This week Londoners will mark the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks, which killed 52 people and injured 750 in the capital. They will do so against the backdrop of a depressing political row about the funding of police operations designed to ensure that Britain never again suffers such an atrocity.
John Yates, the head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, last week claimed that cuts to the police budget – in line with cuts across the rest of the public sector – would put Britain at greater risk of another terror attack. These were private remarks from Mr Yates at the conference of the Association of Police Officers. But the former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, very publicly agreed with Mr Yates. The Government, said Mr Johnson, will put Britain "in greater peril".
A period of silence on Labour's part when it comes to counter-terrorism would be appropriate. The previous Government's response to the terror threat was a disgrace. Labour's 13 years in power yielded a plethora of draconian new laws and the relentless undermining of our civil liberties. ID cards, new stop-and-search powers, an increase in the pre-charge detention period to 28 days, control orders imposed on the basis of secret and unchallengeable intelligence, the criminalisation of protest in Westminster: whatever the police and intelligence agencies asked for, no matter the cost or the quality of the justification, was delivered up by compliant ministers.
The Government also doggedly resisted proposals to allow the use of intercept evidence in courts which would have increased the number of terror suspects brought to trial and eased the pressure to use draconian instruments such as control orders. Though intercept evidence is routinely used in American courts, ministers insisted that the technical challenges of introducing it here were insurmountable. When challenged on this illiberal agenda, Labour ministers always resorted to citing intelligence evidence on the scale and nature of the terror threat which they – and only they – had seen and which, it was asserted, justified these curbs on public freedoms. And even from opposition, Mr Johnson, seeks to play this populist fear card.
The new Government clearly takes a different view. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has criticised Mr Yates for "alarming the public", adding: "I'd like to avoid public servants doing this kind of shroud-waving in public." Certainly, Mr Yates's reported argument that the Government's review of security legislation would hamper the fight against terrorism is nonsense.
But there is no point in denying that the forthcoming budget squeeze is a potential problem when it comes to counter-terrorism. Surveillance of terror suspects is expensive, requiring significant manpower resources. But imposing control orders and installing more CCTV are much cheaper. There is a danger that illiberal methods will be advanced under the imperative of reducing expenditure.
To avoid this drift, there needs to be an elevation of the quality of the debate on terrorism and security. We need a thorough analysis of the cost-effectiveness of various means of protecting the public. We need an honest discussion on the trade-offs between security and liberty. We are also overdue for a political debate about the root causes (rather than just the dire symptoms) of the UK terror threat.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were impressively thoughtful on such matters in opposition. And we wait to see what their response will be in office. But at the moment this is a discussion to which, sadly, Labour is clearly not yet ready to make a sensible contribution.Reuse content