Democracy in danger: call to action

Green peers take on Patel Meme by Sadie Parker

Sadie Parker explains why we need to act now to arrest the erosion of our democracy and rights.

In January 2022, two of the worst Bills ever conceived by a British government return to the House of Lords: the Nationality and Borders (NB) Bill on 5 January, and then on 10 January it is the turn of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill. These controversial bills are at different stages in their progress through the House, with the NB Bill about to receive its second reading, and the PCSC Bill in the penultimate ‘Report’ stage.

Both these Bills are the brainchild of nationalist-populist extraordinaire Priti Patel, who has a tendency to write Bills designed to satisfy her own vengeful agenda. Abusing the legislative process to settle personal scores is not a sensible way to draft laws for a country that aspires to global leadership. This is especially true when the minister doing the drafting has a vindictive nature, is a proven bully and has shown herself to be particularly untrustworthy. Many have forgotten that, when serving under Theresa May, she was forced to resign in disgrace having held unauthorised, secret meetings with Israel in 2017. She had then gone on to lobby to divert some of the UK Aid budget to support Israeli military projects. She is unprincipled.

Are these Bills as bad as all that?

In a word, yes. While each has welcome elements, some of the provisions of the NB Bill would not have been out of place in 1930s Germany. Indeed, Adolf Hitler also passed a law that gave him broad powers to strip citizens of their nationality. Some will feel this analogy goes too far and that surely the British government is not going to such an extreme? Sadly, the potential for state overreach is enormous. The proposed law gives the government the power to strip someone of British citizenship without notice or right of appeal, if the Home Secretary deems it “conducive to the public good” and thinks the person “is able to become a citizen of another state” – even if it renders them stateless. These powers are scarily broad and lacking in judicial safeguards.

The party which sought to weaken parliamentary standards to allow a corrupt colleague to escape sanction, citing the need for ‘natural justice’, now wants to deny people the right to a fair hearing.

Furthermore, there is another law going through parliament that aims to limit our ability to go to court to overturn arbitrary abuses of power by the government (see the Judicial Review and Courts Bill). A government without checks and balances is a very dangerous beast indeed.

The government’s unilateral declaration that our nationality is now a privilege which can be removed on an official whim, rather than an inalienable right, is not the only concern about this Bill. There is also the proposed treatment of refugees, which includes jail sentences for asylum seekers who don’t come via a legal route. This might be fair if the government weren’t simultaneously shutting all legal routes down. It is not illegal to be a refugee or asylum seeker – in the vast majority of cases it is driven by utter desperation. Placing so much focus on how a refugee arrives here, rather on why they have become a refugee in the first place, is a perverse and unjust way to set policy in this area.

Unfortunately, that is not the worst of it. Patel wants to criminalise rescuing refugees at sea, with the new ‘offence’ punishable by a jail term. Until pressurised to exempt them, Patel was content for the Coastguard and the RNLI to fall under this law and either to risk criminal charges by breaking it, or to sit on their hands and watch human beings drown. These cruel and shameful provisions fly in the face of ‘the law of the sea’, some of which dates back to Byzantium and all of which prioritises life. We are a maritime nation and we must fight to prevent this shambolic government from staining our great seafaring tradition in this way.

The principal objection to the PCSC Bill is the increase in powers for police to impose restrictions on peaceful procession, assembly, and protest – powers that the police themselves have said they do not need and did not seek. This law would greatly expand the circumstances in which police can impose conditions on activities such as religious festivals, community gatherings (from Notting Hill Carnival to communal firework nights), sporting events, vigils and remembrance ceremonies, marches, demonstrations to save hospital services, and so on. The UK charity Justice, which strives for a fair, accessible and equal justice system, says the Bill also removes the qualifier of knowingly breaching police-imposed conditions in order for an action to be deemed an offence, and introduces a broad statutory offence of public nuisance with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. These changes risk breaching rights of freedom of expression, assembly and legal certainty.

If we still had a ‘good chaps’ political environment, neither of these Bills might be as bad in practice as they are on paper, because we would be able to trust that our elected leaders would only use such powers in extremis. But we need to bear in mind that the present home secretary hates environmental pressure groups (but, curiously, tolerates ‘anti-vax’ lawlessness) and had to be talked down from putting them on the terrorist list. What is more, Patel wants to make such provisions retroactive to cover legally dubious decisions made by the Home Office in the past, and it is clear to anyone concerned about abuse of power that it would be dangerous to pass this law as it stands.

This government has destroyed the ‘good chaps’ model of government and is nudging us ever closer to Russian-style ‘managed’ faux-democracy. Given the appalling behaviour of the current cohort of ministers, we must build safeguards against state overreach into all our laws now, before it is too late.

Call to action

It is a damning indictment of the state of politics today that it has had to come down to the unelected House of Lords to save us from the excesses of a government that is out of control. Yet here we are. The Conservatives’ huge majority has translated into zero respect for our elected parliament, with party whips coercing MPs into rubber-stamping all sorts of outrages.

Fortunately, there are many peers who are concerned by the way this government is bulldozing our constitution and stripping us of rights, while distracting us with one scandal after another.

Prominent among these vigilant politicians are our two Green Party peers, Baroness Jenny Jones of Moulsecoomb and Baroness Natalie Bennett of Manor Castle. Both are doing a wonderful job of keeping the public informed about opposition to the worst excesses of these two bills, and about the marathon sessions in the Lords, without pause or refreshment late into the night, and other government shenanigans. Jenny Jones assures us that it is not too late to get the government to think again, and is calling on us to write to Labour MPs and peers, in particular, to urge them to throw their weight behind opposing these bad laws. Note the caveat that Jenny explains here:

Currently, you can only approach an MP if you are a constituent unless you are contacting them in the context of their membership of a committee, or their role as a minister. In contrast, Lords do not have constituents as such, or a specific geographical territory they serve, so they can be approached by anyone. The present make-up of the 779 active peers is:

Lord Speaker1
Independent Conservative1
Independent Labour1
Liberal Democrats84
Independent Social Democrat1
Plaid Cymru1

You can find a list of Labour peers here and cross-benchers here. Still, that’s a lot of Lords to choose from. How to narrow it down? You could apply these criteria:

  • Geography: although they aren’t tied to a geographical area, peers may be more receptive to appeals from people who live in their county. Unfortunately, peers only have to add a geographical title to their name if there is already a peer with the same surname, so not many of them are readily identifiable with a particular county. South-West peers include (but may not be limited to):
Lord Myners (from Cornwall, cross-bencher, last voted 2019, pro-Brexit)
Earl of Devon (cross-bencher, voted against Govt on Environment Bill)
Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury (cross-bencher, voted against Govt on IMB*)
Lord Fellowes of West Stafford (Tory, pro-Brexit)
Lord Knight of Weymouth (Labour, former MP for Dorset South)
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (cross-bencher, pro-Brexit, mixed record)
Duke of Somerset (cross-bencher, has so far voted with Govt on PCSC Bill)
Duke of Wellington (cross-bencher, championed raw sewage amendment, but has so far voted with Govt on PCSC Bill)

*IMB = Internal Markets Bill

  • Have they been active recently? Click on a Lord’s name to access their profile. On the left-hand menu, select “Voting Record”. This lists all their votes in chronological order, with the most recent first. You’ll see when they last voted, the topics they’ve voted on in the past, and how they’ve voted. (Click on each individual vote to be taken to a bar chart which will show you at a glance whether they voted with or against the government.)
  • Might they have a particular interest in constitutional law, and if not, have they stood up to the government on previous occasions? As well as their voting record, the profile page of each peer on the parliament website has a menu-item called “focus areas”. For example, Lord Lisvane (cross-bencher) has not (yet) voted on the PCSC Bill, but he voted for the anti-genocide amendment to the Trade Bill earlier this year, opposed the outrageous Internal Markets Bill last year, and has done a fine job exposing some of the absurdities of Brexit. He might be a good peer to approach.

When writing to a peer, all ranks are addressed as “Dear Lord or Lady…”, except for Dukes and Duchesses (“Dear Duke or Duchess…”) and Archbishops and Bishops (“Dear Lord or Lady Archbishop / Bishop…”).

Our democracy is at stake. Let’s get writing.

Lobby Keir Starmer. Lobby the Labour party. They need to get behind this initiative and mandate their peers to prevent these draconian bills becoming law.