The Britain you live in, the freedoms you enjoy, and the democratic processes you take for granted are all about to be changed forever if two bills currently winding their way through parliament become law. Neither is currently attracting very much attention - perhaps because it's just human nature to be gripped instead by the individual stories that have transfixed us over the past few weeks; what did Tessa Jowell know about the money in her marriage, and what did Blair know about honours-for-loans? Serious as those stories are, they're much less significant than the extension of state and Government power which this administration is currently pushing through.
A bill which the government promised would cut red tape for business has instead become a vehicle for a huge extension of ministerial power. When the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill dropped on civil servants' desks in January they could not believe the provisions it contained. One said to me that in his 30 years' experience, it was the most shocking piece of legislation he had ever seen laid before the House. The Bill allows Ministers to alter any laws, except tax laws, simply by making an order. As the bill stands, there is nothing in it to prevent ministers taking the most draconian powers. They could, for example, use the legislation to end jury trial, sack judges, make political protest illegal, or place citizens under house arrest. The only thing they may not do is to create a new offence punishable by more than two years in prison.
This bill would make ministers' lives much simpler and more stress-free. They will avoid the tedious business of having to make the arguments for their bills to MPs and Lords, and they will avoid the danger of defeat. Although there are a handful of safeguards in the Bill, allowing Government-majority committees to raise objections, and call for further debate, these safeguards have been described by five Cambridge law professors as "few and weak".
The committee that has been scrutinising the Bill for the past few weeks has kept being reassured by the minister concerned, Jim Murphy, that the government will not use this bill for 'highly controversial' measures, and that its intentions are nothing but benign. When MPs suggest that these reassurances should be enshrined in the legislation, alongside a list of vital acts which they would like to see placed beyond the bill's reach, Mr Murphy declines. He says that 'highly controversial' is hard to define. But we are not to worry - he will know it when he sees it. The problem for the rest of us is that ministerial reassurances count for nothing once a bill becomes law. All that counts is what is written in the statute, and assurances that are not written down are entirely irrelevant.
This bill is about to re-emerge before the Commons. Will MPs vote to weaken their own power even further? And if, indeed, we wanted evidence of the government's slipperiness when it comes to the meanings of words, we need only look at the debates which have been going on in the Lords over the ID cards bill. The Lords have bravely and persistently rejected the clause in the Bill which makes registering for an ID card compulsory for anyone applying for a passport.
The government, in the person of Baroness Scotland, argues that the Lords are obliged to pass the Bill because it was a commitment made in the election manifesto, and therefore Labour has a democratic mandate for it. The Lords point out that what the manifesto promises is that ID cards will be voluntary. Ah, says Lady Scotland, but the phrase "voluntary scheme to be rolled out alongside the renewal of passports" should be perfectly clear to anyone. It meant ID cards will be issued alongside passports, and passports won't be issued without them.
It should be noted that the Home Secretary's line on this is subtly different. His justification this week for ordering the Lords to let his bill through was this one; the scheme is indeed voluntary. People can choose whether or not they want a passport. Even if this outrageous interpretation of 'voluntary' was allowed to stand, what many of us don't realise is that it's not just passports which are likely to be linked to the ID scheme. It may be that the government decides that applying for a driving licence or a criminal records check will also require you to furnish all the required information to the ID card register.
Perhaps you think that being on the register won't matter much to you. You may not realise that the state will require you to furnish all kinds of information to it. It will hold all your identification numbers; for passport, driving licence, and national insurance. It will want to know all your changes of address as soon as you have lived somewhere for more than three months. A failure to tell the database will incur huge fines. It will register every inquiry to the database and the date of every change to it.
Information on the database can be given to foreign governments if they request it under acts designed to prevent international terrorism. Most crucially for our day-to day lives, the intention of the bill is that ID cards should be used to govern our access to state services. We will be expected to use it at hospitals, surgeries, schools. It takes no imagination whatsoever to see that commercial organisations are likely to adopt it too. And yet the bill allows the secretary of state to withdraw an ID card at any time, without giving a reason, from the individual concerned. In other words, the State will have the power to make you a non-citizen at any moment.
This is a staggering change to our freedom. When Tony Blair defended ID cards in the Observer a few weeks ago, he made no mention of their possible role in fighting terrorism - perhaps because that role has been widely ridiculed. Instead he said only that it was an idea whose time had come. We already carried so many cards of different kinds, from bank cards to driving licences, that this would make life simpler (check exact quote). But the key difference between other cards and this one is that each of the others reflects only one small part of our lives. Losing a bank card, or having it withdrawn, is an inconvenience. It doesn't prevent you living a normal life, which is what the loss or withdrawal of an ID card could do.
Nor should it be forgotten that there are many reasons why people may need or wish to keep their identities and locations secret at any time. Women fleeing honour killings, political activists fleeing foreign governments, people working under cover; those who have been witnesses in criminal trials - all may fear a national system that allows them to be tracked. Last year a friend of mine spent a year in hiding from a violent stalker. She had to leave not only her job but her profession, since otherwise her stalker could have traced her through the net. He was a man with good contacts in the police. Had an ID register already existed, could he have found her through it? No systems are perfect, and official ones always leak.
The alarming point about both these Bills is that MPs have been quite incapable of stopping them. You might wonder why parliament is so supine, in the face of threats to their power and to ours. On the L&RR bill, one alarming explanation for the Conservatives' lack of loud opposition is that they may be thinking how convenient they may find the Bill if they win the next election.
Part of the answer must lie in the construction of our political system. There are very few safeguards against a government which wants to push legislation through. Committees are supposed to be one protection, but they always have Government majorities. The problem for us, the voters, is that only those Labour MPs who have decided that they no longer care about their parliamentary careers ever dare to rebel against the Government on key votes like these. We can never expect a majority of independent- minded MPs under our system. It shows how weak we are compared to America, where committees have real teeth, precisely because Congressmen can have careers entirely independent of the President.
But part of the answer must lie in the fact that there's no pressure on the Government from us, the public, on these issues. We aren't lobbying MPs, writing to newspapers, or urging the Lords to stand firm against the government as it attempts to bully them. Perhaps we, the public, don't really care. Maybe we are happy to have officers of the state watching so many aspects of our lives, and passing laws which we will scarcely hear about. But if this isn't the world we want to live in, we'd better start making our voices heard now. Neither of these bills is law yet, but there's not much time left. If you care, start agitating - today.
ACT education experts recommend high-quality learning resources to help kids from pre-school through high school. Click Here to Learn More
This action will open a new window. Do you want to proceed?
Writing Sample Essays
Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. In your essay, be sure to:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of those given, in partial agreement, or completely different.
Get more information about preparing for the writing test.