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Tuesday, March 25, 2008 

And now, some rare good news, amid a tepid constitutional reform white paper.

Only 3 years after it was first passed, the sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 dealing with protests with 1km of Westminster are to be repealed. Presumably those members of parliament who justified the restrictions on the basis that Brian Haw's placards could hide a bomb might be moved to retract their words, and perhaps those convicted under the act might also have their records cleared, along with apologies from the government for how they were prosecuted simply for exercising their democratic right. Perhaps I might go piss in the wind.

That, sadly, was about the most radical part of today's white paper on the "constitutional renewal bill" (PDF). The other measures are either ones that have long been proposed or ones that are incredibly feeble. Hence the reform of the attorney general's powers, prompted entirely because of the concerns over the advice given prior to the Iraq war and Lord Goldsmith's role in the ending of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the BAE-Saudi slush fund are such that he/she in the future will retain the right to end prosecutions over matters of national security, which just so happens to be the specious reasoning behind the dropping of the SFO case! The change itself that the attorney general will have to report to parliament when he/she does wield that power isn't clear either; Goldsmith announced to the Lords previously that the inquiry was being dropped. Isn't that more or less one and the same thing?

The whole bill seems to have this aura of meaninglessness and paucity of radicalism about it. Parliament will now have to have all treaties laid before it and passed before they can be enshrined, but this won't apply to either EU or tax treaties, so how often this new parliamentary right will be exercised is open to question. The civil service will be formally made independent, which is long overdue, but again how much it will actually change anything is another matter.


As promised, the bill does set out how parliament will have a vote before war which is a much needed reform, but this doesn't inspire total confidence either. Two points open to question are that the attorney general's advice on whether the conflict itself will be legal under international law will not be provided in full but whether it's legal or not will be given, which is hardly sufficient either for those expected to vote on such a matter or for this country's standing on the international stage. It also won't apply to when special forces are being used, won't be retroactive, so if forces are sent in secretly then there won't necessarily be a vote once their mission becomes known, and if parliament is dissolved or adjourned when a conflict breaks out, again the government reserves the right not to recall parliament in order for a vote to be held. We'd better hope then a war doesn't break out sometime between July and the end of the party conferences at September, as the government will be fully justified in ignoring calls for a vote, just as it ignored calls for a recall to debate the Israel-Lebanon-Hizbullah war in 2006.

The other parts of the bill/white paper deal with public appointments, on which the government is yet to respond to recommendations made by the liason committee; the intelligence and security committee, which under the proposals is to be ever so slightly beefed up, with appointments made by the commons rather than the prime minister himself, briefings to be given making the committee's work more public, a role for an investigator previously assigned to be revived, and with a debate after publishing of reports in the House of Lords. This doesn't come close to what we really need, which is a watchdog similar to either prisons inspectorate or to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Similarly, if the directors of either MI5 or MI6 can make public speeches about just how dire the security situation is, as both the former and current head of MI5 has done, they should be expected to give their evidence to the committees in public. They can't demand secrecy one moment and give bloodcurdling speeches the next.

Finally the paper sees no reason to change the current archaic system of the prime minister appointing senior members of the Church of England to their respective posts, although it does deign to consider recommendations made by the Synod itself over the procedures, and the flag will now be able to fly from government buildings permanently.

That, it seems, is the key metaphor for the entire packaging. Everything else might be screwed, but the flag will continue to fly.

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I got this from another source -

"Jack Straw announced plans to replace SOCPA sections 132-138, which
ban spontaneous demonstrations around Parliament, and make it a
criminal offence to demonstrate with police permission - to get
maximum positive PR from the ever compliant press, Straw only
announced the repeal now, while the need for new laws was hidden in
the small print. One battle may soon be over, the struggle continues
on the streets."

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