When the government unveiled its massive Counter-Terrorism Bill in January it promised to introduce "tough new measures to protect the public." The claim to toughness is beyond dispute but to what extent these measures will "protect the public" is another matter.
The key plank of the new legislation is the proposal for 42 day pre-charge detention. This means that individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activity can be held without formal explanation, the presentation of evidence or access to normal legal channels.
If passed, this power will catapult Britain into the lead position of countries with the most punitive powers of incarceration. In the USA, a country led by right-wing conservatives not known for their restraint on matters relating to terrorism, those suspected of terror offences can be held for 2 days before charge. In Russia, another haven of civil liberties, the time period is 5 days. How extending detention from an already excessive 28 to 42 days will stop terrorism is not at all clear.
What is clear is that existing powers of arrest and detention under anti-terror law have been misused and arbitrarily wielded by the police. Of the 1,113 arrests made between the September's of 2001 and 2006, only 104 were charged with specific anti-terrorism offences - less than 10%. During this period more than one thousand individuals, entirely innocent of offences related to acts of terrorism, were arrested and detained inappropriately.
Threats of a large scale Labour rebellion persist despite a partial back-down by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who promised a parliamentary review after 30 days of detention. If passed, the legislation is unlikely to make it through the House of Lords.
Socialists should strongly oppose the strengthening of detention powers. This is not simply a matter of avoiding miscarriages of 'justice' like those detailed above or in recent events at Nottingham University. And however much we despise the politics and actions of the al-Qaeda inspired murderers who struck against London, we cannot support this legislation. Such powers are a licence for the police to pick up and detain any individual at any time - all they have to say is "we suspect him/her of terrorism". All such powers of arrest without charge are intimidatory and provide the police with a powerful, reactionary weapon against anyone who challenges the state.