A review of terror laws will expose further rifts within the coalition, argues Shami Chakrabartiby Shami Chakrabarti / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Passions over university tuition fees make it easy to forget an even bigger test for coalition unity, which will be forced to a head by the review of counterterrorism measures now expected in the new year.
One of the most controversial issues is the use of control orders, introduced in 2005 as a face-saver for Tony Blair’s government after the law lords impugned his infamous Belmarsh internment policy. Control orders are an indefinite punishment without charge or trial, designating those handed them the label of “terror suspect” not for 42 or even 90 days, but forever. They impose severe restrictions on liberty (curfews, electronic ankle tags, internal exile, bans on phones, computers and meeting people) on the basis of secret intelligence and suspicion that a suspect and his lawyer may never see. There is no need for old-fashioned charges, evidence, proof, a criminal trial and so on.
In 2005, many Labour rebels expressed horror at this. But it was the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, headed by Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy respectively, that led resistance to the proposals over many late- night sittings and “ping ponging” of the legislation between the two houses of parliament. Howard said that his party would rather tackle terrorism within the rule of existing law; many senior Lib Dems spoke against the legislation and have voted against its renewal.
But now both parties are in office, there are worrying signs of internal divisions. The cabinet and the security services are reportedly split over whether or not to scrap the laws.
There should be no grounds for hesitation. If control orders were wrong as a “temporary” and “emergency” measure (as the Blair government called them) in 2005, they are even more offensive five years on, now we have seen their working in practice. They are perverse: while they can destroy families and drive the innocent insane, they provide no protection against a determined terrorist who has no intention of staying behind his unlocked door. At last count (it is extremely difficult to gain public information about this secret non-justice system), seven out of 45 controlees have absconded from their anti-terror Asbos.
In 2009, Liberty staged a conference in Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall, attended by Nick Clegg, Jack Straw, Scotland Yard’s assistant commissioner John Yates, a host of other luminaries and 500 members of the public. Halfway through the day, a man a few rows from the stage began heckling. He had spent years in Belmarsh, and was living under a control order, yet even though his home office “watchers” had deemed him dangerous, he had been free to come to a populous target in Parliament Square, rich with senior politicians, journalists and civilians.
So not only are control orders, in the words of the current attorney general Dominic Grieve, a “departure from our established principles,” they are also dangerously ineffective.
On the economy, education or voting reform, coalition leaders can tell their party and voters that they didn’t win the election outright; that coalition is compromise. That won’t wash with control orders: the pledge of both parties on this issue is very clear. The coalition was flung together by fiscal and parliamentary arithmetic: civil liberties form the glue that binds it together. The government betrays this promise at its peril.