Britain Sleepwalks Towards 42-day Detention

June 20, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Gordon Brown’s controversial proposal to extend pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 42 days limped through the Commons last week with a majority of just nine votes. In November 2005, Tony Blair attempted to extend the period to 90 days, a proposal that led to Blair’s first Commons defeat, with 49 Labour MPs rebelling. Twenty-eight days was instead backed by 323 to 290, seen as the lesser evil. Blair’s response was typically bullish: “People will believe parliament was deeply irresponsible.” Twenty-eight days, of course, remained on the statute books and constitutes the current limit on pre-trial detention, pending the passage of the 42 days proposal through the House of Lords, where it is is likely to face fierce opposition.

Civil liberties groups have been quick to condemn the bill, not just due to the obvious affront to individual liberty it represents, but also due to inadequate judicial oversight, and the arbitrary powers it affords to the Home Secretary. Prominent pressure group Liberty pointed out that with 28 days we already have the longest pre-charge detention period in the Western world. The Prime Minister has publicly defended the bill by saying: “For too long we have used 19th century means to solve 21st century problems. Instead we must have 21st century methods to deal with 21st century challenges.” When pressed by David Cameron on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, Brown conceded “I would like to have achieved a consensus above party politics. Because it has not been possible to do so the government has to make a judgement – not because it is popular but because it is right.”

The source of the Prime Minister’s confidence in his moral superiority is unclear. The list of high-profile opponents of the bill is striking. Current Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken McDonald has repeatedly stated that 28 days is enough, and that in fact no-one has been held for longer than 14 days since last summer. Home secretary Jacqui Smith has admitted that MI5 are not asking for more time. Lord Goldsmith and Lord Irvine, respectively the former Lord Chancellor and Attorney General, have publicly expressed their opposition to the extension. Further afield, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner has stated in a letter that if the measures are put in place, they would be ‘way out of line’ with anything else on the continent.

Furthermore, in what can only be described as a bizarre move, the Prime Minister has neglected to present any evidence that the extra 14 days is actually necessary. Probably his strongest advocate is Metropolitan Chief Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, who said he was “not wedded” to the proposal, but supported some form of extension. This is hardly surprising given that, in 2006, Blair claimed that Islamic terrorism “is a far graver threat in terms of civilians than either the Cold War or the Second World War,” the latter conflict being one in which an estimated 60,000 UK civilians lost their lives, while the former one resulted in the stockpiling of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Various MPs have proclaimed their support for 42 days but very little has been put forward in the way of justification, save vague statements about “the scale and complexity” of the threat. It is thus unclear on what basis the public are meant to support the bill.

Equally perturbing is the continued inefficacy of terrorist investigations, both domestically and abroad. Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe,” was released this week without charge after spending six years behind bars – including three years at Belmarsh – with authorites apparently unable to produce any ‘prosecutable’ evidence during that period. This came only a few days after Whitehall officials were left extremely red-faced following the discovery of two sets of secret terrorism-related government documents left on two different commuter trains. Not exactly an incident that inspires confidence in the expeditious handling of sensitive terror-related information. And, of course, it remains the case that no Guantánamo detainee – British resident or otherwise – has ever been convicted, six years after the first inmates arrived.

Commentators have suggested that the proposal might be an attempt by Gordon Brown to demonstrate a tough, no-nonsense approach to terrorism, and thus increase his ailing popularity. However, a poll in The Times shortly before the vote showed that the Prime Minister’s popularity had fallen to an all-time low, even surpassing public disapproval of Iain Duncan Smith during the darkest days of his stint as leader of the opposition. Futher polls, since the vote, have shown public support for David Davis, who resigned as a Conservative MP in protest at the extension, in order to force a by-election on the issue. The bottom line seems to be that we have an extension without evidential basis, that is unwanted by the public, the security services, the judiciary, and international organisations, and yet has somehow cleared the House of Commons. Since 2000, the limit on detention without charge has increased from 48 hours to 42 days.

Forty-eight hours to 42 days. It is worth revisiting the Prime Minister’s statement: “For too long we have used 19th century means to solve 21st century problems. Instead we must have 21st century methods to deal with 21st century challenges.” Internment was employed to combat escalating violence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. In the four months leading up to internment, eight people died; in the succeeding four months, 114 were killed. The political contexts are markedly different but nonetheless, Gordon Brown’s characterisation of the new bill as a step forward seems fairly detached from reality. Tony Blair in 2005 worried that people would judge parliament to have been “deeply irresponsible” for not extending detention without charge. It seems fair to level the same accusation at the current parliament for its latest attack on civil liberties. Though one imagines Mr Blair is pleased to see his successor finishing what he started.

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This post was written by Tom Bangay

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