Tony Blair's heir apparent as British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has announced his intention to strengthen counter-terrorism measures in the U.K. It’s the third time the Labour Party has done so since 9/11 and 7/7. Brown also pledged to increase parliamentary accountability to ensure that civil liberties are upheld under the new laws.
It remains to be seen whether Brown's rhetoric of maintaining civil liberties is any more than a cover for more authoritarianism. As Blair's closest aide throughout most of his premiership, it is likely Brown supported Blair's terrorism laws, which were often thought to be slowly but surely eroding civil liberties, so we could be in for more of the same.
At the same time, I thought Blair was turning the U.K. into a police state targeting Muslims and driving so-called moderate Muslims into extremism. But Brown seems as eager to uphold civil liberties as he is to tighten measures to stop terrorism. I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now.
I support most of Brown's ideas: the use of phone-tap evidence in court, allowing police to continue questioning terror suspects after they have been charged, and allowing judges to consider involvement in terrorist activities as an aggravating factor when adjudicating other crimes. Blair rejected the use of phone-tap evidence in court on advice from security services, that feared it would jeopardize their secretive methods for gathering intelligence. Brown plans to look into ways it can be used without revealing sources to the public.
What I dislike is Brown’s regurgitation of Blair's most controversial proposal that resulted in his first parliamentary defeat – extending the period of without charge detention from 28 to 90 days.
Twenty-eight days detention without charges is as long as anywhere else in the free world. According to human rights groups it is tantamount to internment. It is claimed that 90 days detention is needed because technology can hide evidence of terrorist activities, i.e. to gain access to encrypted hard-drives and data storage devices etc. But British law states innocence until proven guilty, so, until any evidence is retrieved proving they are guilty of something, these prisoners are innocent and should be tagged and released after 28 days – and their hardware kept.
A tag is linked to a satellite system and alerts authorities if you aren't in or around your home for a certain time every day. That way if or when the data is recovered the people could be re-arrested. Ninety days detention without charge is too likely to be abused.
Blair was defeated on the 90 day proposal because of opposition by the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and some Labour back benchers. Constitutional Affairs Minister and deputy Labour leadership candidate Harriet Harman thinks that this time it will be different, that Parliament will support Brown's measures – including 90 days detention – if Brown can make a good case that the measures are necessary. She said she didn’t think
“there will be a huge problem if there is a proper debate about it — if evidence is brought forward about why current powers are inadequate and what the safeguards will be." Her sentiments of support for the new proposals were echoed by the other deputy leadership candidates, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears and Peter Hain.
Conservative sources say there is no new evidence to support the need for longer detention. Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesman Simon Hughes warned Brown that he will have a fight on his hands if he attempts to increase detention without charge period for terror suspects. In an attempt to sweeten the proposal, Brown has insisted he will ensure a judicial review of extended detentions is undertaken every 7 days. It is difficult to predict whether that will counteract the level of opposition to the plan.
Apparently Brown is to put the phone-tap proposal to the cross-party Privy Council for discussion, which is honouring his pledge to make the government more open and accountable on its new course. Lord Carlisle, the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation welcomed Brown's proposals, saying he thinks it’s time for the political parties to get together “and to try to reach a consensus with the government, so we can move forward on terrorism legislation on the basis of fitness for purpose, rather than having a hot political debate about these desperately difficult and important matters."
What detracts from this is the fact that Brown first released word of his proposals to the Sunday papers instead of the House of Commons. And just five days before Home Secretary John Reid was due to present his terrorism measures to the house, throwing any idea of even party consensus on dealing with the terror threat out the window – let alone cross-party consensus. This also suggested Brown does intend to be authoritarian in his leadership and his terrorism measures – it's my way or no way.
I don’t believe 90 days detention is necessary because it’s like sending a bear to catch a mouse. I see no reason why the tags can't be used to strengthen existing control orders. Brown's leap to Blair's 90 day detention plan backs up claims that he was staunchly behind Blair's legislation.
Brown's latest is much like his vision for his premiership when Blair steps down. The new measures for terrorism are slightly different than Blair's, but on the whole I'd say we can expect more of the same.