Trade unions must defend civil liberties
By Lucy Clement
More people in jail, more miscarriages of justice and the ditching of centuries-old safeguards - these are the Government's plans for the criminal justice system. Ministers will introduce no less than six different criminal justice bills in the coming year - attacking basic civil liberties, and making it ever harder for people to escape from a cycle of poverty and crime.
Among the worst of the proposals is a plan to scrap the "double jeopardy" rule which prevents people being tried twice for the same crime.
Supporters of the change say it may mean Stephen Lawrence's killers being brought to justice. They forget that the reason the killers escaped in the first place was nothing to do with double jeopardy - and everything to do with police racism and incompetence.
There are renewed attacks on trial by jury, cuts to protection for those facing extradition and a new clampdown on "anti-social behaviour".
Home Office Minister Lord Falconer admits that plans to allow magistrates to impose longer sentences (up from a maximum of six months to a maximum of a year) will mean a rise in the prison population. Unelected magistrates are significantly more likely to convict than juries.
The prison population - already over 72,000 and way beyond the capacity of the system to cope - is set to soar, even as the Government cuts education and rehabilitation programmes and privatises yet more of the prison service.
The Criminal Justice Bill will allow the use of hearsay evidence and extend the circumstances where previous convictions can be revealed in court. Even where no previous convictions exist, evidence of a defendant's "bad character" may be permitted - once you're a criminal, it seems, you're one for life. This Bill which will scrap the double jeopardy rule and allow judge-only trials where issues are deemed too complicated for a jury (which, unlike the judge isn't all middle-class and hasn't been to Oxbridge).
A Bill on sentencing and criminal procedures increase the areas where magistrates' courts and crown courts work together - a recipe for job cuts and worse service.
A new Extradition Bill will introduce fast-track extradition within the EU based on a European Arrest Warrant. Many other EU countries do not afford defendants the same rights as in the UK - allowing long periods of detention without charge and, as recent trials such as that of the planespotters in Greece have demonstrated, inadequate legal representation and translation facilities for foreign nationals on trial. This is coupled with a Crime (International Co-operation) Bill, which will put in place new systems for EU countries to co-operate on surveillance of suspects. The Government claims this will help deal with terrorism - but it will also give police new powers to stop political activists moving around the continent as they did during the European Social Forum.
A new Sexual Offences Bill attempts to modernise the law on sex offences in light of new developments such as internet child pornography. Much of this Bill is unobjectionable. The Government has agreed to clarify the law on consent in rape cases - something for which women's rights campaigners have long called - although as yet it has not explained in detail the new proposals. However, the Bill fails to tackle important injustices that exist in the current law - such as the continuing criminalisation of workers in the sex industry, many of them very vulnerable to assault.
An Anti-Social Behaviour Bill will extend the range of offences where police can levy fixed penalties - effectively penalising people who want a proper trial. It will become easier to evict anti-social tenants - although quite how making people homeless is going to solve anti-social behaviour is not made clear. And, ominously, it threatens financial penalties to tackle truancy: making poor families poorer is no way to encourage children to go to school.
Why so many crime Bills? Many of them re-introduce plans already rejected by the House of Lords - which ironically has proved a stauncher defender of civil rights than the Blair Government. Ministers believe that piecemeal they will get the changes through more easily - and they've recently changed Parliament's procedures to help them do so.
The labour movement should be wary of relying on the Lords and human rights groups to lead the opposition to the Government. These plans will - without doubt - hit the working class harder than anyone else. We need to speak out for ourselves - socialists and trade unionists should be as much concerned by these plans as we are by the Government's attacks on our wages and public services. The criminal justice system is not neutral. It is run by the ruling class - in their interests. The crime Bills will hit the poor and disenfranchised hardest, and at the same time remove the safeguards which might have protected them.