The parliamentary rebellion over the government's Terrorism Bill is a welcome sign that Labour backbenchers may be rediscovering their backbones. But it's a pity that many of the rebels seem willing to settle for concessions that do no more than pull some of the rottenest teeth from this vicious piece of legislation.
Home Secretary Charles Clarke is apparently ready to moderate his plans to allow police to hold people suspected of terrorism for up to 90 days without charge. But the 14-day period of pre-charge detention allowed under current law is in any case far too long. People arrested in connection with other criminal offences can only be held for 36 hours before being charged. The principal peculiarity of terrorism cases is that both the offence and the arrest are apt to be politically motivated. The arrest is likely to be further disfigured by racism and Islamophobia on the part of the investigating officers and institutional prejudice in the police force. There is no merit, and much danger, in allowing an extended period of detention in these circumstances. MPs must remain resolute in resisting any such extension.
MPs have also put the government under pressure on the clauses in the Terrorism Bill that make it a criminal offence to glorify or encourage terrorism. These clauses have nothing to do with preventing acts of mass murder like the London bombings, and everything to do with suppressing opposition to the government's wars and to acts of oppression by its overseas allies. Any changes that give people making a legitimate political point a chance of mounting an effective legal defence are to be welcomed. But wahtever adjustments are made, this part of the Bill will remain an attack on freedom of expression because "terrorism" has been redefined by the Terrorism Act 2000 so that no distinction is made between activities directed against the British government, and activities directed against other governments, however repressive and undemocratic. The definition of terrorism even encompasses acts that don't involve violence. It is a landmine embedded in the foundations of British political life, and any new legislation that seeks to trigger it is certain to do great damage to our democracy.
John McDonnell, chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs,was right to say on Wednesday night: "Such a show of widespread opposition shows that this bill is now dead in its current form."
MPs of all parties must act firmly to stop Blair and Clarke dragging this Bill out of its grave. Labour MPs would do well to remember that Labour was re-elected last May because large numbers of voters still believe that the Labour party contains decent people, and these voters would rather trust Labour backbenchers than the opposition parties to hold the Blair regime to account. If they don't do so, the democratic deficit will poison our country's future.
The tide is at last beginning to turn. The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 were passed with minimal parliamentary opposition. But in March this year, Blair and Clarke had the greatest difficulty frogmarching their Prevention of Terorism Act 2005 through Parliament. Even so, rebels were only able to wring a few cosmetic changes from the government. Opposition to the new Terrorism Bill has already gone far beyond this, and substantive changes to it seem certain. That all this should be happening just a few months after the London bombings shows that the goverment has no credibility left at all. Whatever the fate of the Bill, Blair will be weaker when it finishes its passage through Parliament than he was before it.
SACC urges everyone in Britain to show their opposition to the police-state by supporting the All-Scotland Demonstration to be held in Edinburgh on Saturday 12 November. The demonstration has been called by anti-war groups all round Scotland to demand the return of our civil liberties and an end to the occupation of Iraq. Demonstrators will assemble at 12 noon in Parliament Square in Edinburgh's Royal Mile and will march past the Scottish Parliament and the US Consulate and along Princes Street to the Mound Precinct for a closing rally.
Notes for Editors
- Scotland Against Criminalising Communities is organising a petition against the Terrorism Bill.
- The maximum pre-charge detention period for people arrested in connection with terrorism was set to 7 days by the Terrorism Act 2000, then extended to 14 days by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The maximum pre-charge detention period for people arrested in connection with other offences was extended from 24 hours to 36 hours by the Criminal Justice Act 2003
- For more information about the All-Scotland Demonstration on 12 November 2005, see www.edinburghstw.org.uk