Friday, 7 January 2011

Clegg shows real leadership on control orders

It's Nick Clegg's birthday today. I'm sure he's prefer a better birthday present that finding that his party, according to a You Gov poll in the Sun, has the support of a mere 7% of the electorate.

But something rather unusual has happened and while it's hardly a public seal of approval I'm sure Mr Clegg would welcome it all the same. Believe it or not, some of the newspapers are actually saying some positive things about his leadership and have praised his stance on control orders.

This is interesting, although the significance of being backed by the likes of the Daily Telegraph is uncertain. But Benedict Brogan, writing in Thursday's Telegraph, accurate in his analysis that "trust [becomes] increasingly difficult after the manipulation of intelligence leaves...a hole in public confidence" believes Clegg deserves better than to be held as the fall guy for each and every unpopular government decision and tellingly chooses Nick Clegg's position on control orders to "show how far he has come". Clegg, argues Brogan, deserves a lot more credit.

As a member of Liberty, I've always been opposed to this unfair and unsafe policy which is - lest we forget - the brainchild of New Labour anti-terrorist paranoia. Control orders, introduced in 2005, allow individuals to be placed under house arrest for an unlimited period without charge or any prospect of a trial. As the orders simply bypass the criminal justice system and its inherent safeguards there is no guarantee of a fair hearing. They also allow, according to Liberty's Sarah Jackson, for "a raft of dehumanising sanctions to be placed on individuals who may not know the charge against them or ever have a chance to clear their name." Furthermore, it isn't a safe system as a number of its targets have simply vanished and, as Brogan reveals, "some of those under surveillance have been able to get hold of mobile phones, attend mosques and even demonstrations in Hyde Park...we know that seven have disappeared." In short, control orders are illiberal and inhumane. Not to mention the fact that they don't actually work.

Given Labour's record on civil liberties, it seemed hypocritical for Ed Miliband to applaud the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, stating that it represented "an important milestone for the people of Burma as they seek to end the repression under which they have lived for so long." He's right of course, but he completely ignored the uncomfortable fact that his own Labour government introduced legislation that allows for terror suspects to be detained similarly to Aung San Suu Kyi - and equally unjustly.

The Liberal Democrats have a historic commitment to civil liberties and have been opposed to control orders and extended pre-charge detention. We recognise that fundamental freedoms are the right of everyone. And while the Conservatives perhaps don't share our historic enthusiasm, they have at least been making some positive noises in regards issues of civil liberty. The coalition has already implemented the Liberal Democrats' policy of ending child detention.

Nick Clegg has recently announced that control orders will be scrapped. The government's Counter Terror Review is to be published within the coming weeks and has been overseen by the Lib Dem peer Lord Macdonald. That the system will be liberalised is not in doubt. However, on control orders there has been some discomfort from senior Conservatives who believe that, for a small number of people, they remain the only solution. House arrests, they argue, are the only way to deal with those who are suspected of terrorist intentions but have not yet committed a crime.

The Lib Dems pledged in their manifesto to end control orders entirely. Clegg, in a speech to the Institute of Government think tank, said: "This is not a straightforward trade-off between liberty or security, as if one must come at the expense of the other. It is about how we balance the two...While the full details of the review are still to be decided, there will be significant reform. Control orders cannot continue in their current form. They must be replaced. And we will introduce a system that is more proportionate, in line with our long-held commitment to due process and civil liberties; that seeks to disrupt and impede would-be terrorists from carrying out their heinous crimes; and that continues to focus on bringing terrorists to justice." He also added that the government "would restore civil liberties with the same systematic ruthlessness with which the former government took them away".

Labour immediately responded by claiming this was evidence that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have "backed off" from "the central thrust" of control orders. They presented it as some kind of fudge, to which Clegg responded by denying that an "almighty row [exists] between peaceniks and securocrats".

I come back to Brogan's piece in the Daily Telegraph. Moving away from the tribal nature of Labour's criticisms, he observes that "the moment Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister, the political certainties he nursed about civil liberties collided with the information that came with his new job. He became one of those who knows what we don't. And since then he has grappled with the difficulty of reconciling his opposition to control orders with the grubby reality of national security." Essentially, Clegg faces the same challenge of any minor partner in coalition government; that of staying true to distict policy and ideology while simultaneously keeping it real and pragmatically responding to situations as they emerge, at a time when the threat of terror may be very genuine.

What Clegg has done to date is to ensure that the Coalition Agreement enshrined a commitment to "urgently review control orders" and provided for child detention to be confined to the history books. This in itself is an achievement that should be recognised and it is difficult to see how he could actually have imposed a harder Lib Dem position on a government dominated by Tories for whom the Human Rights Act is a step too far.

Brogan, and other notable journalists, have been keen to emphasise Clegg's commitment to the Lib Dem's civil liberties agenda, irrespective of what the final recommendations of the Counter Terror Review might be. They are right to do so. Clegg has come under fire, largely from Labour and some within his own party who unrealistically feel he isn't taking a sufficiently hard line, for admitting that some form of restrictions may still be allowed and for refusing to be drawn on the detail of the Review. "The people who think control orders are perfect will be disappointed and the people who think all we have to do is just scrap them and do nothing else will be disappointed as well" stated Clegg. "We are determining, together, with painstaking care, how to keep people safe in a way that upholds our values and traditions. And I believe the British people would prefer we do that properly. They have had enough of bad decisions, made in the heat of the moment, by the New Labour soap opera. This government makes its decision through open and careful debate."

This will not appease those who will interpret anything less than "to the letter" implementation of the manifesto pledge as some kind of sell-out. Neither will it appease right-wing Tories who continue to be irritated by the presence of liberals in government. But it is not only the sensible approach, but the statesmanlike approach. "You call it compromise, we call it government" quipped a Lib Dem MP.

The thrust of Brogan's argument is that the issue of control orders has highlighted "Nick Clegg's successful transformation from a politician of opposition to a politician of government. He has been confronted with nasty choices that have left some of his colleagues and supporters weak in the knees and has compromised where necessary in the interests of taking the right decision...this is what we must start giving him credit for."

I couldn't agree more. There will always be those who prefer rebellion (which they see as inherently "principled") to compromise (inaccurately interpreted as weakness). I am not one of them and neither is Nick Clegg. He has shown an unusually strong understanding of the realities of national security in addition to a determination to seek liberal solutions to complex and sensitive problems. He also realises he must concede a little to keep the Conservatives on board and ensure the passage of progressive legislation. Whatever the final recommendations of the Counter Terror Review, there is little doubt that it will herald a liberalisation of government policy which, without Liberal Democrat involvement at the heart of government, could never have been achieved. And for that we should be grateful.

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