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Our opposition to torture must be non-negotiable

A series of disturbing revelations suggests that collusion and complicity in torture may be the dark

That the United States government, under George W Bush and Dick Cheney, sanctioned the use of torture against suspected terrorists in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks is no longer in doubt. Even President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, have conceded as much. But what role, if any, did the UK government play?

A series of disturbing revelations over the past month suggests that collusion and complicity in the torture of detainees held overseas may be the darkest legacy of Britain's involvement in the "war on terror".

On 7 July, speaking in the House of Commons, the Conservative MP David Davis claimed that the security services were guilty of "the outsourcing of torture". Speaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege, the former shadow home secretary outlined how MI5 and Greater Manchester Police had colluded in the interrogation and torture of the British terror suspect Rangzieb Ahmed by Pakistani intelligence agents.

On 28 July, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee launched a legal action against the British government for its alleged role in his "extraordinary rendition" to Egypt, where he was tortured. Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani citizen held by the United States for six years before being freed, said a CIA flight carrying him to Egypt refuelled on the British Indian Ocean island territory of Diego Garcia.

On 31 July, two high court judges ruled that it was clear that MI5 "must have appreciated" the circumstances of the British resident and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed's secret detention at a "covert location", now known to be in Morocco. In their statement, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones also revealed that MI5 sent the "US authorities" - or the CIA - questions to ask Mohamed, who says he was tortured.

On 4 August, the joint parliamentary committee on human rights published a scathing report into "allegations of UK complicity in torture", in which it urged ministers to publish the instructions on the detention and interrogation of detainees abroad given to security service officers. "There is now no other way," the report concluded, "to restore public confidence in the intelligence services than by setting up an independent inquiry."

In the US, President Obama has released four secret memos which show that the CIA under President Bush was authorised to torture terror suspects held at Guantanamo and other secret detention sites around the world. There have been no similar disclosures in this country, despite Gordon Brown's promises of a new era of openness and accountability when he took office in 2007. His continued refusal to hold an inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture is shameful.

So was his earlier insistence that the Iraq inquiry be held in secret. Instructing the Commons intelligence and security committee to investigate the issue, as Mr Brown has done, will not do. In the words of the legal charity Reprieve, this is "a textbook case of the fox guarding the henhouse". The ISC, which failed so miserably to hold MI6 to account over its flawed intelligence on Iraq, and MI5 for its failure to prevent the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, is neither impartial nor independent - it is appointed by, and answerable to, the Prime Minister, and its present chair, Kim Howells, was the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for counterterrorism during much of the time that torture is alleged to have occurred. Why should we trust its conclusions?

The shadow foreign secretary William Hague this past week suggested that even a Conservative government would consider holding an independent inquiry into these allegations. Will Mr Brown allow himself to be outflanked on torture by the Tories?

As the eighth anniversary of the 11 September attacks approaches, it is time for Mr Brown to ensure that the British security services never again turn a blind eye to the abuse of fellow human beings - suspected terrorists or otherwise. Torture is morally unacceptable; it also fails to make us safer and acts as a recruiting sergeant for our enemies. Our opposition to the practice must be non-negotiable. As a senior human rights lawyer remarked in November 2005: "It can never be justified for the government to torture a person or to have a person tortured . . . [That principle] is an absolute." Her name? Cherie Blair. She is one Blair with whom, on this matter, we wholeheartedly agree.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.