Wednesday 26 January 2011

Reform or rebranding? Linguistic contortions undermine the control orders debate

The control orders review has been long and politically fraught. An informed judgement will depend on looking at the detail of what is proposed.

On a first hearing, liberals in all parties and none who wanted control orders scrapped as an affront to British justice will, on balance, be disappointed, though there may well be some constructive reforms in the package of measures announced.

However, the government unnecessarily undermines serious discussion of the balances it is seeking to strike by its linguistic contortions, which place rather too much emphasis on a pointless rebranding of anti-terrorism measures.

So Home Secretary Theresa May has told the House that curfews will go, to be replaced instead by an "overnight residence requirement".

That was laughed at by MPs - and it deserved to be laughed at, as Julian Glover tweeted as she said it.

If the Home Secretary wants to propose curfews which will be more typically limited to 8-10 hours, rather than 16 hour curfews, why not just say so?

Aren't there enough "Orwellian" references in this debate without trying to turn the twisting of political language into a bureaucratic art form?

Not that the rebranding efforts seem even half-competent anyway. Given that the new label "terrorism prevention and investigation measures" (TPIMs) are deliberately unmemorable and unpronounceable (I presume deliberately?) either in full or in acronym, these now seem pretty likely to become commonly called "control orders" or "the new control orders" as a shorthand on the radio and in political discussion.

Perhaps those more politically invested in the need to claim they have been scrapped may prefer something like "the counter-terrorism measures formerly known as control orders".

The dissatisfaction of Lord MacDonald, the former DPP who was asked to oversee the review, and who has immediately said he regards the effective continuation of control orders as "disproportionate, unnecessary and objectionable" contrasts sharply with the satisfaction of Lord Carlile, security adviser to the government and the one Liberal Democrat who was vocally in favour of the control orders regime.

Speaking on the Today programme this morning, Carlile said:

"I believe that the Government has taken a very mature view of this, they have come a long way from the manifestos, which were written when they hadn't seen the evidence. I believe that ministers from both coalition parties now recognise that there is a special system of law needed for a very small number of people."

Their contrasting reactions offer a very clear signal of how the policy and political tug-of-war was finally resolved. Overall, the government has come out for a fairly similar replacement for control orders, more rebranding than scrapping, though the process of scrutiny has brought some smaller liberalising advances

Liberals will welcome a narrowing of the scope of stop and search powers, and the reduction of detention without trial to 14 days, though while making provision for 28 days in exceptional circumstances, triggered by Parliamentary approval. (28 days has been very seldom used, no doubt in exceptional circumstances, but the additional Parliamentary scrutiny may be an advance).

I don't think anybody would reasonably disagree with maximum efforts to bring suspects to criminal trial, wherever possible. But I suspect the real issues are all in those caveats.

Civil libertarians will certainly have hoped for rather more. Many people may legitimately continue to disagree about the right way to deal with the handful of the hardest cases, with David Davis arguing that the government should have gone much further in replacing the existing regime, while Liberty (perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically) favouring more intensive surveillance in order to propose an alternative to control orders, while Douglas Murray in The Spectator articulates the fear that the government's modest reforms risks letting its guard down. ("Judicial jihad" ism though, an unpleasant and rather authoritarian phrase).

Those arguments will doubtless continue. Yet this review process, for all of the time that it has taken and whatever the pros and cons of its outcomes, may prove to have taken at least some of the rhetoric out of discussions of liberty and security.

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