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Why do we have an increasingly authoritarian government?

This government has no intention of delivering prosperity: so instead of a carrot, it is opting for a stick, writes DIANE ABBOTT MP

IN the middle of a public health catastrophe and the economic crisis that it has generated, this government has prioritised neither.

We have one of the worst death tolls in the world and official international forecasters estimate we will also have one of the deepest recessions.

Instead of dealing with these real and present threats to lives and livelihoods, the government has directed its energies towards repressive and draconian new legislation.

It is almost as if the government’s strategy is to adopt authoritarian laws in preparation for clamping down on the population, rather than effective measures to clamp down on the virus.

This week the government railroaded through the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, otherwise known as the “Spycops Bill.”

I was determined to vote against this pernicious piece of legislation and am delighted that 34 of my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party took the same view, along with dozens of MPs from other political parties.

In reality, neither the Bill’s formal title nor its nickname does full justice to how blatantly anti-democratic it is.

It is not about protecting or regulating police sources, or even allowing police and agents of the security services free rein to spy on all of us.

Shockingly, the legislation allows state officials to sanction rape, torture and murder in this country by police agents, members of the security services and their informants.

It places these forces above the law. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that it legally enshrines some of the worst abuses by the state.

Supporters of the Bill claim it is necessary to place undercover activity on a legal basis. This merely highlights the many illegal actions that have been encouraged at the highest levels over many decades.

Campaigns have been spied on, agents provocateurs have disrupted strikes and informed on union activity. People have also been murdered.

The Unite union, Amnesty and many others did great work in relating this legislation to the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

David Cameron was previously forced to apologise for the “shocking levels of collusion” of state forces and their agents and informers in the commission and conduct of the targeted assassination.

And this was not an isolated incident. I would urge readers to watch the TV documentary Unquiet Graves to see how widespread and deadly that collusion has been.

Yet this piece of legislation is not a one-off. In a dizzying blitz of draconian law-making, the government has tried to create a similar status above the law for British services personnel committing crimes overseas.

In addition, there is the renewal of the draconian powers of the Coronavirus Act.

The Overseas Operations Bill is publicly opposed by many veterans. Previously, they could legally refuse an unlawful order, for example, the torture of prisoners or murder of civilians and many are concerned that this law removes that legal protection.

I assume serving armed forces personnel are also concerned, but of course they cannot speak out.

Similarly, the Coronavirus Act allows the government to authorise and the police to operate with sweeping powers.

Ministers claim these are necessary to enforce restrictions. In fact, there are already ample statutes to enforce lockdowns and many prosecutions under the Act fail because it does not provide the appropriate legal framework. Instead, its effect is to grant enormous powers to ministers.

It is clear that Boris Johnson is not the social liberal his supporters claim and which the pundits repeat endlessly. People need to be judged by their actions. And this is the legislative programme of an increasingly authoritarian government.

Administrations providing widespread prosperity, general well-being and social peace do not need increasingly draconian powers.

But this government is failing on all these fronts. Its head-long rush to adopt sweeping powers for itself does not suggest that it expects success any time soon.

For once, ministers’ judgement is probably correct. Because all this storm of law-making is taking place during the worst public health crisis for 100 years and the worst economic slump for 90 years.

Of course, these two are related. The slump has been caused by the government’s failure to suppress the virus. People cannot and will not return to normal life while the pandemic is raging.

The official scientific verdict is that the failure of government policy means that the virus is now out of control and that its new policy will not work in suppressing the virus.

There is now even talk in government circles of a continuous stop-start approach, using every full school holiday and half-term break for another limited lockdown.

This, too, will not work. Ordinary people, BAME communities and the poor are suffering the most and will be driven to illness, job losses and even destitution, as Louise Casey said this week.

It does not have to be this way. There is an alternative.

The disruption can be time-limited. Other countries have virtually eliminated the virus, with new cases in the dozens and deaths down to a handful, within as little as six weeks of a thorough and effective lockdown.

That means all non-essential workers staying at home, schools universities and all leisure activities closed for a very limited period.

The schools plan being discussed in Downing Street will draw out the agony for far longer.

Of course, this means that full financial support should be available. If the lockdown is limited to six weeks or so, there is no reason that workers cannot be paid 100 per cent of their existing wages.

This is more affordable than paying people two-thirds of their salary for months on end, as the government three-tier plan entails and without the destitution.

In addition, the shambolic testing and tracing system needs to be taken out of the hands of the private sector, which has clearly failed.

The NHS and local authorities were always better placed to achieved effective outcomes and they need the funds to do it.

It will probably be a saving compared to the £12 billion handed over to Serco, Deloittes and others.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

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