Friday, March 11, 2005



The UK's last defenders of freedom

It's more than a little ironic that in the current struggle over anti-terrorism legislation, the House of Lords, the rump of the British aristocracy, are turning out to be the UK's last defenders of freedom.

For those who haven't been following the story, in December the Law Lords ruled that the UK's system of detention without trial was discriminatory as it applied only to those who were not British citizens, and thus violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The British government's response was to try and introduce an even more draconian system of "control orders" allowing suspected terrorists (regardless of citizenship) to be subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement, speech, and association, solely on the word of the Home Secretary. These restrictions extend to house arrest with a ban on all visitors. The only difference between this and detention without trial is that the incarcerated victim pays for their own prison cell.

The bill has passed the Commons after an acrimonious debate which saw one of the largest backbench rebellions in recent years, but it has run into trouble in the House of Lords. The Lords have insisted on a number of amendments to key parts of the bill, including increasing the burden of proof required for an order from "reasonable suspicion" (the standard required to get a search warrant) to a balance of probabilities (the standard used in civil cases), insisting that all control orders be issued by a judge rather than by the Minister, and insisting on a "sunset clause", making the bill expire unless renewed by Parliament. This is simply unacceptable to the Blair government. As a result, the two houses of the British legislature are now engaged in a game of legislative "ping-pong", bouncing different versions of the bill back and forth, back and forth, with neither willing to give in (and the government presumably unwilling to use the Parliament Act to force the bill to become law). The bill will apparantly fail unless the Lords and Commons can agree on a version soon, and IMHO this is the best thing that can happen to it. As Lord Hoffman said in his judgement on indefinite detention,

[t]he real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

The Lords, it would seem, agree.

5 comments:

The Parliament Act won't help Blair - the bill needs to be presented in two sessions over two years - he wants it in by next week when the 2001 legislation expires.

I would much rather have entrenched human rights than relying on the good judgment of an appointed (indeed still partially hereditary) upper house, however.

Posted by Rich : 3/11/2005 11:48:00 AM

The House of Lords comes in two flavours. The Law Lords are officially a judicial committee of the house, but in reality the House of Lords' judicial powers are exercised n exactly the same way as any other common law court.

The Blair government is also pushing a Supreme Court bill which would formally separate the Lords' judicial powers into a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom like the NZ Supreme Court or the High Court of Australia. The Lords have amended the bill to designate the judges of the Supreme Court as law lords. Plus ├ža change...

Posted by Alan : 3/11/2005 03:13:00 PM

The House of Lords comes in two flavours. The Law Lords are officially a judicial committee of the house, but in reality the House of Lords' judicial powers are exercised n exactly the same way as any other common law court.

The Blair government is also pushing a Supreme Court bill which would formally separate the Lords' judicial powers into a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom like the NZ Supreme Court or the High Court of Australia. The Lords have amended the bill to designate the judges of the Supreme Court as law lords. Plus ?a change...

Posted by Alan : 3/11/2005 03:14:00 PM

Rich: I wasn't aware of the demands of the Parliament Act, only that it allowed legislation to be forced through. And yes, I would prefer that the UK - and New Zealand - had entrenched and enforceable human rights so that such a bill could be struck down.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/11/2005 05:52:00 PM

I dont think it is so strange I think a hereditary peers are MORE likely to defend your civil rights than elected officials (I expect if you did a study that would be the case) so this is par for the course.

Posted by Genius : 3/12/2005 07:11:00 PM