The proposed Civil Contingencies Bill is supposed to modernise local and national civil emergency arrangements. However it goes well beyond this, aiming to allow the Government and Ministers to exercise almost absolute powers at the slightest excuse.

An 'emergency' need not actually exist. Something need only - as a matter of opinion - be perceived as a threat, about to happen at home or abroad.

Ministers then can make emergency regulations equivalent to an Act of Parliament or the Royal Prerogative. This would let them amend or suspend virtually any Act - even constitutional legislation protecting our rights.

They can force an individual to carry out any action. They can destroy or confiscate property, without compensation. They can ban movement, freedom of the press or any other activity (with the curious exception of industrial action which might hamper responding to a real emergency)

They can hand powers to any individuals seen fit, including foreign officials with immunity from prosecution. (The Government wants to see more co-ordination of civil and criminal matters from Europe).

Although 'emergency' regulations should be cleared with Parliament 'when possible', Ministers can simply make new ones at will.

Failure to comply can mean imprisonment. There is no guarantee of a judicial review in the case of unreasonable use of powers.

That the Government has refused to consider a list of protected legislation is telling - and if powers are there, it can safely be assumed that they are there to be used!

It has already moved to discard our traditional safeguards such as trial by jury and 'no conviction without evidence', and allowed British citizens to be extradited abroad for 'offences' that are not a crime in the UK and without any need to produce evidence.

(It is also Government policy to enable the 'Europeanisation' of our civil and criminal law system through the proposed EU Constitution, which will also enable co-ordination of civil protection at EU level.)

Lord Lucas noticed parallels between the Bill and the Great Dictator's 'Enabling Act' in 1933, when emergency powers were used legitimately to uproot democracy.

The Government wishes to pass the Bill in November 2004. Both Houses of Parliament will have to decide whether the Bill should be amended or scrapped.

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Compiled: 24 August 2004; updated 15 November 2004