The government’s review of counter-terrorism powers

Keeping the public safe and striking the right balance between security and civil liberties is always one of the most vital tasks facing any government. That’s why the current review of counter-terrorism powers is so important.

As a matter of principle I believe our starting point in all these discussions should be to encroach as little as possible on fundamental liberties like freedom of movement, freedom of association and not to be held without charge.

But at the same time we must not be naïve about the risks we face. Just because we have, thankfully, gone for some years without a successful attack on these shores does not mean the threat from terrorism has receded. The foiled plot and arrests over Christmas, the explosive device at East Midlands airport, a rising threat from dissident Irish republicans and the Olympics now just 18 months away all show the scale of the challenge faced by the police and intelligence and security services.

That is why I have told Theresa May that, wherever possible, I will support her over the counter-terrorism measures that must be taken in the national interest – and we will play our part in building a new consensus for the future. This is despite our profound concerns about the forthcoming swingeing cuts to counter-terrorism policing and the single intelligence account.

That’s what a responsible Opposition should do. The decisions we take in this area should be determined above all by what the evidence shows. That’s why over the last few months I’ve been talking to experts on all sides of the debate. But without seeing all the evidence for myself and seeing the conclusions of the review, I don’t think it is right for the Opposition to set out a definitive view.

The same approach should apply to government ministers too. Unless they have talked to the experts and seen all the evidence, no-one should be in a position where they are pre-judging the outcome of the review or claiming some higher wisdom about what it should conclude.

That is why I have been surprised by the tone of the debate within the coalition in recent days about the future of control orders.

As I argued in my Sunday Telegraph interview in November, control orders are such an exceptional measure that in an ideal world we would of course want to manage without them. But there is no doubt that there have been, are now – and will be in the future – certain individuals who cannot be charged with any crime, who can’t be deported, but who pose a real and serious threat.

So the question is – if we are not going to keep control orders or if they’re not working effectively – what are the other means available to us which would allow us to achieve that crucial balance between protecting ourselves from terrorism on the one hand and safeguarding the rule of law on the other?

For example, does the evidence show, and expert opinion support, to an acceptable degree the proposition that lifting curfews or allowing internet and mobile phone access to these individuals would not compromise public safety? If the evidence shows there is a workable alternative, then of course we must look at that very carefully.

But to jump to a pre-ordained conclusion without the necessary evidence or confidence it will work is not the responsible way to proceed. Indeed, to talk about this issue in terms of ‘deals’ and ‘compromises’ that must be struck or ‘victories’ for a particular part of the coalition is surely the wrong way to protect the national interest.

That’s why I am so concerned about the extraordinary briefings and counter-briefings – from different parts of the coalition government – which we have seen in the media over the last few days, with Nick Clegg summing up the confusion on his visit to Oldham yesterday when he said “no deal is done”.

Nick Clegg’s slip reveals what I always feared – that the future of control orders has become a political tussle about keeping the coalition together, with a ‘crisis summit’ apparently being convened in order to try to reach some sort of political deal.

Having broken so many pre-election promises, the Lib Dem leader is understandably under pressure to deliver some of his manifesto commitments and the abolition of control orders is at the top of his list. But the coalition’s political interest absolutely must not come before the national interest.

The result is that, whatever the final decision is about control orders in the long delayed review of counter-terrorism powers, there is now considerable doubt over whether the coalition’s decision is motivated by what the balance of the evidence shows on the one hand or political expediency on the other.

This is hugely regrettable and dangerous. The country deserves better. The public is right to expect their government to review all the evidence before them with the utmost care and to decide the course of action to take action solely on the basis of where the public interest lies – not on what will hold the coalition together or appease one group of backbenchers or another.

For our part, Labour will continue to seek consensus, weigh up the evidence when we see it and put the national interest first – as any responsible party of government always should.

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Posted January 6th, 2011 by Ed

2 Responses to “The government’s review of counter-terrorism powers”

  1. Matt Moran says:

    I shouldn’t worry too much about Nick Clegg. He’s so far done everything he’s been told by the Tories. You may have some difficulty convincing Labour supporters like myself who returned to the party when Ed Miliband admitted that things like Iraq & Afghanistan & the party’s illiberal stance on civil liberties had been mistakes. Economically Labour were always good, in my book – but as films like “Taking Liberties” show, you were dreadful when it came to safeguarding our rights & freedoms.

    TBH though a lot of the measures that were introduced under Labour as part of The War Against Terrorism were ineffective or counterproductive. You’d do well to read up on independent sources like Bruce Schneier (founder of Counterpane Internet Security & a genuine genius on security in general) than take everything MI5 tell you as gospel. MI5 & the police do have a vested interest in getting as much power as possible. Their agenda is security, not necessarily freedom.

  2. Brian Barder says:

    It is deeply disappointing that Mr Balls, Labour’s shadow home secretary, is equivocating on this issue when it is so clear-cut. Control orders are one of New Labour’s worst illiberal excesses. In his first speech as Labour leader Ed Miliband promised a break with New Labour’s ‘casual’ attitude to civil liberties:

    “…we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days – nearly three months in prison – without charging them with a crime. Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended. They just undermined the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing. Protecting the public involves protecting all their freedoms. I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition.” (Conference speech, 28 September 2010)

    If those words meant anything, they must have meant that a reformed Labour Party would unambiguously support those, including the LibDems, who are pressing for the abolition of control orders. We know all we need to know about their defects and the way they breach the most fundamental principles of justice. There’ll be no new evidence in favour of keeping them with some minor smoothing of their rough edges. MI5 say there are more than three thousand people under surveillance because of suspicion of involvement in terrorism. How many of these are under control orders? Eight. How many control orders have been issued during all the five years since they were invented? 45. Of those 45, how many have quietly disappeared, never to be tracked down? One in six! How many of those who have absconded are known to have used their freedom to commit terrorist crimes? None. Not only are control orders a denial of elementary justice: they are a time-wasting irrelevance.

    How Reformed Labour responds to the coalition’s programme to repeal the worst excesses of New Labour’s dismal record of illiberal anti-terrorism, crime and prisons measures will be a major test of whether the party is genuinely committed to recovering its core principles of justice, fairness and liberty. Equivocating on such a straightforward issue as control orders suggests that Labour is about to fail that first test. There won’t be another opportunity to sit the exam again. Stop dithering, Mr Balls!

    [This is a copy of a comment on the same post on Labour List.]

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