Leading article: Blinkered politicians and the rule of law

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The Independent Online

New Labour's authoritarian revolution continues. Yesterday, the Government published its new counter-terrorist Bill, to robust opposition from the House of Commons. The most contentious measure is an extension of the period over which terrorist suspects can be held without charge, from two weeks to three months. The result of giving the police such a power would be that suspects (most likely young Muslims) would "disappear" for months. It would be tantamount to internment. There is no reason to suppose that this would generate less resentment in Muslim communities today than it did in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Other elements in this Bill are no less dangerous. It would be an offence to "indirectly encourage" terrorism. This wording is dangerously vague and constitutes an unjustified curb on freedom of speech. All this follows the publication by the Home Secretary, this summer, of a list of grounds for deporting non-Britons who "foment, justify or glorify" terrorism. We are told that "promises" will be extracted from nations such as Jordan and Algeria not to torture those we send back.

The manner in which the Government is attempting to bludgeon these illiberal proposals onto the statute book is a disgrace. There is little evidence that serious thought has been given to how these new offences will be defined. It is worth remembering that we first heard about them at a hastily arranged press conference shortly before the Prime Minister flew off on his summer holiday. The question of exactly who will fall foul of this new legislation has never been properly addressed. In the absence of thought, we have had bullying. Judges have been "warned" not to overreach themselves in ruling on anti-terror cases. In this context, it was heartening to hear the new Lord Chief Justice's unequivocal declaration of independence this week.

The effectiveness of these new laws is also highly questionable. It is impossible to see how any of these new proposals would have thwarted the July 7 bombers. What the Government has done in the wake of that atrocity smacks of gesture politics - the desire to be seen to be "doing something". There is no shortage of counter-terrorist legislation on Britain's statute book. The Government's first objective ought to be to ensure that the existing law is enforced. We need to bring more suspects to trial - if necessary by making wire-tap evidence admissable in court. And greater resources must be invested in our intelligence services.

A large part of the problem is that Mr Blair appears increasingly hostile to the law. He has uncritically accepted police demands for a vast extension in the time needed to question terror suspects, despite the fact that even the Tories are sceptical about such requests. And now he is attempting to present his anti-terror laws as part of a root and branch reform of the entire criminal justice system.

Mr Blair sums up his philosophy by arguing: "What I have to do is to try do my best to protect people in this country and to make sure their safety and their civil liberty to life come first." This demonstrates such a poor grasp of the nature of the rule of law that it is hard to believe that Mr Blair trained as a barrister. In a democratic legal system, the interests of no group can "come first". All must be equal before the law.

The Prime Minister even hints that what he would really like to see is an end to the principle of innocent until proven guilty. After eight years, this is what Labour has come to. Our priceless freedoms are threatened not by terrorists but an arrogant Prime Minister and his executive. The Commons must do everything in its power to ensure this ill-conceived Bill does not become law.