Sunday, June 03, 2007

Brown on terrorism

'Because we believe in the civil liberties of the individual, we must also strengthen accountability to parliament and independent bodies overseeing the police, not subjecting people to arbitary treatment. The world has changed, so we need tougher security. We must recognise there is a group of people we must isolate who are determined to attack. Our security must be strengthened, but we must also strengthen the accountability of our institutions.''
- Gordon Brown

Well, that sounds quite good - tough, yet caring, firm but fair. But what does it actually mean? Is our new PM-to-be ambidextrous in his approach? Right hand, a clunking great fist on terror, left hand, tenderly smoothing our anxious brows, which frown unhappily with increasing concern over the erosion of ancient liberties, and the whirlwind of legislation passed in the aftermath of 'the war on terror'?
Or is it just more New Labour window dressing whilst further freedoms disappear in the name of security?

Brown's speech is being widely reported as being 'tough on terrorism' in today's headlines; the timing is, of course, politically expedient. It is a thumbed nose to Peter Hain, running for deputy Labour leader, and a display of teeth at the Labour left. It is also pouring salt into the wounds of the Tories, struggling for over a month now with the fallout over grammar schools, and Cameron now being called ''delusional'' and ''an absolute prat'' by Council leaders. A new Sunday Telegraph poll has Mr Brown seen as ''more experienced, strong and competent'', and he is marginally favoured to be prime minister. Making hay of the disarray, Brown is hardly likely to do anything that could be interpreted as being ''soft on terrorism'', but it is interesting that this speech does nod to civil liberties and checks and balances: he has clearly learned from the opprobrium being heaped on his outgoing nemesis, Blair.

The charges against the Blair government vary: that they indulge in ''macho posturing'' with regard to law and order (Hain) and they use the politics of fear to exert control and avoid criticism, particularly of foreign policy, that the current PM's style of Government is unaccountable, authoritarian in tendency, and reliant on spin and media management to cover up its flaws.

There is growing public muttering against 'house arrest' and new police 'stop and question' powers, widespread disbelief at an outgoing PM who says that three suspects escaping control orders are ''a symptom of a society which put civil liberties before fighting terror.'' Writing in the Sunday Times last week, the prime minister described this as "misguided and wrong" and said prioritising a terror suspect's right to traditional civil liberties was "a dangerous misjudgement", (!) - and there is further concern at the latest antics from out-going tough-guy Reid

(For heaven's sake. Sometimes I wonder if Reid and Blair have swivel-eyed chats that go like this:

''It's okay to treat terrorists differently to normal humans, they have, y'know, different DNA. Like crabs''
''Yeah, terrorists aren't like us. They're vermin. Lock them up without charge, without trial. Torture them. Or get someone else to do it for us. That will show them not to attack our freedoms'')

So Brown's tough on terror speech where he does go on quite a bit about civil liberties is in stark contrast to the chest-thumping rhetoric that has been coming out of the Home Office for the last year, and the martyred 'look, because I said so and I just know I'm right' dramatics coming out of Number 10 for longer. What has Brown got for us then?

Intercept evidence used in trials. This might help those trapped in the no-man's land of house arrest without enough evidence to bring them to trial. The Security Services, however, aren't keen. The police are in favour. I go with the police. Show the evidence.It's a fundemental part of what we do: we don't lock people up or detain people without it. Not for more than 28 days, which is quite long enough and far longer than most places.

Making terrorism an aggravating factor in sentencing, giving judges greater powers to punish terrorism within the framework of the existing criminal law.I don't see the point of this at all: we already have perfectly-solid laws against conspiracy to commit murder and cause explosions/mayhem, etc. (Dhiren Barot got 40 years for plotting acts of terrorism after all.) The point about terrorism is that it is criminal. Why make it special and different? It makes it dangerously glamorous. Murder is murder. Fraud, extortion, kidnapping...we've already got them taped, legally. I do wish Labour would get over this knee-jerk legislation habit. Particularly since the current Anti-terrorism laws have repeatedly been used to harass and threaten peaceful protesters. Have Judges actually requested these powers? Nope, not as far as I can see. So what is the point of it and where are we going with this? Not somewhere I want to end up.

Allow the police to continue to interrogate terror suspects even after they have been charged with a criminal offence. Nooooo. Arrest subject, provide lawyer whilst questioning them. Produce enough evidence to charge, or release. Once charged, provide representation and await fair trial, whilst continuing to treat suspect humanely. This stunt is completely contradictory to the the principle of habeas corpus. (''Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?''). And it sounds like an attempt to get ''90 days'' in via the back door to me...

Oh, hang on, belt and braces. Increase the number of days a terror suspect can be held without charge from 28 days to 90 days. Grrr. I have already banged on about this and I have not seen any evidence to change my mind about why this is dangerous, and insufferable to freedom-loving citizens.

Increasing the security budget, which has already doubled to more than £2bn a year after 11 September 2001, in the forthcoming spending review when a single security budget will be unveiled. Well, as long as we know what it is being used for...but do we?

Give MPs and peers greater powers to scrutinise the work of the security and intelligence services, allowing them to cross-examine the heads of MI5 and MI6 in public. Accountability and transparency, I am in favour of. But I am also worried about whether it is a way of avoiding an inquiry into 7/7, which I and others are campaigning for. Last month, representatives of the survivors and relatives of 7/7 handed in a letter asking for an inquiry into 7/7 to the Home Office. We heard nothing back and so we chased last week. We got a fax back at the end of last week, and it was not exactly greeted with rapture by the group. I will blog more about that after the weekend, when all the group have had a chance to air their thoughts privately, and after we have had further discussions with Oury Clark, our lawyers.

After the Crevice trial revealed M15 had lead 7/7 bomber MSK in their sights, and let him go again, Blair said that the ISC, (the Intelligence and Security Committee) would re-examine the evidence that came to light (after the Crevice trial of terrorists planning to attack targets like Bluewater and the Ministry of Sound). This was his response to calls in the House, and by us, for an independent inquiry into 7/7, which was chaired by someone outside of Government and the Security Services, with the power to compel evidence and cross examine witnesseses and make recommendations.

But the ISC is not independent. It is comprised of hand-picked MPS who answer to the PM. It didn't ask the right questions. It missed out of lots of things and exonerated the Security Services and its report read as if it had been spoon-fed whole paragraphs by M15 itself. It was, and is, a pathetic substitute for a proper inquiry. And everyone saw that after the Crevice trial ended. So...

Brown will now give Parliament a greater role in overseeing the intelligence services. He will place the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which reports to the Prime Minister, on a similar basis as parliamentary select committees, which are acccountable to MPs.

It's a start. But it's not what we're asking for, is it?

If 21st century terrorism is such a terrible thing, so different to the threat of Nazi invasion or Russian nuclear strikes or IRA terrorism, so terrible that we can shred the constitution over it in a mad rush, and decide it's okay to hold British citizens without charge under house arrest, or in police cells for up to three months, continue to question them after they have been charged, make everyone carry ID cards, and submit to questioning in the streets by police about what they are up to, and strengthen sentencing powers by popping the word 'terrorism' into the charge sheet, then why can't we have an inquiry into 7/7?

I have some high hopes for Mr Brown, but that speech concerns me. It's all very well to go round the country ''listening'', but I hope that he doesn't let me, and others down, by delivering more of the liberty-restricting over-reaction of his predecessors, instead of looking at why we face this threat.

Those who prize security over liberty deserve neither, after all. Nor do they get either for the most part. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE: Obsolete on the subject. Iain Dale on Brown-spin.

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Blogger Jono said...

I mostly agree with you, except on this:

Allow the police to continue to interrogate terror suspects even after they have been charged with a criminal offence.

I would allow questioning in respect of possible separate charges, though not the offence currently charged (except as much as is currently allowed). I have no problem with charging an for a lesser offence while investigations continue on more serious charges (provided, of course, that evidence supports the lesser charge).

June 03, 2007 2:49 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

I have now changed position on this and I agree with you

November 13, 2007 8:49 am  

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