Chris Huhne writes… 42 days is not the answer to terrorism

We have won the argument against extending the period in which suspects can be detained without charge. The only question now is whether we win today’s vote.

My guess is that it will be close, but that we will win thanks to some courageous Labour rebel MPs who are resisting the 21st century equivalent of the thumbscrew, an early morning call from Gordon Brown. A key factor will be whether the Democratic Unionist party succumb to bribes or not, but their opposition to internment in the past shows that they are more principled than some suggest.

Let’s take the Government’s case at face value. It argues that it needs to extend the period of detention for terrorist suspects from 28 to 42 days because of the increased complexity of terror cases, citing the recent increase in the number of computer files comparing the recent alleged airline bombing case in 2006 with Dhiren Bharot in 2004.

However, the period of detention would have to increase to nearly 90 days just to keep pace with this increase alone. But this point is a boomerang for the Government, because an extension of a mere two weeks would be entirely useless if each bit of evidence had to waded through and assessed as the Prime Minister implies.

Indeed, if it were necessary to read material equivalent to a third of the US Library of Congress within the proposed legal limit of 42 days, I calculate that that would require 238,095 police officers working eight-hour shifts. That is all the police officers in this country, plus 100,000 on loan from a friendly neighbour.

In fact, the tools available to the police have also increased in power so that sense can be made of large amounts of data. Yes, the police use search engines too. Nor does the Government seem in reality to take this too seriously. The Government legislated to make withholding encryption keys to data an offence in 2000, but the offence did not enter into force until 2007.

No other common law country has seen the need to do such violence to our freedoms. Canada retains a traditional 24 hour period of detention without charge. In the United States, it is two days. In Australia, it has extended to 12 days in part because of special cooling off periods between interrogations. We are already more than double the time of the highest elsewhere in common law countries even though we all face the same threats and the same technologies.

The alternatives are far preferable to a Kafkaesque extension of detention without charge. The bill allows questioning to continue after charge, and we should also allow intercept evidence as occurs in Australia and the United States.

Most important of all, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, has considerable flexibility to bring charges even if he feels at the time that the chances of a successful conviction are less than 50 per cent – the normal test. In fact, Sir Ken has had a 92 per cent success rate with terrorist convictions over the last two years, and is on the record as saying the new powers are unnecessary.

Detention without charge for terrorist suspects has already risen from 7 days, to 14 days, to 28 days just since 1997. The sad truth is that ministers are using this simple number as a proxy to persuade the public that they are tough on terror. In fact, such blunt instruments runs the substantial risk of alienating the communities that we need on board to fight terror.

After all, the police need intelligence and witnesses prepared to give evidence. Britain’s most senior Muslim police officer, Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffour, has warned that these arbitary powers could have a counter-productive effect in the Muslim community, exactly as internment did in Northern Ireland in the seventies.

The fight against terrorism is far too important to be reduced to populist symbols which would substantially curb our hard-won freedoms. This cause is central to our party’s belief in the rule of law and in checks and balances to arbitrary power.

* Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrats’ shadow home secretary.

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17 Comments

  • How many concessions can be made in the legislation before Brown convinces himself it isn’t worthwhile.

    He admits the principle of rolling review is paramount while arguing the specific number of days is necessary, he concedes the principle of tripartite sanctioning of detention without charge while insisting parliament legislates on the matter, now he is prepared to pay prisoners for his privilege!

    Yet he willnot let it lie. And still he wouldn’t let it lie.

  • LFAT – if it’s possible to circumvent the law (which this government has in its complicity with illegal rendering of suspects), why does it find it necessary to change the law?

    Why is it that the Conservative party has gradually changed it’s position from being fully opposed to the LibDem position to fully opposed to the Labour position?

  • Oranjepan – “Why is it that the Conservative party has gradually changed it’s position from being fully opposed to the LibDem position to fully opposed to the Labour position?”

    we should be happy that they found sense in opposing the labour parties illiberalism:)

  • What’s curious to me is that the Lib Dems now support 28 days – originally proposed by the Conservatives – having in the past condemned it as an unnecessary extension.

    Unless we adopt some kind of principled position, doesn’t this just become a game of “think of a number”?

  • Grammar Police 11th Jun '08 - 1:55pm

    Perhaps because 28 days was the lesser of several evils at the time, and the one which a parliamentary majority could be mustered. It’s perfectly consistent to oppose 28 days but defend it against much worse options!

  • But we aren’t opposing 28 days; in fact Chris Huhne has said he thinks 28 days is “justifiable”.

  • “But we aren’t opposing 28 days; in fact Chris Huhne has said he thinks 28 days is “justifiable”.”

    Chris has broken the promises he made on this issue in the leadership election when he supported a reduction to 14 days or less.

  • Anonymous & Hywel – something can be justifiable but not necessarily just (which is what 28 days is), but that doesn’t change the fact that 42 days is both unjust and unjustifiable.

    And I don’t think what Chris wrote is incompatible with what he promised to take action on, however I also remain to be convinced.

  • “something can be justifiable but not necessarily just”

    Whatever word-games you want to play, this is something we have opposed in the past, and now say is justifiable.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 11th Jun '08 - 6:53pm

    I was painting a ceiling while the debate was on. Stayed up the ladder while the dreadful Vaz was smoothing the government case in his usual creepy way.

    Came down from ladder when you got your turn. Very strong speech.
    Can’t understand the government case; are our police so incompetent that it must take them longer than any other country to decide to charge or not to charge.
    And then there is Alex Carlisle; Labour make much of their “totally independent” advisor, and, speaking personally, I would like to see him leave the party so that he does not compromise our position.
    EP

  • Hywel Morgan 11th Jun '08 - 7:20pm

    “And I don’t think what Chris wrote is incompatible with what he promised to take action on, however I also remain to be convinced.”

    If someone says they support a particular position (which is also party policy IIRC) then it’s not totally unreasonable to expect they will act on that position when the matter comes up for debate.

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