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The UK counter terrorism bill: necessary or nonsensical? 31, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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On Thursday the 24th of January, Jacqui Smith the Home Secretary took the new counter terrorism bill to Parliament for approval. There is expected to be a vote on it sometime in the spring and until then, you can be sure that there will be heated debates about its merits in and out of Whitehall. One of the precursors to this bill (the 2005 Terrorism Bill) inflicted Tony Blair’s first Parliamentary defeat after some 8 years in office. If Gordon Brown is to avoid a similar fate, it appears that he has his work cut out. It is an unpopular bill both with Labour backbenchers and members of the other main parties. Add to this public criticism from the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, the former Lord Chancellor Lord Faulkner, the Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald, and the usual motley crew of vocal civil liberty groups, and the murmurs of disapproval become more of a torrent.

The headline-grabbing quote that everyone is – understandably – fixating on is the extension of the ability to hold suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days. To give this some perspective – as Shami Chakrabati is only too happy to do – the British proposed limit of 42 days compares to only one day in Canada, two in the US, two in Germany, four in Italy, six in France and, what is perhaps most damming of all, only five days in the neo-autocracy that is Russia.

Often lost in the outcry and acrimony of the 42 day issue are the other measures that the bill seeks to introduce including:

§ Making it a criminal offence to communicate, publish or elicit information about Armed Forces personnel, punishable by up to ten tears in jail.

§ Allowing suspects to be questioned after they have been charged (something which is currently not possible).

§ Longer sentences for terrorism-related crimes.

§ People found to be involved at any stage of a terrorist activity will be put on a register (like the sex-offender register). This will theoretically make it easier to keep a track of these people and, if needed, prevent them from going abroad.

§ Assets of those convicted can be seized.

§ Greater use of DNA samples.

§ A larger, wider use of intercept materials.

§ Inquests into deaths deemed sensitive could be classified by the government and put out of public reach.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has come up with two main arguments to defend her controversial bill. Firstly, the threat of terrorism in Britain is, she maintains, real, imminent and expanding. Furthermore, a critical plinth of this argument is that the terrorism that we will be facing in the future is even worse because it is more complicated. This comes up again and again in her interviews. Her particular definition of ‘complex’ is somewhat loose and nebulous – exactly like modern terrorist groups I suspect she would argue. She seems to be fixated on the fact that terrorist groups seek to cause mass casualties and give no warning, which – somehow – makes them more complex. But if this argument is just, then surely the government has been doing us a disservice by not introducing such measures sooner? After all, 9/11 aptly prove that terrorists seek mass casualties and don’t give warnings. If terrorism has indeed changed in the past few years, then such a change has not been adequately explained. Tired references to ‘multiple threats’ or ‘multiple actors’ are of no empirical use to anyone seeking to draw an informed conclusion.

Her second argument is even worse than the first. Assuming for a moment that these measures were enshrined in law today, they are not, however, being introduced to be used today, next week, or next month, but for the future. However, she is adamant that she is not simply introducing civil liberty threatening laws to guard against a hypothetical situation, for that would surely be absurd. In order to clarify how exactly she is not basing these laws on a hypothetical situation she says “if and when an attack happens, then it won’t be hypothetical.” Sorry? Run that by me again?

Mrs Smith is an Oxford educated MP and the first female Home Secretary. We can, therefore, assume that she is at least reasonably intelligent and so she must be inwardly cringing with the utter intellectual paucity and downright absurdity of this argument. But on she argues nevertheless: “we need to legislate for risks in the future…if an exceptional case can be made to a judge…” and so on.

I am struck with a bizarre parallel at this point. Michael Moore’s films and books may, deep down, at their very core, (possibly) have a point or an argument which, even if you don’t agree with, you can still appreciate. However, several hundred pages (or a couple hours) of insipid, low-balled, prejudiced, horribly skewed, poorly articulated arguments, you feel so bemused that he seems to think you’re that stupid as to believe that load of tripe, that you can’t see any merit in the original kernel of the argument. It is the same for me with Jacqui Smith’s whimsical logic.

For crucially, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the queue of people opposing the bill and a deeply sceptical nature regarding the veracity of the apparent ‘mounting and complex threat’ I have no particular problems with such measures. I fundamentally trust in the rule of law and the powers that be in this country. I don’t at all subscribe to the slippery-slope argument – that seems as facile and as unfounded Smith’s arguments, and I believe that there will be always enough Shami Chakrabatis around to keep the British Government broadly honest. However, I am in the minority and I think that both Brown and Smith are going to have to do a lot better than these somewhat pitiful attempts at persuasion if they are going to avoid having an embarrassing rebellion on their hands.