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Wednesday, January 26, 2011 

Watered down and rebranded, much like...

Don't settle for low politics and broken promises: be more demanding. So intones Nick Clegg in his introduction to the ever increasing barrel of laughs which is the Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2010. Hidden away, appropriately enough on page 94, is another of those promises which has since become a miserable little compromise: the proposed abolition of control orders. We believe that the best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms, it pronounces solemnly. We will scrap control orders, which can use secret evidence to place people under house arrest, it promised.

Control orders have been one of those great lies that come along relatively rarely in politics. They don't only involve lying to the public, which is habitual, as well as those unlucky enough to find themselves on them, they also involve those imposing them lying to themselves. No politician can seriously believe that a control order would stop a genuinely dedicated terrorist from finding some way to do harm, nor can they even begin to like having to personally issue the orders themselves. Control orders are entirely a construct of the security services being more dedicated to the protection of their own sources and themselves should a suspect go on to commit an atrocity than they are the protection of the public. Meant to cover the very few that either can't be prosecuted or deported and on whom there is compelling "intelligence" of their criminal intentions, they're also an insight into just how we've been frightened by the powers that be over the past few years. It wasn't so long ago that we were told of how around 2,000 separate individuals were involved in plotting terrorist attacks, although that figure was never properly clarified and broken down. How many people are considered so dangerous that they have to be all but permanently monitored and subject to a form of house arrest? 8, currently.

Those 8 were doubtless eagerly awaiting the long trailed changes to the control order regime, finally announced today after supposedly months of in-fighting and battles between the coalition partners, with David Cameron wailing at one point about how it was turning into a "fucking car crash". The really objectionable thing about control orders isn't just that they unacceptably limit the liberty of someone who might well have never faced any charges whatsoever in a court, it's that the person having their civil rights restricted isn't able to challenge the evidence against them directly - instead they have appointed special advocates to act for them. Any changes on this score have been delayed until a further consultation on the use of intelligence evidence in the courts has taken place, and the omens, as shown by the determination of the government and security services to ensure that their dirty laundry is never aired publicly again ala the Binyam Mohamed case, aren't good.

As could have been expected, the intelligence agencies and the due to step down current reviewer of terrorism legislation Lib Dem peer gone native Lord Carlile have won the battle against any substantial watering down of the scheme. Instead the government, apparently to save the Liberal Democrats some face as everything else falls down around around them, has embarked on one of their periodic rebranding exercises. Control orders will become Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, which if anything sounds even more Orwellian than the current misnomer. The up to 16 hour curfews currently in place will transform into "overnight residence requirements", which even MPs in the chamber sniggered at as Theresa May, dressed in a jacket apparently stolen from a production of a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical made the statement. While, as Nick Clegg desperately tried to argue, the changes will mean that those under the new orders, sorry, TPIMs, will now be able to work or study where previously it was all but impossible, it may well be incredibly difficult to do so when you're being followed around permanently by surveillance officers. It's going to take an incredibly understanding employer or college, that's for sure.

The other hardly encouraging change is that rather than being a temporary measure, as control orders always had been, the proposed legislation will make the TPIMs permanently available as an option. The orders themselves will be able to be imposed for up to two years, rather than a slightly more amenable 12 months, albeit an improvement on the current indefinite time limit. The lack of backbone from the Liberal Democrats is doubly disappointing as the other changes announced today by May are genuine changes for the better, rolling back the worst excesses of the last government, whether reducing the maximum limit for detention without charge to 14 days, reforming the outrageously abused section 44 of the Terrorism Act, or stopping councils from using the RIPA act to snoop on those it suspects of petty offences.

It therefore takes quite some chutzpah for Tim Farron to call it a "proud day" as the party completely fails to even begin to implement its promise to prosecute terrorist suspects, but the Liberal Democrats as we have seen are nothing if not shameless. The security services have once again won against those trying to bring their judgement calls even slightly into the open (and to see what we're up against, just take a glance at the redactions to "Sir" Richard Dearlove's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, where it would have been less time consuming to just blank everything) and liberty itself is the loser.

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