The UK's 'tagging for terror suspects' programme began yesterday with the release on bail of one of the Belmarsh detainees. A further eight inmates are expected to be released today, although the legislation under which they are being bailed currently expires at midnight on Sunday.
Parliament is today locked in a titanic struggle over what happens next. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which would introduce a control order regime for these and other suspects, is the Government's preferred option, but it - backed by its House of Commons majority - is hanging tough over House of Lords attempts to amend the legislation, and to impose an expiry date, or sunset clause on it. The Bill went back and forth between the Commons and the Lords overnight, with the Commons overturning the Lords amendments, and on each occasion the Lords putting them back. Technically, the Thursday Parliamentary sitting this battle is taking place in could continue until Sunday, and this morning neither side showed any sign of being willing to back down.
The bailed suspects are unlikely to be released come Sunday, however. The Home Secretary has the power to renew the legislation under which they're being held for a further 40 days; this legislation has been ruled illegal by the Law Lords (hence the claimed need for the Prevention of Terrorism Bill), but that ruling does not stop its being extended. The Bill itself may still go through in some form after a compromise, but the main battle now seems to be for electoral advantage, with Tony Blair taking every opportunity to portray the Tory opposition as being 'soft on terror.'
The bail conditions for the Belmarsh detainees follow the control order blueprint set down in the stalled Bill. They are subject to home curfew, 24 hour tagging, bans on use of mobile phones and of computers that can connect to the Internet. They need to inform the monitoring service whenever they wish to enter or leave their homes, and they must allow their homes to be searched.
Conditions of this sort were placed on one former Belmarsh inmate late last year, but this rather larger test of the imposition of movement and communications restrictions via technology takes us into uncharted territory. These are, as the Government and sundry policemen continue to tell us, 'dangerous men who should not walk free' (but should not be charged with any offence either), so the new, untried systems need to be able to provide an equivalent to an indeterminate period in the slammer. As The Register has noted in the past (possibly recklessly, considering what counts as 'supporting terrorism' these days), tagging systems are not 100 per cent reliable, and can be fooled in a number of ways by any subject who actively wishes to subvert them. And how, incidentally, does one stop somebody using a mobile phone? We suspect somebody hasn't thought this one through.
The current subjects are sufficiently few for monitoring to be intense, in theory, and - presumably - for the security forces to use old-fashioned methods like tailing as backup, but that's not going to be the case if the Government ever gets itself into the position of rounding up the "hundreds" who, Tony Blair told us last week, are in the UK plotting attacks. This it might be able to do if it eventually gets the powers it wants from Parliament, either in the Prevention of Terrorism Bill or in subsequent legislation.
The Regulatory Impact Statement for the Prevention of Terrorism Bill envisages using private contractors to monitor subjects, which might strike you as an odd thing to do in relation to potential mad bombers. It is not, however, surprising; the Home Office itself does not have any in-house capability to run tagging systems, and the tagging pilots it has been running (for, er, lower risk offenders) have been conducted in conjunction with private security companies. Which, as Parliament slugs it out over precisely what happens after midnight on Sunday, presents us with the interesting prospect, if Tony Blair eventually gets his way, of control orders imposed without charges or trial, and enforced by the private sector. In the past week spokesmen for Downing Street have indicated that the control order regime could be applied to Irish republican suspects and animal rights activists. The forthcoming G8 summit in Gleneagles also looks a likely venue for the deployment of its battery of anti-terror legislation. ®
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