Terror scares, deadlines and election fever make for the worst kind of law-making

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The Independent Online

It is hard to conceive of any major legislation advanced by this government that has had a more chequered passage than the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. But in being forced to fight tooth and nail, and on many fronts, for its survival, the Government has only itself to blame.

It is hard to conceive of any major legislation advanced by this government that has had a more chequered passage than the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. But in being forced to fight tooth and nail, and on many fronts, for its survival, the Government has only itself to blame.

Ministers were slow, and initially arrogant, in their response to the Law Lords' devastating rejection of the emergency powers invoked against suspected terrorists. When they did respond, they made matters, if anything, worse. The prospect that British citizens, as well as foreign nationals, could face indefinite house arrest - one possibility under the proposed new "control orders" - rang the civil liberties alarm in a way that detention orders applicable only to foreign nationals had not. That such orders would be issued not by a judge, but on the say-so of the Home Secretary, raised the deeply troubling spectre of the law being distorted for political ends.

Since then, the arguments have swung furiously to and fro, culminating in this week's row of defeats in the Lords. Following last night's government victory in the Commons, battle is rejoined in the Lords today.

Here we have politics at its fiercest and most raw, conducted at many levels. We have a remarkably united Upper Chamber pitted against a sharply divided Commons. We have the Tories, led by a former hard-line home secretary, defending civil liberties and leaving Labour to argue for the primacy of national security. And we have a British Prime Minister insisting that while civil liberties are "extremely important", freedom from terrorism "is the most important consideration that we have to have uppermost in our mind".

All the while the clock is ticking. The provisions under which 11 foreign terrorist suspects are currently held, most of them at Belmarsh high-security prison, expire on Monday. The general election may be less than two months away. The Government cannot afford to leave a legislative vacuum - or, if it does, it must make sure someone else takes the blame: the Tories and Liberal Democrats, for instance, if they keep up their opposition.

Urgency fosters brinkmanship and scare-mongering. The Home Secretary yesterday held out the prospect of the Belmarsh detainees being released within the week. The former head of the Metropolitan Police had earlier spoken of 100, perhaps 200, al-Qa'ida-trained terrorists stalking British streets. As with earlier scares - the tanks at Heathrow, the ricin in north London - the British public, to its great credit, has refused to be panicked. Michael Howard, meanwhile, accused Tony Blair of wanting the Bill to fail so that he could brand the Tories soft on terrorism.

The next two days should show whether the Government really does want this Bill on the statute book or whether it is merely using it, cynically, to discredit the Opposition and frighten voters about terrorism in the run-up to the election. The Home Secretary has conceded a little ground. He has allowed that judges will be brought into the process of issuing "control orders" and agreed to regular parliamentary reviews. But he has adamantly refused to compromise on anything else. It will still be possible for suspects to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial at the behest of the Home Secretary.

In justification, Mr Blair says he is acting on the advice of the security services and the police - in other words, "trust me, trust my judgement". Which highlights a separate problem. It was the advice of the security services and Mr Blair's judgement that took us to war in Iraq. Both were deeply flawed. Is it any wonder that MPs, of all parties, are rather more sceptical this time around?

Even if this tangled legislation is eventually passed in an acceptable form, however, one conclusion is inescapable. The coincidence of a fiercely negative ruling by the Law Lords, the imminent expiry of emergency powers and the proximity of a general election are not conducive to just, wise or even competent law-making. The evidence is all before us.

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