With its 171 sections on everything from curtailing the right to silence
and the right to free assembly
to making it easier to evict squatter
s to regulating oyster fishing, the Criminal Justice
and Public Order Act 1994
provided a powerful focus for the United Kingdom
's political activists of the mid-nineties in much the same way as the Poll Tax
had at the end of the Eighties
, and rather as the institutions of global capitalism
- the WTO
, the World Bank
and so on - provide a focus for demonstrations throughout the world now.
The line of the Labour Party, of which Tony Blair was Shadow Home Secretary at the time, was to abstain from voting on the bill because there was some good stuff in there. Of course there was, said critics; an act with as many parts as that, on as many separate, unrelated issues, could hardly fail to get something right. However, the act drew searing condemnation from the human rights watchdog Liberty and democracy campaigners Charter 88; from homeless charities; from young people who felt that a clause specifically prohibiting amplified music 'wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a series of repetitive beats' seemed like a heavy-handed swipe at a culture the legislators couldn't understand (see here); from travellers, who were hit by a whole range of measures designed to make their existence as awkward as possible, from removing both the legal requirement and the subsidies for land to be set aside for travellers, to extensive powers allowing police and land owners to force them to move on at short notice; from squatters and sympathisers who worried about measures making it legal for property owners to hire civilians to carry out evictions using physical force, and to make it possible for eviction notices to be served with only twenty-four hours' warning; from many people concerned about justice, who felt that abolishing the right to silence was a mistake and increasing fines for cannabis possession by a factor of five was bizarre at best; and from political activists of all stripes, who were concerned that new powers for police to ban almost any assembly they didn't like the sound of, and the new offence of 'aggravated trespass' making it a criminal offence to trespass with the intention of disrupting a lawful activity (such as fox hunting or road building), seemed to be designed to crack down on the right to express dissent.
In many respects the Act simply made formal what had been unofficial - and often illegal - police policy for years; their ongoing harassment of the traveller community and the rave scene was now on a firm legal footing, and where before they often had to bend the law to make public protests impossible, now all they needed was the say-so from a senior officer and they could ban almost any protest at whim.
As Labour said, though, the act wasn't all bad; along with everything else, at least it legalised anal sex between a man and a woman, and lowered the Age of Consent for gay men from 21 to 18 (it has since been lowered to 16, in line with the Age of Consent for heterosexual relations). The bits about oyster fishing were kind of okay too, I think.
1994 and 1995 saw a number of protests against the act in Central London, some of them many tens of thousands strong, but the govenment - knowing that the demonstrators had no power to hit them where it hurts, and that they had no serious opposition in parliament - had no problem with ignoring these more or less entirely. Challenges to several of the Act's measures were launched in the European Court of Human Rights; the European Convention on Human Rights, which has since been incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, is supposed to guarantee freedom of assembly, the right of individuals not to be stopped and searched without just cause, and the right to fair trial and presumption of innocence, which it has been argued are incompatible with the Act's effective abolition of the right to silence. The Scottish Liberal Democrats at their 1994 conference decried the act's human rights implications and supported the legal challenge in the ECHR. The process of taking a government to court in the ECHR is a painfully slow one, however, which it is hard for anyone not directly involved to keep track of. To date, although a couple of relatively minor clauses have been thrown out by the court these challenges have not succeeded in overturning any of the Act's major provisions.
Squall magazine (www.squall.co.uk)
If anyone knows what became of the major legal challenges, I'd like to hear about it...