Terrorism Bill: another step towards a police state / FRFI 188 Dec 2005 / Jan 2006

FRFI 188 December 2005 / January 2006

On 10 November the Terrorism Bill 2005 had its third reading in the House of Commons. On 21 November it passed through a second symbolic reading in the House of Lords and is now to be deliberated on by a parliamentary committee. This is the sixth law against terrorism, and by extension against organised dissent, which Labour has brought in since coming to power eight years ago. NICKI JAMESON reports.

The Bill includes new measures against preparation of terrorist acts, ‘encouraging terrorism’ by indirect incitement, providing or undertaking ‘terrorist training’, or simply being present at a place where it is provided, and ‘disseminating terrorist publications’. It was drafted prior to the 7 July London bombing but beefed up and talked up afterwards, with more controversial measures added, in particular an offence of ‘glorifying terrorism’ and an increase from 14 to 90 days of the period a terrorist suspect can be detained without charge.

In the run-up to the Commons debate, Labour announced it was dropping the plan for a separate offence of ‘glorifying terrorism’. This was hailed as a victory by opposition parties and described as a ‘U-turn’ by the media but in reality the same wording outlawing ‘the glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of acts of terrorism’ was simply moved into a section on ‘Encouragement of Terrorism’.

The 90-day detention period was quite another matter. Although up until the day before the debate it was anticipated that a compromise would be struck, Tony Blair and Charles Clarke announced they would be sticking to 90 days. The conciliatory facade was replaced by a bullish one: this, they said, was what the police wanted, what the public wanted, and what was needed for national security, to prevent more bombings, to save us from the enemy within and the enemy without.

The Commons voted 291 in favour of 90-day detention; 322 against. It then voted on an amendment to double the current 14-day period to 28 days. The vote was carried 323 for and 290 against. The phrasing of the amendments meant that if both fell the Bill’s original wording of ‘three months’, as opposed to 90 days, would stand. Having failed to build any real opposition to this shameful Bill, and with George Galloway having been too busy on lucrative speaking engagements to even turn up for an earlier amendment debate on the ‘glorification’ section, which the government won by a single vote, the ‘left’ in Parliament had no option but to vote with the Tories and Lib Dems in support of 28-day detention.

This was the first parliamentary defeat since Blair became Prime Minister. His personal reputation hit an all-time low or high, depending whose opinion you canvass. He made a noble, or ostrich-like speech about how it was better to be right than to win. The Times described him as ‘once merely messianic, now completely unhinged’.

Police state
The run-up to the vote on the 90-day detention proposal saw a lobbying alliance of the Labour Party and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Blair and his ministers flouted all notions of MPs being there to independently represent their constituents, without fear or favour, by openly encouraging ACPO to urge its members to contact MPs and lobby their support for Labour’s proposal.

The appalling prospect of allowing the police to set the political agenda was spelt out in the House of Commons by the unlikeliest of speakers. Ex-Tory Minister John Gummer MP explained that it is Parliament’s job to legislate and the police’s to enforce the legislation, not vice versa. And Tory leader-in-waiting David Davis (who wants to withdraw Britain from both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Refugees) pointed out that the police will always demand ‘the most powers they can’. They should therefore specifically not be invited to make decisions about the extent of such powers, as they cannot be expected to give proportionate respect to civil liberties. It also took Michael Howard, the Tory leader, to point out the similarity between Labour’s heinous 90-day detention proposal and a law that was one of the main planks of the framework used against opponents of apartheid in white South Africa.

Given this golden opportunity to lobby for more power, at no point did ACPO actually produce any hard evidence to back up a demand for any increase in the detention period, and even the information they did come up with turned out to be inaccurate. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke delivered a convincing sounding speech to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was repeated by Charles Clarke in the parliamentary debate. The Committee was told that ‘had we had this provision in 2002, the outcome of a recent court case, the so-called ricin trial, might have been very different. Mohammed Meguerba was one of the suspects in that case and it is likely that we would have held him or applied for his detention for sufficient time to find that his fingerprints were on the ricin recipe and he would have stood trial...had he not fled the country...’ The Home Secretary told the Commons that this was ‘a compelling argument that 90 days might have made a difference and allowed things to be dealt with far better.’ This was in fact complete nonsense as the police had released Mohammed Meguerba after two days in custody.

After the Commons vote, hysterical tabloid journalists and Labour MP columnists castigated parliament for being out of touch, ignoring the police, selling out the people and leaving us prey to terrorist attack. Following the Lords’ second reading, opposition politicians announced their intention to introduce amendments at the committee stage, which would remove the glorification clauses. However, with or without its most draconian excesses, the Terrorism Bill will inevitably pass into law. All the original sections will be implemented in full. Under Labour, Britain’s inexorable march towards a police state will continue.