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Is “42 days” dead?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:49 pm on 18 October, 2008.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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After being defeated heavily in the House of Lords on the issue, the British government has dropped plans to allow suspected terrorists to be held for upto 42 days without charge from the Counter Terrorism Bill (CT Bill).

This means that they won’t try to use the Parliament Act to force the bill through without the Lords’ consent, thus in the normal course of events, the issue won’t be raised again this side of the next general election, where the Tories, pledged to repeal the measure if it had passed, look likely to win. However, they haven’t quite conceded defeat either. Instead of including the measure in the CT Bill, they have decided to publish a bill that will implement 42 days to be used in a terrorist emergency.

It seems clear the government would still like to put this measure on the books, but have simply bent to the political reality that opposition is such that the measure is unlikely to get through Parliament this side of the next election and the government does not wish to be bogged down by the issue in the run up to the election. The only situation they can therefore realistically hope to use to put the measure on the books until then is the aftermath of a terrorist attack, when feelings will be running high and opposing such a measure would allow the government to cast the opposition as being “soft” on terrorism. Yet, if there really was a serious “terrorist emergency” (as opposed to simply another of the attacks or attempts Britain has experienced so far from Islamist extremists), they already have the option of using the Civil Contingencies Act to do whatever they feel needs to be done. This fact shows that they’re simply trying to save face and that the prime purpose of such legislation would not in fact be to combat the threat of terrorism but to make the opposition look soft on terrorism. Indeed Jacqui Smith’s statement after the defeat of the bill pretty much accuses those opposing the measure of exactly that:

In a forceful statement to MPs less than two hours after the vote, Ms Smith said: “I deeply regret that some have been prepared to ignore the terrorist threat, for fear of taking a tough but necessary decision.”

She said she had prepared a new bill which would allow the director of public prosecutions to apply to the courts to question a terrorist suspect for up to 42 days “should the worst happen”.

She said Britain still needed to “be prepared to deal with the worst”, adding: “My priority remains the protection of the British people.

“I don’t believe as some honourable members clearly do that it’s enough to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. That is not good enough.”

Thing is, no one who opposes the bill suggests we should cross our fingers and hope for the best. The key to combatting the terrorist threat lies not in ramming ever more draconian legislation through Parliament, but in gathering intelligence and providing the resources, technology and manpower necessary to ensure thorough and timely investigation of terrorists and their crimes. This government seems to think that if a evidence cannot be found in time to charge someone arrested for terrorism, that they must extend the time with which that suspect is held rather than consider the possibility that the reason the evidence cannot be found is either that they’re innocent or that there’s a lack of resources or a lack of competence in the investigation.

And yet, it seems to me the measure won’t be dead whilst there is life in the idea that someone who opposes a law ostensibly targetted at fighting terrorism is “soft” on terrorism. This idea has enabled the government to pass ever more draconian measures over the last decade. With 42 days, it may have received some wounds, but the fact the government can still produce a bill for emergency use, and make statements like the above when a measure they want is defeated, shows there’s still some life in it.

Moreover I fully expect the measure to be included in Labour’s next general election manifesto. The government hasn’t admitted they’re wrong, they’ve simply decided to accept the battle is lost at this point but they still clearly hope to use the issue to their advantage later on. In the run up to the election, I fully expect them to attack the Tories and the Lib Dems for being soft on terrorism for opposing these measures. Nailing the lie that opposing attacks on civil liberties means being soft on crime or soft on terrorism will thus be the key to ensuring that whoever wins the next general election stops using draconian legislation as a stick to beat the opposition with.

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