By Joan Trevor
On 19 January the Civil Contingencies Bill (CCB) had its second reading in Parliament. If it becomes law it will give the Government vastly increased powers in the event of an emergency such as a terrorist attack or... another outbreak of foot and mouth disease!
In an event that "threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the UK or part of it", the Government will be able to override most existing legislation, thus allowing it to order evacuations, confiscate property, restrict access to certain parts of the country, impose curfews, ban public meetings, and so on, all for a period of 21 days, renewable by Parliament.
The Government won't need to consult Parliament to invoke the Act, although Parliament would have to retrospectively give its approval within 30 days.
The CCB will replace the 1920 Emergency Powers Act (EPA) and the Civil Defence Act 1948. The EPA continued measures in place during World War One, but was useful to governments after the war to deal with labour unrest. The EPA was first invoked in 1921 to break a strike of railwaymen, miners and transport workers, and again in 1926 to break the General Strike.
The current revision began as a response to the severe flooding of 2000. It was in part an honest attempt to harmonise the responses of the emergency services to such challenges. All that changed on 11 September 2001.
The legislation is no longer about protecting property prices in low-lying Kent villages and is now a weapon in the "war on terror".
It is stupid to discount the threat from terrorism. We should demand real protection instead of farcical PR stunts like that put on at Bank Tube station in September 2003.
But it is equally stupid to underestimate the danger to freedom represented by measures like those contained in the CCB. Taken together with anti-terrorism legislation, such as that used in September 2003 to harass protestors against the DSEi arms exhibition, and the government's dream of introducing ID cards (shelved for now, but still cherished), the CCB is a weapon against civil liberties. It is more evidence that the government is prepared to treat its citizens like a herd.
In the UK we have had a grim laugh at the US's Department of Homeland Security, but you can view home-grown paranoia (plus text and background papers of the Civil Contingencies Bill) at the UK government site.
To keep abreast of developments in the government's war on civil liberties visit Statewatch