Britain: opposition to criminal injustice bill

Issue 

By Kamini Junankar

LONDON — Some 60,000 young people, environmentalists, hunt saboteurs, unionists, socialists, squatters, travellers and civil rights activists, joined the rally and march here on July 24 against the criminal justice bill, which threatens to severely curtail a range of basic human rights. Rally sponsors included Labour MP Tony Benn, National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill, the No M11 Campaign, the Green Party and the Advance Party.

Young people, dubbed "Thatcher's children" by the mass media, are growing increasingly angry with all the major parties — Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour. The Labour Party's Tony Blair has even helped write parts of the bill because, he explained, he does not want the party to appear to be "soft on crime".

The bill, popularly known as the "criminal injustice bill" takes away the right to remain silent if arrested, criminalises squatters and travellers and most forms of peaceful protest, and increases police powers, including arbitrary stop-search powers.

The bill is being sold as a means to fight crime. However, it is really about fighting those who oppose the system of private profit and greed.

A speaker from the Hackney Homeless Association outlined how the bill would affect squatters' rights. Clause 67 will allow anyone with an interest in property to gain violent entry, whether the property is occupied or not. If an interim possession order is granted, squatters have 24 hours to leave. Those who try to return within a year could face six months in jail or a œ5000 fine.

If squatters are evicted, 50,000 more people will be made homeless. In a country with 818,000 registered empty properties, there are 14,000 known squats. The speaker also told the crowd that the Labour Party has been involved in evicting people in some local councils.

Candy Unwin, a nurse and unionist from University College Hospital, pointed out that the picketing and occupations that were making this campaign successful would become criminal under the bill's "aggravated trespass" clause.

Those who picketed and occupied the hospital could, in future, be liable to three months' jail. Also, clause 64 would make anyone who refused to follow a police directive to leave a picket line or a building occupation liable to be fined and sentenced.

Clause 65 allows assemblies which may result in "serious disruption to the community" to be banned. This could apply to mass demonstrations which block road traffic, such as the recent large anti-racist mobilisations.

The "aggravated trespass" law could also apply to demonstrations held in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, since these sites are owned by the Department of the Environment. It is believed that this clause, aimed at stopping hunt saboteurs, could also be applied to stop environmental blockades against new freeways, union protests and other community actions.

Clause 66 gives police the power to stop people whom they "reasonably believe" to be travelling to an assembly prohibited under clause 65. These methods were used illegally in the 1984-85 miners' strike.

The scope to infringe human rights goes further, the bill giving police powers to move vehicles, the homes of many gypsies and travellers.

There is even a clause which attacks the right to party! Clause 58 allows the police to end outdoor festivals; failure to leave the festival site could result in a three-month prison sentence. Although police must take "reasonable steps" to inform the crowd, it is still possible for someone to be found guilty if they were unable to hear the loudhailer which gave the directive to leave.

A speaker from the Advance Party, which represents those involved in the rave culture, called for a succession of demonstrations, parties and festivals, to protest against this unjust bill.

A speaker from the Greenham Common peace group spoke of their 13-year long campaign of non-violent resistance. She urged people to make the criminal justice bill unworkable by filling the courts and prisons. She pointed to the successful campaign against the poll tax, the result of the public's refusal to pay.

The Green Party is the only electoral party which has taken a consistent stand against this bill.

The coalition against the bill is building the campaign to stop the bill's passage through parliament in October, and intends to continue with mass civil disobedience if it becomes law.