Public opinion not behind 42 days - ICM poll

About the author
Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88.

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Gordon Brown is on shakier ground than he thinks on 42 days pre-charge detention for people suspected of terrorist offences. On the eve of the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, a new ICM poll conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust shows most people (60%) think terrorist suspects should be held without charge for no more than the current limit - 4 weeks, or 28 days.

The poll questions on which he relies for his populist gesture politics with our civil liberties ask people whether terrorist suspects should be held for up to 42 days, questions that by their very nature do not fully reflect the possible innocence of those held nor the length of time that they may be held in custody. But if you ask the public, as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust asked ICM to do, how long people who may be innocent or guilty should be held in custody, and in terms of weeks rather than days, you get a quite different response.

The ICM poll shows that whilst 36% of those asked think people who may be guilty of a terrorist offence should be held in detention for up to six week, or 42 days, before they are charged or released, 32% say it should be up to four weeks, 13% up to two weeks, 10% up to one week and 6% up to four days.

Significantly, when told that six weeks in custody is equivalent to the prison sentence which someone might serve if found guilty of an offence such as burglary or assault quite a few people change their minds. Of those who said terrorist suspects should be held for up to six weeks before being charged or released, more than a third (35%) changed their minds when told this and agreed it is not right to hold someone who may be innocent for so long.

These findings make it all the more important that all those who wish to protect our civil liberties should work hard to ensure that the debate on 42 days is as fully informed as possible. This is not a debate that ends in Haltemprice and Howden. It is not confined to the two Houses of Parliament nor does it end with the 42 days proposal. Other major erosions of our liberty are on the way – see Tom Griffin’s recent post on inquests, for example. The database state still looms large.

But David Davis and we should also take heart. I have always assumed that Davis’s initiative is designed to hold the fort in a shadow cabinet where George Osborne, Michael Gove and others are more than ready to ditch their party’s stand on 42 days. These findings show that they too may have misjudged public opinion. Davis will already be all the stronger a guardian of civil liberties from the back benches; and with a better-informed public, could be even more so.

Polling summary

The public were asked:

Q.1 Britain has long-standing rules and principles that have been put in place to protect people from being arrested and wrongly held for an indefinite time in custody. I would like you to think about the amount of time people should be held in police custody before they are charged with an offence or are released. For each of the following scenarios please tell me how long you think people should be held in detention for questioning before they are charged or released?

People who may be innocent or guilty of any offence

Up to four days 29%

Up to one week 22%

Up to two weeks 19%

Up to four weeks 13%

Up to six weeks 10%

People who may be innocent or guilty of murder

Up to four days 8%

Up to one week 16%

Up to two weeks 20%

Up to four weeks 22%

Up to six weeks 29%

People who may be innocent of guilty of a terrorist offence

Up to four days 6%

Up to one week 10%

Up to two weeks 13%

Up to four weeks 32%

Up to six weeks 36%

Q.2 [To all respondents who think people who may be innocent or guilty of a terrorist offence should be held for up to six weeks.]

Six weeks in custody is equivalent to the prison sentence which someone might serve if found guilty of an offence such as burglary or assault.

Do you still think it is right to hold someone who may be innocent for so long?

Yes 65%

No 35%

Other Questions

Q.3 For each of the following please tell me whether you think the police should keep a person's DNA profile on a database permanently, whether there should be a time limit, or whether they should not keep them at all?

If they are never charged with an offence, or are acquitted

Keep permanently 25%

Time limit 27%

Not at all 47%

If they are convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence, such as rape or murder

Keep permanently 93%

Time limit 6%

Not at all <1%

If they are convicted of a public order offence, such as being drunk and disorderly in England or Wales, or breach of the peace in Scotland

Keep permanently 33%

Time limit 47%

Not at all 19%