With a month to go, Blair blames ‘society’ and proposes yet more draconian police powers
The definitive comment on the ill-fated Control Orders régime, which almost everyone agrees is hopeless (but for different reasons), appeared in The Register on 25 May, written by John Lettice:
Control order regimes meanwhile were brought in because the government's previous 'solution' of indefinite prison detention without trial was deemed to breach the European Convention on Human Rights, and because the security services did not have sufficient resources to monitor 'dangerous' suspects loose in the community. Pause briefly to consider the eccentricity of that last claim. Fairly recently the number of terrorism suspects being monitored by MI5 was claimed to be in the region of 2,000, while the number of people subject to control orders would have totalled 17 if they could manage to keep hold of all of them at once. Six are currently AWOL. It is not clear why M15 has the resources to monitor 2,000 people, but lacks the resources to monitor 2,017 people. Nor, if people under control orders are a bit less dangerous than people directly monitored, is it clear why there are 2,000 of the more dangerous ones but only 17 of the less. What strange statistical model does this distribution conform to?
Whatever, we have three people who, if they're dangerous at all, are dangerous because they want to leave the UK and be dangerous somewhere else, so we control them with a system that they can walk out of any time they want, and the only thing impeding their progress out of the UK (if that's what they want to do) is the fact that we've confiscated their passports.
Now Mr Blair, writing in Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times on 27 May, exactly one month away from the end of his premiership, utters a self-pitying cry of frustration and anger directed at the judges, the European Convention on Human Rights, the opposition parties, the human rights organisations and, most bizarrely of all, "society", all of whom have apparently been conspiring to prevent him from strengthening our security at the expense of the human rights of a lot of blood-stained terrorists:
After September 11, 2001, in common with many other nations, we passed new antiterror laws… We gave ourselves the ability, in exceptional circumstances, to detain foreign nationals who we believed were plotting terrorism but against whom there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. It was an important power. They were, of course, free to leave Britain. … The ability to detain foreign nationals gave our services the ability to focus even more resources on the surveillance of British nationals who were a threat. It also sent out a strong signal of intent. In December 2004 these laws were struck down by the courts. In his famous judgment Lord Hoffmann said there was a greater risk to Britain through the abrogation of the foreign suspect’s civil liberties than through terrorism.
So we were forced to opt for the much milder remedy of control orders, applicable to both foreign and British nationals. These do not involve detention. They impose some limits on the individual’s freedom. They are better than nothing and have utility – because otherwise the individuals would have to be subject to even more intensive surveillance. They were, however, much weaker than we wanted, perpetually diluted by opposition amendments, constantly attacked on civil liberty grounds.
In addition, after September 11, and again after July 7, we have tried continually to deport foreign nationals who were either engaged in or inciting extremism. Again and again in court judgments we were forced to keep them here… And, of course, we lost the crucial vote on 90 days’ precharge detention, despite offering a week-by-week court hearing throughout the 90 days.
…we should remember that consistently over the past few years, and even after July 7, attempts to introduce stronger powers have been knocked back in parliament and in the courts. Indeed recently it was said, again in a court case, that unless the British government could prove that a foreign national suspect would not be at risk of mistreatment in his own country, we were obliged to keep him here. So the fault is not with our services or, in this instance, with the Home Office. We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first. I happen to believe this is misguided and wrong. If a foreign national comes here, and may be at risk in his own country, we should treat him well. But if he then abuses our hospitality and threatens us, I feel he should take his chance back in his own home country.
As for British nationals who pose a threat to us, we need to be able to monitor them carefully and limit their activities. It is true that the police and security services can engage in surveillance in any event. But this is incredibly time-consuming and expensive, and even with the huge investment we have made since 2001, they simply cannot do it for all suspects. Over the past five or six years, we have decided as a country that except in the most limited of ways, the threat to our public safety does not justify changing radically the legal basis on which we confront this extremism.
Their right to traditional civil liberties comes first. I believe this is a dangerous misjudgment. This extremism, operating the world over, is not like anything we have faced before. It needs to be confronted with every means at our disposal. Tougher laws in themselves help, but just as crucial is the signal they send out: that Britain is an inhospitable place to practise this extremism.
So because it's "incredibly expensive" to place suspects (against whom not enough admissible evidence exists to warrant charging them, even with one or more of the sweepingly defined offences created since 9/11) under ordinary police or security service surveillance, the whole cumbersome and objectionable apparatus of Control Orders has been established — and since the orders became available, how many of them have been made? Answer: 22. How many are currently in force? Answer: 17. How many of the 17 subjected to current orders have so far simply disappeared? Answer: six, more than a third.
It's time Parliament abolished this farcical and unjust system and insisted that if there are solid enough grounds for depriving this handful of suspects of their basic liberties, there must be solid enough grounds for charging them and putting them on trial. If the evidence against them is too sensitive to be heard in open court, let it be heard in camera, or so edited as to conceal its source. Let intercept evidence be made admissible. If necessary, let's have special procedures for protecting the safety of informers. Remember that since control orders became law in the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, fewer than two dozen individuals have been subjected to them. Such is the scale of the threat such people pose.
As for the prime minister's view that if a foreign national who's "at risk" — i.e. of torture or other inhuman treatment, even of death — in his own country "abuses our hospitality and threatens us, I feel he should take his chance back in his own home country", it's hard to know whether this is Mr Blair's serious and considered view, in which case he seems to be advocating the deliberate breach of our international obligations under various Conventions to which Britain is party and which there's absolutely no possibility of amending in the way he wants — a curious position for a qualified barrister, let alone a head of government in a democracy, to adopt; or else it's a piece of shameless and irresponsible demagoguery that belongs more to the Sun or the Daily Mail, although admittedly the Sunday Times is these days not much better than either.
Not content with whingeing about the frustrations he has suffered from libertarians, Lib Dems and Conservatives, Labour lefties, Shami Chakrabarti and her allies, judges and 'society', our lame duck prime minister, with barely 30 days of his premiership left, now launches proposals for yet more anti-terrorist legislation:
The absconding of three people on control orders because of suspicion of their involvement in terrorism has, once again, thrown into sharp relief the debate about terrorism and civil liberty. Within the next few weeks we will publish new proposals on anti-terror laws. Our aim is to reach a consensus across the main political parties.
Within a few weeks? Who is this "we"? Not, surely, Mr Blair and Dr Reid, for the good doctor has announced that when Blair goes, he goes too, a decision of the kind that used to be described as "cheating the hangman". This hasn't, though, deterred him from launching his own novel plans for yet more draconian police powers for use against terrorism: the police are to be able to stop and question anyone about his identity, where he is going and where he has come from, even if there are no grounds for suspicion that he's up to no good. Police already have the power to "stop and search" without needing any reason to suspect them of anything, but apparently not to ask about the victim's identity or movements. The home secretary also wants to include in yet another anti-terrorism law police powers to commandeer documents for examination even if they have no obvious relevance to any offence, and to remove vehicles for examination. All this is explained in a letter to the prime minister, leaked to the Sunday Times, from Dr Reid's junior colleague, Tony McNulty, whose limpid words another Sunday Times article quotes:
Tony McNulty, the minister for counter-terrorism, outlined the plans on Reid’s behalf in a letter to the prime minister last week. “I believe that these powers will be very useful UK-wide,” he wrote. “For example, one of the public criticisms of [stop and search] has been that it is overused. Arguably one of the weaknesses of [stop and search] is that although it enables a search of an individual, it does not enable a police officer to ask that individual who they are or where they are going. Therefore a less intrusive power of stop and question that could be used by the police in the first instance would be useful. The effect of this power should therefore be to reduce the number of times stop and search is used.” [Emphasis added]
This double use of "therefore" deserves to be treasured. The idea that giving the police new indiscriminate powers on top of those which they already possess will result in their less frequent use is also a novel one. Fortunately the hostile reception that these horrendous proposals have already had at the hands of small-L liberals of all parties and the civil rights lobby suggest fairly strongly that there will not be sufficient support for them to get through parliament in the next four weeks: and that after that, Gordon Brown will have the sense and judgement to bin them.
Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian comments aptly on Blair's extraordinary complaint against not only the judges and the opposition parties, but also against society as a whole:
Careful, Tony. This is coming close to Brecht's famous quip about the East German people letting down the government, and the consequent need to dissolve the people and elect another.
And she points out, equally aptly, that —
It is a curious time to be making this sort of intervention. Changes to the law to allow the police to stop, question and demand the identity of anyone, regardless of a crime being committed or suspected, would require consultation across party lines and a proper national debate before any legislation could be framed, never mind voted on. It isn't really Blair's business any longer. He's turning from premier to heckler of his own administration. If such changes need to be made, it's surely now for Gordon Brown to talk, and decide.
This highlights the unhappy, unsatisfactory nature of the long transition.
Amen to that. How much longer to we have to listen to this stuff from, of all places, No. 10 and the Home Office? Four more long weeks, it seems.