Deborah Orr: Do you want psychological torture in your name?

Blair has seen in this posturing, foolish legislation a chance to cast himself again as tough, yet popular
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The Independent Online

Those who predicted a compromise on the Government's proposal to bring in 90-day detention for terrorist suspects, have been sorely disappointed. Blair has seen in this posturing, reckless, foolish piece of legislation, a chance once again to cast himself as tough, yet popular, and at the same time to make the Tories look impossibly soft on terrorism. His gamble is that Labour rebels will think twice before risking a government defeat on this issue, after last week's single-vote win, while even the Conservatives will blanch at appearing to the masses like hand-wringing friends of terrorism.

No doubt, when the police first suggested the 90-day detention idea to Blair, it was its sound bite-friendly simplicity that appealed to him. Since that time he has not wavered in his liking for the idea, even though there is just one mildly plausible argument in its favour, and there are about a dozen good reasons why it's an awful, retrograde step.

But all that is mere detail. The important thing is that 90-day detention has caught the public imagination, and has garnered popular support. A YouGov poll showed that 72 per cent of the population considered that 90-day detention was right. Among victims of the July bombings and their families, understandably, the figure is even higher. A Sun front page yesterday rallied the electorate further. Alongside a picture of a bloodied but unnamed bomb victim, the headline exhorted readers to "Tell Tony He's Right" by calling a dedicated phone line.

Such is the ignorant emotionalism around this subject, that it is pointless to draw attention to the fact that none of the London bombers was actually arrested by the police, never mind grudgingly released by them after the 14 days they are already allowed to hold terror suspects without charge. On the contrary, one newspaper has suggested that all of the bombers had been under police surveillance at one time or another, and that in each case the surveillance had been dropped as the police decided there was no threat.

The Government, aware of such matters, has in fact worked hard to keep the debate nice and vague. The most patronising example of this strategy is the three-question "consultation document" the Home Office e-mailed to party members. It asked such leading, yet inconclusive questions as: "Do you think the police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?" and "Do you think the Government should make sure there are more safeguards to protect innocent people?" It offered a choice of answers: yes, no or not sure.

The point here, of course, is that the only sensible answer is "yes". But that does not mean that 90-day internment, with a district judge reviewing the internment every week, is the way to achieve this. What Lord Carlile, the independent assessor of the Government's terror legislation, wants is a panel of senior judges who grant tranches of extra time subject to proof of the complexity of the case.

This is how the situation is dealt with in all nations that have comparable systems. It is accepted in pretty much all other democracies that such tools as 90-day detentions are too blunt to be useful. He says it all when he points out that: "A more searching system is required to reflect the seriousness of the state holding someone in high-security custody without charge for three months."

Blair, however, is not interested in discussing the matter at this level. On the contrary he strives to keep things at a much less rarefied level. His take on the judge's point is this: "I don't agree that the police would simply bang up anyone they want to bang up." But it is certainly the case that the police can panic when dealing with terrorism. The police did not, for example, shoot Jean Charles de Menezes because they wanted to, but because they made a huge mistake. It is ultimately in the interest of the police that the rule of law should protect them from their own mistakes. The police may believe that this legislation would be in their interest, but for many reasons it is not.

The police want this legislation, above all other reasons, they say, because sometimes investigations into international terrorism can take months. They cite difficulty in ascertaining identities, decoding encrypted computer files and having to carry out international investigations as reasons why an investigation could take a long time. But investigations can of course go on long after a person has been charged. The police cite the "ricin plot" as an example of an investigation in which they ran out of time. In fact, some of the suspects later found not guilty by a jury had been held for two years before trial.

The crucial point that the police are concerned with (and keen not to publicise) is that they no longer have the right to question a suspect after they have charged him. This fact, coupled with the fact that those kept in a police cell will be allowed no visits from family and friends, while those in prison cells will only be allowed such visits if they are backed by the police and the judiciary, suggests that what the police are really interested in is the ability to isolate and interrogate suspects over a long period. The real issue is whether or not we wish to give the nod to psychological torture in our name. That is the issue that should be debated.

The Government, far from arguing, as it does, that the police should have this unspoken and unexplained right because the police want it, should be thinking of how this might affect an innocent young man who might find himself confused and pressured into giving a false confession. When internment was introduced in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it immediately resulted in the imprisonment of innocent people, which in turn drove an even greater wedge between the police and the population it was supposed to be serving. The result in such scenarios is twofold: There is an upswing in recruitment to the terrorist organisations that are being targeted and there is a reluctance by people to tell their suspicions to the police, when the price an individual may pay for a mistake is perceived as being so very high.

The most shocking thing of all is that this issue has been pumped up as a great populist cause when in fact the circumstances in which such considerations come into play are few and far between. As is so often the case, the Government is much more concerned with burnishing its image than it is with finding workable solutions. Mr Blair berates the rebels in his parliamentary party for "playing politics" with this issue. It is he, however, who shamefully has been doing that all along.