John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Labour MPs strike back

I am always happy to say I'm wrong, so here goes. I was wrong to be so worried - enough Labour MPs had the sense to vote against holding suspected terrorists without charge for 90 days to stop it dead.

However, the press' euphoric triumphalism, excited as they are to be able to pinpoint the "beginning of the end" of the Blair era, hinders an analysis of what's really happened. We've just doubled the length of time you can hold someone on the basis of suspicion of terrorism to just under a month. There are those who welcome this move and those who say it hasn't gone far enough. But those of us who believe that an extension of detention powers without charge should always be a last resort need answers to three key questions before we finally resign ourselves to this state of affairs:

1) Did the Home Secretary look into the possibility of changing the law to allow supects to be questioned after having been charged, an established reason why we needed an extension?

2) Why don't we cut the crap and allow the use of intercept evidence in court? The Home Office continues to claim this would compromise its sources, but there are any number of solutions. We might try the in camera courts, as used in Northern Ireland with a panel of security-cleared judges. We could look at how other countries get round this problem: we know this evidence is admissible in French courts, after all.

3) What proportion of terrorist suspects could not be charged with a "lesser" offense in order to legitimise their detention and conform with due process? After all, if a suspect was in possession of a computer with encrypted data, we already have legislation to bring to task people who don't give up the key to assist police enquiries. There are any number of other possibilities.

The answers to these questions might well have yielded a more effective method of dealing with the threat that did not fly in the face of habeas corpus.

We might also ponder on the disgraceful politicisation of the police. They suggested and publicly advocated a legislative agenda and allowed themselves to be used by ministers in the brinkmanship over the last few days. A dangerous line has been crossed - but we're all too busy salivating over the prospect of Blair's departure to notice just why he should go.

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