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Wednesday, December 12, 2007 

The home secretarial legacy and Jack Straw's myopia.

It was decreed after the reign of Michael Howard as home secretary that from then all those who took up the job had to have just one defining quality above all others: they had to be stark raving bonkers. Jack Straw tried his best to sound and look sane, but still managed to introduce ASBOs and now attempts to defend Labour's record on civil liberties by completely ignoring all the ways that the government he's a minister of has diluted or removed them, more on which later. David Blunkett's shtick was insulting the judiciary and shagging the Spectator's publisher. Charles Clarke talked rubbish and insulted Rachel North's father. John Reid was a pathological moron who counted ethnic cleansers among his former friends while desperately trying to find ways to get rid of the Human Rights Act, as well as making clear that those opposed to just that "didn't get it".

Alarm bells started ringing as soon as Brown surprisingly announced that Jacqui Smith would be his home secretary, albeit, with the establishment of the Ministry of Justice, that some of her former concerns were hived off to Jack Straw. Smith was a firm Blairite, so much so that she had been chief whip, and had performed so wretchedly on Question Time when questioned about Iraq that it was obvious she was just as deluded as the former prime minister. Against all odds, her initial performance, especially in the aftermath of the patio gas canister jihad, was assured, calm and encouraging. The only thing held against her was that she had dared to show a little too much cleavage in the Commons.

Unfortunately, it wasn't too last. Just like with previous occupants, it's taken an alarmingly short time for the pressures of the office to turn her into a swivel-eyed banshee, sounding off to the Grauniad which was remarkably keen to listen to her talk such complete and utter nonsense. According to Smith, David Davis's position on 42 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects

"contains no policy logic. The only logic is Davis has reverted to political opportunism, and he is not interested in an agreement."

Davis's position is the direct opposite. It's a principled stand against a government recklessly and deliberately diluting hard won but easily lost rights when there is no evidence whatsoever to support its own policy. Davis and the Conservatives are right not to be interested in an agreement because there should be no compromise over such a fundamental measure: 28 days is more than enough time to gather a case against a suspect. It's the highest such comparable detention limit in the Western world, and the numbers of those supporting it can be counted on one hand whilst those against are numerous. The new "safeguards" proposed amount to a chief constable and the director of the public prosecutions having to agree more time is needed, which the DPP is hardly going to object to when it might mean a potential terrorist would be freed, and also seems a deliberate and immediate revenge upon Ken Macdonald for daring to say he didn't think more time was needed, and then parliament having to vote on whether the temporary extension, quite probably after the person held for up to 42 days has either been released or charged, should continue to be in operation.

It's also similarly rubbish that Smith has tried to move towards the Conservatives' position on using the civil contingencies act. If she had, they wouldn't be bothering with any new legislation at all, and in any case, it was Liberty that originally suggested it. In my view, neither are viable, as declaring a temporary emergency after a plot has either been foiled or taken place is playing in to the terrorists' hands when the life of the nation is clearly not threatened.

There doesn't seem there'll be any movement on intercept evidence, either:

The requirements for full disclosure would "mean a very different way of working in terms of intercept. The need to transcribe the evidence would also have very big resource implications for the intelligence services, and then you would have to ask whether it is worth it."

A government review of the use of intercept evidence in control order cases showed it would have had no impact in bringing prosecutions, she disclosed.

In other words, she's fallen completely behind the security services' specious arguments which are actually a cover for their refusal to be in any way publicly accountable. Numerous other countries make such evidence available, but we can't here because it might reveal their methods and it'll cost a lot. If a review has also showed that intercept evidence would have no impact on control order cases, then it either means two things. One, that the report is deliberately disingenuous and toadying towards the security services, or two, that the intelligence on those currently under the orders is so weak that it wouldn't stand up in court. If either is the case then those under control orders are even more caught up in a Kafkaesque system than we already thought.

Smith's supposed trump card is that "he's [Davis] ignored personal assurances by "senior police officers" that more than 28 days is needed". It's little surprise that police officers are in favour of more time: there's never been a reform that gives them more power that they've turned their nose up at. We know that in some of the previous cases that they haven't bothered even starting to interview some of those held after a week and a half: they need more resources to translate and access the material which is sometimes encrypted on computer discs sooner, not more time in which to do it in. All this is of course from the woman who was described in last week's Private Eye as greeting Davis at one of the much trumped "consultation sessions" with, "So, you're still a 28-day denier, are you?". It's little wonder that Davis hasn't taken kindly to the government's ramping up of pressure over such irredeemable measures.

From one illiberal government minister talking bollocks to another. The Grauniad (again) asked Jack Straw to contribute to their Liberty and the state series. He claims:

This period has seen a greater improvement in our democracy and people's sense of rights than any time since the development of the franchise between 1832 and 1928.

He does this without mentioning ID cards and the database behind them, the ban on protests within 1km of parliament without prior permission, section 44 of the Terrorism Act, the indefinite detention of foreign "terrorist suspects" before the law lords struck it down, control orders and the attempts to introduce 90 day detention without charge, although he does say, with considerable chutzpah

We are all acutely aware, as Jacqui Smith has spelt out, of the care that has to be taken - for example over any extension of 28 days

which when defeated in the Commons only resulted in Blair saying that he was right. Henry Porter has a more comprehensive list. The only thing that can be said in Straw's defense in terms of balance is that he's mostly right in what he writes - the Human Rights Act was a vital reform that the Tories would never have introduced, nor the Freedom of Information Act or perhaps section 28, although what the last two have to do with civil liberties is anyone's guess. That hasn't however stopped Labour from wishing it had never introduced the HRA after the tabloids have done such a brilliant job in portraying it as a criminals and terrorists' charter, instead of defending it, or from wanting to cut the FOI down to size after it had embarrassed them on a number of occasions, which Brown finally ruled out in the initial stage of the "age of change".

Things have slightly improved since Brown took over, but only slightly. Fact is, what many detect behind the push for 42 days is the clunking fist himself: he wants to put one over on Blair by proving he can do something Blair couldn't, and that matters far more than small things like holding "terrorist suspects" for 6 weeks without charge. Civil liberties, as always, are only an afterthought.

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