Secret justice is bad justice

Within a few days, parliament will probably have agreed to give the executive powers to impose house arrest and other forms of "control" without charge or trial, and thus have thrown away liberties and safeguards that have existed in Britain for 800 years. They are not likely to be restored very soon; indeed, logic would dictate that they be never restored. If it is true that the availability of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons poses a threat beyond that presented by fanatics from 1605 onwards, fear and terror will always be there. The knowledge of how to make such weapons cannot be unlearned. Nor can we ever be confident, even if the whole world eventually basks in the sunshine of President Bush's democracy and freedom, that a handful of dissenters will not want to organise suicide attacks. The 21st-century equivalents of the anarchists, psychopaths and drop-outs who peopled the novels of Conrad and Dostoevsky, or who formed the Angry Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the 1970s, must always now seem dangerous enough to justify repressive powers. What home secretary would dare to say he no longer needs such powers, knowing that an attack, perhaps from a previously unknown group, might be launched the following day?

The anti-terrorism bill is no less repressive because Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, now allows that a judge should issue the orders if they involve the more restrictive controls, such as house arrest. This "concession" simply enlists the judiciary in the executive's dirty work. As Baroness (Helena) Kennedy has put it, it will turn the high court into "a secret commission hearing cases in camera". Suspects and their lawyers would still not be told of the charges against them, still less of the evidence on which suspicions are based.

The entire presumption of innocence, so basic to English criminal law, would be overturned in favour of "the balance of probabilities". It would be better not to involve the judges lest they lose the public's trust and respect, which they at present enjoy even when they get things wrong.

So has the House of Commons, the representative of the people charged with protecting us from insolent executive power, given all this proper and careful consideration? It has not. The committee and third-reading stages of the bill were rushed through in a single day and only a handful of the 160 amendments were considered. Mr Clarke tried to stitch up a deal with opposition leaders without properly informing MPs of its terms. All this was a scandal, but hardly surprising: this government has already fretted itself into a dangerously authoritarian cast of mind. It is not at all fazed that some intelligence material is based on "information" gathered under torture and this may in future be the basis on which ministers decide to restrict liberty - a basis which is notoriously unreliable because there is no way of telling whether the victim of torture has told the truth or simply what his interrogator wants to hear. Nor does the government seem to care that, after the fiasco of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, no-body can possibly trust intelligence assessments or ministers' interpretations of them. Perhaps that is why it is so reluctant to have evidence tested by due process.

Secret justice is bad justice. Supposedly designed to make us safer, it will do nothing of the sort. First, the burden of proof is a discipline on the police and security services, requiring them to be as sure as they can that they pick up the right people, and do not allow the truly dangerous to escape. Even when they know they will have to present a case in open court, they get it wrong often enough. Second, arbitrary justice creates resentment and paranoia. In the early 1970s, internment without trial in Northern Ireland persuaded many Belfast and Londonderry Catholics to throw in their lot with the IRA. Many more became more reluctant to co-operate with the authorities. By general consent, it was a complete disaster and it was abandoned after four years.

Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, has already admitted to a Commons select committee that the "stop-and-search" powers are more likely to be used against Muslims than against others; she and her colleagues can hardly deny that the same will be true of the new anti-terrorism laws. Britain's Muslims, like Ulster's Catholics, form a discrete community. The fight against terrorism depends on the community mood being broadly opposed to militant groups. Mr Clarke's proposals risk souring that mood and driving people towards the more extreme and violent versions of Islam. But this is a government that seems both indifferent to and ignorant of history.

Not in front of the parents

Some children, on learning that Father Christmas does not exist, kindly withhold the news of their discovery from their parents for fear of spoiling their (the parents') fun. Others, even in middle age, will not sleep in the same room as an unmarried partner in their parents' house, lest they destroy the biggest and most stubborn parental illusion of all: that their offspring do not have sex (except in marriage, which doesn't count). It seems that the children of the former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock keep him in similar ignorance. Mr Matlock has told a Channel 4 interviewer that he does not like them hearing swear words on television and one imagines, in the Matlock household, daily exchanges of "oh, drat!" and "fiddlesticks!". But the almost certain truth is that Mr Matlock's children make prolific use of words that he has long ago forgotten. That they so thoughtfully protect his illusions of childhood innocence is a credit to them.

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