Leading Article: Labour's voice on terrorism

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The Independent Online
POLITICAL life is damaged when government ministers refuse to recognise that the Opposition has a fair point. It suffers further when cheap emotional rhetoric is used to distort reasoned objections. So it has been with Labour's attempts to secure sympathetic consideration of its objections to the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, which comes up for renewal this week.

John Smith, the Labour leader, met the Prime Minister last week in an attempt to secure a more bipartisan approach to the Act. His request was, it seems, rejected after consultation with Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and news of the confidential meeting was leaked to a Sunday newspaper. Mr Howard yesterday said it would be 'grossly irresponsible' to give up the powers contained in the Act when the Government is still involved in the 'deadly battle against terrorism.' The fact was that Mr Smith had voted against powers desperately needed in that fight, Mr Howard said.

In fact, the Labour leadership's main criticisms have real force, and would probably do little to hamper police and security forces. The first concerns so-called exclusion orders, under which those suspected of terrorist connections can be exiled from Britain to Northern Ireland, or vice versa. The second concerns the Home Secretary's right to extend preventive detention from two to seven days.

Although it was a Labour government that introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974, it was seen as a temporary measure to assuage public anxiety in the wake of the Guildford and Birmingham bombings. The provision for exclusion orders looks particularly hastily drafted, with Kafkaesque consequences. Those affected need not be told the nature of the case against them. They have no real right to make representations, and no effective appeal against the order.

Worse still, they are labelled terrorist suspects, and thus as suitable targets for assassination by rival terrorist groups. Exclusion orders also make nonsense of the Union by implying that it is fine for suspects to be at large in one part of the UK but not in another. The Government's own legal advisers have advised they be dropped.

As for the extension of detention orders for up to seven days, Labour's objection is not to the number of days involved but to political interference in an essentially judicial decision. The Opposition's view is supported by the European Court of Human Rights, which - while granting the Government a derogation - stated in 1992 that such decisions should be made by a court, not a minister.

Labour's motive in seeking to take the annual review out of party politics is clear: it fears its vote against renewal will be taken to mean it is soft on terrorism. Inevitably the Government, which fears it is losing the argument over crime and law and order, is anxious to perpetuate that impression. And so, once again, what might be best for Britain is sacrificed to the petty imperatives of party politics.