It was only in 2002 that Britain prided itself on the fact that a man could not be held in custody for more than 48 hours without charge. Through the dark days of the IRA campaign, here on the mainland we maintained that civilised rule. Indeed, one of the reasons that internment in the North of Ireland was so clearly an aberrant concept was the contrast with the generally accepted standard of the United Kingdom as a whole. Then, in the wake of appalling terrorist atrocities and under enormous pressure from the police and security services, Parliament extended that period to 14 days. The Government argued that the new technology and sophistication of international terrorist groups meant that they needed that time to decode computer evidence and the like before a charge could be made.
Now, a mere three years later, Parliament is being asked to agree to people being held without charge for up to three months. Our liberal society is seriously considering incarcerating young men – for it is usually young Muslim men – in police cells for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, for 12 weeks without any charge being laid. If the example of the present two weeks continues to be true, more than 95 per cent of those held will be released with no charge ever having been laid. Assuming similar numbers to those now held for two weeks, that means that nearly a thousand people will go back into their communities with a profound sense of grievance. No wonder: they will have been deprived of their liberty on no ground sufficient to be brought before a court. In a country which has had the recent example of internment, the whole proposition is simply staggering.
The Government tells us that the police and, possibly, the security services want this change. Well, of course they do. It makes things very much easier in what are particularly difficult circumstances for them. No one should underestimate the huge difficulties that they encounter in dealing with the fanatical efficiency of this new threat. No one should ignore the horrific damage that terrorism can do, after the bombings in New York and in London. Nor should we forget how hard it is to identify those otherwise ordinary Muslims, often born in Britain, who turn to terrorism for no easily identifiable reason. Yet, however hard the task, it is not for the police to make the law but for them to enforce it. Parliament is duty bound to take their advice with very considerable respect but, in the end, it is Parliament that must make the law.
Mr Blair seems to think otherwise. He has been threatening MPs with the argument that the blood of innocent people will be on our hands if we do not take lock, stock, and barrel what the police have suggested. Yet, he accompanies his windy rhetoric with no scintilla of evidence. He has produced no new arguments which add to those adduced for the extension to 14 days only three years ago. He has suggested no reason for 90 days rather than 180 or 45. He has not explained what new technology or sophistication, discovered in the last 36 months, means that he underestimated the time needed for imprisonment without trial by over 500 per cent when he asked us to extend beyond 48 hours. Doggedly, his spokesman, Charles Clarke, stands at the dispatch box and repeats the mantra that the police want it and therefore the police shall have it.
Now, if it were not that this Government has authoritarian “form”, many might be more disposed to give it the benefit of the doubt. Yet, in light of the Religious Hatred Bill, the illiberal Criminal Justice Acts, and the banning of demonstrations near to the House of Commons, we have become used to an attitude towards individual liberty which previous Labour administrations would not have recognised. As a result, despite Mr Blair’s attempts at coercion, we will find an increasing reluctance right across the House, among Labour Members as well as Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to stand firm against further restrictions of freedom. For Catholics, for whom justice and peace are core values, this ought to be an issue of profound concern that puts our whole society to the test.