Government plans for longer detention without trial and secret inquests

On 8 July the House of Lords debated the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which contains the controversial proposal to extend pre-charge detention in terrorism cases to 42 days. A majority of those who spoke in the Lords’ debate opposed this proposal; however the vote will not take place until October. After that, the Bill will go back to the House of Commons, where it was narrowly passed in June, for reconsideration. Nicki Jameson reports.

Unlike many recent anti-terrorism laws which have been rushed through Parliament, the government does not appear to be in a massive hurry to bring in the 42 days’ detention, despite arguing vociferously that it is vital for police operations. Instead it seems keener to milk the debate for public relations purposes. As barrister and baroness Helena Kennedy put it in the Lords’ debate: ‘This is the politics of polling, focus groups and populism where the question is asked “In which policy area do the public think we are doing well? Let’s capitalise on it, give them some more tough action which will then be opposed by the other parties. We can then claim that the public are safe in our hands, not theirs.” ‘

This is a big gamble for Labour. In 2005 its plan to extend the previous 14-day maximum pre-charge detention period to 90 days saw Tony Blair’s first parliamentary defeat. After the vote, which culminated in the current 28-day law, Blair’s reputation nose-dived in parliamentary circles but his stock with the tabloid media rose somewhat. Faced with recent local and by-election disaster, Gordon Brown is hoping to do better and be seen as both successful and ‘tough’. In the run-up to the Commons vote in June, rumours abounded of Cabinet ministers meeting with Labour MPs who had threatened to vote against the proposal, offering them incentives to stay faithful. BBC News Editor Nick Robinson wrote on his blog ‘One MP is boasting that they were told that the prime minister would oppose American sanctions on Cuba. Another that they’ve been promised an improvement in the miners’ compensation scheme...’ Whatever the truth, Keith Vaz, Austin Mitchell and a number of others who had originally opposed the proposal, voted with the government, which scraped to victory by nine votes – the precise number of MPs from Ian Paisley’s rabidly loyalist Democratic Unionist Party, which threw its support behind Brown.

The vote prompted the bizarre resignation of Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, who declared that 42 days’ detention was a matter of principle and he would seek re-election as vindication. Why exactly Davis, who supports capital punishment and has advocated withdrawing Britain from both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations Convention on Refugees, is so taxed by this particular extension of the police state that the Conservative and Labour Parties have been constructing for the past 30-plus years remains a mystery.

The actual 42-day detention proposal is a mess. The idea is that where a senior police officer, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Secretary agree that there is a ‘grave exceptional terrorist threat’, Parliament will be informed and the extension permitted. In individual cases a senior judge will also be involved. Both Houses of Parliament will get to scrutinise the order within seven days and vote on it and it will be in force for 30 days. Among those who consider this unnecessary, irrelevant or unworkable are Lord Goldsmith (former Attorney General), Lord Falconer (former Lord Chancellor and mate of Blair’s), Lord Paul Condon (ex-Met Police Chief) and Lady Manningham-Butler (recently retired Head of MI5). Gunning for the extension to 42 days - and indeed for any extension or power that the police request - are Lord Peter Imbert (another ex-Met Police Chief and responsible for the fitting up of the Guildford 4 in the 1970s) and Lord Carlile, the government-appointed supposedly ‘independent’ reviewer of terrorism legislation.

The Counter-Terrorism Bill also contains a provision for inquests to be heard without a jury and in secret. The Secretary of State will have the power to issue a certificate stating that an inquest must be heard without a jury in front of a government-approved coroner and that some evidence can only be disclosed to a government-appointed lawyer. A certificate can be issued where the inquest will involve ‘the consideration of material that should not be made public in the interests of national security, in the interests of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country, or otherwise in the public interest.’ This could potentially encompass any situation in which material disclosed might prove embarrassing to or reflect badly on the state. The family of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead by the police in a pre-planned surveillance operation in April 2005, has already been told that his inquest will be subject to the new measures.

Whether or not the 42-day detention and secret inquest clauses survive the House of Lords vote, a further Commons vote and possible legal challenges on the basis they infringe various articles of the ECHR, the Counter-Terrorism Bill will definitely become law, making it the sixth piece of repressive ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation introduced by the Labour Party since 2000.
FRFI 204 August / September 2008


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