The anti-terror Bill has brought out the worst in these politicians

The suspension of habeas corpus, the removal of the right to a fair trial, and handing to the executive of the power to place any British citizen under indefinite house arrest, are extreme steps for any government to take. If there is any legislation which calls into question fundamental principles of justice, it is the Government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill. That Bill, if it becomes law, will, as its critics have emphasised, dismantle some of the fundamental protections against arrest and detention by the state which British citizens have enjoyed for generations.

It is a test of the health of Parliament – the only forum we have for democratic debate on what should, and should not, be made law – that its members should have principles, and stand by the ones which they say they believe in. Indefinite detention without trial is one of those issues which is too morally important for an MP to sacrifice his principles for the sake of insincere pronouncements made soley for the sake of political expediency.

Yet what has been the behaviour of the men and women we have elected to decide the critical moral question of whether we will suspend habeas corpus and introduce indefinite detention without trial? Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, did not bother to turn up for the most crucial Commons vote on the Bill. It was a failure that he had in common with 16 other Liberal Democrats and 24 Conservatives.

Mr Kennedy is the man who has repeatedly insisted that "the fundamental principles at stake [in the Bill] have never been in question for us. We are not about to surrender fundamental principles." But that is precisely what he and his colleagues did by walking away from the debate before the vote. They would have defeated the Bill had they stayed: there were enough rebel Labour MPs to make that a certainty. They did not. If that is not sacrificing their principles to political convenience – Mr Kennedy apparently left the House in order to keep an appointment which had nothing to do with the Bill – I do not know what is. One wonders how Mr Kennedy and his MPs behave in the legislative chamber when they do not claim that issues of fundamental principle are at stake.

The serpentine manoeuvrings of Michael Howard's Conservatives on the provisions of the Bill are scarcely more edifying. Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, described the Bill as "unpleasant, repellent and disgusting". Baroness Anelay of St Johns, a Shadow Home Affairs Minster, said that it would "sacrifice essential and longstanding principles of liberty and justice in a way unlikely to enhance the security of our people". If that were true, there would clearly be no reason whatever for voting for the Bill: the only possible justification for the curtailments on civil liberties it envisages is that they are necessary for the protection of the British people. Yet on Monday, it emerged that the Conservatives were in fact willing to vote for the "unpleasant, repellent and disgusting" Bill. By which great principle did they require the Government to amend the legislation in order to gain their support? As it turned out: none whatever. The only condition was that the Bill should come up for review in November.

It is difficult to see how that requirement could possibly turn an "unpleasant, repellent and disgusting" Bill into a palatable one, especially since it already contained the proposal which provided for an annual review of its provisions. It is still more difficult to understand why, when the Prime Minister rejected the Conservative demand for the Bill to lapse by November, David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, should then declare that this refusal made it once more quite impossible for the Conservatives to support the Bill.

Given that the rejected Tory amendment did not touch a single one of the liberty-depriving clauses, it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservative peers will now back the Bill in the Lords after all. Their "principled opposition" appears to have melted. Conservatives in the unelected house seem to have made a crude political calculation: the polls show that the electorate supports the Bill, and is willing to support curbs on freedom if the result is greater security. So the Conservative Party, if it is not to be portrayed as "soft on terror" – a potentially election-losing tag – has to support the Bill.

Perhaps the Conservatives do not honestly believe that fundamental principles are at stake in the Bill. But in that case, what on earth were they doing opposing it? Everyone – or just about

everyone, with the exception of the most deluded conspiracy theorists – recognises that the terrorist threat from extremist Islamic organisations is real. Al-Qaeda and related organisations have said often enough that they believe that mass murder is justified, and they have proved the strength of their convictions by performing it in New York, in Washington, in Bali, in Jakarta and in Madrid, among other places.

The Conservatives may, of course, simply be imitating Labour – for the Bill is full of Government expediency masquerading as principle. Here is an example: Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, insisted that he could not compromise the principle that the elected Government, not judges, should decide questions of security – only to concede that he could compromise that principle quite easily.

All the same, the Government's Bill, for all its faults, at least attempts to address the critical question of how we can protect ourselves against future acts of violence by al-Qaeda and related organisations. Next week, the Bill will be sent back to the Commons for further discussion. Some version has to go on the statute books by March 14, otherwise men described as "extremely dangerous" and "committed to terrorism" by the Special Immigration Appeals Committee, the independent body set up to review the cases against those detained in Belmarsh, will have to be immediately released.

There is a straightforward reason, based on commitment to a principle, for opposing the Bill outright. It is that you believe – as the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas of Gresford says he believes – that "security is no justification for the breach of a fundamental principle which underpins out democratic system: no deprivation of liberty by ministerial say-so".

I do not believe that that is a sensible stance to take: the constitution, as an American judge said, is not a suicide pact – and nor is adherence to any principle of justice, all of which, collectively, have the ultimate goal of protecting the security of the people and their ability to live in peace and freedom. But I also do not believe that an issue as important as where the right balance between liberty and security lies should be decided on the basis of shallow political expediency, as if the debate were no different from one on the location of drains or the extent of car-parking restrictions. To listen to what they have said, and to look at what they have done, however, that appears to be the way in which our representatives in Parliament are proceeding. It is not a good advertisement for our system of government – and it does not augur well for their ability to identify where the right balance between liberty and security lies.

By Alasdair Palmer (Filed: 06/03/2005)
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