'Dictatorial' powers Bill alarms peers
By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
Legislation conferring "dictatorial" powers upon ministers
to tackle major emergencies, including terrorist attacks, is facing a last-ditch
challenge in Parliament.
The Civil Contingencies Bill, which is intended to update
laws dating back more than 80 years, would allow the Government to suspend
or repeal any Act of Parliament if there is "an event or situation
which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the
security of the UK or a place in the UK".
The measure is being debated in the House of Lords tomorrow,
with peers determined to protect "core" constitutional provisions
from the scope of the legislation. They also want to ensure that the powers
in the Bill are renewed by Parliament every three years.
A Tory amendment - backed by a coalition of Liberal Democrats
and cross-benchers - specifies a number of a key Acts of Parliament that
would be exempt from suspension if ministers used their emergency powers.
They are the Habeas Corpus Act 1816, the Bill of Rights 1689,
a clause in the Parliament Act 1911 that limits the duration of a Parliament
to five years, and parts of the Act of Settlement 1700, the House of Commons
Disqualification Act 1975, the Life Peerages Act 1958 and the House of Lords
The Government has already agreed to exempt the Human Rights
Act and argues that should be a sufficient safeguard.
But Lady Buscombe, the Tory spokesman, said: "We are
attempting to safeguard the foundations of our democracy, our civil rights,
and ensuring that the supremacy and independence of Parliament is guaranteed
even in the event of emergency."
After viewing an early draft of the Bill, a committee of MPs
and peers said it contained "potentially dangerous flaws".
The Government responded by introducing a "triple lock"
- before an emergency can be declared it must be serious, the regulations
must be necessary and the response must be proportionate.
Any regulations would have to be approved retrospectively
by Parliament within 30 days, and directions issued by a minister would
lapse after 21 days unless endorsed by MPs and peers.
However, concerns remain that ministers could override existing
laws to requisition, confiscate or destroy property without compensation.
The measures could also prevent public access to sensitive sites, could
deploy the Armed Forces or ban public gatherings.
5 September 2004: Ministers to get dictators' powers
19 June 2003: Emergency powers to recognise modern threats
Civil Contingencies Bill - UK Parliament
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