Law lords condemn Blunkett's terror measures

'The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these' - Lord Hoffmann - in yesterday's judgment

By Robert Verkaik and Andrew Grice

17 December 2004


Controversial anti-terror laws championed by David Blunkett in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks were dealt a devastating blow yesterday in a historic judgment by the House of Lords. Just hours after he resigned as Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett had to suffer the fresh humiliation of seeing one of his flagship policies being dismantled by the law lords.

They ruled that Mr Blunkett's determination to suspend the Human Rights Act and imprison foreign terror suspects without charge or trial was the "real threat to the life of the nation". The law lords' opinion, delivered by an eight-to-one majority, leaves the Government little option but to rethink its key policy on terrorism.

After the ruling, MPs, Muslim leaders and civil rights groups called on Mr Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, to order the release of all 11 foreign terror suspects still held under the terms of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

The Government remained defiant and Mr Clarke, following Mr Blunkett's lead, said he would fight to keep the men locked up. He told MPs that the men would remain in prison until Parliament changed the law. But the uncompromising tone of yesterday's judgment may mean that this is not a tenable position for the Government to hold.

Mr Clarke defended Mr Blunkett's plans for identity cards yesterday but hinted that he might adopt a more liberal stance than his predecessor on some issues. The new Home Secretary said that he did not believe civil liberties were "airy-fairy", as Mr Blunkett had described them, and said that he valued very highly the independence of the judiciary, with whom Mr Blunkett clashed frequently.

Mr Blunkett's resignation failed to end the Government's problems over the fast-tracking of an application for a residence visa for the nanny of his former lover Kimberly Quinn. Downing Street had to fend off claims that there was a "cover up" at the Home Office.Mr Blunkett's resignation also raised question marks over Mr Blair's judgement in backing his fight to keep his post.

The Prime Minister fought back by using the ensuing reshuffle to put a New Labour stamp on his ministerial team by promoting a new generation of Blairites. This threatened a new outbreak of hostilities with Gordon Brown, whose allies expressed concern about the appointment of David Miliband to a key role in drafting Labour's election manifesto.

But it is yesterday's judgment that presents the most immediate crisis for the Govern- ment, as the powerful language used by the law lords leaves little room for manoeuvre.

Lord Hoffmann, one of the panel of nine law lords, said: "[This case] calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has until now been very proud: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention."

In response to government arguments that the anti-terrorism Act was necessary to protect the life of the nation, Lord Hoffmann said: "The real threat to the life of the nation ... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

"That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory."

Baroness Hale said that the law was clearly discriminatory: "Substitute 'black', 'disabled', 'female', 'gay', ... and ask whether it would be justifiable to ... lock up that group but not the 'white', 'able-bodied', 'male' or 'straight' suspected international terrorists. The answer is clear." After being told of the ruling, detainee "A", who is being held in Woodhill Prison, Buckinghamshire, said: "This ruling should send a message to the legislators that 'national security' can never take precedence over human rights."

The brother of suspect "E", currently in Belmarsh, said: "At last we see some justice. We look to the Government to release our family immediately because this law is not a law."

Three of the detainees, driven mad by their three-year detention, were now in Broad- moor prison. Another has been released under conditions of strict house arrest because doctors had become so concerned about his mental health.

Gareth Peirce, the solicitor representing eight of the detainees, said the Government must now free all of the men.

"It will provoke a ... constitutional crisis if the Government fails to act swiftly," she said.

The director of the civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said future generations would be "proud" that democratic values had been chosen over "the politics of fear".

"By acting as judge, jury and jailer, the Government hasflouted the very values it claims to defend. It must now act and charge or release all those currently held without delay."