How a parliamentary wrangle stretched civil liberties to the limit

There was to be no calm after the storm of never-ending Thursday. The release of 10 terror suspects into Clarke's gagged-and-tagged new world has been a fiasco. 'Chaotic is not the word', say police
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The transition of Britain's 10 foreign terror suspects from prison or secure mental hospital to a new life under control orders is proving every bit as chaotic as last week's scenes in Westminster, when Parliament wrangled over what to do with them.

One of the men released from Broadmoor immediately had to be taken from his new home to a psychiatric ward. Two of the detainees were homeless, and flats had to be found for them; at one, the police had to break a window to get in, because the keys did not work. But wherever they are, the men, mostly of North African origin, will be waiting for a knock on the door from a police officer, or a phone call from the Home Office. When this happens, the bail conditions under which they were freed will transmute into control orders, issued under the legislation, which was finally rammed through Parliament on Friday.

Instead of being detained indefinitely in prison, the men will be in another kind of limbo. Each has specific terms under which he is allowed to live. But all have now been fitted, by the private company Premier, with special electronic tags, resembling over-sized wristwatches, which restrict their movements to a specific geographic area around their homes between 7pm and 7am.

Use of a landline telephone is allowed, but not mobile phones. Friends and relatives cannot visit the homes of the former detainees unless they receive clearance from the Home Office. The security services can go into these homes and search the premises without warning, and the suspects are not allowed to arrange any meetings.

In theory, a suspect could be in breach of his bail conditions if he orders a takeaway by telephone and arranges to go round and pick up the food later on, or if he bumps into a friend in the street and proposes meeting later.

The judge at the bail hearing under which the detainees were first freed did agree, however, that they can allow their children's friends under the age of 16 to enter their homes without having to ask the Home Office.

Few Britons are likely to worry about these restrictions, as the opinion polls show. During the three years they have been locked up, the men now subject to control orders have been depicted as a mortal danger to the nation. But from tomorrow, civil libertarians are pointing out, the same draconian conditions can be imposed on any British citizen, as long as the Government can convince a judge that there are "reasonable grounds for suspicion" that the accused might be planning or aiding subversion. Animal rights activists have been suggested as one target.

But if the first people being put under control orders were so dangerous, critics demanded, why was the whole affair handled so badly? Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, a lawyer for one of the men released from Broadmoor, described the handling of her client by the Home Office as a "catalogue of errors", "an utter legal shambles" and a "last-minute scrimmage".

She said the first he knew of being removed from Broadmoor was when staff came to him on his ward on Friday and said he needed to start packing his clothes, because the police were waiting in the reception area.

He wanted to leave the next day, but was told he had to go immediately. It was around 7pm when he was taken in an unmarked police car to a flat which had been arranged for him by the local authorities. But the key would not work. Eventually his minders had to smash a window to gain access, and then board up the window.

Part of the agreement was that detainees should have access to a 24-hour number so they could ask permission for friends and family to visit their house. However, police discovered that in fact the number is only operated from 9am to 5pm.

It might be understandable that the dozens of police and prison officers, private security operatives and lower-level civil servants caught up in the introduction of control orders were confused. They, along with the rest of the nation, had watched Parliament behave as though it was taking part in Red Nose Day.

For official purposes, Thursday dragged on to become the longest parliamentary "day" for 99 years. Under Parliament's rules, the "day" does not necessarily end when Big Ben strikes midnight: it ends when the Speaker says that it's over, and after most workers had gone home for the weekend, it was still officially Thursday inside the Palace of Westminster.

So defiant was the House of Lords at what it saw as the Government's destruction of ancient civil liberties that many feared that Thursday would drag on through the weekend. But Tony Blair suddenly came up with a compromise which brought Thursday to an anti-climactic end, just after 7pm on what was Friday in the real world.

Peers were so determined that one, who held a sensitive cabinet post in Margaret Thatcher's government 20 years ago, had the pills he needs for his heart problem biked from his Essex home. During Thursday night, others brought in camp beds, or settled in the comfortable chairs in the library to catch what they could by way of a night's sleep. When Michael Howard went across to the Lords at lunchtime on Friday, to tell them there was to be no backing down, the Conservative leader received rousing applause and unanimous support.

Among Government supporters, who were also forced to stay up all night, the mood was more stubborn battle weariness. Even those who thought Tony Blair and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, were right in principle, expressed despair at what one senior minister described as the "utter incompetence" with which the issue had been allowed to develop into a crisis. One persistent rumour was that it was aggravated by friction between the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with Mr Clarke eager to broker an agreement, while Mr Blair was prepared to accept defeat, if necessary, so that he would accuse Mr Howard of playing politics with the nation's security. It was said that if "Thursday" had dragged on through the weekend, Mr Blair would have put the cap on it by calling a general election tomorrow.

This made the personal inconvenience of a never-ending Thursday all the more annoying for government supporters, such as those Labour MPs in marginal seats who set aside every Friday for a day's work in their constituencies, and for ministers handling the rush of paperwork that comes with the approach of a general election.

Two Labour MPs, Kevan Jones and Frank Roy, were called back from the US to vote ,One divorced MP sees his 11-year-old daughter every other weekend, and feared he was going to have to cancel the precious contact. Others were visibly uneasy about the curious alliance against the Government - the Tories, under a leader who was once a hard-line right-wing home secretary, the retired judges and barristers in the Lords, the Liberal Democrats, and left-wing Labour MPs and peers. There was the irony of seeing Baroness Thatcher voting to protect the civil rights of suspected terrorists, and even their right to claim benefit Her old ally Lord Tebbit, whose wife was crippled by an IRA bomb, was asked how he was enjoying helping to defeat the Government, and replied: "Not much. I don't like terrorists."

For the Labour MP Ronnie Campbell, an ex-miner and serial rebel, the idea of siding with unelected peers against an elected gandovernment was too much. But he did not let Tony Blair off entirely. He went up to him in the voting lobby to point out indignantly that some of the peers causing the trouble were, as he put it, Tony's friends - people granted their peerages by the present Prime Minister.

When the parliamentary games were over, it only remained for both sides to claim that they had won. Mr Blair's argument is that the Government did not want to bring in a new anti-terrorism law this close to an election, but was forced by a Law Lords ruling that the detention of foreign terrorist suspects in Belmarsh and Broadmoor was illegal. The men had been locked up on the instructions of the former home secretary, David Blunkett, because the intelligence services believe that they are dangerous, but do not want to take the evidence to a court for fear of giving away too much about their operations. The men could not be returned to their home countries, where they would be at risk of torture, and consequently were being held indefinitely without charge. The Lords ruled that this was discrimination, because only foreigners, many from countries with poor civil rights records, could suffer this fate.

The Bill that finally became law at about 7.21pm on Friday meets the Law Lords' objections, because the control orders to which the former Belmarsh detainees are subjected could equally be applied to British-born terrorist suspects. It was also just in time, because the Home Secretary's power to hold the detainees would have run out automatically at midnight tonight.

But it is completely new to British law that the Home Secretary can now deprive British subjects of their liberty by signing an order, without letting them see the evidence against them. For the Liberal Democrats, the more important point was that people who lose their liberty should know what they are accused of, which is why they voted against the new terror law all the way through, even after Michael Howard had decided to live with it.

The Tories' argument was that such an important innovation needed long, careful thought, which is why they insisted on a "sunset clause" which would have meant that the legislation would have ceased to be law as soon as Parliament had had time to bring in a new law in less of a rush. The compromise offered by Mr Blair on Friday afternoon gives them most of what they asked for, because there will be a new anti-terrorism law put to the Commons, in draft form, later in the year. It will be accompanied by a report from an independent regulator on how the control orders imposed on the former Belmarsh prisoners have worked. MPs will have a chance to vote to change the anti-terrorism legislation, and they have a deadline of July 2006. "That is basically what we were playing for," the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, claimed triumphantly at the Conservatives' spring conference in Brighton yesterday.


What happens next?

The Prevention of Terrorism Act can be amended in 12 months' time, but it will not automatically lapse. That is the big difference between a review and a sunset clause. The sunset clause that the Opposition originally wanted would have forced the Government - assuming it is re-elected in May - to start again from scratch.

The Home Office had planned for some time to bring in a new anti-terrorism Bill after the election. When David Blunkett was Home Secretary, he intended to bring in special non-jury courts to try terrorist offences and to create new offences such as that of knowingly associating with terrorists. Charles Clarke appears to have dropped the idea of non-jury courts, but the planned new Bill provided a useful device for the compromise that finally broke the parliamentary impasse on Friday afternoon.

Mr Clarke, the Prime Minister and Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, agreed to combine the passage of the new Bill with the first annual review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so that MPs and peers would have the parliamentary time to change last week's Act at the same time.

That would give the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the chance to reopen the issue of the standard of proof required for the issue of control orders. What may be decisive in rewriting the legislation is the report of the "independent reviewer". As is the case with previous anti-terrorism laws, the Home Secretary has to appoint an independent person to oversee the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. For previous Acts the reviewer is Lord Carlile, the former Liberal Democrat MP who has given guarded approval of the way the law has worked.

John Rentoul


Who are these people and what awaits them?

Some of the 10 men under control orders were accused of having links with al-Qa'ida. Others, it was claimed, had been liasing with extremist groups in Chechnya and Algeria. All were held without charge or trial, but are now subject to a regime under which they are electronically tagged, are banned from having mobile phones or going on the internet, are under 12-hour curfews and cannot see anyone outside their immediate family without Home Office permission. They are:

Abu Qatada

He has been called Osama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador" to Europe and accused of appearing in religious videos watched by the 11 September hijackers. The Jordanian cleric arrived in Britain in 1993 and claimed asylum. He was arrested in 2001. An anti-terror judge described him as being "at the centre in the UK of terrorist activities associated with al-Qa'ida".

Abu Rideh

A Palestinian born in a refugee camp in Jordan, Abu Rideh is 33. It is alleged that he was involved in fundraising for groups with links to al-Qa'ida. His mental health deteriorated while in Belmarsh to such an extent that he repeatedly tried to harm himself.

Detainee A

A failed asylum seeker who is accused of aiding terror cells in Chechnya and Algeria. Detainee A, himself Algerian, is alleged to have been been involved in a credit card fraud operation.

Detainee B

A 33-year-old Algerian, B is accused of helping terrorists in Chechnya and being part of an extremist group in his native country. He first showed up in the UK in 1994.

Detainee E

A 51-year-old who came to Britain from France on a false identity card. The Government claims he was part of the Tunisia Fighting Group, which aims to establish an Islamic state in Tunisia. He is also alleged to have al-Qa'ida links.

Detainee G

The one member of the 10 released before last week. Despite being forced to use a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, detainee G is alleged to be a member of a terror group. The 34-year-old Algerian suffered mental health problems in Belmarsh and was placed under house arrest last year.

Detainee H

An Algerian accused of being a member of extremist groups banned in his home country. The 31-year-old came to Britain in 1993 and was granted asylum. It was originally alleged that he fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan, but judges said there was insufficient evidence to back up that claim.

Detainee K

Another Algerian, 34-year-old K arrived in Britain in 1998 on an Italian ID card. It is claimed that he planned to support Islamic terrorist cells preparing to mount chemical attacks in the UK. He is also said to have Chechen links.

Detainee P

The Government alleges that this Algerian, who has had both hands amputated, was providing extremists with false papers and raising money through credit-card fraud. He spent much of his time in the UK at a London mosque after arriving in 1999. He was refused asylum.

Detainee Q

No details of Q have been made available, other than that he was arrested in January 2003.