d e m o c r a c y

[ 01:33 friday 11 march – shipton street, london ]

the house of commons has just commenced debate on the government’s inventive new prevention of terrorism bill. hazel blears, the sharp and lawyerly home office minister leading for the government, is currently explaining why the government is rejecting (for the third time) the amendments which the house of lords persists in making. live feeds from both houses are open on my screen, as they have been for the past few days.

for those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes that the home secretary should be able to issue “control orders” imposing a range of restrictions on british citizens. these include bans on using telephones and the internet, bans on meeting or corresponding with other people, bans on continuing particular kinds of work and (last but not least) house arrest.

the government’s creative genius reaches its dizzy apogee in the suggestion that these restrictions should be imposed upon people who have committed no crime and against whom no court has passed judgment. those subject to restrictions would have no right to be informed of the accusations made against them. restrictions would be maintained for as long as the home secretary deemed necessary.

the house of lords, that intolerable and undemocratic relic, has once again been proving itself the final guardian of basic liberties. stalwartly and in the face of great pressure the noble lords have repeatedly refused to pass the bill. gently and ponderously they introduce amendments to blunt its most egregious charms. specifically they demand that the burden of proof required to impose restrictions should be raised from “reasonable suspicion” to “the balance of probability” and the entire legislation should self-destruct after nine months. the government is determined to accept neither amendment.

02:21 – “clear the lobbies” cries the speaker. the honourable members file out of the chamber to vote.

02:29 – “lock the doors” cries the speaker. the names of members in each lobby are ticked off on giant sheets of paper.

the government will prevail and the lords’ amendments will be struck down. the size of the government’s majority and the force of whip applied on this bill make it inevitable. the bill will then return once more to the lords. this ping pong will continue through tomorrow unless one side buckles.

“the ayes to the right 298, the noes to the left 216”. the government wins by a majority of 82.

it emerges that mr blair, the prime minister, has been present in the house of commons throughout the debate and indeed voted in the division. yet he has not seen fit to enter the chamber or participate in the debate. the speaker apologises that he has no power to summon the prime minister to the chamber.

the majorities in the lords for each amendment have so far been solid, but i feel uncertain if their resolve will hold. one way or the other it will be resolved by tea time.

i remember the night in november 2001, sitting in my house in stromboli with the wood-burner rustling and crackling, as the previous prevention of terrorism bill was lurching through the same process. then as now the erudite words of parliamentarians reached me via rectangles on my screen. how distant it seemed then, how close it feels now.

: c*

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