Labour change policy on detention without trial


by Rumbold
21st November, 2010 at 8:42 pm    

In a welcome shift, Ed Balls, the shadow home secretary, has abandoned support for Labour’s policy of detaining terror suspects for up to forty two days without trial:

A major policy shift on the length of time terror suspects can be held without charge was signalled by Labour today, after the shadow home secretary said he could support cutting the limit to 14 days.

Ed Balls said that the party was ready to abandon backing for the current 28-day limit, which was introduced by the Labour government in 2006, and added that previous plans to raise this to 42 days had been “a step too far”.

Some credit for this shift should also go the Coalition. During Labour’s time in power, there was a drive to appear ‘tougher’ than the opposition: harsh measures were in part enacted for populist reasons so as to play to the tabloid gallery, with the other parties at risk of looking elitist and soft if they ‘sacrificed the safety of the British people’ for the legal rights of terrorists by opposing new laws. Since the Coalition government came to power (thanks mainly the the Liberal Democrats), this posturing has ceased, and civil liberties have come to the fore again. This meant Labour have had to shift their policies to avoid looking too extreme.


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  1. Cllr Mike Harris — on 21st November, 2010 at 8:46 pm  

    This is fantastic news and a clear indication that the new leadership are taking the concerns of party members seriously – and putting right the mistakes of the Blair / Brown years.

  2. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 12:45 am  

    Cllr Mike Harris,

    Way to speak for all party members. Maybe there’s a poll I haven’t seen, but I do recall that when 42 and 90 days were being discussed under the last government, countrywide polling consistently showed support for increases aobve 28 days. Which is not an argument in itself, but I do hate this business of whenever the leadership does something X supports, X can’t help co-opting the support of others, regardless of what they might think.

    Rumbold,

    During Labour’s time in power, there was a drive to appear ‘tougher’ than the opposition: harsh measures were in part enacted for populist reasons so as to play to the tabloid gallery, with the other parties at risk of looking elitist and soft if they ‘sacrificed the safety of the British people’ for the legal rights of terrorists by opposing new laws.

    Oh come on, you’re better than that. The difference between the government and the opposition is that the latter is not on hook if/when there’s a terrorist atrocity on our doorstep. First there was 9/11, then 7/7 and then another close shave barely 2 weeks later. When the worst terrorist atrocity in mainland Britain has just occurred on your watch, it’s not difficult ot imagine that there might be something of an over-reaction. Do you really suppose Blair’s cabinet was sat around the table in the aftermath of 7/7 discussing how they could “look tough”?

    BTW, I was always conflicted on the 42/90 day thing. I could see arguments for and against, but it’s worth noting that no suspect has been detained beyond 14 days in the last 3 years. I heard Chakrabati invoke this argument against 28 days this morning, which is somewhat bizarre given that supporters repeatedly made the point that detention beyond 14 days would be as rare as hens teeth. Moreoever, what does this fact say about the agents of the state who eleced not to avail themselves of 28 days detention even when empowered to do so? Not quite the picture of the security services and police we were given before 28 days, is it?

    Look, if the consensus is to reduce to 14 days and the sec servs endorse this, I’m not going to oppose it. But when (not if) there’s another atrocity, you can bet you life it’ll be pushed back up and/or there’ll be other compensatory measures taken. It’s just the way it is.

  3. Rumbold — on 22nd November, 2010 at 8:30 am  

    Brownie:

    Do you really suppose Blair’s cabinet was sat around the table in the aftermath of 7/7 discussing how they could “look tough”?

    I do. This was a government obsessesed with what the tabloids said about it. I don’t doubt that there were people pushing for an extension of the days limit because they genuinely believed it would make Britain safer, but it was certainly a policy that was popular with the tabloids.

  4. MaidMarian — on 22nd November, 2010 at 9:48 am  

    Rumbold –

    ‘This was a government obsessesed with what the tabloids said about it. I don’t doubt that there were people pushing for an extension of the days limit because they genuinely believed it would make Britain safer, but it was certainly a policy that was popular with the tabloids.’

    You write that as though it is completely unreasonable – it is not. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the Sun has a daily readership at around 8m. It may have been popular but do you not at least see the point that governemnt can’t always ignore a shout of, ‘something must be done.’

    But more than that, Brownie has a resonable point about the use of these powers – they are very rare. That is, they are working as intended. You say that civil liberties has come to the fore. How so? What is it you can do now that you could not do previously?

    The cynic in me wonders if the Coalition is actually doing nothing more than carrying on existing trends. The detention powers, barely used, had almost lapsed, ABSOs had fallen out of fashion and so on. The immigration trend is similar – going down with the Coalition just working with existing trends.

    We are, of course, yet to see the Coalition respond to an actual attack. I hope they never have to do so.

    Further though, perhaps the real question is lost in political posturing. I don’t like it, but this argument about placing the rights of terrorists up the order does have a certain resonance. Where does the balance lie between proof and strong suspicion? I am never sure why phone tap evidence can not be used and if anyone does know I’d be interested.

  5. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 10:27 am  

    I do. This was a government obsessesed with what the tabloids said about it. I don’t doubt that there were people pushing for an extension of the days limit because they genuinely believed it would make Britain safer, but it was certainly a policy that was popular with the tabloids.

    Look, I wouldn’t wipe my backside on the Sun, but I do wish people wouldn’t use the fact that the “tabloids” are saying something as an excuse to dismiss what is actually being said. I think you’ll find that the tabloids were pretty much mirroring public opinion at that time, so whilst I accept it’s a government’s job to lead rather than follow, it would have been a brave/reckless government that ignored public opinion, most of the press and the requests from the sec services to do something in the wake of Britain’s worst ever terrorist atrocity. None of which makes 28 days right in itself, but this business of the government was just trying to “look tough” is overly simplistic and nothing more than a line borrowed from another section of the MSM.

  6. Rumbold — on 22nd November, 2010 at 11:41 am  

    MaidMarian and Brownie:

    I am not saying that the tabloids aren’t popular, nor that the majority are somehow always wrong and should be ignored. But nor is their opinion always the right one. And yes, it would have taken a brave government to make a stand for civil liberties when it was a lot easier to push for harsher measures. Luckily we have one now.

    As for the abuse of power, we have consistantly seen laws used in situations they weren’t designed for (such as the anti-terrorism act to spy on people who were applyign for schools), so there was no reason to suspect these laws would be any different.

  7. MaidMarian — on 22nd November, 2010 at 12:36 pm  

    Rumbold –

    As ever with this sort of article, I do have a sympathy for your overall point but I equally get a sense that you are aiming at the wrong target. If you really think that we have seen great leaps in civil liberty in the last six months then you are either the last man in Britain who believes in Nick Clegg or you are looking at the Emperor’s new clothes.

    In the schools case I would make two points. Firstly, there seems to be a view that the only thing that the people involved were doing wrong is getting caught. Second, I think that that was not a Terrorism Act but the RIPA which REGULATES investigatory powers. A big difference. But this case is a very good illustration of the ‘why.’ The question is not about the use of these powers relative to civil liberty, but rather the why do they exist at all. You would have us believe that it is all about a lowest common denominator populism, there may be an element of that (not that that is a wholly bad thing), but to me it is far more nuanced.

    We as a society simply no longer trust each other enough to regulate our relationships with each other – we look to government to do it and we look to blame government when those relationships break. Government has not used terror as a Trojan horse to barge into our relationships, we have actively beckoned it in. So we have demanded that government check that people have no serious criminal background when they work with children and have blamed government for scandals. Similarly we, not without good reason, believe that others may cheat the school entry system and demand that suspicions are acted on. We do not trust the children on the street corner and demand they are moved on. At its end point we do not trust people not to blow up our trains.

    This is what you should be aiming at. When Nick Clegg so blithely invites us to be demanding about our liberty, what does he mean? Whose liberty is he championing because I would bet it is not the kids on the corner. Terror is not a cause but a symptom of wider problems about our relationship with each other, the loss of civil society and the weakening of our capacity to be together. Your reductivism is too simplistic.

    Let’s put this another way Rumbold. You tell me – what do you say to our notional Sun reader who takes the view that it is entirely legitimate for the police to stop and search all and sundry in the name of security, and that the government has been, ‘soft on….’ . I don’t claim that I have any answers but I’m not going to pretend these people don’t exist.

  8. damon — on 22nd November, 2010 at 12:43 pm  

    This isn’t an issue I can get too excited about.
    I can’t help having some sympathy for populist tabloid opinion. Anyone being held more than a few days as a terrorism suspect will probably be a highly dubious person in the first place. For the police still to want to hold them longer than two weeks, then something serious must have been going on, or the police are being seriously incompetent.

    If someone has been known to have met Ai-Qaeda people in Pakistan for example, and been known to be in internet contact from the UK to people there, and to have been communicating online with known militants in secret codes, then I’m not too worried about that person’s civil liberties if suspected to be part of a plot in the UK. Not for him just being questioed for some extra time. It’s not like we’re sending them off to Morocco for torture.

  9. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 1:37 pm  

    And yes, it would have taken a brave government to make a stand for civil liberties when it was a lot easier to push for harsher measures. Luckily we have one now.

    No, what you have now is a government that isn’t having to send senior party figures to 52 funerals in the next fortnight.

  10. Phomesy — on 22nd November, 2010 at 2:02 pm  

    Anyone who approaches issues like this because it represents an opportunity to outflank political opponents, has no place in public service.

    Having said that, I’m yet to see evidence that Tony Blair or David Blunkett – or any of Blair’s ministers – ever did so.

    I suspect this has become the easy and rather lazy “received wisdom” for many people.

    Rather than being driven by a desire to look “tough”, it’s far more likely that policy was driven by an underlying fear and dread. Can you imagine the repercussions if a suspect, released after 14 days, then went on to commit a terrorist attack – when Police, counter-terrorism agencies and Security Services had all requested longer detention orders?

    That kind of thing brings down Governments.

    And is something the Coalition is now being faced with after years of smug sniping and grandstanding from the safety of non-responsibility.

    Which is why control orders are still here. Because Theresa May is discoverinng, like all who came before, that while Control Orders are horrible, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative – or at least one that isn’t hugely risky.

    Thing is: I absolutely agree that detention without trial and control orders are terrible things. Open to abuse and error. And I’m broadly in agreement with political pressure to curb them.

    What I dislike is the denial and misrepresentation of the issues by so called “civil liberties” representatives – eg: the sanctimonious bore Henry Porter. I have a lot of time for Shami Chakrabarti but the simple fact is that, when pressed, she has no POLICY answers – indeed she suggested “increased surveillance” when pressured over the recent case of the Al Qaeda operative who couldn’t be deported to Pakistan and couldn’t be charged here.

    If we, as a society, decide that detention without trial and control orders are contrary to our values, fine. But we must also accept that this comes at the risk of enabling further terrorist attack.

    This is the true risk/cost assessment.

  11. ukliberty — on 22nd November, 2010 at 2:23 pm  

    MaidMarian,

    I am never sure why phone tap evidence can not be used and if anyone does know I’d be interested

    This may be of interest: Privy Council Review of intercept as evidence.

  12. ukliberty — on 22nd November, 2010 at 2:30 pm  

    damon, do you agree or disagree that the police sometimes make mistakes?

  13. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 3:21 pm  

    Read the pdf ukliberty links to, and listen to the discussion between Shami Chakrabarti and Lord Carlile here:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8405109.stm

    Ireland is a good example of a common law jurisdiction where intercept evidence is admissible in theory, but in pratice never is (for the same ECHR exposure fears shared by HMG). But the bigger issues is the much more demanding disclosure requirements that exist in Britain.

  14. ukliberty — on 22nd November, 2010 at 3:23 pm  

    Brownie,

    None of which makes 28 days right in itself, but this business of the government was just trying to “look tough” is overly simplistic and nothing more than a line borrowed from another section of the MSM.

    C’mon, they went for 90 days even though no-one outside Cabinet was calling for it (apart from ACPO, which wanted indefinite detention). It was about political expediency, not evidence-based policy (see HAC, JHCR). They wanted a big number to look tough, and something large enough that they would inevitably and contentedly come down from to settle on something lower. And the votes were dishonestly ordered, too: “the time periods were not presented in an appropriate order, and those who wanted a shorter time limit were compelled to vote for the 28 days after rejecting the 90 day limit for fear that the 60 day limit would have stuck.”

  15. damon — on 22nd November, 2010 at 3:25 pm  

    ukliberty – what the police would be holding someone for over two weeks, and over a month even, I can only guess at. Anyone inside for that amount of time, comes to the attention of top police officers and judges who constantly reassess what’s going on.

    If some of these Real IRA supporters find themselves banged up for prolonged interogation because the police suspect them of being involved in the actual shootings and bombings, then I’m not really too sorry for them.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOro2M6wcxQ

    They’ll be treated well enough.

    It’s good to be a liberal. I hope I’m one too on most issues. I can’t though ignore the popular mood that doesn’t care that much about the likes of people on control orders or Omar Bakri Muhammad.

    I don’t think the idea of that poem ”First they came for the Jews” relly applies here.
    Like it’s not the sign of a police state that the police want to know and start a file on everyone who went on those Real IRA parades and clapped and cheered them. Of course they are now suspects.
    The Real IRA said it was they who threw a hand grenade at police a couple of weeks ago, seriously injuring one officer.

    Selective internment is OK by me when things get serious.

  16. ukliberty — on 22nd November, 2010 at 3:40 pm  

    damon,

    ukliberty – what the police would be holding someone for over two weeks, and over a month even, I can only guess at

    Well, you haven’t answered my question – I presume you do agree that the police sometimes make mistakes.

    If there was a case for 28 days, I would have thought it could be made to the satisfaction of, say, the Joint Committee of Human Rights. AIUI, such a case hasn’t been made.

    Incidentally, at least three people have been released on day 27 without charge.

    I can’t though ignore the popular mood that doesn’t care that much about the likes of people on control orders or Omar Bakri Muhammad.

    Many people don’t seem to care about habeas corpus, fair trials and so on. I don’t think that’s a good reason to get rid of habeas corpus or fair trials.

    This seems to be a common argument from you, the appeal to numbers.

    As for the impact on detainees, AIUI the government has not sought to establish it.

  17. ukliberty — on 22nd November, 2010 at 4:09 pm  

    Brownie, that BBC link is more immediately useful – thanks.

  18. Phomesy — on 22nd November, 2010 at 4:45 pm  

    Of course the Police make mistakes. Even worse, they, and the system, are perfectly capable of abuse and corruption of power.

    That’s what makes dilution of civil liberties law so risky.

    But the reverse is also true: “Is our legal system inefficient and ineffective in dealing with the present threat?”

    Yes it is. Many of the surveillance techniques used to identify plots are either inadmissable as evidence (Phone taps) or withheld to avoid exposing intell assets.

    And, of course, the whole point is to stop the crime before it’s committed so when Police move in to make arrests they then have 14/28 days to build an entire case on forensics (bomb making components); communications (email from confiscated computers); and other circumstantial evidence for a crime that HASN’T been committed.

    This is almost impossible unless the suspects have been caught in possession of actual explosive devices -and I think we all agree that’s cutting it too bloody fine!

    The 7/7 Bombers were under surveillance. They were known. THey were threats but classified lesser threats than others and resources focussed elsewhere – in a matter of days/weeks they went from known threats to successful murderers.

    Imagine if they’d been arrested in late June. The uproar over men with pregnant wives or small children being subjected to this kind of treatment?

    That’s the other side of the coin

  19. damon — on 22nd November, 2010 at 4:50 pm  

    ukliberty, without wanting to sound too neanderthal, habeas corpus is something that I only read about on websites like this. I vagely remember learning about it for my history O level.

    Of course the police make mistakes. And they do end up releasing a lot of people without charge after a fuss has been made in the press about arrests.

    But I’ll pick and choose who I get concerned about.
    I don’t care about people who are known to be islamist extremists, like for example the 100 Brits who are thought to have trained and fought in Somalia.
    That’s not a crime in the UK I presume, and they can’t be charged with anything when they come back (can they?)
    If they later come under suspicion for furthering plots from inside the UK, then I don’t really care if they get banged up for some period of time while enquiries are made.

    As for populism, well yes – it’s a pretty basic human feeling. People saw this picture of Abu Qatada out shopping in west London after being released from prison with a tag, and may have not felt much sympathy for his 22 hours a day house curfew.
    http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2008/07/10/article-1033882-01E692EE00000578-318_233x644_popup.jpg

  20. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 5:01 pm  

    They wanted a big number to look tough, and something large enough that they would inevitably and contentedly come down from to settle on something lower.

    I dispute the “and”. I can accept that 90 days was indeed a strategy to give the impression that the eventaul settlement at 28 days was a compromise. But this means that rather than looking “tough”, the government was trying to appear flexible/prepared to listen to reasonable argument.

    I just can’t buy the line that in the wake of 7/7 with false positive intelligence coming at them from all directions, the government was sat around the cabinet table thinking about how “tough” they could look. Most of the buggers work and live in London with thir families at least part of the time. It’s kinda in their own best interstes to try to develop the most effective strategy. Contrary to popular belief, Tony Blair was a human being, too.

  21. Brownie — on 22nd November, 2010 at 5:11 pm  

    And, of course, the whole point is to stop the crime before it’s committed so when Police move in to make arrests they then have 14/28 days to build an entire case on forensics (bomb making components); communications (email from confiscated computers); and other circumstantial evidence for a crime that HASN’T been committed.

    Often involving a network of suspects that span the globe, which necessarily means coordinating enquiries and evidence-gathering with the legal authorities in multiple jurisdictions.

    Honest truth? My guess is that, due to the unprecedented threat we face (both the qualitative and quantitative), rights are abused, privacies invdaed and laws bent more than we’ll ever know. I don’t mean wholesale toruture of suspects and a complete disrespect for the law; rather that from time to time, the sec servs use techniques and powers of scrutiny, etc. that are barely leagal. And if they didn’t, we could probably count the cost in bodies.

    That’s the unacknowledged truth, is my guess.

  22. Rumbold — on 23rd November, 2010 at 11:51 am  

    MaidMarian, Phomesy and Brownie:

    I am not opposed to everything the populace wants, nor do I think that you cannot have a security system without some restrictions on civil liberties (for example, detaining terrorist suspects for 72 hours before charging them). Bu the Labour government went too far, and part of the reason for that is because, as you both have pointed out, it was a popular move. Yes, in releasing suspects earlier you mgiht increase the risk of terorist action (though perhaps decrease the overall risk by not radicalising so many), but that is a price worth paying. We should not advocate a system where people are held for weeks without being charge- after all, why not extend that principle to all crimes?

  23. MaidMarian — on 23rd November, 2010 at 1:47 pm  

    Rumbold – ‘They might become radicalised.’ Are there any others you would apply that to, or is it just people of a certain sort who are more ‘at risk’ of becoming ‘radicalised’ because the justice system put in place by an elected givernment has the nerve to exist?

  24. damon — on 23rd November, 2010 at 8:33 pm  

    I really don’rt get some of the logic here.
    It seems to be foremost skeptical of any arrests that are made in terrorism cases.

    So for example, the liquid bomb plot of 2006 when 24 suspects were taken into custody. It seems like the immediate sympathy goes to those arrested, and an impatience with the police to quickly charge or release.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_transatlantic_aircraft_plot

    The fact that only a handful were ever convicted means that all the others were totally innocent right?
    Even though they were closely involved with those ultimately convicted, were known to be radicals and had been up to all sorts of clandestine behavior.

    And that a concerned liberal person would really be rooting for those guys and wanting them realeased ASAP. As a matter of urgency. Even when the police said they still had onging serious enquiries about many of them, and they had definately acted suspiciously.

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