The Socialist 1 April 2020 |
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Editorial of the Socialist issue 1080
Emergency legislation: Trade unions must be on guard against attacks on workers' interests
RMT union members demonstrating against Johnson's threat to the right to strike, London 19.12.19, photo JB (Click to enlarge)
Within just a few days, Tory ministers managed to drive their 329-page emergency coronavirus bill through both houses of parliament.
The new Act gives the government unprecedented and widespread powers. Along with some 'secondary legislation' measures enacted just before, it gives powers to a range of state officials and the police to close premises, stop events, restrict or close transport networks, enforce 'social distancing', order isolation, detain people, and much else.
It also provides power to close the UK borders.
Many of the temporary measures to protect the health of workers and their families, and save lives, will be widely supported, despite the limits on freedoms and rights. The Act also includes measures such as allowing recently retired NHS staff to return to work without any loss of pension rights.
But there are powers in the Act which could potentially impact badly on the health of sections of the population. For instance, it gives councils the power to downgrade care for the disabled and the elderly.
In addition, there are measures which could be misused. For example, it will be more straightforward for doctors to be able to certify a death without actually seeing the deceased person; and the signature of only one doctor rather than two will be necessary to section someone on mental health grounds.
It was for reasons like these that even some Tory MPs expressed disquiet. A Kent Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, argued that some of the powers could be used in a "malicious fashion". The criticisms led the government to promise a six-monthly 'review' of the measures - which have been legislated to remain in force for two years!
Why two years, when the top health representatives are saying that special measures will be necessary for six months? The trade union movement needs to be on guard for the many possible ways the Act could be used against workers' interests.
The foremost aim of capitalist governments is not protecting people's lives and health but defending the interests of big business and the super-rich. With the economy plummeting, sharp and major battles lie ahead over who will pay the price of the crisis - battles in which the government will seek to use laws and the justice system against workers' struggles.
The new legislation could also be used against other democratic rights, such as the regular holding of elections in which political representatives can be removed.
The Tory government can't be trusted to make decisions on these issues in the interests of working-class people.
The trade unions and working people need to fight for the right to be able to check and veto all emergency measures - and assess and control the way they are used. This is the only way to ensure they are used solely to safeguard the health and other interests of the overwhelming majority in society.