Brown improves his anti-terror act, but ID cards could ruin it

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 29/07/07):

In the absence of Tony Blair, sanity has returned to the national debate on security and civil liberties. His messianic certainties, along with his wish to score political points from terror, made it impossible to build consensus or even identify areas of honest disagreement.

Last year he asserted that the police needed the power to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge. He offered nothing by way of evidence (except that some policemen wanted it) and he used the issue to paint the Conservatives as soft on terror.

Since Blair had previously claimed that Britain needed to go to war with Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction, the House of Commons was disinclined to believe him and the government was defeated. John Reid, Blair’s home secretary, later admitted that there was not a clear case for advancing beyond 28 days.

Gordon Brown has learnt from Blair’s errors. With a quiet gravitas that inspires more confidence than Blair’s evangelical rhetoric, the new prime minister proposes consultation and, if possible, cross-party consensus on a higher number of days, possibly 56.

The evidence may not be clear cut but Brown argues that in recent cases suspects have had to be held for 27 or 28 days before the case could be assembled. He supplied parliament with impressive figures of how many premises needed to be searched and how many computers, CDs and DVDs scanned and analysed.

David Cameron was sceptical but not dismissive. The case for an extension is growing and Brown is offering important safeguards, including a report to parliament each time the 28 days is exceeded and (surprisingly) the opportunity for a parliamentary debate on every occasion.

The alternatives offered by the Tories (and the pressure group Liberty) look unattractive. They argue that without changing the law the government could declare an emergency that would give it powers to hold people for 58 days. But that would be an abuse of emergency powers; a new authority with safeguards is preferable. Or, they argue, suspects could be charged with lesser offences within the 28 days. That can be left to the police to decide. They will be reluctant to saddle ministers with a parliamentary debate unless they feel that there is no option.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, is an impressive defender of civil liberties. He demonstrates that, properly understood, Toryism is about restraining the state, not caving in to authoritarian populism. Still, the Conservatives seem likely to respond to the prime minister’s courteous approach. We can expect to see the limit rise above 28 days (but probably not to 56) with bipartisan support. Only the Labour left, and maybe the Liberal Democrats, will maintain their opposition.

The Tory shift could be seen as weakness – a move to the right in response to the party’s lamentable deficit in opinion polls. That would be unfair. New experience on this issue has emerged and the Commons home affairs select committee recognises that new legislation may be needed. Also, the Conservatives have genuinely led the debate in certain areas. Recruiting Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to the shadow cabinet gives the party a new authority. (She has proposed a dedicated military home defence force, which also seems sensible.)

The Tories have long called for a unified borders police but were derided by the Blair administration. It is a credit to the Tories and to Brown that the government is now to adopt that proposal.

Certainly the scruffy band of officials who check our passports do not give the impression of a country serious about defending its frontiers. Still, perhaps the prime minister was too eager to emphasise the presentational point, speaking of a “highly visible, uniformed presence”. What matters is not just what they wear but what they do and what equipment they have to help them. The Conservatives are probably right to suspect that Whitehall plans an amalgamation rather than a reform.

It was shocking to learn that Britain is not linked to the Interpol database of forged passports. With all the huff and puff about identity cards, that basic precaution has been overlooked. Brown will close the gap at the cost of a mere £5m. Checks on those leaving the country were abolished in 1998 and have not been reinstated systematically. The government now promises border checks using biometric data, but while since 9/11 Britain has procrastinated, the United States has been electronically screening the finger-prints of all entrants to the country.

At least Brown seems willing to address Britain’s security needs in a comprehensive way, concerned with substance as well as presentation. That is reassuring. But there are worrying gaps. British universities are heavily infiltrated by Islamists determined to radicalise students and set them on the path to terrorism. The response from the universities, and especially from the University and College Union (representing teaching staff) and from the student unions seems woefully inadequate. Hizb ut-Tahrir is tolerated on the campuses in a way that the British National party would not be.

If the universities are slow to react, there are signs that Britain is more broadly getting the measure of the terrorist problem. We are shrugging off the political correctness that once hampered an effective response. We are getting over the idea that we are to blame for the terror threat. We are not. It does not arise from social disadvantage, globalisation, capitalism or foreign policy. Islamism is an international revolutionary movement largely run by educated and advantaged people, which capitalises on any grievance, contrived or imagined.

The nature of the threat has been well exposed by Ed Husain, a defector from Hizb ut-Tahrir who has written a book about his experiences. Brown still fails to give Cameron a convincing explanation for the government’s failure to ban the organisation, as Blair had promised to do two years ago.

Last week, in a landmark decision,a jury convicted five young men, based around an Islamist group at Bradford University, who had downloaded extremist material including a manual on terror. The prosecution convinced the court that even though they had not committed a terrorist act, they should be imprisoned. The case is remarkable, too, because their activities came to light when Mohammed Irfan Raja was denounced to the police by his parents. Perhaps they reasoned that otherwise he would go to his death taking many others with him.

It makes the point that arresting and convicting extremists is not an antiMuslim act. Brown has made British-ness a theme and Muslims living here should be addressed as British, just as Catholics, Jews and atheists are. There is no point in pandering to groups claiming to represent British Muslims if they cannot even issue unambiguous denunciations of suicide bombings.

Strikingly, Husain has renounced Islamism but not Islam. He now believes that his religion requires him to abandon his hatred of infidels and other Muslims and to live in harmony with others.

The terror threat in Britain is probably growing but there are reasons to be cheerful. Brown seems more level-headed and trustworthy than Blair, there is a good chance of cross-party agreement on many issues and we are all thinking more clearly about the enemy. Also, the government has doubled spending on the security services.

However, willing as I am to reappraise a changing scene, I cannot see the case for identity cards, nor was Brown convincing on this point in his Commons statement. America is not planning to introduce them and no terrorist incident would have been prevented had we had them. Adding biometric data to passports and making them harder to forge would be good ideas. But the billions of pounds to be blown on identity cards could be better spent on other ways of protecting us.

Brown is clearly willing to give up Blair’s ideas and accept those of his political opponents. Dropping identity cards would not be a sign of weakness but rather of his increasing strength.