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We're all familiar with how the Tories targeted ravers, road protesters and the like with the
hideous Criminal Justice Act, and perhaps you thought that it couldn't get worse.
Well, get a load of this:|
Under the proposed Police Bill, the police will now have the authority to bug your home or office, tap your phone, break into your home or office, go through your personal belongings and take away property and papers - without a warrant - if they think that you are involved in "conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose."
And it's not just police suspects that could find themselves being bugged; the Bill also proposes that friends, acquaintances, or indeed anyone that has 'dealings' with the suspect could also be legally bugged.
So the next time one of your friends tells you about a rave party/peaceful protest they're planning, you'd best disown them quick, as such activities will most certainly come under the jurisdiction of the new law....
The Bill - incredibly - also authorises police to listen into conversations between lawyers, and between lawyers and their clients, and break into their offices to take away papers and documentation.
Currently working its way through the Parliamentary process is the Police Bill, which some have already dubbed as the 'next Criminal Justice Act'.
If the proposed Police Bill becomes law -and this is sadly looking very likely at the moment - it would empower police to break into your house or place of work, take away documents and personal belongings, install phone-taps, hidden microphones and cameras, all without the authority of a judge.
The Bill would authorise the police to conduct bugging and video operations
in the course of an investigation if the information could be 'useful in detecting or preventing serious crime.'
'Crime' is defined in the Police Bill as involving 'violence, substantial sums of money', or - and this is by far the most worrying part - 'conduct by a large number of people involved in a common purpose.'
This vague description could cover just about anyone and be easily interpreted to include 'counter-culture' groups like ravers, road protesters, hunt sabs and the like.
The bill proposes that if in the course of surveillance the police want to bug the premises or conduct a search - say of a protest group's office - then they will be fully entitled to do so with only the Chief Constable's authority needed to carry out such actions.
Jim Carey from 'Squall Magazine' commented, "not only will it infringe on the rights of democratic protesters like those at Newbury, but it will also infringe on the right of investigative journalists. If the legal confidentiality is going to be breached, than surely journalists that are investigating issues that might cross the paths of criminals - or even if a journalist is investigating issues like the protest at Newbury - they could become the subject of bugging."
Incredibly, legal premises would not be exempt in the proposed bill, empowering police to bug conversations between lawyer and lawyer, and lawyer and client. This has already elicited a storm of outrage from the legal profession:
"Never in my worst nightmares would I have thought that something like this could be proposed" commented top lawyer Stephen Pollard, a partner in the firm who recently represented the Maxwell Brothers and Nick Leeson. "It fundamentally changes the balance in the legal process. Suspects have a right to a proper defence and they can only have that if they can have confidence at what they're telling their lawyers is said in confidence and can be used in confidence"
A report on the Telegraph's website added: "There is concern in the legal profession that as barristers' chambers and solicitors' offices are not excluded from the scope of the Bill, the new powers will undermine the right of people to consult their lawyer in confidence.
In resisting any change to its Bill to protect legal professional privilege, the Government insists that police powers to enter lawyers' offices and chambers and to seize documents and plant bugs are needed to prevent them from being used as a haven for those suspected of serious crime."
Even more worrying is the lack of any legal challenge to people who feel that they've been unfairly and improperly bugged. The only proposed safeguard would come in the form of an independent commissioner who would retrospectively assess the lawfulness of a handful of cases at the end of the year, and whose decisions could not be appealed against in court.
Worryingly, the bill also states that there would be no criminal proceedings against police officers who abuse their new powers:
From section 94 (The Code of Practise) : (10) A failure on the part of an authorising officer, a designated deputy or any person on whom powers are conferred by virtue of section 92 to comply with any provision of a code of practice issued under this section shall not of itself render him liable to any criminal or civil proceedings.
Robert Owen QC, Chairman of the Bar Council stated that he is "very bothered" by the proposal, adding that it "amounts to a very fundamental erosion of our civil liberties." "It will give the police power to enter your house or place of work to take away material and to bug the premises without any prior authorisation by a judge. There is no exemption for legal offices; what that means is that legal professional privilege is not protected and that is of fundamental importance in the proper administration of our law. Confidentiality between client and lawyer is an integral part of our system."
Calling on Labour to oppose the proposed legislation, he added, "I find it quite astonishing that we see no indication of firm opposition to this bill from the Labour party."
In might come as some surprise to learn that apart from a few minor amendments, Labour has kept strangely silent about this Bill. Even more so when you consider that Harriet Harman - who was so outspoken against phone tapping and bugging in the eighties -is now keeping firmly schtum on their front bench.
When questioned on BBC's 'Newsnight', Alun Michael MP, Labour Home Affairs, failed to offer a coherent argument as to exactly why Labour weren't wholeheartedly opposing this new legislation, and his subsequent statements were quickly dismissed as possessing 'no logic' by Robert Owen.
Labour Home Office Minister Jack Straw has firmly supported these proposals, and has even gone as far as claiming that under the proposed bill "there will be greater accountability if the onus is placed squarely on the (police) officer."
It should be noted that in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, authority for such activities detailed in the bill has to be given by a judge.
The worryingly broad and vague proposals outlined in the Bill - currently progressing through the House of Lords at a rate of knots - could be used to bug just about everyone and anyone, and form a major threat to our civil rights and our fundamental right to privacy.
And with Labour seemingly too worried about their 'election profile' to offer any resistance to this truly dreadful piece of legislation, there's worrying times ahead for all of us...
Within other clauses, it is proposed that a new agency is to be set up, `The Criminal Records Agency'. Every job applicant in Britain will have to provide a certificate issued for a fee of between £5 and £15 to get a `criminal conviction certificate' to give to the prospective employer. This will give their details from information held on the Police National Computer.
It is expected that about 8 million checks a year will be made when fully operational. Companies will be empowered to demand this certificate or refuse interviews.
There is a real risk that employers will `play safe' and refuse jobs to anyone with a criminal record or anyone who declines to shell out for the new certificates. Unemployed people have generally got better things to spend their money on. There are about 5 million people in the UK with a criminal conviction, all of which under these proposals could be excluded from the labour market. This could all happen within 18 months.
CATHOLIC CHURCH COMES OUT IN OPPOSITIONThe Police Bill came under fresh attack yesterday from the Roman Catholic Church which said it was "greatly concerned" that it would lead to the bugging of Confessionals.
Bishop Vincent Nichols, of the Archdiocese of Westminster and a leading figure in the Church, said that Catholics would oppose any measure that threatened the secrecy of the sacrament of confession.
"The secrecy of what is said between priest and penitent, which is known as the seal of confession, is of absolute importance," said Bishop Nichols. "It is something for which the priest would be prepared to suffer to protect. If the proposed legislation could be used in any way to threaten this element of the sacrament, it is indeed of great concern."
The Police Bill, if passed, would give the police powers for the first time to use "intrusive surveillance" in the resources form of cameras and bugging devices in priests' presbyteries and confessionals.
The Catholic Media Office for England and Wales said it feared that the Bill would make people nervous of telling the truth in confession.
"In confession, people must open their hearts completely and come face to face with Jesus Christ," said a spokesman. "We would be opposed to any measure that would interfere with this element of the sacrament."
A Home Office spokesman confirmed that, in theory, confessionals could be bugged. He said: "There are no exemptions at the moment. We were worried that they would be exploited by criminals."
Under Catholic Canon Law, the seal of confession is "inviolable" and breaking it is a mortal sin. The law states that it is "absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or any other fashion".
As it stands, the Bill would allow police to bug any vehicle or building so long as a chief constable regarded it as a necessary means of monitoring a suspected serious criminal.
The Bill suffered a setback in the House of Lords on Monday, with peers voting 209 to 145 for a Labour amendment requiring the police to obtain permission from a special commissioner.
Catholics are concerned that the proposed legislation
would lead to a repeat of a case in America last year,
when a suspect's confession was taped and used as
UPDATE 17.01.97: It seems that Labour have decided upon a ferocious U-turn on this one and have just announced
that they are now going to oppose the bugging elements of the Bill, insisting that judges should retain their right
to decide whose premises could be searched.
UPDATE 20.01.97Government defeated! Peers in the House of Lords today backed opposition amendments ensuring that 'prior authorisation from a judge' would still be necessary before police could gain access to private property (with the exception of 'emergency' cases, where authorisation would have to be gained immediately afterwards).
Lord Donaldson, speaking on Channel Four News, declared these amendments to be of 'enormous constitutional importance'.
UPDATE 28.01.97: Despite the Government's proposals already receiving two defeats in the Lords, today they managed to fight off opposition amendments blocking the right to bug lawyers offices. Even though the vote was a dead heat, the casting vote of the Lord Chancellor ensured that this extremely controversial piece of legislation may well become law....
Other news: In a legal opinion on the Police Bill to the civil rights organisation, Liberty, barristers commented: "This statute proposes a system whereby the law enforcement agencies authorise themselves to interfere with an individual's fundamental rights. They will become judge in their own cause".
The amendments represent a partial climbdown by Mr Howard on his original proposals to allow bugging to be authorised by a chief police officer and only later submitted to special judicial commissioners.
With the new Labour Government in power and Jack Straw still doing his best Michael Howard impression, it looks like a modified version of this Bill will become law soon. We will keep you informed of other developments in the progress of this dreadful bill as they occur....
(Source: BBC 'Newsnight' program 08.01.97/ Justice?/ Telegraph electronic website 11.01.97, 24.01.97/ Guardian 13.01.97, BBC 17.01.97, http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk Government web site.ITV teletext 28.01.97. Alan Lodge email@example.com