Leading article: Another day, another half-baked proposal


It is now apparent that the Government is in danger of losing control of the anti-terror agenda. Proposals have been pouring out of Whitehall with little coherence or sound thinking behind them. We have been told that extremist preachers will be deported to countries with a history of torture. How this will be squared with the UK Human Rights Act is unclear. Britain's ethnic minorities should be "re-branded" with new inclusive labels. But exactly how the Government can persuade a group of people to adopt an identity is left unexplained. The idea of re-activating the treason laws is raised and then dropped in the space of 48 hours. In short, the Government's thinking on this subject is an incoherent mess.

We were subjected to another half-baked idea yesterday. A plan to set up special anti-terror courts is being given "active consideration". These would sit in secret and determine how long suspects can be detained without charge in order for the police to continue their investigations. Consideration is also being given to setting up continental-style investigating magistrates with sweeping powers to detain and interrogate.

The question of how long terror suspects should be held for questioning is a valid one. The police probably require longer than the two weeks presently permitted, after which suspects must be released or charged. There is a case for extending this by a week - two at most. But the figure of three months that has been floated is ridiculous. This would effectively constitute internment. Have our intelligence services proved themselves so reliable that we can happily lock people up for extended periods solely on their say so? If a mistake were made, how better to further alienate Britain's Muslims and give succour to Islamist fanatics?

The idea of giving investigating magistrates the right to detain people in terror cases is just as impractical. At a stroke this would discard the historic British legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty". It is not the sort of thing any government can decide to do on the spur of the moment. The courts and Parliament would not permit it. Nor should they.

This whole unedifying process was set in train by the Prime Minister himself last week. On the eve of departing for his summer holiday, he unveiled a package of vague proposals on tackling terrorism and proposed a public consultation. But this was all about deflecting accusations that the Government was not being "pro-active" over terrorism. There was no real consideration. It represented a return to the worst tendencies of New Labour - government by headline. And now we have a situation whereby any government minister feels entitled to float ideas on how to proceed, no matter how illiberal or badly thought out.

If Mr Blair truly believes that, as he puts it, "the rules of the game have changed", let him get together with his senior ministers and officials when he returns from holiday and devise a serious programme to be put before Parliament. And let his ministers then make a coherent argument to the media on why any curbs on traditional liberties are necessary. This need not be done with a rigid cross-party consensus. But spare us this pusillanimous gesture politics.

From dangerous dogs to antisocial behaviour, legislation made on the hoof always turns out badly. But it has the potential to be a disaster when used in relation to terrorism. Britain's ethnic minorities feel vulnerable at the moment. Our society is on edge. Clumsy laws and illiberal measures risk making this situation far worse. The Government urgently needs to get on top of this situation before public confidence in its ability to deal with this threat is further eroded.

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