Civil Contingencies And Anti Terrorism

No one in public life wishes to contemplate that there should be an emergency of such dire extent that this country would effectively find itself on a war footing.

As the Member of Parliament for Cities of London and Westminster I write from the most likely constituency in the country to be affected by a nightmare terrorist scenario. The City of London has contingency plans and regular rescue efforts have been practised not only since 11 September 2001 but previously. The Metropolitan police have worked with the City of London police and various other central London agencies as we face up to the likelihood of central London being the leading terrorist target.

At times of great national crisis, the rights of the individual must be defended with especial vigour. I believe Members of Parliament owe it to all our constituents to uphold their freedoms.

The breadth of the powers in the recent Civil Contingency and Prevention of Terrorism Bills is breathtaking. It is genuinely worrying to me that the Home Office is tempted to give itself more and more powers under the pretext of protecting the public. We must always remember that this nation is a famous haven for freedom and free speech. There is a suspicion that we are taking a further step down the road to undermining that freedom.

Expanding state control is accepted in a time of war, but we should be most reluctant to provide politicians, the police and other Government agencies with carte blanche in powers over holding individuals without trial at this time.

I have discussed the matter with several leading policemen in my constituency, including the borough commander of Westminster and several superintendents in places such as Soho and Covent Garden. They were open and honest enough to express the concerns that they would feel as individuals even if, as police, they understood the importance of new powers such as those in the Bills.

Vital principles are at stake and I have deliberated hard on all the recent proposed measures, not least being mindful of the occasions when democracy has been overturned subtly but ruthlessly by an authoritarian government in the name of state protection. Certain economic freedoms and property rights, which we perhaps take a little too much for granted, are under threat from the recent Civil Contingency Bill, which provides for the “requisition or confiscation of property (with or without compensation)”. To read those words on a proposed Act of Parliament brings terror to my heart, because the notion of private property ownership is the single most important guarantee of many of the freedoms that we enjoy. Now we have the possibility of house arrest by the State.

We must be able to rely on the good will of all our citizens, and not just on the power of the state to ensure that certain protections and contingencies are put into place in the event of the kind of disaster that we foresee. There is little doubt that we live in dangerous times but we should not allow the wholesale surrender of many of the freedoms that are close to the hearts of many of us here.