Monday, 1 November 2010

Control orders row goes public

The consequence of the government delaying its counter-terrorism review until December is that the Whitehall row - which has been kept remarkably low profile over the last couple of months - will now be played out very much in public. This weekend's coverage suggests that this must now increase the prospects of the Coalition reversing its control orders u-turn before completing it, a prospect which still seemed odds against when it was mooted on Next Left on Saturday.

Andrew Rawnsley's Observer column on Sunday anatomising the tensions inside the Coalition, in blowing the argument out into the public domain, has also changed the terms of the debate. With MI5 lobbying privately and publicly to keep control orders, Rawnsley reported that ex-DPP Ken MacDonald believes he would have to write a dissenting report to the review he is nominally chairing. This has provided one of the most important barriers to the proposed u-turn, presenting what David Cameron has apparently called the prospect of "a fucking car crash" on the issue.

The review has gone to ministers with the recommendation that control orders should be retained. It proposes that detention without charge should be reduced to 14 days, but with an option for suspects to be put on a further 14 days of "very restricted bail", which would introduce the control order concept into another part of the law.

Reaction to the column also produced Chris Huhne's first post-election statement on the issue, restating his objections to fundamental features of the control orders regime. As we have seen before, there were never any shades of grey in Huhne's pre-election challenges to both Labour and the Conservatives on control orders.

A Guardian editorial today says the case for control orders is considerably weaker now than five years ago, with prosecution now easier for a wider range of terrorist offences. The newspapers argues that making intercept evidence admissable in court would make the abolition of control orders possible and right.

It matters too that Conservatives and the right are divided on the issue. For some the issue is best framed as one of security versus liberty. This leads Ben Brogan to warn about the dangers of a judicial jihad of liberal lawyers against the security services, echoed by ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie in his own summary of the argument.

But there are also significant voices on the right who do not believe that having an effective anti-terrorist strategy should be incompatible either with having the security services operate within the rule of law, or maintaining the core principles of the judicial system. David Davis continues to regard the scrapping of control orders as a significant test of the Coalition.

James Forsyth of the Spectator believes that those LibDems seeking to scrap control orders are likely to prevail if they were to hold their line (though it may prove possible too that something like them might return in a different guise as part of a compromise). They would now have the support of the Labour frontbench too. The outcome may also depend on how many Conservatives, on the backbench and frontbenches, who spoke out on the issue in opposition continue to do so now.

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