15 November 2007

Salami Slicing Freedom

Back in late 2005, and in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, the Government asked Parliament to extend the period certain types of criminal suspects* could be detained without trial to 90 days and lost. This was the first time Tony Blair was defeated in the House of Commons, but the House agreed to extend the limit to 28 days and the measure was eventually promulgated as a part of the Terrorism Act 2006.

In a move that could be described as cheeky at best, and downright manipulative at worst, the Government is now proposing that the limit be extended to 58 days. Because their detractors are attempting to defend a higher limit (and assuming the measure isn't roundly voted down) the Government will probably end up with a detention limit somewhere in the 40s.

As I've pointed out before, this will inevitably lead to another attempt to extend the limit in a couple of years. In all likelihood, they'll ask for a 60 or 70 day limit then, and end up with a limit somewhere in the 50s. So, my question is this - when do they stop attempting to increase the limit? When do they decide that we've reached the optimum detention limit for criminal suspects? The answer, I believe, is never. The Government is going to continue to attempt to stretch the internment period until Parliament puts their foot down - it is in the nature of the State to seek further powers, and it is in the interests of the people to resist those attempts, except when they are clearly in the public interest and subject to the necessary safeguards against abuse.

Should, therefore, Parliament put their foot down now? It's fairly obvious that they should, for a number of reasons:

  1. There have been no further "terrorist" attacks since the detention limit was raised to 28 days.
  2. By their own admission, the police have come up against the 28 day limit in just six cases. There are concerns over the extent to which the police are allowing suspects to "stew" for a few days after arrest before questioning them.
  3. Arguments that attacks are growing more complex seem to be founded on the basis that our ability to tackle them isn't advancing. This is patently not true, and assumes a level of sophistication can be found amongst criminal suspects that can't exist within the law-abiding.
  4. During the Northern Irish "troubles", the detention without charge limit under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was 7 days. The bombing campaign back then was more frequent and lead to a greater loss of life.

We can't allow our freedoms to be salami sliced like this - we have to stand up and say enough is enough when our freedoms have been eroded to such an extent that we're in danger of losing them altogether.

* Much of the press coverage has used the phrase "terror suspects", but let's call them "criminals", as that is all that they are. To me, the phrase "terror suspects" pre-judges one aspect of the argument and is a useless, simplistic catch-all with negative connotations.

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