David Winnick: We don't need this further erosion of our liberty

It's up to the police to show that any increase beyond 28 days' detention is essential
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The Independent Online

The proposals by Acpo over the detention of terror suspects will, I hope, be rejected, but let us be quite clear: the terrorist threat against this country is likely to remain for some considerable time; neither is it, as some too easily claim, a question of differences over intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. That may play a part, but it is difficult to see what an intended attack on a nightclub, for instance, or describing potential female victims as slags, has to do with foreign policy.

Al-Qa'ida, of course, loathes all aspects of a society based on the rule of law, civil liberties and gender equality. So why all the fuss over the period terror suspects can be held without charge? Are we not in danger of putting too much emphasis, as critics say, on civil liberties at the expense of people's lives?

I believe not, and the job of Parliament is to try and find as far as is possible the right balance between adequate security and defending the traditional rights and liberties of the person. It should not be overlooked that both houses agreed over time to increase the period suspects could be held without charge from 48 hours to five days, then seven, increased to 14, and in November 2005 to the present 28.

The 28, it should be emphasised, was agreed to by both the Commons and Lords without any vote against doubling the increase from 14 days. Hence a broad consensus was reached after the Commons rejected the Government's attempt to set the limit at 90 days. Even if the Commons had agreed with the Government's proposal, it almost certainly would have been rejected in the Lords.

If 90 days is clearly unacceptable, and no evidence has come forward as yet to justify any increase from 28 days, how much more so is the suggestion now put forward by Acpo, and unfortunately endorsed by Lord Carlile, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, that there should be no time limit for those held. Apparently this will be fine because of continued judicial overseeing at every stage, and that should overcome any worries we might otherwise have.

It would be, in my view, wrong and indeed irresponsible for Parliament to hand over to judges, however senior and eminent, the responsibility for deciding how long a person should be held in detention. Moreover, since the police would submit that some of the evidence is too sensitive to be seen by the lawyers acting on behalf of the detainees, that would be another obstacle to justice being seen to be done.

And what will be the likely reaction of the families concerned, and indeed in the wider Muslim community, when those held for long periods are released without charge? Would it not be sensible to work on the assumption that in such circumstances there will be a good deal of antagonism on the grounds that Muslims innocent of terrorism are being picked on? And will that not play into the hands of precisely those who want to create such a feeling among fellow Muslims?

There can be few who doubt that internment in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s was not only a mistake, to say the least, but helped the IRA both in recruiting and, more importantly, creating a feeling in the Catholic community there that they were being persecuted.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain totally reject terrorism and have no illusions that they and their families, like the rest of the population, might not be among be the victims of a terror attack.

As with those of Irish origin in Britain during the IRA bombing campaign, it is necessary to show that it is only the terrorists and those who assist them who are the public enemy, and not anyone else. Anything that creates a different impression can do much harm, and the Acpo proposals can hardly be described as helping to win hearts and minds.

The point has been made repeatedly, including in a recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, that it is up to the police to show compelling evidence that any increase beyond 28 days is essential. Such evidence, as indeed the police now admit, was not forthcoming during the debate on 90 days, and neither has it been produced since. If Parliament was persuaded by the evidence that in order to safeguard us all from terror it is necessary to increase the period of detention, it would probably agree to do so - but the evidence is required first.

Acpo and Lord Carlile have now fallen back on saying, in effect, forget about the argument over days, all that is irrelevant, just make the detention period indefinite and rely on the judges to see that all will be well. That is not an argument responsible Members of Parliament are likely to sign up to.

The writer, is a Labour MP and a member of the Commons Home Affairs Committee