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Saturday, May 17, 2008 

No compromise on 42 days.

The issue of extending the detention limit without charge under which terrorist suspects can be held has been with us so long now that the latest supposed developments bring nothing other than a gnawing sense of exasperation at how, despite comprehensively losing the argument over 90 days and now over its successor, 42, that this fundamental issue of just how far down the authoritarian road we go has still not been solved.

Politics is all about compromise, and it's all the better for it. There are however some matters, and this is most certainly one, where there cannot be one. The supporters of a further extension to the time limit, putting us under our common law system into bed with the most vicious autocracies and dictatorships both past and present, can be counted on one hand: they number Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith, "Sir" Ian Blair, Lord Carlile and the Sun newspaper. None of their arguments are in the slightest bit convincing, especially when the latter hints darkly that those who vote against the measure when it eventually comes before parliament again will have to answer for it when there's next a terrorist attack, somehow implying that they'll be responsible for something that it is most certainly the work of others to prevent, and extending the limit will do nothing whatsoever to improve their chances of doing so.

In this instance compromise in fact potentially provides those proposing such a draconian change with a fig-leaf of respectability. The Guardian yesterday reported that there might be further concessions, bringing down the time when parliament will have to vote on the extension being authorised to 7 days, and further judicial review of the power. Both of are already concessions from the original, even harsher plans, but neither will do anything to alter the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that any extension is necessary. The parliamentary authorisation on its own is problematic because, as the director of public prosecutions has argued, it risks giving parliament's seal of approval to a case before it has even entered the sphere of a trial. Even worse is one of the alternatives being suggested in an amendment by Andrew Dismore, who proposes holding suspects on police bail past the 28-day limit. This is the worst of all worlds, keeping the suspect under perpetual investigation and uncertainty, giving the police carte blanche to obstruct and disrupt the suspects' lives over an even longer period, while also providing the window of opportunity for those who might well be dangerous to go on the run, just as the control order system is both shockingly illiberal and disproportionate whilst also being ineffective.

If the government is not prepared to back down over 42 days, which goes to the very heart of how civil liberties are being almost casually eroded while also disenfranchising and disengaging those in the Muslim community who need to be brought on side rather than belittled and onerously targeted, then it deserves to be defeated with the same, if not more ferocity than it was over 90 days. If that involves a further loss of face for Gordon Brown, who seems to obstinately refusing to back down because of his determination to both buy off the Murdoch press and show the Tories up as "soft" on terror, then so be it.

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