For this government, civil liberties are something to be subjected to a kind of lottery. You draw a number out of the hat and that becomes the number of days you can detain someone without charge on the suspicion of committing a terror offence. The rules are fixed, however, by comparison with the real game of chance. Under New Labour’s National Security Lottery Rules, the number chosen must always result in a longer period of detention than is already the case.
It began with the Terrorism Act 2000, which introduced the first breach in the ancient liberty of habeas corpus, which as far back as the 11th century stated that no person should be detained without charge. The 2000 Act introduced a seven day limit on pre-charge detention, which was lengthened to 14 days maximum under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. In 2005, Tony Blair went for the Big Lottery Detention Prize and tried for 90 days. He suffered his first Commons defeat but the government still managed to get the period extended to 28 days.
Not to be outdone, new prime minister Gordon Brown wanted that period doubled to 56 days. Why 56 and not 50 or 47? No one knows. Perhaps the cabinet drew numbers out of a hat to show how tough they are on terrorism. And the “justification” or evidence for abolishing basic rights? David Winnick, the Labour MP who led the revolt against Blair’s 90 days, says: “No evidence has been produced in my view – and in the view of a good number of other people who have taken a close interest in this matter - that any extension is necessary."
The only significant voice in support of the proposal to extend detention is that of Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, whose force got off scot free after executing the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes on a Tube train. Even New Labour’s former attorney general Lord Goldsmith is opposed to the plan, along with the director of public prosecution, Sir Ken Macdonald.
So now home secretary Jacqui Smith has come up with a new number – 42 days. In a pathetic bid to get this through parliament, she is proposing that the government should get the power to introduce 42 days detention with MPs being allowed to give retrospective approval on each case. Anyone can work out that by the time MPs get round to discussing the matter, the suspect would have been held for 42 days in any case! Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said the plan would rob people of their basic rights, adding that "no amount of parliamentary window-dressing can disguise that fact”.
Britain already holds terror suspects far longer without charge than any other country in the world. If New Labour gets its way, the period will rise to the point where it amounts to internment or imprisonment without trial. And from holding terror suspects to detaining political activists and campaigners would be but a short leap.