If the Home Secretary is indeed going to drop the provision to outlaw expressions of religious hatred from the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which is debated in the House of Commons today, we should congratulate him.
The measure arose from an honourable desire to prevent a backlash against British Muslims after 11 September, but was misdirected. To the extent that Muslims need protection from violence in reaction to the atrocity carried out in the name of their religion, this is a matter of ethnicity rather than theology. People who think the fitting response to the destruction of the twin towers is to beat up the nearest Muslim will be selecting their victims by the colour of their skin rather than by their doctrines.
There is now confusion over David Blunkett's intentions, after weekend reports that he was prepared to abandon the measure if Labour MPs insisted. They must: inciting hatred of a religion is impossible to define and therefore risks suppressing free speech.
Several questions still remain about other provisions of the Bill, however, in particular those for indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of association with terrorism. MPs should try to ensure the Home Secretary answers them today. This Bill is not going to receive adequate scrutiny – the text was only published last week and now goes to the House of Lords – but MPs have a duty to give it the best inspection they can.
The truth is that Mr Blunkett has a better case for the detention powers than he has managed to make so far. We know this not from anything he has said, but from the report of the Home Affairs select committee, which "reluctantly" concluded that the powers were needed. The committee is chaired by Chris Mullin, a serious and thoughtful civil libertarian who gave up ministerial office because he thought he had more influence in this post. That judgement was vindicated by Mr Blunkett's concession last week to the committee's request that the powers of detention would lapse after five years – a welcome safeguard.
That said, some aspects of the proposals are still alarming. One is specific, namely the definition of the link which has to be established between the accused and terrorist organisations, which Mr Blunkett has promised to revise. The other is general: why is Britain the only country subscribing to the European Convention on Human Rights that considers it necessary to derogate from the right to trial? It was a question the Home Secretary promised to answer in the debate last Monday, but did not, beyond vague and irrelevant references to different legal systems on the Continent.
At least Mr Blunkett's spin doctors seem to have gained a belated grip on this admittedly complex area of law. Now they are pointing out that there will be a right of appeal to the courts against decisions to detain indefinitely. It is not quite "internment without trial", therefore, though the normal rules of evidence, openness and fair procedure will be abridged.
This is better than their spin before the Bill was published, which was that, "if the New York hijackers had passed through London and we had arrested them, they could have escaped extradition by claiming asylum", as one Government source put it to this newspaper. The real point is that the authorities would not have known about them or their intentions. If they had, they might have had enough evidence to detain them under existing law.
As far as what Americans now call "homeland security" is concerned, the lesson of 11 September is that we need intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. New powers to lock people up on evidence that would be inadmissible in normal courts is poor compensation for paucity of evidence in the first place.
The so-called anti-terrorism Bill will go through Parliament, of that there can be no doubt, but it reflects the wrong priorities in protecting us against terrorism.Reuse content