Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Liberal Democrats win some arguments on Counter Terrorism, but fight must go on

There are times when I really wish we were in Government on our own. Then we could simply reduce the pre charge detention time to the matter of hours, or certainly less than a week, that it is across Europe. Then we could completely get rid of measures which restrict people's liberty when they haven't been found guilty of anything.

Today's announcement by Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May on the review of counter terrorism legislation has some welcome steps in the right direction. For example:

  • The end of Section 44 searches where Police could stop anyone they felt like or stop people innocently taking photographs
  • The halving of pre charge detention 
  • Legislation will be drafted, but not introduced on extension of powers in an emergency - good because it means that it will be scrutinised when everyone has a clear head, and not in the heat of the moment. As someone said on Twitter, that requires an opposition which behaves like mature adults - but in its absence, our Awkward Squad should do fine
There's some bad stuff, too, though.
  • Control orders as we know them will go, but there will be a replacement which, although not quite as bad, is still subjecting people to sanction without having ever being found guilty of anything. That's just wrong.  There was some hilarity in the house (inappropriate really, given the circumstances) over the difference between a curfew and the newspeak sounding "overnight residence requirement". It still means that individuals could be put under effective house arrest, but for less time than the current 16 hours under the Labour system.  
However, some of the worst aspects of control orders will be abolished - people won't be shifted away to other parts of the country away from their family; they will have some access to mobile phones and the internet. They will still be forbidden from going to places where it would be difficult to keep them under surveillance. There's a lot of scope there - does that mean they can't go to the cinema, the swimming pool, the shops?

The fundamental issue for me, though, is that  the replacement, although better and requiring stronger evidence (belief rather than suspicion) and the approval of the High Court, still punishes someone who has not been convicted of a crime through the proper procedures of the law. We have situations now where an injunction, for example, is placed on someone without them having prior knowledge of the proceedings in an emergency, but they always have the chance to have their say in court. That's not the case with these sanctions when the person  may not be told what the evidence against them is. That flies in the face of the principles of justice as far as I am concerned.

I would like to see Nick Clegg say that we Liberal Democrats do still believe that these measures should be abolished, but in coalition we have to make compromises - as I assume that's still the case and on our own we'd get rid of them.

I think that if the Tories had been left alone, they would have pretty much kept the Labour framework in place. They might have toned down some of the stop and search powers, but they would have left control orders untouched.

The Liberal Democrats in Government have done some good work in moderating them, but it's still not good enough as far as I am concerned. I recognise our efforts, but my heart is very heavy.

Given Labour's draconian record, there's no way we could have got a better result than this. If we had done nothing and determined to vote against any renewal of powers, for example, Labour would have voted for them. We were in a no-win situation, but even then, we have managed to secure some major concessions.

However, it is incumbent on senior Liberal Democrats to say that they don't think the review has gone far enough and that if we were governing alone, we would go further.

Liberty has given the measures a mixed reception, with Shami Chakrabarti saying:
“We welcome movement on stop and search, 28-day detention and council snooping, but when it comes to ending punishment without trial; the Government appears to have bottled it. Spin and semantics aside, control orders are retained and rebranded, if in a slightly lower fat form. As before, the innocent may be punished without a fair hearing and the guilty will escape the full force of criminal law. This leaves a familiar bitter taste. Parliament must now decide whether the final flavour will be of progress, disappointment or downright betrayal.”
Much more positively, the report includes the replacement of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 - the broad police power for stop and search without suspicion. This follows Liberty’s European Court of Human Rights victory last year in the case of protesters Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton.  
Safeguards will also be introduced to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which allowed councils extensive snooping powers. This follows the high-profile case of Liberty’s client, Jenny Paton, who was subjected to council surveillance for three weeks in 2008.  Poole Council claimed that it was acting under the RIPA in order to discover whether the family lived within the catchment area where the children went to school.  In August 2010, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled the council’s surveillance of mum-of-three and her family unlawful.  As announced on Monday, pre-charge detention will be reduced from 28 to 14 days.
I can't find anything in there that I disagree with. My head, though, knows that no other outcome from today was possible and that our input is clear if not sufficient. If we had an opposition who gave two hoots about civil liberties, then we might have had a fighting chance of repealing these measures completely, but we don't and we simply can't do it on our own.

Not for the first time, I wonder how things might have been if we'd got the Parliament we asked for last May. There would have been about 140 of us, more than double our current 57. We'd have had a great deal more bargaining power. 


Anonymous said...

Yes, you guys have certainly won a real victory for civil liberties by replacing "control orders" with "orders of control". This is easily as historic as the Bill of Rights...

James Mackenzie said...

Caron, are you disappointed to see your hero Tim Farron calling this a win?

Unknown said...

James, life is way too short to be disappointed when someone has a different opinion to me, especially in this party:-).

Seriously, though, Tim is maybe more fulsome in his praise than I would be on the control orders issue, but he is right that this Government is making progress on civil liberties because of the work of the Liberal Democrats.


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