'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Travels In A Political Arena
As the Criminal Justice Bill resumes its progress through parliament
Squall 8, Autumn 1994, pg. 3.
The Criminal Justice Bill is about to resume its passage through parliament after a long summer recess. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, had hoped to walk into the Tory Party conference in early October, trumpeting the imposition of the CJB as law. He was thwarted however, by unexpected amendments to the Bill voted for by the House of Lords before the recess. These amendments to the clauses on penal institutions for young offenders, criminal injuries compensation and the removal of local authority duty to provide caravan sites for gypsys, will be the subject of further Commons' debate commencing on 19/20th of October.
Parliament sits again in October for a four week period in order to finish off last year's legislative programme. This includes the Deregulation Bill and the Scottish Local Government Bill, as well as the amended clauses of the CJB. Besides the specific Lords' amendments, the CJB has been passed by both houses and will not be the subject of further parliamentary debate before becoming an act.
When the Bill goes back to the Commons in October, it is unlikely that the Government will simply accept the amendments to the Bill, particularly the one delaying the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act until 1999. If the Government do not accept the amendments, they will send the Bill back to the Lords. In theory, this yo-yoing could go on indefinitely but, in reality, the House of Lords is often reluctant to force obstructions to government legislation with excessive vigour; aware that its constitutional power is a weak one. The fact that the Government have booked only four weeks to finish the bill off, is a testament to their confidence that any opposition will be easily overcome. As a result it looks likely that the CJB will become an act before the Houses of Parliament rises again, two weeks before the Queen's speech on November 16th.
Most of the public order sections of the Bill will become law immediately upon the seal of royal assent. These include clauses 56 (trespass), 58 (banning raves), 60 (travelling to raves), 63 (protesters' trespass), 64 (removal of protesters), 65 (trespassory assemblies), 66 (sanctions against attendance of assembly), 72 (sanctions against camping), 73/4 (removal of campers) and 75 (repeal of local authority duty towards gypsys).
The clauses imposing criminal sanctions against squatters require changes to the rules of court, determined and issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department. The nature of these changes is still the subject of the second of two consultation papers and their final draft is not due until next February. This means that Interim Possession Orders and ex-parte court procedures cannot be implemented against squatters until at least February. However, the nightmare clauses allowing violent entry against occupants of property do not depend on these court rule changes and will be implementable shortly after the Bill becomes an act, via a statutory instrument from the Home Secretary.
It is important to remember that the public order sections of the CJB put the onus of enactment on the police. Implementation of the Bill, therefore, is initially likely to be the subject of regional variation. For instance, a Chief Inspector in the Bedfordshire Police force has said that he wants to avoid using the Bill (see 'Exodus, the battles' - page 42 & 'Consultation Exorcise' - page 16).
Parliamentary opposition to the Bill has basically consisted of a few principled back-benchers and concerned peers, fighting the cause of civil liberties. The Labour Party executive failed to lend any support to their own MP's over the Bill, with the Lords' amendments proving to be the only fruits of a very weak parliamentary opposition. As such, this period of British political history will go down as a triumph of media-pandering over social concern. The mental and physical welfare of people, particularly those who have not fared well in economic Britain, is an issue that is the subject of much lip-service but seemingly little genuine political interest.
Traditionally, Conservative government has represented the economic face of Britain, whilst Labour have championed social affairs. Whilst it is important to have both sides represented, the balance has tipped alarmingly toward personal, profit-motivated politics. Whilst Tony Blair may describe himself as a Christian-socialist, both the Christian and the socialist part of that definition seem vestigial to his aspirations. The nipple without the milk. It was undoubtedly his decision that led the Labour Party to officially abstain in the vote on the Criminal Justice Bill.
At a press conference held recently in the Houses of Parliament, back-bench MP Peter Hain (Lab. Neath) said that if the Labour Party fails to stand up and fight for civil liberties being eroded by the CJB, then it has no future as a political party. Now that public opposition to the Bill has become media-visible, some members of the Labour Party are attempting to 'bandwagon the outcry', suggesting that the Party did everything possible to stop the Bill becoming law (see 'Actors of Parliament', page 12).
It does have to be said that within the Labour Party there are still those who work away for the causes they consider to be integral to their party's position in the political spectrum. Forty three Labour back-bench MPs did vote against the Bill, but they did so unsupported by their own front bench, rendering their opposition ineffective. In the quest for the perfect media image, the power in politics is swinging further away from the reality of need.
The quality of life for the increasing number of people 'forced out' by current politics will depend on how much the voice of British people render the political chess players redundant. Beggars, single mothers, squatters, travellers, homeless people, youth and the unemployed are all pawns nonchalantly sacrificed to the hysterical politics of the media-pander. In the face of such dishonesty, the demands for more integrity must grow. One thing is sure, any new form of compassionate, caring, socially responsible politics is unlikely to arise in Westminster of its own accord. It must be seriously and forcefully suggested by those, not so embroiled in the compassionless chess match; those who heed, rather than ignore, the need that hammers upon on the door.
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.