Will a weak compromise on control orders trigger rebellion?

David Davis criticises “control orders lite” as coalition prepares to announce new measures.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, is set to unveil a series of measures to replace the controversial "control orders" currently placed indefinitely on terror suspects who cannot be prosecuted.

For months, the government has been involved in a tug-of-war over the issue, with MPs from all three parties arguing strongly for their retention or abolition. It has been particularly contentious for the coalition, with David Cameron reportedly describing negotiations as a "fucking car crash" last year.

The measures to be announced today will essentially amount to a face-saving exercise – while Nick Clegg fought the election pledging to abolish control orders, May has faced pressure from the security services and authoritarian voices in her party to retain them.

What is expected is a compromise package of measures, including overnight residence requirements from 10pm to 8am – though Clegg will be able to claim progress, as the 16-hour curfews that critics called "virtual house arrest" will end. Electric tagging will continue, although current restrictions on access to the internet and phones will be eased, as will bans on working and being educated.

In scenes reminiscent of George Orwell's "newspeak", officials are reportedly attempting to come up with a new name that is neither "control order" nor "surveillance order", but conveys the need for pre-emptive action. "Restriction order" is said to be one possibility. As the newly appointed shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, pointed out, they "look a lot like control orders".

While any softening of these restrictive and undemocratic orders is a good thing, the fundamental problem has not been addressed – namely, that people are in effect imprisoned without trial and without being told what their crime is.

Writing in the Times (£) today, the renegade Tory MP David Davis, who first signalled his opposition to control orders last year, summarises this position:

The greatest single problem with control orders is that they have become a substitute for the judicial process, whose primary aim is to prosecute and put terrorists in prison.

Many of these problems would vanish if control orders were brought within the normal judicial process, as a form of police bail. It is not unusual in criminal proceedings, while the police are collecting evidence, for courts to allow various restraints on suspects – for them to be restricted from associating with other criminals, or to have to stay in the country. This is justifiable as part of prosecuting a crime and because it is part of an open, rather than a shadowy process. We should implement such a procedure for terrorism cases as a replacement for control orders. If we did, nobody could accuse us of dropping our commitment to the rule of law.

The thrust of his argument is remarkably concordant with the Lib Dem manifesto, which stated: "The best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms." As a New Statesman leader pointed out last year, there is a clear, liberal alternative: allowing intercept evidence in court so that terrorism suspects can be prosecuted.

Back in November, Davis told the BBC that 25 Lib Dem MPs and possibly as many Tories would vote against retaining control orders under any guise. Could the coalition be about to face its first major rebellion?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.