British government under fire for controversial antiterror bill

The plan, which would allow suspected terrorists to be detained for 42 days without charge, faces broad opposition.

The government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces broad opposition to its just-published antiterrorism bill, which would controversially allow suspected terrorists to be held for up to 42 days without charge.

The Financial Times reports that the government made public the Counter Terrorism Bill on Thursday, with much of the focus on the expanded detention provision, an increase from the current 28-day maximum.

Ministers, supported by senior police chiefs and some government security advisers, argue that terror plots are becoming more complex, both in terms of their international dimension and the use of encrypted technology, so that more time may be needed to investigate before a suspect is freed....
However critics say existing laws already give the government powers to declare a national emergency in exceptional circumstances, and that the latest proposal is an unnecessary encroachment on civil liberties.

The Financial Times report notes that the bill includes other measures that have not met with such opposition.

The Bill contains less controversial measures, including new powers allowing police to question suspects after they have been charged, and provision for the private sector to finance additional protection of key gas sites.
New offences created by the Bill include that of communicating, publishing, or eliciting information from members of the armed forces which might be of use to a terrorist.

British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith defended the extension to 42 days as a necessary tool in the event of a terrorist strike, especially if the threat to Britain is growing, reports the BBC.

Ms Smith declared: "We face a choice here. We can either sit on our hands, failing to recognise where there is a broad consensus that this is a risk that is growing and that we might well face in the future.

"We can risk having to legislate in an emergency in the future, we can risk, as some people believe we should do, having to declare a national emergency in order to be able to do it.

"Or we can legislate now - with the discussion that will be put in Parliament on the safeguards and on the circumstances in which it would be used - and have that available in the future," she said.

But Britain's Labour government faces a tough sell. The BBC notes that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the new bill, and feel they're echoing the public mood. And in an interview with The Times of London, Conservative Party leader David Cameron accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of using the ant-terror bill to tar Labour's political opposition.

"I am afraid that he sees this as a totally political weapon: let us try and make the Tories look soft on terror. That is my problem with our Prime Minister: he looks at every single issue from the point of view of what is the right dividing line that divides me from my opponent, not what is right for the country, and I think that is what he is doing here."

The antiterror bill faces opposition from within the Labour Party as well. The Independent of London, in a survey of Labour members of Parliament (MPs) last month, found that at least 38 MPs were opposed to the plan to expand detention to 42 days. If at least 34 Labour MPs join the opposition to vote against the bill, the government will not be able to get it passed. The Independent notes that former Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a similar rebellion within Labour ranks in 2005, when he tried to pass an antiterrorism bill that would have expanded uncharged detentions to 90 days maximum. That bill failed when 49 Labour MPs joined the opposition against it.

The Independent also reports that there are concerns within the Home Office about the bill's possible side effects. The paper writes that Ms. Smith was warned by researchers in her own department that the expanded detention could hurt relations with British Muslims, who see themselves as the bill's intended targets.

An equality-impact assessment, published by the department, said that Muslims felt that the anti-terror legislation already in force discriminated against them. It noted: "Muslim groups said that pre-charge detention may risk information being forthcoming from members of the community in the future."
The research echoed the conclusions of focus groups of young Muslim men conducted on behalf of Liberty, a civil liberties group. The polling company ComRes found that most Muslims believed the 28-day maximum was already too long. They said: "There is a strong consensus that extending the limit would only serve to promote the extremists' cause, that it would do little to help tackle terrorism, that it would damage the UK's international reputation and that it would further erode community relations."

And in an editorial, The Times of London wonders whether there's any evidence to support the government's claim that the extended detention is really necessary. If not, The Times says, it should not be made law.

Police currently have four weeks from the date of arrest to build cases against terror suspects. Ministers claim that extra time is needed because of the sheer complexity of the conspiracies they face, many conducted in foreign languages and with computer encryption. Such challenges should not be understated. But there have been no cases to date in which charges might have been brought in six weeks that were not brought in four or fewer, and only 11 suspects have been held without charge for longer than 14 days since the limit was raised to 28 days in 2006. ...
Last November, in his capacity as the anti-terrorism czar, Lord West of Spithead told the BBC that he was not persuaded by the arguments for extended detention without charge. Barely an hour later, after meeting the Prime Minister, he said he was persuaded after all. If he was told of specific cases where two extra weeks might have meant important convictions, Parliament deserves to know. If not, the conclusion must be that this plan has more to do with politics than security. It has no place on the statute book.
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