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?