Terror Bill: Taking liberties

Today, the House of Lords debates the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. So how have our civil rights been eroded under Tony Blair?

03 March 2005

Independent

Internment without trial

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America, Labour rushed through legislation that allowed ministers to authorise the indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects. In December last year, the House of Lords ruled that such detention was unlawful.

Ministers responded by proposing a series of surveillance and control measures, including house arrest, for foreign and British citizens.

Tony Blair told MPs yesterday that the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which allows terrorist suspects to be subjected to "control orders", including curfews, tagging or bans on telephone and internet use and ultimately house arrest, was vital to national security. He refused to accept a range of compromises from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and now faces concerted opposition from across the political spectrum in the House of Lords, which begins three days of detailed deliberation on the Bill today.

Stop-and-search

In the first two years of Tony Blair's premiership, the number of stop-and-searches involving members of Asian and black communities began to fall. But by the end of 1999 that trend had been reversed, with the police making increasing use of its powers against black and Asian citizens. By 2003-04, Asians were 1.9 times more likely to be stopped and searched, up from 1.7 times the year before.

Separate figures on police searches in England and Wales under the Terrorism Act 2000 also showed ethnic minorities were more likely to be targeted. In 2003-04, 12.5 per cent of searches under the laws were on Asian people, although they make up 4.7 per cent of the population.

Last July, the police were accused of Islamophobia by Muslim groups after stop-and-search statistics showed the numbers of Asians targeted up by 300 per cent since introduction of anti-terror laws.

Yesterday, the Home Office minister Hazel Blears faced a growing outcry after she said Muslims should accept as a "reality" that they are more likely to be stopped and search in the fight against extremism.

ID cards

David Blunkett, the former home secretary, committed Labour to bringing in identity cards. Under these plans, adopted by his successor, Charles Clarke, every citizen will have to have identity documents that must be produced when challenged by a policeman. The ID card plan is thought to cost at least £3bn and would introduce a biometric card with a person's fingerprints and iris patterns and other personal details.

Right to trial by jury

Labour has devoted a great deal of parliamentary time to trying to curb the right to jury trial. As Home Secretary in 1999, Jack Straw set out plans to end the right to jury trial for people accused of middle-ranking offences. A groundswell of cross-party opposition forced a climbdown. But in 2003, David Blunkett, Mr Straw's successor, succeeded in changing the law allowing judges to sit alone where there was an allegation of jury-nobbling and in cases involving complex fraud. Charles Clarke has mooted judge-only trials for some terrorist cases.

Previous convictions

Jack Straw was the home secretary who first proposed allowing the jury to know about a defendant's criminal past. It has been a long-established principle of English law that a defendant could not have a fair trial if such prejudicial material was disclosed. The inevitable political outcry forced the Government to let the judge be the final arbiter. Last year, it became law under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Antisocial Behaviour Orders

This was Labour's solution for tackling yobbish behaviour, brought in under the Crime and Civil Disorder Act 1998. A breach of the order can end in criminal punishment. They are seen as a blueprint for control orders for suspected terrorists.

Asylum

Ministers have pledged to bring in a points system for economic migrants. Charles Clarke has also said successful asylum-seekers will be given temporary leave to remain up to five years then be reviewed. Removals would be stepped up and more asylum-seekers are to be detained.

Double jeopardy

A failure to gain convictions in several high-profile cases, including the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, led to the ending of the rule against double jeopardy. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, anyone acquitted of a serious crime can be tried again for the same offence.

On-the-spot fines

Tony Blair's much-derided plan to give the police power to march hooligans and vandals to the nearest cash machine was quietly dropped. But new provisions allow the police to fine petty criminals, such as shoplifters and vandals, without going to court.

This means suspects can avoid a criminal conviction if they admit their guilt at the earliest opportunity.

Extradition

New arrangements between the US and UK mean US law-enforcement officers do not need to show evidence of guilt to gain an extradition order.