Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More detention days, but not ninety

The Guardian reports:
Tony Blair's government tonight suffered its first ever defeat since coming to power, as MPs voted down proposals to allow police to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge.
Despite last-minute appeals from the prime minister, and the return from overseas visits of both Gordon Brown and Jack Straw in order to vote, the government was defeated on the issue by 322 votes to 291, a larger than expected margin of 31.
A few minutes later, MPs voted for a rebel Labour amendment increasing the detention period to 28 days. That was passed by 323 votes to 290.
But the defeat on 90 days is a personal blow for Mr Blair, who strongly backed the police's demand for a three-month period.
I am quite happy with this outcome, though I feel bad for Blair. Recess Monkey recounts (via Tim Worstall) a personal incident illustrating why 90 day detentions would not have been a good thing:
I work on the assumption that you should never give a current government a power if you wouldn't trust a previous government with it. Under Thatcher, my dear Mum was arrested for beating up six police officers, who went to trial and gave radically different accounts of the event (because it wasn't true).
On being accused, while pummelling six defenceless police officers, of screaming "Leave him alone you bastards, he ain't done nuffink!" (they happened to be giving a man a good kicking at the time) my mother told the Judge in her finest Maidstone Girls Grammar School RP, "Well, your honour, I wouldn't call a police officer a bastard to his face and I certainly wouldn't use a double negative under any circumstances". And the case was thrown out of court with an apology and costs paid.
But if Maggie had had the powers that Charles Clarke is now seeking? Would my mother have spent three months in prison before having her case dismissed? Maybe a bit of porridge would have done her good.
Until now the number of days a terrorism suspect could be held without charges was 14. I feel 28 days is not too much, as the police does need time to do its work. Considering that in France terrorism suspects can be detained for up to three years, it can even be argued that 90 days isn't too much. However the French case is very different as it is investigative magistrates who make these decisions and not the police, and the legal and judicial systems are completely different. Additionally the French system, though supposedly very effective in anti-terrorism, does raise some eyebrows with regard to civil liberties, to say the least. It must also be noted that the British and Americans have a much more stand-offish relationship with their police forces than is the case in many European civil-law countries. In Italy, for instance, people have to have an identifying document on them at all times and present it upon request from the police - an idea which would make a Briton swoon - and most Italians see this as completely normal: I have never heard anyone even mildly questioning this curb on our liberties.

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