Thursday, 27 January 2011

A Liberal Democrat victory

Liberal Democrats promised to scrap control orders in their manifesto. Now control orders are to be scrapped, however we will have "surveillance orders" in their place. A Liberal Democrat victory? I would say yes. Predictably, though, some are saying otherwise.

So are the new surveillance orders actually "control orders lite", as the Telegraph describes them? "Control orders" were all about punishment of people who hadn't been convicted of or even charged with any crime. They amounted to house arrest with tight restrictions. 16-hour curfews meant that a suspect could only be out of the house for a maximum of eight hours per day, and in practice for significantly less than eight if they didn't want to risk cutting it fine. So full-time employment, for instance, was out of the question. Further restrictions included a ban on pre-arranged meetings or gatherings of any kind, and no visitors at home unless they had been vetted in advance. Subjects had to surrender their passports, and could have anything in their premises confiscated and examined at any time. They could not use computers or mobile phones. All of this to continue indefinitely, without any judicial involvement.

"Surveillance orders", by contrast, are about surveillance. Movement is still restricted, but the restriction is the bare minimum that is required for keeping tabs on the suspect. The overnight stay requirement is just eight or ten hours, for instance, and can be waived occasionally to allow travel. Suspects can use mobile phones and internet, provided they give authorities a list of all their passwords. A surveillance order expires after two years, and can only be set up with authorisation from a high court judge.

Even this level of restriction is regrettable, I would say, given that we are talking about "suspects" who haven't been charged with anything; but whatever else might be said about it this is a huge step in the right direction. Limited, judicially-approved oversight replaces unlimited politically-instigated control.

Let's look at some other details: 28 days detention without charge - gone. Council snooping on citizens (justified on anti-terror grounds despite being used almost exclusively for things like checking if a 3-year-old lived in the catchment area of the local nursery) - gone. Stop and Search - now allowed only when a senior police officer "reasonably suspects [that] a terrorist act is anticipated".

Labour, predictably, are apoplectic. Yvette Cooper, new Shadow Home Secretary, for instance describes the ending of 28-day detention as "shocking and cavalier". Labour, if they had their way, would have every restrictive panic measure that they introduced still in place and then some. And yet Ed Miliband has had the nerve to say that Liberal Democrats see Labour as a "vehicle for hope". This would be hilarious, if it wasn't so tragic.

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