Saturday 30 October 2010

Might the control orders u-turn be reversed after all?

The "New Politics" have changed all the rules of the political u-turn. In place of Maggie's defiant refusenik rhetoric, and Tony Blair's pride in his inability to ever back out of a corner, the Coalition certainly is for turning, and often, from Cameron as well as Clegg standing on his head over public spending cuts, to child benefit, university fees and so much else.

In remarking that "the road to Westminster is covered in the skid marks of political parties changing direction" Vince Cable seemed to enshrine the handbrake turn as the characteristic manouvere of this government.

Might the daredevil stunt drivers of the Coalition to attempt their most spectacular road manouvere yet? Witness the bid to both belatedly and yet pre-emptively reverse the next policy u-turn before the decision has been announced, creating an outside chance that the government might even spin full circle to surprise everybody by doing what it said it was going to before the election.

On that most secret topic - the use of control orders in anti-terrorism policy - the Coalition government's intentions have been an open secret in Whitehall for several weeks. Both Coalition parties promised to scrap control orders in opposition, yet have been telegraphing their intention to keep them - with regrets - as a least bad option. Indeed, the Coalition government is believed to have introduced two new control orders since taking office.

There has now been a hitch, or a hold-up at the least. The review of counter-terror powers was expected in the fortnight after the CSR - and ahead of Theresa May's first major counter-terrorism speech next week. Today's Guardian reports that the review is now being held back until at least mid-December, and suggests that the delay in part reflects a reopening of the internal debate over the control orders u-turn.

The Guardian also links this to the small stirring of pre-emptive LibDem dissent earlier this week. Credit to Tom Brake MP, backbench co-chair of the Lib Dem home affairs parliamentary party committee, in a letter to David Cameron co-signed by LibDem peers Baroness Sally Hamwee and Lord Martin Thomas, for going public with the challenge to what had been promoted as the likely compromise: that recommending a reduction in detention without trial - probably back to 14 days (maybe involving some additional provisions for longer periods, or perhaps not) would provide cover for both parties to undertake a control orders u-turn (effectively allowing indefinite house arrest without charge or trial in these cases).

Brake et al wrote to Cameron:

"We have been delighted by the coalition government's commitment to reclaiming our civil liberties. You will appreciate of course that the continuance of control orders is quite inconsistent with the thrust of those assurances. In principle, as we argued many times during the administration of the last government, control orders should be scrapped."

The Guardian suggests that the unexpected delay in the review reflects scepticism within the government too, with ministers including Justice Secretary Ken Clarke unconvinced about whether control orders are useful after all.

As Brake argues, the issue is an important test for LibDems and Conservatives who made a great deal of civil liberties when in opposition. The letter-writing trio do not yet amount to the most numerous or high-powered of many voices who have been vocal advocates on this issue in the past; there remains a Westminster sense that most LibDem and liberal Tory backbench MPs and peers are being quietly encouraged to keep their heads down. Another exception is Tory backbencher Dominic Raab argued this week that control orders could be ditched, by phasing them out in two years.

This delay now provides an important opportunity for Parliamentary as well as civic advocacy on the issue. Those on the government benches who do speak up for their parties' policies may also now find common cause with Labour voices seeking to rebalance the party's approach to liberty. Former home office minister Tony McNulty's recent Times commentary (£) strengthened a significant shift in the centre of gravity within the Labour party debate. (McNulty, like Raab, doubts the utility of control orders, and what is gained for derogating from the ECHR to keep using these in a handful of cases).

The pressure group Liberty sets out its critique - and alternatives - in its campaign resources on the issue.

Despite the intriguing delay in the government's decision, the balance of the odds are still against the Coalition parties deciding that the scrapping of control orders is one pre-election pledge that they should keep.

(New terror headlines may have an impact too, though LibDemVoice rightly points out today, this would undermine most of what the Coalition parties said in the past. That a genuine terrorist threat persists has never been seriously contested; that must be the starting point for scrutiny about the efficacy as well as the principles behind anti-terrorism policies and strategies).

So you turn if you want to, as Mrs Thatcher once said. And yet, if they could make it all the way around 360 degrees before Christmas, the Coalition could yet claim to be not for turning on this one after all.

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