Leading article: Liberal convictions are found lacking

The decision by the Coalition on control orders is a considerable disappointment

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It is a case of two steps forward, one step back. The Coalition Government's overhaul of anti-terror measures, unveiled yesterday, has much to recommend it. Ministers have allowed the law by which terror suspects could be detained without charge for up to 28 days to lapse. The maximum pre-charge detention period will now revert to 14 days. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their determination to extend the period of detention without charge a political virility symbol. It is gratifying that the Coalition feels no such compulsion to posture in this manner.

The police's stop-and-search powers are also to be curtailed. The authorities' excessive use of stop and search has helped to alienate the very communities that the authorities rely on for tip-offs about terrorism. These restrictions are to be welcomed. And in another victory for liberty, local councils will need to get approval from magistrates before they engage in surveillance of residents.

Yet although much of the illiberal detritus of the New Labour years is to be cleared away, the Coalition has stopped short of ditching the most egregious manifestation of the previous government's authoritarianism. The Government's decision on the fate of control orders, after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, is a considerable disappointment.

Control orders will be replaced by "Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures" at the beginning of next year. The existing 16-hour nocturnal curfew will be replaced by "overnight residence requirement" of between eight and 10 hours. The Home Office says this will be more flexible than the curfew, allowing arrangements for shift patterns at work and other needs. But in reality there is little difference.

Moreover, suspects will still be electronically tagged and forbidden from visiting certain addresses. Heavy restrictions on their access to the internet will also remain. And so, of course, does the official assertion that controls can legitimately be placed by the state on an individual's life without a trial or presentation of evidence in court. It is this aspect of control orders that is intolerably offensive to our liberal traditions. And it is this that the Coalition has failed to reject.

The report of Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions who was asked by the Coalition to review its security overhaul last year, was finally published yesterday. He supports the Government's moves on detention, stop-and-search and council surveillance. But he does not approve of the retention of control orders.

Lord Macdonald makes the powerful point that the control order regime acts as "an impediment to prosecution". It is impossible to gather evidence of a suspect being involved in a terrorist conspiracy if they are prevented from contacting anyone with whom they could conspire. Lord Macdonald gives the example of those convicted last year of the plot to blow up transatlantic airliners. If these individuals had been placed under control orders in the early stage of their conspiracy, they would, he suggests, still be subject to them, rather than jailed. This remains the central charge against control orders (whatever name is used to describe them): they are not only illiberal, but counter-productive too.

Lord Macdonald noted in an interview yesterday that "it's always been of critical importance that we don't, in trying to respond to these threats, give up the things that the terrorists would like to take from us." He is right about that. The frustration is that the Coalition, with regard to control orders at least, is colluding in our dispossession.

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