Balls changes course on civil liberties

Shadow home secretary backs 14-day limit and admits Labour failed to protect liberty.

After Ed Balls was appointed as shadow home secretary, there were some who expressed doubts over Ed Miliband's commitment to civil liberties. It was widely thought that Balls, long seen as one of the more authoritarian members of Labour's top team, would not miss an opportunity to attack the coalition as "soft on terror".

But Ball's interview with the Sunday Telegraph, his first since becoming shadow home secretary, should go some way to silencing his critics. He reveals that Labour is prepared to support coalition plans to cut the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 14 days, and suggests that the party is prepared to consider alternatives to control orders. More strikingly, he admits that Labour lost its reputation as a party which "protected liberty as well as security".

I'm less surprised than some at Balls's apparent conversion to civil liberties. It is now widely acknowledged within Labour circles that the party too often restricted liberty without advancing security. Even the former security minister Tony McNulty -- one of those responsible for much of Labour's anti-terrorism legislation -- recently called (£) for the introduction of a 14-day limit and condemned control orders as a "clumsy tool" that should be abandoned.

On a purely political level, there is also a big opportunity for Labour to embarrass the Lib Dems. On issues such as tuition fees and spending cuts, Nick Clegg was able to claim, however unconvincingly, that the state of the public finances meant he had no choice but to change course. But on civil liberties no such defence is available to him. If, as seems likely, the coalition retains control orders -- better described as a form of house arrest -- the Lib Dems will be forced to compromise on a fundamental point of principle.

But whatever the political calculations involved, we should all be grateful that for the first time since 11 September 2001, a mature debate on civil liberties now seems possible.

UPDATE: Balls was also on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, where he fleshed out his position. He reaffirmed his support for a 14-day limit but warned that the coalition was "way too" liberal on CCTV and the DNA database. So clearly he won't be joining Liberty just yet ...

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Heathrow decision: 6 things we learnt about the third runway plans

Affected homeowners will get 25 per cent extra for their homes. 

After years of ferocious campaigning by both Heathrow and Gatwick to be the site of a new airport runway, Heathrow has triumphed. The government has accepted the recommendations of the Airports Commission and backed a third runway at Heathrow.

Confirming the decision, the Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “The decisions taken earlier today are long overdue but will serve this country for generations to come."

So what happens now? Here is what we learnt:

1. It’ll be a while

Grayling said the draft policy statement will be published early in 2017. There will then be a full public consultation, before MPs get a chance to debate the details and vote on the proposals.

Only after that, will Heathrow be allowed to submit a planning application for the third runway.

2. Affected homeowners get a bung

Building a third runway will require the destruction of local homes, and Grayling said these homeowners can expect to be paid 25 per cent above the market rate. All associated costs, like stamp duty and legal fees, will be covered. 

3. So will the local communities

The government is promising £700m for insulating homes against noise, and it is floating the idea of a Community Compensation Fund that would make a further £750m available to local communities, although the details will be confirmed through the planning process. 

4. No flying at night

The government is demanding that flights are banned for six and a half hours a night to give locals some peace. Heathrow will also be expected to continue to give local residents a timetable of aircraft noise.

5. Air quality matters

Heathrow’s successful proposal included an ultra-low emissions zone for all airport vehicles by 2025. The airport can only get planning approval if it can meet air quality legal requirements. 

6. There will be a by-election

Zac Goldsmith, the MP for Richmond Park, is to resign in protest at the decision, and is expected to run again as an independent candidate. Speaking in the Commons, he warned that the decision to choose Heathrow was full of legal complexity and "will be a millstone around the government's neck". 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.