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I want to have a government pass a permit law without the public knowledge overnight. The story is set in the United Kingdom, where half the population are cat people. The recently elected government are extremely racist towards cat people, and want to make their lives as difficult as possible. I currently have a scene where a law is passed overnight or secretly that prevents the cat people from going outside without a permit. The idea of having this done overnight is that as many people as possible will be caught outside without a permit, so they are given a criminal record and fined or imprisoned depending on if they can pay the £100 spot fine. This way the government could reap massive amounts of money from people caught outside by police forces without a permit, simply because they didn't know.

I have been looking at the UK law making process, and I can't see anything anywhere that explicitly states that the population will be made aware of a law that is being created. However, I am worried that the situation may come across as implausible, unless laws have been passed quietly in the past. So, is it possible that the permit law could be pushed through without any public knowledge, and if so how?


Edit based on comments (from comment)

I decided to have it that humans elect the government for one election cycle and cat people for the other so that I can bypass having to explain lack of opposition (handwavium ;) ) Also, if someone does get a permit, then they can still work obviously. A lot of these things I hadn't considered, looking back, so I will probably need to change percentages

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation, including real-world examples and speculation about how such a system might fail, has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 20 '16 at 4:03

14 Answers 14

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The trick is not to pass the law itself. Instead, you pass a law creating a Street Safety Office, which shall issue regulations (that have the force of law) concerning people's comings and goings. Then you only appoint non-cat people to the SSO.

Bonus points for hiding the creation of the SSO in a big Street Safety Act that includes crossing guards outside schools, red-light cameras, what have you.

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    $\begingroup$ Bonus point for not using hypothetic scenarios $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 18 '16 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, this. Anything done in Parliament itself is publicly recorded in Hansard, but ministerial policies are not always known outside the office that enforces them. For example in Australia (which has a more or less similar system to the UK) some years ago there was a change to passport policy that nobody heard about until Natalie Imbruglia's cousin was refused a Document of Identity and she told the newspapers. link $\endgroup$ – Robyn Nov 21 '16 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ Having a big media scandal at the same time about something completely unrelated also helps in diverting attention. $\endgroup$ – vsz Nov 21 '16 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ Having the national soccer team in the world cup finals at the same time is a big plus, too. $\endgroup$ – aggsol Nov 21 '16 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ Or, you could just sticking in the cellar, in a locked filing cabinet behind the door of a disused lavatory. With a sign saying “Beware of the leopard.” $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 4 '17 at 17:35
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You actually have a few options, each with their own prerequisites.

  1. Stuff the anti-cat people legislation into something else that no one will pay attention to.

    This happens all the time in government. Random, totally unrelated content gets shoved into a piece of legislation.

    In this case you need some sort of large and or boring piece of legislation. You also need to ensure that if people do read it they don't share it. Time sensitivity helps, maybe a budget resolution that comes up at the last minute.

  2. Secret legislation. This would require a rather drastic change in the nature of western democracy. But if the cat people are immigrants/refugees and they don't have rights the government could create rules in secret for security reasons.

    As mentioned this would just be some good old fashioned racism, though you could conceivably come up with a scenario where the cat people are actually a threat.

  3. Executive decree. This is easy. Give the prime minister/president more power. They write it up, sign it, and BAM you've got yourself a problem.

Notes:

  • All of these would require a change in the nature of UK politics and culture. People today simply would not accept something like this, nor would elected officials think they could get away with it if they wanted to...

  • The system will have to get more government strong arm-y...that's poorly worded but you get the point. Maybe British law evolves and officials are elected for life.

  • The cat people can't have any (or at least very little) power. If half the population are cat people and the democracy is representative, then you will have cat people in the parliament. This just won't work.

  • Restricting communications. Getting away with bad stuff often requires keeping people in the dark as long as possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the best way is the first solution. But it should not be enforced nor ignores at first. One of those things that complotist always warn you about. Then you pass a clarification overnight. That way, everybody knows the law and could comply if it wasn't for the overnight trick $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Nov 18 '16 at 6:35
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    $\begingroup$ Bear in mind that "riders" as they're called in the US are much less common here in the UK, because it's made really easy here to split a bill up into multiple. It would have to be as part of some related law, I suspect, like in MissMonicaE's example. $\endgroup$ – Muzer Nov 18 '16 at 9:27
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Well, it depends a little if you want it completely unknown, or only mostly unknown.

Because it's certainly the case that some events become a "good day to bury bad news".

Specifically - if something sufficiently news-hogging is going on, then the media doesn't pay much attention to the 'normal' going on in Parliament. Just recently we have a mild example in the US presidential elections:

6 Stories you may have missed

And closer to home

In particular a change in the law which may be relevant to your scenario:

Government rejects calls to introduce ‘need for suspicion’ before detaining people under Terrorism Act

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, stuff that is potentially unpopular or controversial gets scheduled for sessions where the public is engaged elsewhere. I remember there was something of that happening in Germany during the last soccer world cup but I can't remember what it was, possibly related to telecommunications data retention (Vorratsdatenspeicherung). $\endgroup$ – Sumyrda Nov 17 '16 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Sumyrda: You can not remember it -> Soccer did its job.... $\endgroup$ – arc_lupus Nov 18 '16 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ A previous incarnation of "take out the trash day". $\endgroup$ – E.P. Nov 20 '16 at 23:50
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One thing no one else has mentioned yet... do it 'by accident'.

Two real life examples:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/oops-did-texas-ban-marriage/

"This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

One thing that is "identical…to marriage," of course, is marriage

http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/international-news-news/ireland-almost-accidentally-bans-heterosexual-marriage/133877

However, the Irish language definition is worded differently and, translated back into English, states: “A couple may, whether they are men or women, make a contract of marriage in accordance with law.”

According to the Irish Times the use of the plural for “men” and “women” could be interpreted as meaning only same-sex couples could marry.

Then you would just need a friendly person in the Judicial branch to interpret the laws as you secretly intended them to be.

If you can come up with a clever enough wording for this, you can even get the cat people to vote for their own discrimination.

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At a first glance, any such law would be an injustice. How can people be expected a law that they do not know about? But there are several ways how a fictional government might get around that.

The law is published, the administrative procedures are classified.

As a hypothetical, imagine that a government wants to ban designer drugs. So they pass a law that designer drugs are banned, and that those drugs are any substance which is "sufficiently similar" to a substance in an administrative publication. And then they pass "official guidance" to cops or prosecutors how they should interpret similarity, and this guidance gets classified.

The law itself is classified.

Hold some sort of "closed session" of the parliament. The agenda might read something like "briefing on the ongoing negotiations with whoever." In the session, the parliament passes the law and also passes a law to make the secrecy legal. This works best if there is no written constitution which spells out how laws must be published.

Secret case law.

In a tradition where courts can effectively create law, designate a special court that can meet in secret. Call it terrorism, espionage, whatever. Then decide that anybody who is cleared to know about the precedent is free to apply it, but the victim may not be told.

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    $\begingroup$ For example, the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn't publish the "no-fly list", so you can be caught be surprise when you show up at the airport and they tell you that you're on it.   Luckily, (AFAIK) they don't arrest you for that; they just send you home — but you probably can't get your ticket refunded, and, of course, your travel plans are ruined. $\endgroup$ – Peregrine Rook Nov 17 '16 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ In the Netherlands anything "sufficiently similar" to a real gun is illegal to own, with "sufficiently similar" being left to the investigating officer on the scene (NOT a court). This has led to people buying water pistols only to be later arrested for owning them, with no recourse. Ditto with laws against public nudity. Officially it's allowed "where appropriate" with what is appropriate being left to the investigating officer (again, NOT a court but a single police officer). There too people have been arrested and fined in places that were the day before quite ok according to cops. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 21 '16 at 7:47
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One option that I didn't see listed was to alter or enforce a 'blue book' law. Something that has been on the books, but was never taken seriously enough to be enforced or removed. Laws like this are almost never used by police. You could say that at some point in the past, this law was written, but hasn't been taken seriously.

All your government needs to do is instruct the police force to start enforcing this law. Alternately, they could rework, or add onto the existing law in a subtle way that would go unnoticed until the day that it takes effect.

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    $\begingroup$ Good idea. Perhaps this mirror United Kingdom has some long-unenforced medieval indecency law forbidding exposing the spinal column to the public. The government observes that cats' tails are technically part of their spinal column, and immediately begins rounding up cat people that do not fully cover their tails. $\endgroup$ – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Nov 18 '16 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Robert_Columbia Exactly! Truth can be stranger than fiction when you start doing research into blue book laws. Some of them make sense in their original context, but most of them are baffling in any context. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Nov 19 '16 at 20:13
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Amend existing pet registration laws using a Statutory Instrument, which the government was recently criticised for using on benefits changes.

It all comes down to a legislative manoeuvre called a “statutory instrument” – effectively a device that allows the government to move legislation through parliament more quickly than passing a new Act. If, for example, the government wanted to amend a law on cellphones to include, say, tablet computers – it might opt to do so with a statutory instrument, avoiding the months of legislative back-and-forth that a new Act would entail.

The government has chosen, rather than a full-blooded Bill, to amend aspects of previous legislation on tax credits. This made the passage through the Commons easier and quicker – avoiding more scrutiny and perhaps helping to avoid further outbreaks of nerves on the part of Conservative backbenchers.

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  • $\begingroup$ this is a very British way of doing things See also the use of Statutory instruments in various surveillance legislation. $\endgroup$ – Gordon Coale Nov 21 '16 at 12:31
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Unconstitutional at all levels, and a non-credible premise

First I must object to your premise. You have a racist parliament (parliament passes laws; the cabinet cannot pass laws because that would be entirely unconstitutional) that are so for no particular reason... they are bastards just because.

You have to invent a reason for this because readers will not accept that elected members of parliament are complete racist bastards "just 'cause".

Also you have to figure out a reason why the afflicted part of the population are putting up with this and do not bring this up in international courts and organisations, because your readers will not accept that such a large percentage of the population will just take being discriminated against like this without making a fuss.

Second, the law itself is grossly unconstitutional since the UK constitution explicitly states that every person is equal before the law. So unless you have managed to make it so that the catpeople are not persons (good luck on trying to pass that without making the international community condemn the UK for it) then any such law as that you propose is forbidden and invalid.

Third, it is not just unconstitutional but a goss violation of human personal rights, and basic jurisprudence, to have a law that is passed in secret, that is kept secret to those it applies to, and that you use just to harass people. In fact this very thing invalidates any attempt at applying the law because if a person has not been made aware of a law you cannot force them to be subject of it. You have not promulgated the law and as such it is invalid.

Also the procedure for creating and passing acts of parliament requires a number of readings. So you are out of luck in trying to keep this secret. It has to come on record or you will not even get to voting about it.

In summary: Laws passed by the non-legislative part of the govenment, secret acts of parliament, un-promulgated laws, unwarranted discrimination against groups of people... these are all evil things. And so the very reason we have constitutions, division of power, checks and balances — all of which you have learned about in social science class — is to prevent this exact type of scenario, and precisely those evil things.

So unless you have tossed out basic human personal rights; abolished the UK constitution; have the human part of the population be bastards for no reason at all; have the catpeople part of the population be door mats for no reason at all; have the international community sit apathetic on their behinds while people are being persecuted... then you will have a very hard time making your scenario credible.

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    $\begingroup$ > if a person has not been made aware of a law you cannot force them to be subject of it False. You just have to publish the law somehow that technically counts, but you are not required to make all citizens actually know about the law. Not sure about UK, but publishing the law in a Postal Department Of Nowhereshire newspaper (whopping 1000 issues distributed all over the country!) could probably count. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Nov 18 '16 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ Also, a country with cat people might be a country with laxer rules about promulgating laws. $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Nov 18 '16 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ As for constitution, that can be easily worked around if needed. For example, UK had some very interesting laws concerning knives. I suppose it wouldn't be hard to pass a law that says "carrying around dozen blades without permit is not allowed" and then recognise claws as blades. Something similar may be already in place for fighters. Again, not sure about UK, but would professional boxer killing someone in a bar fight with a single unlucky punch be treated exactly as average Joe accomplishing the same feat? $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Nov 18 '16 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ The UK does not have a written constitution, as your Wiki link shows; "unconstitutional" is not a phrase I have ever heard anyone use in Britain. It's unclear from that link whether "equality before the law" is an actual British law itself; it cannot simply be considered law due to being unconstitutional, as we don't have one. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Nov 22 '16 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ As Whelkaholism points out, the UK has no specific constitution - in fact, quite the opposite: we have Parliamentary Sovereignty. This means that no government can pass a law than cannot be changed by a future government. However we still have checks and balances - any law would have to (a) get past the House of Lords and (b) is reliant on the continued Royal assent of Parliament - which could be withdrawn in such a circumstance (and it is highly likely that such a move would be supported by many executive branches, most notably the military). So there would have to be lots of prep first. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Nov 22 '16 at 14:30
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Realistically, the idea of a law being passed in secret and then immediately enforced would never stand up in court in an even and fair society - lawyers would have an absolute field-day.

So with that in mind, the only way that this could work is in a totalitarian police state - in which case the government can basically just do what they want anyway. Tell the police to round up the cat-people and take their stuff, and then just proclaim that a law exists.

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  • $\begingroup$ …, which, of course, is pretty much what the Nazis did — and they didn't need to do it secretly. $\endgroup$ – Peregrine Rook Nov 17 '16 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ "the idea of a law being passed in secret and then immediately enforced would never stand up in court" Depends on the legal system. If you're in a society with a constitutional court, it can very well happen that all laws are to be enforced by lower courts until the constitutional court makes a decision, which might take months or years. This most likely wouldn't apply to the UK though. $\endgroup$ – AndrejaKo Nov 17 '16 at 21:02
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This just doesn't make sense, at any level. There's a much easier way to get the oppression, simply by having the government create the law without secrecy, and then fail to provide ways to purchase permits.

However, making money from it with £100 spot fines won't work. The cost of collecting and processing all those small fines will vastly exceed the money taken, and arresting and imprisoning cat-people who don't have £100 on them will cost far, far more.

You need to be more subtle and ingenious in creating your oppression. Read up on Nazi tactics: Richard J Evans' The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation should have everything you need.

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  • $\begingroup$ would increasing the cost of the fine counter-act the processing costs? If so how high would it have to go? $\endgroup$ – Gladiator Kittens Nov 18 '16 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ No. There's a reason on-the-spot fines are rare to non-existent in UK law. The higher you make the fine, the fewer people will be able to pay immediately and the more of them will have to be arrested. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Nov 18 '16 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ is there a better, alternative penalty in that case? There are a lot of hitches to my very rushed worldbuilding which I am now only just noticing since I just created a rough plan for nanowrimo this month $\endgroup$ – Gladiator Kittens Nov 18 '16 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ What's the objective? What element of your story is this meant to serve? Do you want the oppressive atmosphere, a government with lots of money, or something else? $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Nov 18 '16 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ I want an oppressive atmosphere, but if the government ended up with a lot of money, then they would have more money to implement other schemes to discriminate against the cat people. This is supposed to help push the plot and atmosphere along from mild racism that just exists and people put up with, to more aggressive racism stemming from laws and propaganda $\endgroup$ – Gladiator Kittens Nov 18 '16 at 10:49
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You don't have to make the new law secret, if the racist government and parliament has enough backing by the population.

The cat people have to come from somewhere and maybe they are not given human and citizen rights. In this case, they would be threated as animals with near to no rights. Animals cannot buy or own anything, cannot vote and even their lives are way behind any (economical) needs of humans. Create a legend of cat people doing bad things to explain why the humans dont like them (of cause does not have to be true).

This world would feel very racist and suppressing and can lead to a fascist terror regime. You could have the main protagonist characters be cat people who are driven to defend themselfes and later all cat people. Some humans who are helping the cats would help to make this more realistic.

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The easiest option would just be to control any means the population might have to learn about the law. I.e. go the China route and just heavily censor the press to prevent the news reaching people. Such a thing might even be possible in freer countries like the UK or US, if you dress it up as a matter of "national security" and give the law allowing censorship a pleasing name, similar to what the Patriot Act did with surveillance.

There are also acts the government can take which are similar to laws, but don't necessarily need to be publicized. Again using the US as an example because I'm unfamiliar with UK law, our president is able to issue "Executive Orders". These orders have the full force of law behind them and don't require any deliberation from congress before the fact (although congress can overturn them later). The president could issue an Order extremely quickly, possibly before word reaches the general populace.

One possibility is to treat this as a matter of jurisdiction. Parliament is a very publicized organization. Everyone pays attention to what Parliament does, and it would be hard to keep a law like that quiet. But what about at the local level? Individual cities often have more leeway on how their legal processes work, and the press/population rarely cares as much. It might be very easy for them to pass the curfew law without much attention. On top of that, the local government will have a much easier time communicating and working with the local police to keep the law secret before it's enforced.

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    $\begingroup$ In the case of the patriot act, I wouldn't say anything was actually hidden from the population. This was more of a case of legislation being rushed through and no one (not even the representatives) read the whole thing $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Nov 17 '16 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ I don't mean the Act itself, but the ability of the Patriot Act to keep some information secret. A bill with the same kind of motivation could be used for censorship, is what I'm getting at. $\endgroup$ – FirstLastname Nov 17 '16 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ UK cities do not have the ability to create criminal law. The multiple levels of overlapping jurisdiction and police forces in the US seem very strange to the British, who have nothing like them. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Nov 18 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Obama"you need to pass the bill so you can read it"care is far more applicable here as an example than the Patriot Act (however horrid a piece of crap that is, with uncontrolled powergrabbing by federal agencies written into its very core). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 19 '16 at 4:54
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It's happened in the past, and can happen again.
Years ago the Dutch government passed a new law literally overnight that was introduced around dinner time one day and came into effect around breakfast the next.
Now, that was merely a budget bill allowing the purchase of some military equipment before treaty obligations would kick in and cause serious penalties. But if can indeed happen.
And as most people don't read the official government channels for publication of new laws, and most newspapers and other news outlets will be hours behind in publishing things, most people won't know the law is passed until probably the evening news.
Of course a major problem is organising your enforcement effort very rapidly in between passing the law and enforcement coming into effect a few hours later.

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I don't remember enough details to be able to look it up, but I remember hearing about how one of the chief civil rights laws in the United States was proposed by a senator who was actually opposed to civil rights - he only added the civil rights bit to another bill to keep that bill from passing. Surprise, surprise: it passed, and now we have civil rights.

Something like this might be an option: you have a parliament member that doesn't care about cat people, or maybe even favors them, but he doesn't like another bill - given your desire for secrecy, maybe some kind of terrorism or surveillance bill - so he adds language to it to keep it from passing at the last minute, and everyone is taken by surprise when it passes anyway. It's up to you how many people supported it for the original reason and how many supported it for this reason.

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