The government pushed for 90 days, compromised on 28, since tried for 56 and now presses for 42. The time for which the police can detain a terrorist suspect without charge has remained a controversial issue since the laws were changed in 2005. Back then, the Commons rejected the government’s proposal for 90 day detention without the usual safeguard of charges being brought. Instead it settled on a period of 28 days to allow police to question terrorist suspects and put together a case. Once that point is reached the onus is on the authorities either to specifically charge or release a suspect.
Government legislation contained within the Terrorism Act before it was ratified gave Tony Blair his first Commons defeat and it is possible that the Counter-Terrorism Bill could offer the same dubious honour to Gordon Brown. Several dozen constituents have contacted me about this issue to express their dismay at the 42 day proposal. Not only is it felt that such legislation signifies a breach of detainees’ human rights but many believe it is an affront to the carefully constructed historical system of rights and safeguards which underpin the English legal system.
My instinct, however, is that this is an issue which troubles those in law and politics more than it does the public at large. The general public I suspect believe a strong suspicion should be enough to detain a person should it prevent a possible terror attack; the rights of a small minority seem – to the majority – a lot less important than public safety. I imagine former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, tapped into these instinctive feelings when he declared that ‘the rules of the game have changed’ and now is not a time for ‘judicial activism’. But this sense of security before rights – whilst understandable in the current climate – must not be allowed to erode Britain’s civil liberties and a long-established sense of fair play and justice. The historic antiquity of our legal system reflects the wisdom of ages past. It should not be swept away without deep consideration for its consequences.
No convincing case has to my mind been made for the proposal to raise the detention limit. Indeed I can only conclude that the government is playing politics, seeking to appear ‘tough on terrorism’ in order to assuage public concern and to cover its collective back in the event of another major terrorist attack on UK soil.
Under the government’s plan, once the Home Secretary has agreed – with the approval of a chief constable and the director of public prosecutions – that a suspect can be held for longer than 28 days, the case would be referred to MPs who would vote on whether further detention should be allowed.
This sits most uneasily with me. For a start, no evidence has been put forward which demonstrates a time when the police have needed to detain a suspect beyond the allocated limit. A string of recent high profile convictions of terrorist suspects has shown that the current system is working well, despite there being no provision on the statute book to hold people for long periods without charge. The government itself has admitted that no terrorist case has required the proposed legislation. Even the police have gone quiet when it comes to publicly supporting the extension.
Constitutionally, these proposals for an extension are seriously flawed. The single most important protection of individual rights in this country is an independent judiciary. These rights are a product of the history of the United Kingdom and its institutions. Terrorists win more handsomely than they could ever hope if they manage to undermine our long held freedoms and our unique legal culture. For a government to sweep aside these rights and break the fundamental separation between the political and the judicial by involving MPs in the detention process, hands a victory to those who despise the values of the rule of law which underpin our individual liberty.
Furthermore, railroading through this proposal carries serious practical risks. It could prove to disillusioned young Muslim men that the establishment is against them and is disinterested in their rights, fuelling frustration and sharpening their sense of alienation. It could also harden sentiment within the Muslim community, breeding further distrust of the police and other authorities and hampering counter-terrorism efforts.
Of course in difficult times, MPs from all parties must work together to protect our country and its people as best we can. But this protection must always be offered to our judicial system and the individual as well as to the frightened majority. It is in periods such as these that politicians must become cool-headed guides and protectors not drum-beating, hysteria-creating chiefs. When a Prime Minister continues to press for the human rights agenda to be rolled back, he exposes how little he understands the finely balanced British constitution of which he is the single most important guardian.