By Mike Rowley
The saga of the Government’s new Prevention of Terrorism Bill continues. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has suffered a setback with the outburst of opposition to the Bill from MPs of all parties, especially Labour.
In an attempt to save the essential proposals, including “house arrest” without trial for people suspected of involvement in terrorism, Clarke has offered five “concessions” to his critics. The most important of these is the transfer of the power to make such “control orders” from the Home Secretary himself to the judiciary.
However, Clarke’s opponents are not placated. Clarke’s plan is to introduce his “concessions” as amendments in the House of Lords, after the Bill has been passed by the Commons. In other words, he wants to do a deal: the MPs can get some titbits, as long as they agree not to discuss the rest. The government wants to hurry this Bill through Parliament with the minimum of discussion and public scrutiny.
What is more, the concessions the Home Secretary has offered are not as great even as they appear. They will apply only to so-called “derogation” cases — that is, those where the government’s actions are illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into domestic British law as the Human Rights Act (basically confined to house arrest without trial). All other restrictions — on movement, association, communication — could be ordered by the Home Secretary without judicial scrutiny.
Even where “derogation” cases do appear in court, the suspect will not be allowed to present his case himself. Clarke says that the judge will have access to all the evidence, but he has not guaranteed that the suspect’s lawyers will. Their ability to present their client’s case may well still be restricted on the grounds of “national security”. New Labour has long since grasped that this phrase, like “Third Way”, can mean absolutely anything you like.
Another major area of concern is, of course, the government’s proposed “derogation from” the Human Rights Act itself. “Derogation” is one of those nice legal phrases which mean quite disgraceful things, in this case “we know what the law is, but we will ignore it”.
The government may only legally ignore the Human Rights Act if there is “a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Over the past few weeks both Charles Clarke and Tony Blair have stated repeatedly that there is, though neither of them has ever brought forward any evidence to support this claim.
On Monday, Blair claimed that there were “several hundred of them [Islamists] in this country” planning terrorist attacks. This came as news to the security services, whose highest estimate of the number of active or potentially active Islamist terrorists is about forty. Bizarrely, Blair made his new claim on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 — a nice self-parodying Blairite touch that.
Once again, though, Blair presented no evidence in support of his claim, beyond hinting vaguely that some police chiefs had asked him for the new powers. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever of such a serious terrorist threat to this country. Saajid Badat, who pleaded guilty on Monday to conspiring to cause explosions, is the only Islamist to have been convicted of a terrorist offence in this country since 11 September 2001 — and even he pulled out of the “shoe bomb” plot at the last moment.
Blair’s mention of “hundreds” of terrorists ought, therefore, to provoke a huge protest. Does he envisage that “hundreds” of people will fall foul of the provisions of the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill? If so, it seems that most of them will not be terrorists but animal rights protestors and anti-capitalists. It must be remembered that the government includes a threat to property in its definitions of both terrorism and a public emergency.
The government plans to rush this new Bill through Parliament in the next two weeks. It is absolutely vital to mobilise everyone it might affect — the labour movement, socialists, immigrants, environmentalists, and civil liberties campaigners — now to undermine Clarke’s dangerous politicking and defeat it.