Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The new Black Acts

It seems we may be entering a new Georgian age. The 18th century is famed for the number of property offences for which the punishment was death. Poaching is most notorious, but a range of other more minor crimes also attracted a capital penalty. As we enter 2014, we seem to be recriminalising offences against property- matters which have perfectly well been protected by civil sanctions previously. The Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act 2013 is the most extreme example, making it a criminal offence to sublet your council house. It seems that eviction was not bad enough. Now, with the imminent implementation of the Tribunals, Courts & Enforcement Act 2007, another new offence arrives. Under Sch.12 para.68 of the 2007 Act it becomes an offence to interfere with goods taken into control and to obstruct a bailiff. The former replaces the longstanding- if redundant- offences of rescue and poundbreach. The second offence is new and its scope is as yet uncertain. Comparing the new misdemeanour to obstruction of a police officer, it seems likely that the conduct likely to constitute this offence will involve matters less than assault and battery- for which sanctions already exist- and may include nonviolent obstruction, lying, abuse and unhelpfulness. It is interesting to speculate how much this may effect future protest movements- and how much it was intended to inhibit protest. Objections to government policy (especially, of course, tax policy) has often manifested itself through tax refusal. Henry David Thoureau writing On the duty of civil disobedience said that refusing taxes was the "simplest, most effectual, ... the indispensablest mode" of resistance. "This in fact is the definition of a peaceful revolution, if any such is possible." Protest by means of resistance to bailiffs has been fully described in The Victorian bailiff, Distraint and discontent and, most recently, Weapon of authority but I shall illustrate this theme by one further, if rather extreme, example. In 1914 the East London Suffrage Federation proposed a rent strike as a way of demanding the vote for women. In support of this campaign they organised a People's Army. In the context of paramilitary forces forming in northern Ireland at the time, this might have eemed slightly less remarkable than it does now, but it was still a challenging action. The Army drilled at Ford Road, Bow and promised to defeat bailiffs sent to break the strike: if intimidation of landlords did not succeed, and the brokers were put in, "they will rescue the furniture and carry it home in triumph..." (The Syndicalist vol.III, no.1, Jan.1914 p.1; The Woman's Dreadnought Advance issue, March 1914 p.8). If such direct action failed, the Army promised to attend sales, pack the auction rooms and bid a penny per item so as to "baffle the bailiff." The rent strike and action against bailiffs were "The Working Women's Weapon." Despite these brave words of Sylvia Pankhurst, this particular campaign never took off. In fact, the greatest success of the ELF was lobbying against individual distraints during the First World War (Woman's Dreadnought no.25, Sept.5th 1914 p.1)and generally campaigning on behalf of the vulnerable suffering as a result of the conflict. Nonetheless, it is clear that such actions today, even if no violence of any description is provoked, will potentially lead to prosecutions of dissenters, a penalty for their dissent alone. How much the new offence is utilised- and how much it effects the future of civil disobedience- remains to be seen...

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