The Sketch: One urgent problem: the PM is having his cake and eating it

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The Independent Online

It's very unusual, unprecedented, perhaps, to see the Prime Minister lose an argument. We never really know what's going on, or why. Only by indirect observations can we guess at whether or not the Bill is well founded, or based on some fundamental flaw.

It's very unusual, unprecedented, perhaps, to see the Prime Minister lose an argument. We never really know what's going on, or why. Only by indirect observations can we guess at whether or not the Bill is well founded, or based on some fundamental flaw.

Yesterday, he was confronted by a question that goes to the heart of the principle of control orders. The IRA has offered to shoot the recent bar-room murderers in Northern Ireland. These men are terrorists. Their names and addresses are known. Their offer of murder is documented. Yet they aren't even to be called in for questioning. What was the Prime Minister going to do about it, Ian Paisley asked?

"It is not a matter for me," the Prime Minister said with a particular, constitutional piety. But if he has all the contact details of a full-blown conspiracy by terrorists and won't act ... why should he be able to bang people up because their eyes are too close together?

Is the Bill really urgent? He says we must have the law on the books immediately or we will wake up defenceless on Monday morning.

That is entirely untrue. The existing provisionscan be extended for eight months by a simple statutory instrument. David Heath, for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Government has leftit all till the last moment and then declared it an emergency."

How about a sunset clause? The Tories will support the Bill if they geta chance to debate the proposals thoroughly towards the end of this year.

Mr Blair has two equal and opposite reasons for rejecting that. Yesterday, he said that a sunset clause will "send the wrong signal" to terrorists. He wants to signal to terrorists that "this is on the books and will stay on the books".

But then he also says there is a sunset clause already in the Bill (it has to be renewed annually). Mr Blair has found a way to have his cake and eat it (he passes it through his system first).

He said that the police and security told him directly that a sunset clause was undesirable. That was obviously untrue. If it was true it was irrelevant.

"Three hours in total, to discuss the whole thing," Ken Clarke pointed out, on behalf of the Commons. In the rush, some very serious issues are merely glanced at. Evidence acquired from torture will be admissible in these special courts. The judicial review process (which has bought off the rebels) has ­ according to Bob Marshall-Andrews ­ no power to look at anything other than procedure and law, and that provision was in the Bill already.

So what does the Bill mean? None of the terms are defined. What is urgency? What is national security? What is terrorism?

We do, however, know what is meant by detention without trial (or witnesses, or evidence, or charge).

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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