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Restrict freedom to preserve liberty: cunning Home Office plan

How the Terror Act does it

The targets

Clarke insists that the new law will only be applied to relatively small numbers of people, but its primary purpose, the imposition of restrictive measures on individuals against whom insufficient evidence can be produced, means that its potential catchment area is very wide. Clarke need only be convinced by the security services that there is a greater than evens chance that an individual has in some way provided support for terrorists or a terrorist organisation for him to be able to impose a control order. Which means that many 'might be terrorists' could be subject to the law, and we only have Clarke's word to say he will confine it to small numbers.

In an interview yesterday Tony Blair said that "several hundred" people in the UK were known to be plotting terrorist attacks, which would suggest according to Blair's interpretation that several hundred people would either be prosecuted, if there's sufficient evidence, or subjected to control orders if there is not.

Blair's intervention was not entirely helpful to Clarke's case in the Commons yesterday, and he attempted to downplay it: "The Prime Minister was referring to the 700 cases, I think, where action has been taken which has already been reported. There are a large number of people who, we think, pose a threat to what we believe. However, a significant number of those can be dealt with through the prosecution route, which is the route that we prefer to follow."

On closer examination, however, this doesn't really defuse the situation, because Clarke and Blair turn out both to be singing from the same hymn sheet. The "700" Clarke refers to is the total of number of arrests made under the Terrorism Act 2000 from 11th September 2001 to 31st December 2004 (701, actually). The Home Office's breakdown of this number shows that half of these were released without charge, 119 were charged under the Act and 135 charged under other legislation. Only 17 of those charged were convicted under the Act in the period, however, and some of the others have already been acquitted, so it's by no means inevitable that the 17 will increase substantially.

Out of that 700 we can therefore assume the existence of several hundred who were either released or will eventually be acquitted under the Act. A spokesman for Blair explained that the Prime Minister's "several hundred" had not referred to several hundred home detentions and that Blair "made clear that with regards to the extreme end of the control orders [i.e. the derogating ones], we envisaged that it would only be used against a very few people." As regards the rest, the spokesman said that "the whole point about the control orders was that they were a more sophisticated range of powers than were available at the moment. Therefore, people would have the power to vary the restriction according to the individual, and according to the threat level that the intelligence services believed the individual posed."

The differentiation between the "extreme end" control orders and the "more sophisticated range of powers" strongly suggests that the latter will be used on a rather wider scale. Those of Clarke's "large number of people who... pose a threat" but who cannot be "dealt with through the prosecution route" (remember, 17 so far) would seem likely candidates.

Is the number larger than the number of Terrorism Act arrests might suggest? That's currently difficult to say, because on the one hand the security services might have large numbers of people they suspect, but don't have enough evidence to move against, while on the other it might be the case that some of the people charged in the past would instead be subject to control orders under the new law.

One thing we can say about numbers with a reasonable degree of certainty is that in the near future the imposition of control orders on hundreds of people is unlikely, because Clarke has been forced to understate the Bill's nature in order to get it through Parliament. Consider the possibility that what we have here is a ghastly blunder which has actually set back the Home Office's plans for the use of "prisons without bars" in the cause of national security.

On David Blunkett's departure last year Charles Clarke was presented with his legacy, the Law Lords' Belmarsh judgement being one of the most immediate aspects of this. Clarke's Home Office scrabbled around well into January to produce a fix for the Belmarsh judgement, and settled on the deployment of 'something we prepared earlier' in the shape of the control orders originally intended by Blunkett to deal largely with fellow travellers on the peripheries of terrorism.

This must have initially seemed a good wheeze to them, because it allowed the Belmarsh detainees to be freed without being, exactly, freed. But with hindsight it must be clear that in mixing the two issues together Clarke has made it very difficult for himself to deploy 'deprivation lite' on a widespread basis. At least until the next major terror scare provides an excuse. The longer term intent to use technological controls to police the UK, and to short tiresome legal obstructions out of the equation, however, remains. ®

* We shouldn't allow yesterday's democratic low point to pass unremarked. Clarke's intention to amend the Bill became known as the Commons debate on it was beginning, and his intended amendments effectively made Commons discussion of the first section of the Bill redundant. Clarke's amendments however had not at that point been written, and he proposed to put them to the House of Lords once the Bill had moved there (which it did today). The Commons was therefore asked to vote not for the Bill they had in front of them, but for the one sketched out by Clarke that was to be presented to the Lords, but which did not yet exist. The Commons was therefore asked to vote for a promise - it did.

Late news

"UK Muslims should accept that people of Islamic appearance are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, a Home Office minister has said. Hazel Blears..." Oops...

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