Wednesday, March 09, 2005


House of Lords tears into the Terrorism Bill

Proving that you don't have to be elected to have good sense, Britain's House of Lords has amended into tatters Tony Blair's legislation to turn Britain into a prison island—or island prison, as you prefer. Called—what else?—the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, this little piece of mischief would have given the recently appointed Home Secretary Charles Clarke virtually unlimited powers over the Queen's subjects along with anyone else caught on British soil.

This Guardian report conveys a sense of the drama—

.... Government defeats in the Lords are hardly unusual, but this was as emphatic a revolt against part of a major bill as the upper house has seen in at least a generation.

Monday's drubbings on judicial scrutiny, the burden of proof and the role of the director of public prosecutions proved yesterday to be anything but a one-day wonder. Yesterday the Lords returned to work in the same merciless mood as before, lopping more clauses off the original bill and inserting further safeguards. They overturned the government on making changes to the list of control-order measures and on suspects' rights to state benefits. Then came the most substantial revolt of the lot, the insertion of the so-called "sunset clause" under which the new bill lapses at the end of November. That vote, a government defeat by 297-110, sent the parliamentary anoraks scurrying to the record-books. Record or not, it was certainly the climax of one of the roughest humiliations any government bill has ever suffered in the Lords in modern times. [emphasis added]

According to the Independent, the shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Kingsland, protested during debate that—

Parliament has spent the last 700 years protecting our liberties; it seems outrageous that we should be asked to allow an open-ended right to remove the most fundamental of them from our statute book.

What is primarily at issue is a set of anti-terror measures known as "control orders," which could mandate anything from electronic tagging to curfews and bans on phone and Internet use to full house arrest. These powers were to be available to the Home Secretary (think "Director of Homeland Security") on the basis of mere suspicion and, as originally proposed, were not reviewable by the courts.

On Monday, February 28, the bill narrowly scraped through the Commons by a 14-vote margin that saw a sizeable defection by members of Blair's own Labor Party. In fact, if the Liberal Democrats had shown up for the late night vote, it might have been defeated at this stage.

The government has been pushing the bill through Parliament at breakneck speed, which some say is a government attempt to prevent the legislators from having time to think. The justification for the haste is the March 14 lapse of current laws which have been used to hold 11 foreign terror suspects in Belmarsh, Britain's Guantánamo. Britain's Law Lords have already found these laws to violate the European Convention on Human Rights. (See "The Law Lords have decided — Let those people go!")

The bill must now return to the Commons. The government is trying to decide what further concessions it is willing to make if it hopes to secure passage of any sort of bill.

Blair attended the weekly "question time" for the Prime Minister in Commons this morning and put forward the latest list of concessions. Bill Jacobs of the Scotsman writes

... Home Secretary Charles Clarke is to cave in over giving judges the powers to decide on the imposition of the less severe "control orders".

And he will agree the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, if it becomes law, will have to be renewed every year by votes in both houses of Parliament.

However, he and Prime Minister Tony Blair are not prepared to give in to Tory demands for a "sunset clause" in the Bill which would end its effect in November, requiring new proposals.

And they have also refused to replace the test of "reasonable suspicion" that a suspect is involved in terrorism with the higher level of proof of "balance of probabilities".

However, it was not clear whether these concessions would be enough to satisfy Labour rebels in the Commons, let alone the House of Lords.

British news has been filled with talk of terrorists while the bill is under consideration. On Sunday there was this

London's Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens says more than 200 al-Qaeda "terrorists" are operating in Britain and the threat of attacks is real. He has backed proposed anti-terror laws, saying critics were naive about the "brutal" threat posed by fanatics.

The Lords are being accused of "gambling with people's lives." And the Telegraph has offered

The Royal wedding and the general election are among "enormous" potential terrorist targets which will have to be protected in the coming months, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said yesterday.

Sir Ian Blair, whose force is responsible for royal protection, also listed Britain's presidency of the EU and its role in the G8 group of nations as factors which increased the risk of terrorist attack.

Speaking of the G8 meetings coming up, there is reasonable suspicion that the government wants this bill available to suppress protests. In this morning's Q&A with Blair, Matthew Tempest of the Guardian reports this exchange—
Michael Howard rises. Will the provisions of the bill be used against those protesting against the G8 meeting in Gleneagles? Mr Blair says he does not recall saying so, but the measures are against terrorism, and people have the right to come and protest in the time-honoured way.

The Tory leader brandishes a copy of the paper, where the quote says "I couldn't rule it out" in relation to G8 protests. I'll have to check the transcript, jokes Mr Blair, but adds it is nothing to do with protests, but rather with terrorism.

Right, Tony.

The American press has barely noted these doings in Britain. Can Blair keep enough Labor support to get some semblance of the bill passed? Will the Liberal Democrats stand firm in opposition? Check back tomorrow.

Follow-up post
The Lords are holding firm against Blair terror

Related posts
Anti-human-rights law to go to the Law Lords (12/14/04)
The Law Lords have decided — Let those people go! (12/16/04)
Dirty propaganda in a "Dirty War" (updated) (2/24/05)

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