Leading article: The time has come for an overhaul of our terror laws

Official hysteria over the threat does nothing to make us safer

Friday 26 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Is Britain in a state of public emergency? Is the very life of the nation under threat? The Government apparently thinks so.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights points out in its latest report that the Government evoked the public emergency clause of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2001 to derogate from the convention and detain terror suspects without trial. Though this detention was ruled illegal by the Law Lords in 2005, the Government never dropped its assertion that there exists an existential threat from terrorism.

The committee argues that this refusal of ministers to admit that this judgement was unjustified has had a "deleterious effect" on the public debate about anti-terror laws ever since. That is putting it mildly. Over the past decade, ministers have used the justification of a supposedly overwhelming national terror threat to engage in an unprecedented power grab for the executive at the expense of many of our most important civil liberties.

Gordon Brown's shameful effort to extend detention without trial to a maximum of 42 days for terror suspects when he became Prime Minister was rejected by the Lords but remains in the legislative process as a draft bill to be enacted if needed. The police's use of stop and search has exploded. Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act – which enables forces arbitrarily to designate large areas as security zones – is being widely abused. An elaborate system of control orders has grown up, which places terror suspects under effective house arrest. The committee's recommendation that all counter-terrorism legislation passed since 11 September 2001 be reviewed by parliament to determine whether it is still necessary is absolutely right. And there is a great deal that ought to be scrapped.

The way to deal with terrorism suspects is not through morally dubious control orders, but to put them on trial. Assiduous and well-funded police and intelligence work – not heavy-handed legislation that undermines our civil liberties – is the way to respond to the domestic terrorist threat.

The fact that intelligence is so important to this effort makes it even more disgraceful that the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, refused to testify before the committee. The idea that the need to keep sensitive information confidential would make such an appearance impossible is pure nonsense. American Congressional committees manage to hold their intelligence services to account without jeopardising national security in the process. Why should our intelligence services be immune from proper democratic oversight? The Intelligence and Security Committee, which meets entirely in secret and reports to the Prime Minister, is not a credible substitute.

As the committee also points out, government moves to make intelligence intercept evidence admissible in court – something that our US and European peers have managed – have also foundered on the resistance of the intelligence services. It is high time our elected leaders stood up to the illiberal spooks and the mindless securocrats that have held sway over official policy for far too long.

No one disputes that the threat from terrorism in Britain is real. But hysterical official assertions about the scale of that threat do nothing to make us safer. And the trading of ancient liberties for a thin blanket of security is the very worst way for Britain, as a nation, to respond.

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