Watering down the anti-terror regime was a deliberate and irresponsible choice

November 6, 2013 2:35 pm

When The Home Secretary stood up in the House of Commons to explain the burqa clad escape of terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, she was keen to lay the blame for the weakening of the previous Control Order regime at the door of the courts – an accusation that the Prime Minister repeated at PMQs today. Even if we wanted to return to the previous regime of control orders, she argued, we couldn’t because the courts would not let us.

Anyone who has not followed this issue could be forgiven for thinking this is another example of a government which wanted to be tough and protect the public but was stopped from doing so by those pesky out of touch judges. However, this version of events, so keenly peddled by embarrassed Ministers this week, is not true.

The weakening of the anti terror regime was not done because the Government’s hand was forced. It was a deliberate choice. Anyone reading the statement made by Teresa May introducing TPIMs (the replacement for Control Orders) back in January 2011 will not find a mention of a reluctant Government being forced to water down a regime it wanted to keep. Instead she said the previous regime was “excessive and unnecessary”. She boasted that the new measured would have a two year maximum time limit “which will clearly demonstrate that these are targeted, temporary measures” and that “individuals will have greater access to communications, including to a mobile phone and to a home computer”. And she rounded off her statement declaring that this new regime would “restore our civil liberties”.

And that reasoning is the crucial point. It is the Government’s first duty to protect the public. Yet this Government made a deliberate considered choice to increase risk to the public because it was more concerned with the civil liberties of the terror suspects subject to these orders than it was about public safety.

The Government boasted this week that the new regime had been accompanied by greater resources for the police and security services. But they neglected to say that those resources were necessary (and probably demanded) precisely because of the greater pressure put on the police and security services as a result of the Government’s decision to weaken the regime. By allowing greater freedom of movement and access to technology for terror suspects the government created a need for more surveillance. Surveillance is expensive and difficult. Hence the need for the greater resources.

How could a responsible government make such a decision? Because they had convinced themselves that the anti-terrorist laws put in place by the previous government had compromised civil liberties and that the balance had to be reset. A fundamentally wrong analysis led to a fundamentally irresponsible policy decision. And it has failed.

In the five years in which relocation powers were used under the previous Government’s Control Orders, no suspects escaped. Under the new, weaker regime, two have escaped in 10 months

If that is not bad enough, the dangers created by the Government’s decision are about to increase. Ministers chose to put a sunset clause into the TPIM regime meaning that all the orders would lapse after two years unless new evidence came forward. Never mind that the old evidence may still be highly relevant. The practical effect of this sunset clause is that, in January, most remaining TPIMs lapse and the controls on potentially highly dangerous suspects are weakened further. So as a result of a deliberate, unforced Government decision – not a court decision – suspects which the state has deemed worthy of restriction and close monitoring for years will have that regime lifted.

It is important to remember who we are talking about in this situation. These are not just people who have made some hard line speeches or viewed a few unsavoury websites. The Government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, described these suspects as being at “the highest end of seriousness”.

The new TPIMs regime has proven to be a failure. Some of us warned at the time that it was an irresponsible decision which increased risk to the public. Our warnings were not heeded. Yet the Prime Minister still has time to at least revisit the sunset clause and extend the remaining orders. If he does not do so, it will be a gross dereliction of duty for someone whose first job is to protect the public.

Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East

  • zenlibdem

    Still defending attacking the liberty of citizens who aren’t charged with an offence against the law I see…. the problem with TPims is that they exist as a shabby compromise at all. Either you have been proven to commit a crime in a court of law or you should be a free man with freedom of association and freedom of movement. I wouldn’t expect a Labservative control freak to defend that basic principle though.

  • Rob Marchant

    Pat is spot-on. This is part of a wider phenomenon, that the Tories, while supposedly the party of “law and order”, are in fact much softer on terrorism, something that will one day be manifested in real events, if it has not already. More here:
    http://thecentreleft.blogspot.com/2012/02/so-called-party-of-law-and-order-is.html

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Rob,

      that’s just the same argument, using different words, as “Labour (1997 – 2010) have a reputation for the riding roughshod over civil liberties (and there is ample evidence for that, such as the suggestion of 90 day detentions)“. We all have our biases!

      The truth is probably much more nuanced and in shades of grey, and somewhere between the two statements. No one in truth wants any form of terrorist attack, so I think all reasonable people see a need for “some level” of surveillance; equally no one reasonable would want the over-powerful ongoing and routine state surveillance, and what in effect we ask our Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers to do is to find an equitable balance.

      My own view is informed by the Chilean state as I remember it from 1973 until the mid 90s. The culture and thinking of the state apparatus continued to permeate for some years after 1990.

      • Rob Marchant

        Jaime, I’m all for an equitable balance, but I’d also argue that we are a very, very long way (thank heavens) from Pinochet-era Chile in terms of repressive state apparatus. Part of the reason which we didn’t suffer very much between 2005 and 2010 in terms of attacks I would put to you was precisely *because* of a tight security apparatus. Since then we have had serious problems cracking down on terrorists such as Qatada, because we hadn’t really thought through how to keep people under control while complying with ECHR and other requirements. One might also speculate about Woolwich.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          Rob,

          I do not know how we were spared attacks between 2005-2010: this is not my world. I certainly therefore cannot know what else we sacrificed (in terms of privacy or our private information being collected by state agencies, and we would not know of such intrusions as they are done in secret) in order to gain such protections.

          My feeling is that there is always a balance between no surveillance and intrusive mass surveillance, and no extreme position should be adopted by a private citizen.

          I find in my own mind a dichotomy: instinctively, I am against the non-targeted surveillance of mass groups. But contrary, I look at my own life: I have nothing to hide. I don’t particularly care if the Government look at my online banking, or the email I send to my sister, or the Skype conversation I have weekly with my mother, or now the architect building our retirement house in Canada. The “third” and grey area of not looking at the “content”, but only the metadata is baffling to me: I really am not excited if the Government only know that I called home last Tuesday from my mobile phone, but they don’t know that I only did so when I was stuck in traffic and wanted to ask the babysitter if she could do one extra half hour.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    “Yet this Government made a deliberate considered choice to increase risk
    to the public because it was more concerned with the civil liberties of
    the terror suspects subject to these orders than it was about public
    safety.”

    Any of us could be a terrorist suspect and an authoritarian government is of much greater threat to my safety than any terrorist.

    • Alexwilliamz

      Agreed. Surely that should be civil liberties of all of us. I’m pretty sure that no one would be concerned with the civil liberties of convicted terrorists. Ah well their goes the basic tenets of our justice system. As long as we can pin the badge terror suspect to you, anything goes. Now where have I seen things like that before hmmmm…

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        If someone is properly convicted (and ensuing appeals, etc fail), then as a convict they don’t have any liberties beyond the rights enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1947***. So we should not be worried about their sensibilities, and certainly, the “basic tenets” of our justice system are unshaken.

        *** I declare a personal interest. My family via the paternal line is distantly related to Eleanor Roosevelt who pushed this through against opposition, at a time when the USA was a noble great nation state, and her diaries reveal her thinking on justice and fairness. I do not think that she would lie awake at night worrying about how the UK handles human rights.

        • Alexwilliamz

          Ummm if you read the statement you will see it refers to suspects not convicts. If you are going to disagree make sure it is with something i have actually said.

  • Guest

    Labour’s Control Orders were just as ineffective. Just look back at all those Court decisions that ripped them appart.

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