UK Liberty

cross-party rejection of Government’s pre-charge detention proposals

Posted in detention without charge, law and order by ukliberty on November 15, 2007

The Guardian:

Under the proposals, the home secretary would be able to approve 30-day extensions of detention after 28 days, with oversight by a judge and parliament.

As an MP pointed out in a Commons debate (sorry, I forget who and when) , Parliament will not be made privy to all the information in such cases – it will be more of a rubber-stamping exercise than something that can be discussed.

In addition, precedent suggests a judge will be forced to trust the Home Secretary’s certification of the suspect, and any police support, rather than being allowed to make his own decision, in that judges do not seem to like to question claims of national security unless they are obviously unreasonable.

The power would be time-limited but would not require a national state of emergency to be declared.

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, rejected the move, insisting the government has not “shown an ounce of evidence that we need to go beyond 28 days”, while Labour backbencher David Winnick, who orchestrated the successful revolt against the government against similar proposals two years ago, said he was “not persuaded” by the plans.

Davis said he thought the government would only need to extend detention in the event of a completely unpredictable situation, such as a series of massive terror attacks.

He said the government already had the power to declare a temporary state of emergency then, but that he opposed “an undeclared state of permanent emergency”.

He firmly dismissed suggestions that the declaration of a state of emergency would cause chaos and panic. [see below for his comments in a recent debate – ed]

“Panic the nation? Are you joking? This is a nation that had 3,000 deaths under the IRA campaign; it had 3,000 deaths in one day at the height of the Blitz, I don’t think that panicked it,” he said.

“We’ve had a habeas corpus for centuries,” said Davis. “It’s been one of the fundamentals of British liberty. We now have the longest period in the free world in which a government can detain someone without charge.”

Winnick said: “The government have put forward these proposals because they know it will be very difficult to get parliament to agree to an extension beyond 28 days.”

“The government simply has not provided the evidence,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, added: “So much for a cross-party approach to terrorism.

“This looks suspiciously like a desperate attempt by the government to cover its tracks after yesterday’s lamentable display of mixed messages.

“How does Gordon Brown seriously think he can forge a national consensus on such a vital issue without any new evidence and with utter disregard for the strong opinions of those who believe it would be a step too far?”

In a Commons statement yesterday, Gordon Brown signalled that he intended to push ahead with plans to extend the 28-day limit and signalled “a new round of consultations with parties and communities”.

It came just hours after Lord West, following a meeting with Brown and the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, in Downing Street, appeared to reverse his position on the issue.

“My feeling is, yes, we need more than 28 days”, he told reporters outside Number 10 despite earlier telling Today: “I want to be totally convinced because I am not going to go and push for something that actually affects the liberty of the individual unless there is a real necessity for it. I still need to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days.”

Davis said: “He knows all there is to know about the security argument; he was then bullied by the prime minister into changing his mind.

“That was not about security; that was about politics.”

David Davis, in the Commons, on states of emergency:

The House should not forget that cross-party co-operation delivered a range of new offences to enable the police to charge anybody—and I mean anybody—involved in a terrorist plot. That was done at great length, at our suggestion and, to give them their credit, the Liberal Democrats’ suggestion, in the debate on 90 days. Acts preparatory to terrorism, encouragement to terrorism, dissemination of terrorist publications, and terrorist training offences, in addition to the pre-existing offences of possessing information for terrorist purposes, recruiting for terrorist training and inciting overseas terrorism—all are criminal offences. What has been lacking is the determination to make the full use of the law and that powers that we have already.

The previous Home Secretary understood those arguments and came up with another scenario, in the earlier stage of the discussion. He said, “Okay, we can cope with one Heathrow reasonably easily, but what if we had five all at once? We’d be overwhelmed.” That is the circumstance under which, we argue, the Government should invoke the state of emergency provisions in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The definition is very simple and involves an emergency that poses a serious threat to the public, overwhelming the Government’s ability to defend the public.

The powers in the 2004 Act are quite sweeping and include the power to hold without charge for up to 30 days, over and above any period under existing legislation. So, in a state of emergency—but only in a state of emergency—the Government already have the power to hold for 58 days. The scenario described by the previous Home Secretary involved 50 airliners coming under attack. That is clearly a state of emergency. Such a power would of course require the Government to justify their action after the event to both the House of Commons and the courts, but they say that they want proper scrutiny and control over the process. For such an incursion of liberty, that is a good thing.

The Government complain about that process, which they designed, remember. They say that it would alarm and panic the public—this from a Government who habitually issue blood-curdling assessments of the threat, describing it as the biggest threat since the second world war. I consider that objection to be unutterable nonsense, first, because it underestimates the British public, who withstood 3,000 deaths under the Northern Irish troubles and who faced that many deaths in a single night at the height of the blitz; secondly, because the public would expect a state of emergency if 50 airliners were about to be blown out of the sky; and thirdly, because there would be no immediate need to declare such a state of emergency, as the Government would have 28 days before they ran out of time under the counter-terrorism Bill. In that time the state of the nation would be all too clear to the public.

The Home Secretary has suggested that that demonstrates that we accept the principle of the need to go beyond 28 days. That is a facile argument. It should be clear that we do not accept the need to extend detention without charge based on either the evidence of the operations to date or the most horrific hypothetical scenarios so far dreamt up by Ministers.

And he said this, which I had to applaud:

Extending detention without trial will, like ID cards and control orders, undermine our freedoms, but it will not make us safer. In fact, it risks making the threat worse. Looking round the Chamber, I see that almost everyone here is wearing a poppy. Those poppies represent an enormous sacrifice. Tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock, many of us will be standing in the regimental plots in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, paying our respects to the soldiers who paid for our freedom with their lives. Our freedom was bought at a very high price. We on this side will not give that freedom away without very good reason.


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