Concern as new ’emergency powers’ legislation seeks to side-step human rights

There were concerns this week from civil libertarians about how ministers propose to side-step human rights legislation with their new ’emergency powers’ laws. Parliament is currently consulting on a draft Civil Contingencies Bill that will provide a single framework to replace the existing emergency powers legislation that dates from the 1920s.

“We don’t argue for a minute with the view that there are situations where a government needs emergency powers to deal with a specific situation and we believe there are also grounds for updating the legislation,” said Gareth Crossman, head of policy at civil rights group Liberty. “That said, the existing emergency powers legislation got us through the Second World War and the Cold War and they were sufficient to deal with sectarian violence arising from Northern Ireland which took place on the mainland.” The Cabinet Office team working on the bill recently consulted Liberty and it is expected to be in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.

Of particular concern to Liberty is one clause that deems all emergency regulations issued by the Secretary of State to be primary legislation for the purposes of the Human Rights Act. This means that the only way to challenge the emergency powers would be by a declaration of incompatibility. “It’s very worrying when you have regulations being given primary status in this way and our view is that once it has happened, it will happen again,” Crossman says. “We say it undermines the whole purpose of bringing in the human rights legislation.”

The apparent justification for the proposal is that, unless it is treated as primary, injunctions against regulations would interfere with emergency powers. “The chances of this happening are so miniscule, especially compared to the public policy issue, the subjugating of the Human Rights Act, at stake.”

Liberty also expressed concern at the greatly increased definition of what amounts to an emergency. The conflict in Iraq would amount to a security threat that could trigger the legislation’s powers, which could, in turn, ban a peaceful anti-war demo. “My concern is that the trigger has to be set at a sufficiently high enough level to ensure powers aren’t activated unnecessarily,” Crossman added.