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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Making Laws, Branding Criminals in Britain

Making Laws, Branding Criminals in Britain

Parliament: Home of Hasty Laws - Steve F-E-Cameron

People in the UK Can So Easily Pick Up a Criminal Record.
The Westminster and European Parliaments churn out thousands of laws annually often with little debate, most of which can now lead to a huge fine, a jail term or both.

The UK operates a large bureaucratic machine called the Independent Safeguarding Authority complemented by an unaccountable system of Criminal Record Bureau checks affecting everybody who works with or has contact with vulnerable members of society.

These are defined as children in educational or social environments, all ages in care and those unable to be responsible themselves. It all comes out of increased global terrorism fears of the past few years and it sounds fair enough: people should be checked.

However, it’s now applied to paid or voluntary employment, church or youth groups, scouts and guides, registered childminding, sports activities, fostering and adopting. The approval (if given) fits one institution at present, so a supply teacher needs separate checks for each school, and again if he/she also helps a church youth group on Sundays. It’s getting out of hand.

Knee-Jerk Legislation

Removal of citizen’s freedom of movement rights have become commonplace around the UK, for fear of terrorists, though few such draconian restrictions were imposed during the attacks on mainland Britain by the IRA. Invasive searches, scans and suspicions of citizens at airports have now spread almost everywhere.

Holding terror suspects without due legal process has always been contentious, and ought to be subject to extensive debate in Parliament. When Charles Clarke was Home Secretary he faced opposition to his plan to rush laws through in just days. But he was following a time-worn path.

In the early 1990s, the Conservative Government faced cries for action when some children were savaged by suddenly fashionable pitbull terriers. Media pictures of mauled kids led to the banning and death of any dog deemed to be dangerous. The criminals who took to using dogs as offensive weapons simply ignored the law.

When Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and a teacher in their school in Dunblane, Scotland, legislation banning handguns was rushed through to feed public demand that ‘something must be done’. Armed criminals have yet to note that handgun possession is a crime, while legitimate sports shooters face enormous problems.

The Child Support Agency was created to help mothers and children abandoned without support by feckless fathers, but a mix of bad law and poor administration caught all fathers, even the responsible. Outbreaks of salmonella from eggs, foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease; the Football Spectators Act in response to one disaster at a football stadium – all have needed considered laws, but the instinct to make a law quickly and then modify it, seems to be an affliction of modern governance.

Living in a Looking-Glass World

More recent laws have detailed what people may not do, whereas in previous times, there was an assumption that a thing was acceptable unless it had to be banned specifically.

Philip Johnson in a book, Bad Law reports there are 20 – 30 major Acts of Parliament a year, so since 1997 we have seen 350 substantial laws, each fathering hundreds of secondary regulations, consultations, ruling bodies and criminal convictions.

He says that we now live in a looking-glass world where everything is back to front. The owner of a horse, donkey or Shetland pony must buy an ID for the animal to prevent poisoning anybody eating it; babies must have photograph-verified passports; travelling circuses must apply for a licence at every single venue.

Such regulation is tortuous and illogical. If circus music is incidental, it need not be licensed; if integral, it must be. So, Zippo’s Circus arriving in Birmingham 2008 found the clown act forbidden from playing a blast of trumpets or an exploding horn – such things made it a live music performance needing the bureaucracy and cost of a licence.

It is now a criminal offence to smoke in a public place (which may have had a beneficial impact on pubs and clubs and less people suffering from passive smoking) or in a car if others travel to work in it or it is used for any work. Refusal to allow a designated person (hundreds are now designated) from entering a home, could lead to jail.

Anyone smacking their own child leaving a visible mark can be sent to prison for up to five years. Even teenagers’ smooching is criminalised by law which forbids all sexual activity by under-16s, yet the UK has one of the highest rates of underage pregnancies in Europe.

Photographers and train spotters can be arrested; it is illegal to take a photograph of a police officer on duty. As Johnson cries, “Our common sense has been stolen. In its place we have been given hundreds of thousands of new laws”.

And all this while the British public has watched impotently as the guardians of freedom, Members of Parliament, have in the main got away with abusing their expenses systems with an apology and a gentle slap on the wrist.

First published on Suite 101, 5th April 2010.

Photo: Parliament: Home of Hasty Laws – Steve F-E-Cameron

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