We need sound anti-terrorist laws, not a rushed pre-election fix

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The Independent Online

The right not to be held indefinitely without charge; the right to know the accusations against you; the right to a fair trial: these are all fundamental and cherished rights in this country, and they stand to be curbed by the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, even in its latest form. This is what makes the legislation some of the most significant in recent years.

Balancing the competing claims of liberty and security is a matter of high principle and seriousness. It is entirely appropriate, then, that the Bill should have been subject to intense parliamentary scrutiny, that it should have been fiercely contested by the Opposition and that the discussion should have continued for as long as necessary. This is what Parliament is for.

It is appropriate, too, that the House of Lords, unelected though it is, should have cast itself as the guardian of our rights and liberties and used all the amending and blocking mechanisms at its disposal. Parliamentary procedure and the unwritten constitution have been stretched to their limits - which is what should happen in a living democracy.

What should not happen, however, is what happened towards the end of this week, when all that came between MPs and a good night's sleep was - ironically - a so-called "sunset clause". It is hard now to identify at what point high principle ended and pre-election politicking began. That the debate degenerated into grandstanding and petty point-scoring, however, is beyond doubt.

The arguments advanced by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary in particular bordered on the absurd. Incorporating a "sunset clause", they said, would send the "wrong message". It would suggest that Britain was a place where terrorists could "thrive". It could leave the country unprotected. If they had hoped that the images of tagged terrorist suspects being released from prison would make their case, they were wrong. The releases simply illustrated that indefinite detention was a needlessly repressive solution.

It is hard to see any reason whatever why the Government did not accept the "sunset clause" - in substance, if not in name - much sooner than it did. That this was the preferred solution of the Tory leader did not mean that it was not a sensible compromise. The Opposition now has a commitment from the Government that the legislation may be not just reviewed but revisited. Michael Howard interpreted this as tantamount to the "sunset clause" he was after.

At best, however, this is a holding solution. It suits the Government, because the increasingly likely alternative was to lose the Bill altogether. It suits the Tories and Liberal Democrats, because it limits the opportunities for Mr Blair to blame them for compromising national security. But it does not answer many of the well-founded civil liberties objections.

What is needed is a thorough re-examination of the whole area of anti-terrorist provision conducted without the pressures of an imminent election. The work should begin as soon as possible after the election.