I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, though I confess I instinctively think it is wrong that anyone in the UK can be detained for any period of time without being informed why or without having access to legal representation. I don’t know what the answer is because sometimes, I can understand that experienced police or border officers might just ‘know’ that there’s something wrong and need to be able to talk to someone.
There’s clearly more to come out about the facts of this anyway, so I’ll leave it there for now. But I’d like to bring back to your mind that in opposition, the Conservatives were very much more in favour of civil liberties than many of their actions in government might suggest. I think to be fair that some of this is perception and/or lack of attention from outside government, some of it is institutional inertia, and some of it is that when actually in power, it’s really hard to say ‘I’m not going to take what might be preventative action’. And some of it probably is actually, on balance, the right choice to make.
That having been said, it’s interesting that Section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was already under review, and in fact amendments to it have already started their slow way through the House of Commons. If I’ve read it correctly, one of those amendments was indeed to allow legal representation at a much earlier stage, and another was to reduce by a third the length of time that anyone could be detained before a more formal process was required.
I think this is instructive in two ways. Firstly that it takes SO LONG to get anything changed – there’s policy formulation, there’s consultation, there’s responses, there’s drafting, there’s the parliamentary process and then it takes however long to actually implement. In many ways, the slowness of our system can be a good thing as it impedes the rush to Do Something; but in some cases I think it’s damaging.
And secondly that, given that as a party we had been so focused on the balance between state and individual, this is absolutely one of the areas that should have been high up on the list of priorities to sort out. As with many other areas, this would have been a good candidate for the sadly no-longer-with-us Great Repeal Act.
I remain in favour of a period of time when the government does nothing but unwind as much as possible of the stupider and more restrictive and damaging pieces of legislation of the last 15 or 20 years. It would send a very clear and decisive message about future intent, and more importantly it would enormously benefit us all as a society.
As with so many areas of policy, of course the police and security services are going to insist on more power, less transparency and greater control. But as in everything else, it is the elected politicians’ job to decide what the balance should be, and the vested interests (yes, even in national security) should not have the final say. We elect politicians to decide and if they have a clear idea of where they are going, it is up to them to explain it and – importantly – to deliver it.