The disagreements within the Cabinet regarding the Government's draconian anti-terror laws provide a faint glimmer of hope for those who care about civil liberties. It is to be hoped that the objections of figures such as Jack Straw and Lord Falconer to a renewal of the Terrorism Act - combined with recent trenchant criticisms from the Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights - is an indication that the Home Secretary's authoritarian revolution has reached its high water mark.
Since the 11 September attacks on America by al-Qa'ida, David Blunkett has introduced a slew of measures with the ostensible purpose of protecting the British people from a terror attack of our own. But the value of most of these innovations in tackling the threat posed by terrorists has been distinctly questionable. Their outstanding achievement instead has been to trample over the rights of minorities and erode civil liberties.
A good place to start rolling back this authoritarian trend would be for the Government to allow the Terrorism Act, in its present form at least, to lapse when it comes up for renewal in 2006. This single piece of legislation is responsible for a multitude of ills. It allows the police to stop and search those they suspect of being involved in terrorism. Unsurprisingly, given the rise in Islamophobia, the result has been a huge increase in the number of young Asians being stopped. No terrorists have been captured through this approach and it has thoroughly soured relations between the Muslim community and the police.
The act also allows the Home Secretary to deport foreign nationals he suspects of complicity in terrorism or to detain them indefinitely, without bringing charges. The situation of the 12 men being held in legal limbo in Belmarsh jail is comparable to the fate of the British nationals still detained in Guantanamo Bay. This process makes a mockery of Britain's professed commitment to fair trials.
It is clear that powers granted to the police under the act are also being abused. Out of 609 people arrested only 14 convictions have been made, but many more have been charged for unrelated offences such as immigration fraud. This has occurred in the case of two of the 13 alleged al-Qa'ida members who were arrested last week. The police are clearly using anti-terror legislation to hold people, and then digging up evidence of other crimes. This confirms suspicions that the Government is using the threat of terror to pursue other agendas.
Despite these clear signs that something is going wrong, however, the Home Secretary is set on intensifying his discredited approach. He is keen to add the charge of committing acts "preparatory to terrorism" to the Terrorism Act. This would give the police yet more scope for abusing their powers.
The harassment that the Government's anti-terror legislation has unleashed upon the Muslim community is a disgrace, but this group is not alone in being affected. Mr Blunkett's ID card scheme proceeds apace and will ultimately affect the whole of society, despite the lack of evidence that such cards will do anything to help thwart the plans of determined terrorists.
The central DNA database is also growing. Since last year police have been allowed to hold DNA and fingerprints from people charged with a crime, even if they are not convicted. The Government is now proposing to take DNA information from anyone who is even arrested. Whenever Mr Blunkett is challenged about the reasoning behind these unprecedented incursions into our civil liberties he simply argues that they will make us safer from terrorism.
This justification is no longer credible. Those Cabinet members who still respect individual liberties must stand up to the Home Secretary and check his authoritarian instincts. The only way to defeat terrorism is through painstaking intelligence gathering and targeted actions against those genuinely conspiring to commit terrorism. Mr Blunkett's approach is diminishing the public's ability to go about its business and has done nothing to make us safer from the threat of terror.Reuse content