Another act of poodledom?

Observations on Britain and the US

Worries about the extent to which Britain's leaders are under the sway of the US will be increased by an agreement that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, signed earlier this year. The details are only now beginning to emerge and they will set the civil liberties alarm bells ringing.

The story starts with a bill now before parliament that aims to modernise, simplify and speed up our creaking extradition system. It proposes to introduce a European arrest warrant by which extradition to and from the UK should take about three months, rather than the present average of 18 months - which has been known, in some cases, to stretch to six years. Among other things, the bill removes the requirement for the government seeking extradition to produce evidence of the alleged offence for scrutiny in the extraditing country's courts.

The rationale for this change is that the other European states are, like us, signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. As the convention guarantees things such as the presumption of innocence and the right to adequate legal assistance for a defence, there is no need, the argument goes, for a UK court to satisfy itself of the strength of the evidence. Nowhere in the bill - which was the subject of lengthy and thorough consultation - is there any suggestion that non-European countries can use this speedier procedure for arrest and extradition.

So far, so good. On 31 March, however, Blunkett, without consultation or warning, met the US attorney general, John Ashcroft, and signed a bilateral extradition agreement that, according to Ashcroft, "will give us more flexibility and efficiency". It has now emerged that this includes the arrest and extradition of people from the UK to the US without any evidence at all being produced. It is still not clear, despite parliamentary questions to ministers, that the UK will be able to request extradition from the US on the same basis.

The US is obviously not a signatory to the human rights convention - and some of its jurisdictions simply do not match up to convention standards. To say this is not crude anti-Americanism: there are jurisdictions (mainly in Democrat-controlled states) where procedures are scrupulously followed and the accused is defended robustly. But in some parts of the US legal system, standards are lamentable. Even if you ignore Guantanamo Bay, examples are plentiful: Lotfi Raissi, the Algerian pilot arrested on an FBI request as the hijackers' trainer ten days after 11 September 2001, and later discharged when a British judge ruled that there was no evidence to connect him to terrorism; Jackie Elliot, executed in February in Texas despite fresh evidence that led the trial judge and all 12 jurors to call for a stay; Derek Bond, the 72-year-old tourist held in custody in South Africa under an FBI request for his extradition that was based on laughably inadequate evidence.

In introducing the European arrest warrant legislation, a Home Office minister spoke of the "classic balancing act" between the rights of those whose extradition is sought and the needs of society and victims. He added that, in the light of all the care and consultation that had gone into the bill, he "hoped no one will accuse us of a lack of openness or of failing to listen". Such claims are mocked by the sudden inclusion of the US as a country that can be trusted with the power to arrest British residents and pack them off to the mercies of its legal system without any need to show a sound reason for doing so.

Joel Bennathan is a barrister