Tony Blair and the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party could (well OK, should) find themselves qualifying as subjects for control orders, under the sweeping powers Home Secretary Charles Clarke and, er, Tony Blair are currently asking them to rush through Parliament. Their offence? Involvement in "terrorism-related activity" as it is defined in the terms of the proposed Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.
The notion is of course absurd, but it neatly illustrates the absurdity of the entire, outrageous proposal. It considers "the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism" as constituting "involvement in terrorism-related activity", which seems logical enough, but then it reaches for the broader brush and gets carried away.
Conduct which "facilitates" terrorism-related activity is included (which could again be fair, but it rather depends on where the boundaries of facilitation lie), so is "conduct which gives encouragement" (shouting 'Troops out of Iraq now!' could count, here), and "conduct which gives support or assistance to individuals who are known or believed [yes people, believed - according to the proposed Act, the wording is now "satisfied, on the balance of probabilities"] to be involved in terrorism-related activity."
Anyone considered by the Home Secretary to be covered by any or all of these can have a wide range range of their liberties curtailed by order of the Home Secretary; do not pass court, do not have sight of evidence, do not even think of saying 'beyond reasonable doubt'. It seems probable to us that we could bang up the Labour Party on several of them, but we'll take the last one as an example, considering funding as constituting "support or assistance".
Hello Gerry Adams MP. In December 2001, at the behest of Tony Blair, the Parliamentary Labour Party voted to allow Sinn Fein MPs to draw allowances. They had previously been denied these on the basis that they had declined to swear the oath of allegiance to the Queen, and were (and still are) unable to take their seats in the Commons. The Labour Government nevertheless gave them access to the allowances, its flimsy excuse being that this would involve them more closely in the peace process.
More recently, you will have noticed, that Government has been proposing to suspend these allowances, has been claiming that the Provisional IRA is responsible for the recent massive bank raid in Northern Ireland, and that Sinn Fein's representatives remain closely involved with the Provos, and had knowledge of the planning and execution of the raid. Which we think, in the Government's view, makes them "individuals who are known or believed to be involved in terrorism-related activity." Voting them money sounds like support, and inviting them round for chats with the PM doesn't look good. "Can I support you with another sherry, Mr Adams?"
Obviously Charles Clarke isn't going to detain the entire Labour Party, or even Sinn Fein, but the point here is that the Prevention of Terrorism Bill effectively defines an offence as 'anything we say it is.' And this is supported to some extent by Charles Clarke's own stance. He does not at the moment consider that home detention is necessary, but he may think it is in the future, based on evidence he says he has but which he will not disclose. He argues that the current threat is far greater than the threat of the IRA was, hence the 'need' for the legislation in the first place, and again this is based on evidence he professes to have but will not disclose. 'The level of threat is what I say it is. You'll have to trust me on that.'
So whoever is Home Secretary can define the points at which the IRA is a threat, or a partner in talks or any point in between, and neither we nor the legal system can gainsay him. Note that an important part of the wondrous utility of the legislation is the facility to choose not to nick people. This means troublesome civil rights activists can't use the legislation to pursue, say, passing members of the US Government who might have a dubious past supporting Central American or Afghan insurgents.
Clarke's concession yesterday that home detention powers would not be immediately applied is also interesting because of the way it switches the immediate purpose of the legislation over to Blunkett's toy box. At the moment we have ten allegedly dangerous foreigners who're being illegally held in Belmarsh, and without further legislation to detain them they're going to be let out on 14th March. This emergency legislation however is not the emergency legislation that will keep them detained, so they will indeed be let out. It is therefore the other measures of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill that are intended to provide adequate levels of control - they are to be, effectively, lab rats in a control experiment.
As Clarke is giving himself powers to move against practically anyone he chooses, balance (the Home Office describes the proposals as "balanced") surely dictates that he can restrict them in practically any way he chooses too. So the "obligations that may be imposed by a control order... include" prohibition or restriction on possession of specified articles or substances, use of specified services or facilities, the carrying on of specified activities, restrictions on work, place of residence, persons met, places visited, movement, and so on. It's basically 'whatever we specify', so although the services and facilities bit could include use of ISPs, the Internet, email or posting stuff on a web site, it could also extend to writing letters to The Times on concealed scraps of toilet paper.