Leading article: A bad Bill heading for oblivion

Monday 13 October 2008 00:00
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It is widely predicted that tonight the House of Lords will throw out the Bill extending the time limit for the detention of terror suspects without trial to 42 days. Unelected and unaccountable, the House of Lords seems an aberration in a modern democratic society. But again we are reliant on these ermine-clad throwbacks to achieve what their elected contemporaries in the lower chamber have failed to do: kill a bad Bill.

But as one threat to our liberty evaporates, others grow. Last week, it was revealed that the Government's DNA database had exploded in size: it now contains the details of 4.4 million arrested – and wrongly arrested – citizens. On the same day, another data breach was revealed, concerning the details of 100,000 military personnel. As you read this, the Government mulls the creation of a "super-database", recording all phone calls and emails sent in the UK, apparently unaware that our state cannot maintain the information it already has without losing it.

Ministers and their whipped bankbenchers have fundamentally misapprehended the nature of government. So MPs are satisfied that their electorate can be detained for 42 days without access to the kind of legal redress that has been a touchstone of British justice since the age of the printing press and, though comfortable with identity cards for every citizen, they are outraged when the public seeks to examine the lunatic profligacy of their own parliamentary expenses.

Benjamin Franklin said: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But Franklin's condemnation gives too much credit to our legislators whose inspiration was not even "a little temporary safety" but their own jobs.

Any examination of the Government's position reveals not a well-constructed argument but a need to "triangulate" – to paint the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as "soft" on terror.

As this Bill begins its nose-dive into oblivion, let us reflect on the price paid: a parliamentary Labour Party exposed as craven – too frightened of the whip to stand firm against the creeping surveillance culture that characterises a government bewildered by terrorist threats and the technological possibilities of the 21st century.

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