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Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Thank the Lords?

The House of Lords has defeated the government on the control orders proposed in the so-called Prevention of Terrorism Bill. And it is good to see the Liberal Democrat peers acting with more gusto then their colleagues in the Commons. If finally accepted by the Commons, the Lords' amendments would ensure that only the courts and not ministers could impose control orders.

We are not home and dry yet. First, we can be sure that the government will continue to attempt to divide and rule its critics. The BBC's Mark Mardell observed;

"I am just beginning to wonder whether [the government] will accept this, because that would mollify all of the Liberal Democrat and most of the Labour rebels on this, and then sharpen their divisions with the Conservatives and attack what the Conservatives want to do."
There is also the more fundamental point of whether we need control orders at all. The Liberal Democrats got into a mess because their home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten MP, accepted the government's basic premise that control orders were justified and assumed that the only remaining argument lay in the detail.

Comparatively few critics seem to be querying whether control orders are necessary at all - or whether, with the best will in the world, they would actually work.

Even if imposed by the courts rather than ministers, control orders still represent a dangerous threat to our liberties. One can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, and without knowing what the charges are - a predicament straight out of Kafka's 'The Trial'. Control orders assume the infallibility of the security services, on whose say so people would be detained - not a wise assumption given the innocence of many of those detained in Bellmarsh or Guantanamo.

Indeed, the idea that control orders would secure us against terrorist acts is ludicrous. We are asked to believe that every potential terrorist would be scooped up and no innocent people detained. We are asked to believe this despite the experience of internment in Northern Ireland, which, far from preventing terrorism, boosted IRA recruitment and made the situation worse.

Andrew Rawnsley made a good assessment of the situation in last Sunday's Observer. Quite apart from the intrinsic faults in the government's position, he noted;

"There is only one thing worse than making complex, sensitive and unprecedented law in a rush of fear. That is doing it in a pre-election panic as well."
Meanwhile, the inquest within the Liberal Democrats over last Monday's vote in the Commons (in which 17 Lib Dem MPs failed to vote, and the government won by 14 votes) continues. Three of the missing MPs had legitimate reasons not to be present. Most of the remainder had been instructed to stay in their constituencies for a week of local campaigning.

The official version of events is that the narrowness of the vote had taken all three party whips' offices by surprise. Besides the 17 Liberal Democrat absentees, there were also 24 Tory MPs absent plus further Labour rebels. This may be true, but the gravity of the issue was well known in advance, as The Observer's leader pointed out.

The main reason Liberal Democrat MPs failed to turn out last Monday was that, in the absence of Chief Whip Andrew Stunell, the parliamentary party was advised by Mark Oaten that only a two-line whip was necessary. He just doesn't get it, does he?

Next time the Prevention of Terrorism Bill returns to the Commons, there can be no more excuses.

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