UK Liberty

Is 42 days the solution to a real problem?

Posted in detention without charge, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on April 23, 2008

The Guardian:

Britain’s most senior prosecutor last night questioned whether the government’s controversial proposal to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge was even directed at “a real problem”.

Sir Ken Macdonald, the director of public prosecutions, renewed his opposition to the proposal, telling MPs that he had “managed quite comfortably” within the current 28-day limit. He revealed that no suspect had actually been held longer than 14 days in the last nine months.

The DPP’s firm stand, five months after he first raised concerns about the issue of 42 days and despite an intense campaign by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, is bound to fuel a rebellion that already threatens Gordon Brown’s position. He was backed by the former attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, who was scathing about the proposed parliamentary “safeguards” and warned that they would be seen as another attack on the Muslim community.

The DPP told MPs yesterday: “For our part as prosecutors, we don’t perceive any need for the period of 28 days to be increased. Our experience has been that we have managed comfortably within 28 days. We have therefore not asked for an increase in 28 days. It is possible to set up all sort of hypotheses … Anything is possible – the question is whether it’s remotely likely.

Macdonald added that it was “a question for parliament whether this is directed against a real problem or not”.

That’s unfair on Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, as she has already admitted it is a hypothetical problem – she wants to put “in a provision for if it becomes un-hypothetical“!

He dismissed a new plea for the extension from the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, saying prosecutors were “better placed” than the police to judge whether or not there was sufficient evidence to charge a suspect.

Sir Ian Blair, on the other hand, “indicated that he believed police were better placed than lawyers to know if 28 days was still sufficient”.

This may seem a silly question, but sufficient for what exactly? Sufficient for charging the suspect with anything that can put him away and thereby disrupt his involvement with The Threat™? Or sufficient to uncover the entire Threat™ itself?

The Commons committee examining the counter-terror bill in detail also heard Goldsmith’s attack on the proposed parliamentary scrutiny of the home secretary as “not a great deal of safeguard”. Goldsmith, who left the government less than a year ago, said: “Are you going to ask parliament to simply trust the secretary of state? The case has not been made out for that extension and I can’t personally support it.

The Met commissioner [Sir Ian Blair], however, insisted the police were “pushing at” the limit on holding terror suspects without charge

I don’t understand. In the last nine months, no suspect has been held longer than 14 days. How is that “pushing at the limit”?

and said there had been 15 foiled plots since the July 7 bombings. “Sooner or later, and maybe sooner, something is going to happen to make that insufficient,” he warned.

Let me get this straight – because I have been turning this over and over in my mind for the past couple of months.

What he, Jacqui Smith (former economics teacher), and Martin Salter MP (career politician) & co. seem to be saying is that if there is a dangerous and complex plot, where detention without charge is essential, the police will release the suspects after 28 days and then give up.

Is my understanding correct?

Two more Labour MPs who backed 90 days in Tony Blair’s 2005 Commons defeat – Mohammad Sarwar and Mark Todd – came out in opposition to 42 days yesterday. A leaked memo at the weekend suggested Labour whips feared that at least 50 government MPs would back a revolt. The home secretary has held one-to-one meetings with backbenchers all year.

Why pursue this course? Aren’t there more useful things to be doing in order to counter terrorism? It seems so stubborn, so pigheaded.

How about we turn the argument around? Should the police be able to detain people indefinitely without charge? After all, the state of encryption today means that particular files will take an indefinite time to decrypt – perhaps years, decades, if indeed ever. Should we then detain people potentially for ever? I think all reasonable people would answer no.

So then what would be a reasonable time?

A difficult question but try to imagine yourself in the shoes of the accused. What would happen to your relationships, your family life, your friends, your employment, if you were imprisoned on suspicion of involvement with terrorism for 7, 14, 28, 42, 60, 90 days?

28 days is equivalent to a month – what would happen to your life in that time?


4 Responses

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  1. […] Politicians in the UK are wrangling over their ability to extend the length of time someone can be held by police without being charged. There’s a strong push to extend the current 28-day limit to 42 days – UK Liberty has an interesting discussion of the issue here. […]

  2. Katie Small said, on June 2, 2008 at 10:39 am


    Great website. Writing from New Zealand, I think it’s great that this kind of debate is going on in the UK – that the law hasn’t just been pushed through.

    Putting someone in prison without charging them is completely contrary to the Western conception of justice. It’s awful that our countries seem happy to squash this basic tenet of our democracy so easily.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. ukliberty said, on June 3, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Sadly it was not so long ago we had debates about 90 day detention!

    I think that in the UK in particular such legislation is more about politics rather than the reality of terrorism. Simon Jenkins summed up one factor well in a recent article for the Times.

    Essentially Labour need to be more trusted on law and order issues than the Conservatives. By making us afraid, and then pumping out all of this ill-thought through legislation, they look tough. However, the more they make us afraid, the more legislation they have to pump out. And the more they pump out, the more stupid ideas they have to put in it, because they ran out of sensible ones a long time ago.

    There is also a sense of stubbornness – of pigheadedness. I don’t understand this at all – particularly as it seems to me the public is slowly but surely turning against the myriad liberty infringing proposals originating from Government.

    Do you have control orders in New Zealand?

  4. […] Comments ukliberty on Is 42 days the solution to a real problem?ukliberty on freedom to readOral evidence from Jack Straw and Michael Wills on British Bill of […]

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