Friday, January 23, 2015

Magna Carta: 800 years on, we need a new people’s charter

There’s fanfare over the anniversary but the rights enshrined in the Great Charter are, for society’s most vulnerable, being trodden on daily

King John depicted ratifying Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215

Magna Carta enshrined a principle of British justice that recent Labour and Conservative governments have treated with disdain and abused with impunity. Consider article 20, replacing the ancient word “amerce” with the modern “sanction”: “A free man shall not be [sanctioned] for a trivial offence except in accordance with the degree of the offence … but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood … and none of the aforesaid [sanctions] shall be imposed save by the oath of reputable men”.

For anyone facing a sanction, articles 38-40 are a firm commitment to due process, asserting the right to legal representation, to know charges in advance, to be able to contest them before equals, and then only to be sanctioned if found guilty by independent procedures by independent equals. Yet today we have numerous sanctions without due process, and the principle of proportionality has been lost. Successive governments have multiplied the number of acts that can be deemed criminal or misdemeanours, constructing a regime of unaccountable discretionary decisions that blight people’s lives. Rights to legal aid have been cut, and the social, cultural and economic rights of migrants and asylum seekers have been whittled away.

We should use the anniversary to campaign to overthrow the tactics used by Iain Duncan Smith, and accepted by his Labour shadows, to cut the number receiving benefits. Politicians are building an edifice of sanctions against the most vulnerable members of society without any respect for due process.

Every day, cases of abuse by authority come to light, and there are new reports of government agencies denying claimants benefits that would just about enable them to hold their lives together.

How dare a government cover itself with the cloak of Magna Carta when it is doing such things? This government has constructed a vicious, arbitrary regime of benefit sanctions against the precariat and underclass. Hundreds of thousands have lost the minimum benefits needed for dignity and bare survival without due process. Similarly, steered by populist prejudice, migrants and asylum seekers have been hounded and penalised without any semblance of due process. Many have been driven to a suicidal despair that only those devoid of human empathy can fail to understand...