Lord Chancellor’s Department is likely to make, particularly in the light of the fact that the Law Society has spoken out against the use of court proceedings where a defendant faces eviction and possible criminal sanctions and yet is not allowed to represent him/herself in court. However, it is unlikely that the Lord Chancellor’s Department will undermine the Government’s intention for the clauses by decreeing innocuous rules that give the Bill no teeth.
Squatting will still exist, it has to, but as in other European countries where it is already illegal, it will become an option only for the hardened and more organised. Much less will it be the safety net for the varieties of homeless people that it is at present.
Despite the clauses on aggravated trespass, it is undoubtedly the case that people will still become involved in moral, ethical and environmental protest that, for their very effectiveness, depend on peaceful yet disruptive and intimidatory acts. However, it will be more likely that charges against them will result in more fines and prison sentences than are already available to the courts under existing public order legislation.
The removal of the rights to conduct peaceful yet disruptive protests is something that very few people realise the consequences of. The faith of a whole generation of British people in this country’s current form of democracy and public voice, has been destroyed. People seeking respect for alternative points of view to the prevailing political homogeneity no longer consider the parliamentary process to be either honest, earnest or indeed saveable. Certainly very few people consider it representative and, as a consequence, the requirement to register protest in ways other than deaf conference tables or fruitless lobbying, is ever more necessary. This has manifested itself in an increase in direct action protest in recent years. It is not possible to legislate a lid for the steam cooker and not expect the steam to explode in other directions.
The removal of the ability to participate in festivals and raves and the creation of penal institutions for young offenders make bizarrely ironic clause companions. Festivals and wild dancing have for centuries been the necessary expressions of human life forces. These forces are of course scientifically unquantifiable and presently receive almost no political respect whatsoever. However, they do not go away. Legislate against them and, like the need to protest, they will find expression in some other way. Surely joy riding, the modem youth crime phenomenon, is just one expression of the necessity of some kind of adventure. It is probably joy riding more than anything else that has fuelled the hysterical calls for child prisons. If the parties and wild dances are legislated against, what do you expect young people to do - read history books in the prison library and dream?
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.