Their rebellion may sink Brown - but save our democracy

15 April 2008

Sunny Hundal (London, Liberal Conspiracy): It should come as no surprise that, in an effort to push its plans to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days, the Home Office has started citing the number of terrorist plots in Britain. Playing to the gallery in the News of the World this Sunday, Jacqui Smith said:

There are 2,000 individuals [the intelligence services] are monitoring. There are 200 networks. There are 30 active plots. We can't wait for an attack to succeed and then rush in new powers. We've got to stay ahead.

The first problem with this approach is the way successive home secretaries have cynically exploited such figures to push through controversial legislation on terrorism. After all, this is at least the fourth anti-terrorism bill since 2001, and each has been controversial in the way our government has tried to extend its powers. Shadow home secretary David Davis articulated this best when he responded yesterday by saying: "It is a sign of desperation that the home secretary is citing as 'new' evidence details given in a speech by the head of MI5 five months ago."

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest current powers aren't enough. Everyone from former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, head of MI5 Jonathan Evans and head of the Crown Prosecution Service Ken MacDonald are not convinced additional powers will help or are necessary.

The latest round of media interviews suggest that, in Parliament, both those in favour of 42 days and those opposed are playing a game of bluff to give the impression they are on solid ground. All this makes it difficult to assess its chances of success. But, as the Guardian reported, the cabinet is split on support for the plans.

Speaking on the Today programme yesterday Tony McNulty was confident: "once people understand...the temporary nature then people do buy it." But the government has already had many opportunities to convince people of the "temporary" nature of laws like this, and failed. Last week, during the pro-Tibetan protests, journalists reported that several people were threatened with anti-terrorism legislation. We should be acutely aware that there is huge potential for powers to detain without charge to be abused, and the fallout will make Britain more susceptible to terrorism, not less.

In the end, the vote will most likely come down to an issue of political positioning, rather than an accurate assessment of whether this legislation is needed. Jacqui Smith's team has already pointed out that a defeat for the Prime Minister would further damage Labour morale and make victory at the next General Election more difficult. And with embarassment looming at the Local Elections and the possiblity of Ken Livingstone losing in London to further compound Labour's troubles, Labour MPs may re-think rebelling on this legislation purely to save their own electoral skin. We should hope for the sake of our democracy they don't.

Liberal Conspiracy is running a campaign agaisnt the extension of detention without charge. Visit the homepage here.

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