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9 April 2008

Detention without trial

Edinburgh Evening News, 9 April 2008

By seeking to extend detention without charge the Prime Minister is playing Politics with our liberties instead of defending them, writes John Barrett MP.

They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice – perhaps someone should tell that to Gordon Brown.

Barely two and a half years after Tony Blair’s suffered his sole defeat in the Commons over proposals to extend the time that suspects can be detained without charge, the Government seem determined to revisit the issue.

In November 2005 parliament rejected plans for 90 days pre-charge detention before eventually agreeing a compromise of 28 days. In a misguided attempt to appear ‘tough on terror’ Gordon Brown has now decided to try and extend the upper limit using the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which parliament debated for the first time on Tuesday. I am sure I am not the only MP who appreciated the irony that Tuesday was April fools day.

There is no doubt that terrorism represents one of the most serious challenges that we currently face and parliament has a grave responsibility to protect its citizens as best it can. However, to claim, as the Government do, that by giving up our freedoms and liberties we will all become safer is to massively over-simplify the issue. Not only is this proposed increase in detention without trial unjustified, but it could prove dangerously counterproductive.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has concluded that “[n]either the police nor the Government have made a convincing case for the need to extend the 28 day limit on pre-charge detention.” The Governments position would be understandable if the police were constantly knocking on Ministers’ doors demanding these additional powers, however that has not been the case. The truth is, as the Home Secretary and the Chief of Police have both accepted, that there has yet to be a single case to date where longer than 28 days detention has been needed.

In Ireland the comparable limit for pre-charge detention is 7 days, in Canada it is 1 day and even in the US, the country that brought us Guantanamo bay, the limit stands at just 2 days. I find it difficult to believe that the threats we face in the UK are so unique that 28 days detention is not sufficient.

As well as being unnecessary, any extension in pre-charge detention may actually hamper our attempts to tackle terrorism. Effective policing requires the co-operation of the policed. Bear in mind that if you are detained for 6 weeks in police custody the chances are that you will lose your job, perhaps your home and maybe even the trust and respect of your friends and family. We should not forget that the security services are as fallible as the rest of us and mistakes will, and have been made. By pushing through any further unjustified pre-charge detention we actually run the risk of alienating and antagonising many people who currently recognise the need and the benefits of co-operating with the police.

However, just as the extension of pre-charge detention would be the wrong choice in practice, it would also fly in the face of our hardly fought democratic rights and principles – principles of justice, fairness and liberty. As we watch people in Zimbabwe fighting desperately for these same rights, we should ask whether we are prepared to give up so much for an illusion of security that has more to do with political posturing than it does with practical policing. Future generations may well look to us in disbelief and ask “did you really give up so many of your freedo

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.