David Cameron’s retreat from the easy rhetoric of opposition and of his early days in No 10 would be fun to mock if it were not so serious. Seeking to appease David Davis, his leadership rival, and to ingratiate himself with Liberal Democrat voters, he joined the fashionable whinge against Labour for “curtailing civil liberties”.
In government, to appease his coalition partners, he and Theresa May, his Home Secretary, weakened control orders, used to keep under surveillance terrorist suspects who cannot be brought to court. This week, the escape in a burqa of a suspect forced May and Cameron to come to the House of Commons to defend their new, weaker Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs).
Their most convincing defence was that control orders were being “hacked away by the courts”, which is what Cameron said at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, and so had to be replaced anyway.
However, I have just caught up with the article by Pat McFadden, the Labour MP who asked Cameron the question, on Labour List yesterday, in which he points out:
"Anyone reading the statement made by Theresa May introducing TPIMs (the replacement for control orders) back in January 2011 will not find a mention of a reluctant government being forced to water down a regime it wanted to keep. Instead she said the previous regime was 'excessive and unnecessary'. She boasted that the new measured would have a two year maximum time limit 'which will clearly demonstrate that these are targeted, temporary measures' and that 'individuals will have greater access to communications, including to a mobile phone and to a home computer'. And she rounded off her statement declaring that this new regime would 'restore our civil liberties'."
The Prime Minister’s other defence of the weaker regime was that, although two suspects have escaped it, seven suspects had escaped under the control order regime. This turns out to be an argument against the Government’s policy. The seven who escaped did so before control orders were strengthened to give the authorities the power to relocate suspects. McFadden again:
"In the five years in which relocation powers were used under the previous Government’s control orders, no suspects escaped. Under the new, weaker regime, two have escaped in 10 months."
Nor is that all. As McFadden points out, perhaps the most serious weakening of the regime to constrain terrorist suspects is their expiry after two years:
"Ministers chose to put a sunset clause into the TPIM regime meaning that all the orders would lapse after two years unless new evidence came forward. Never mind that the old evidence may still be highly relevant. The practical effect of this sunset clause is that, in January, most remaining TPIMs lapse and the controls on potentially highly dangerous suspects are weakened further. So as a result of a deliberate, unforced Government decision – not a court decision – suspects which the state has deemed worthy of restriction and close monitoring for years will have that regime lifted."
TPIMs are imposed on people who are considered dangerous. These are not, as McFadden says, “just people who have made some hard line speeches or viewed a few unsavoury websites”. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, described them as being at “the highest end of seriousness”. It is hard to disagree with McFadden that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are failing in their first duty, which is to keep the British people safe.