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Wednesday, July 25, 2007 

It never rains but it pours.

How else to describe the never-ending spectre of the terror threat and the new legislation need to prevent it than as a constant dripping, echoing not just throughout parliament but the country itself, driving everyone slowly crazy with the demands for ever longer periods of detention without charge, continuing crackdowns and the kicking out of anyone who so much puts a foot out of step?

After all the claims that Brown will be doing things differently, that leaks to the press will be a thing of the past and that cabinet discussion will be central, today's Sun draws a line under all of that hype. Splashing his supposed first interview with a newspaper since his ascension on the front page, we're informed of how 4,000 "foreign convicts" will be deported by Christmas. Making promises you can't necessarily keep with the Sun isn't the greatest idea, so Brown must be somewhat confident it can be achieved, even if it means riding roughshod over the rights of those who have no links with their home countries and nowhere to stay. Previous attempts at being tough with "foreign criminals" led to people who had lived here in some cases for decades being picked up by immigration officers, but frankly who cares as it long it adds one to the figures? Brown at least holds firm over the EU reforming treaty, saying he won't sign it if it does any of the things the Scum claims it does, rather than call a referendum. It's the cynical leaking of the exact extension time the government is aiming for that rankles most, however.

Even that's presented in such a way as to try to absolve the PM from himself informing the Scum of his plans. While it mentions the 56 days that the government wishes to extend the time limit to, it pretends that this information, rather than coming from the Scum's interview, was provided by "police sources", presumably the same ones which a couple of Sundays ago were demanding "as long as it takes", as Brown felt that MPs needed to be informed first. So much for that. Quite why they've now settled on 56 days, having been previously pushing for 90 or 45, is uncertain. Why not any similar random figure? 69 days? 82 days and 12 hours? While I suppose we ought to be grateful that it's not the indefinite figure that some were asking for, the strangeness of such a figure illustrates the general lack of any evidence whatsoever for such a expansion of the time limit. As Tim has already pointed out, Jacqui Smith's convoluted attempt at putting forward such a case seem to be an attempt to confuse rather enlighten:
"This all gives us a strong view that the time is right to reconsider whether we should allow longer than 28 days' pre-charge detention," she said. "There is already evidence of us stepping up to the point of 28 days. All of this creates what I would argue is a trend of analysis towards a position where it is legitimate for us to consider again the case for going beyond the current situation of the maximum 28 days. The document will outline what we know about that trend and will contain a discussion of the alternatives, but it will not plump for one solution."

What then is this evidence that more than 28 days is needed? Err, exactly the same mostly specious rhetoric which has been used almost from time immemorial. Huge amount of data to shift through, links across the globe, 200 mobile phones, 400 computers, blah blah etc. As before, this isn't in any way a good enough excuse or justification for those being held to be held longer, it's an argument for the police to be given more resources, or to actually use those they already have, such as to demand encryption keys. The other eyebrow-raising excuse made by Brown is that the alleged "liquid bombs plot" was so complicated that six men were still in custody on the 28th day - what he doesn't say is that three of those were released without charge, with the BBC reporting that two others were charged, so either Brown or the BBC have their numbers wrong somewhere along the line. If this is the supposed smoking gun on why more than 28 days is needed, why did John Reid not come to that conclusion during his own terrorism review earlier in the year? Why did the police themselves not instantly demand longer because of how close they came? Equally disingenuous was Smith's claim yesterday that the failed car bombs of last month were further evidence that pointed to the need for an extension; to my knowledge, all of those arrested have now either been charged or released, way before the current limit was anywhere near being breached.

While the government is most definitely overstating its case, Liberty and Amnesty are not helping themselves by claiming that an extension will turn out to be a "terrorist recruiter's dream". It will doubtless further help to alienate a community which already feels unwelcome and under siege, as well as adding to the grievances of an significant minority, but it's unlikely to directly lead anyone into the arms of jihadists. Liberty's proposal that a state of emergency could be declared if further time was needed is a decent suggestion, but one that would hand terrorists a victory they don't deserve. The last thing we should be proposing as necessary is an emergency when they can't even succeed in setting themselves on fire properly. We should instead be focusing on why this debate keeps going round and round in a circle. Where will it all end? If the threat keeps getting worse before it gets better, as seems likely, are we going to be having this discussion on doubling the detention limit every year? The limit has already been extended over a matter of years, from three to five to seven to fourteen to twenty-eight days, as David Winnick pointed out. Just who is it that keeps demanding the extensions? We need to point out it's the scaremongering belligerents (The Scum, Melanie Philips et al) and those with potentially ulterior motives (the police, the government) that are driving the debate, while all the moderates are almost uniquely on the other side.

The other proposals put forward by Brown are mostly on the cautious side, with both intercept evidence and potential questioning after charge being put forward for a review. The latter certainly needs careful scrutiny if it's not going to be potentially abused. The border force, a policy nicked from the Tories, seems like a decent step at appeasing the tabloids screeching about "terrorists flooding in". More worrying is how within nine months every visa will need to be a biometric one, almost certainly a move towards ID cards being introduced for those of us lucky enough to live here, despite the murmurings that Brown might be about to ditch them.

At the moment it seems that both the Tories and Lib Dems are inclined to oppose any extension past 28 days, although one has to wonder if someone other than David Davis' was shadow home secretary if the policy would be different. If this stays the same way if legislation is introduced, both parties will be worthy of praise, especially considering the loudness of those in favour of the government's position. Brown and Labour need to be told squarely that 28 days is enough. At the weekend, Lord Puttnam and Jonathan Powell's wife were shouting "Stasi!" and "Gestapo!" at the police for daring to turn up on the front door of the fragrant, blameless Ruth Turner at 6 in the morning. Those who have experienced power don't tend to like it when the boot is on the other foot; they ought to wonder what someone entirely innocent will feel like if they're detained for 56 days only to be released without charge.

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