Authoritarian control orders are corrupting our justice system

It’s time to end control orders and detention without trial – and restore the rule of law.

The human rights activist Bruce Kent recently called for an Algerian man who has been held under a variety of forms of detention – including control orders – to be tried or released.

"It shocks me that someone can be detained in this way without any chance of defending himself against whatever accusations there may be. This is not the justice I was brought up to believe in," said Kent.

The call came just as the coalition government was debating what to do about control orders.

The man, Mustapha Taleb, had been subject to a control order over the period of his detention since January 2003. At present he is being held in control-order-style conditions, following the efforts of successive govenments to deport him to Algeria.

Taleb fled Algeria in 2000 after being arrested and tortured in that country. He was granted political asylum a year later. In January 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of involvement with what became known as the "ricin plot" in north London. The subsequent trial in 2005 found that there was no ricin or plot, and Taleb was among those acquitted of all charges.

Following the acquitta,l he was free for five months before being detained again in prison until January 2006. He was then placed under strict house arrest in north London. In August 2006, he was again sent back to prison until July 2008, before being released into control-order-style conditions again.

He has never been told what accusations, if any, there are against him to justify his detention.

Taleb is not the only individual being held in such conditions. I visited another Algerian man, known only as G, some four years ago. He was under similar restrictive conditions, living in a flat with his wife and two children. There were limited times when he could go out of the flat.

He wore a tag and had to check in with a security monitoring company several times a day. There was no internet access allowed and he could only be visited by individuals vetted by the Home Office.

Today he is in exactly the same situation as he was four years ago, still under control-order-style detention, living under the threat that he could be returned to Algeria, where he would face torture and imprisonment. The only route out of this horror for both G and Taleb appears to lie with the European Court of Human Rights. Both have been held on the basis of the oversight of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission tribunal.

The crucial point about these cases, and indeed the whole control order system, is the dangerous precedent that has been created of detaining people without trial. The whole debate over control orders has been framed in terms of the need to find an alternative. It would seem that we have conceded to the truly Kafkaesque situation of holding people without telling them what they are accused of, seemingly indefinitely in some cases, on the basis of unseen intelligence.

It is this point that is so crucial, because once it is accepted that some people are so dangerous that they can be detained outside the rite of habeas corpus, that principle can be extended to all sorts of categories. What the control-order regime has revealed is the whole paraphernalia of the security state, which has been allowed to grow inexorably under the aegis of the war on terror. It is a true glimpse of the authoritarian police state growing up in the shadows of our justice system.

The time has come to restore the rule of law in the UK, to get rid of control orders and the other hybrid forms of detention based on the same concept. The threat from Islamic terrorism is nothing like as great as the kind this country suffered from the IRA during the Troubles, so why have such measures been taken, which go way beyond anything ever contemplated during that very real war?

A return of the rule of law would mean that an individual can be detained only so long as the courts will allow. If the accusers do not have evidence that will stand up in court, the individual concerned should be allowed to go free. To paraphrase a former prime minister, it is now time to restore the rules of the game.

Paul Donovan, a freelance journalist, has documented the steady erosion of liberty and the extension of measures such as detention without trial over the past 15 years.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.