Blair takes the coward's way out

Labour lacks honour by not opposing today's renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, says Polly Toynbee
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Today marks a new low in the honour of new Labour. Few people will agree and the public will not care. Every big battalion is on the same side - but that does not make them right. Labour's abstention on the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, after 15 years of vigorously opposing it, will be a cowardly act of cynicism.

As Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair gave good reasons for Labour's opposition to the Act. He said there were "two fundamental flaws in the Order - exclusion orders and the absence of judicial review of the extraordinary power of detention". He said the Act was "virtually unique in the Western world" and "contrary to the principles of British justice". He rightly condemned those who "cravenly accept" an Act because its title says it will prevent terrorism.

Those fundamental flaws remain unchanged, but now new Labour "cravenly accepts" them. Exclusion orders mean internal exile, banning Britons from mainland Britain without evidence or right to appeal. Over the past few years some 90 people have been excluded at any one time. Apart from its natural injustice, Protestants complain bitterly at Northern Ireland being treated as a dumping ground for people we would prefer did their terrorism on the other side of the water.

Some 7,000 people have been detained under the Act over the years, allowing police to hold them incommunicado for up to seven days. Labour has always wanted a judge to be called in immediately to review each case. Now, it seems, such reservations do not matter any more. Labour weasels out of the issue by saying it awaits the findings of a government review of the Act. Opposing the Act "would send quite the wrong message at this time", say several of its previously strong opponents. The message they worry about, though, is designed not for the IRA but for the voters. Also, the depressing truth is that this has everything to do with Labour pleasing the Unionists in the current delicate Westminster minuet and little to do with furthering peace in Ireland.

Most of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act are released without charge or explanation. Sarah Cohen's was a typical case: in the night came thunderous bangs on the door and nine men with machine-guns kicked their way in. One of them screamed at her to "get on the fucking floor" and put his foot on her neck before dragging her away to a police cell, where she was strip-searched and left alone without a lawyer, food or water for 10 hours. Then she was suddenly released without questioning, with a black eye, bad bruising, no apology, no explanation. They could have kept her for seven days until she "confessed". Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, falsely imprisoned for 15 years, was the first person arrested under the Act. Today marks exactly five years since the Birmingham Six were released after 17 years in jail.

Well, you may say, there is a war on. Here in Canary Wharf, we have felt it shake our tower. Rough things happen in wars: what do you expect? If beating up a few innocent Irishmen and their friends saves one baby in Warrington, it's worth it. I would agree. The question is, does the Prevention of Terrorism Act prevent any bombings, or catch any terrorists? Very few of those arrested under its provisions have ever been charged with terrorist offences. Those terrorists who were arrested under it were not caught by the Act but by detective work and inside information. Duffing up Irishmen may satisfy frustrated policemen, but it also creates fertile breeding grounds of resentment that give succour to real terrorists.

There are two kinds of laws: those designed To Do Something and those designed To Be Seen To Do Something. Such a one was the Prevention of Terrorism Act, an emergency measure introduced in the emotional four days after the Birmingham pub bombings - a bad time to make a bad law.

The Act breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. A country can derogate from its provisions, if a nation itself is threatened, not just individual lives. But is Britain threatened as a nation? At the start of the Troubles there was a fear that our democracy was not robust enough to withstand this violence. In the event, the only real dent in democracy has come from the Act itself. Today, when Labour fails to walk into the Noes lobby, the party's honour will be yet another casualty.