The Commons has voted in favour of extending the time limit that a person can be detained without charge from 28 to 42 days.
It was shocking when they extended it up from 14 to 28 days, and that was only a couple of years ago – as was the increase from 7 to 14 – and bearing in mind that for any suspected offence other than ‘terrorism’ the maximum period that a person can be held and questioned by police without being charged with an offence is 3 days.
Evidence that increasing it up to 42 days was necessary simply was not forthcoming. MI5 said they didn’t want it, the Director of Public Prosecutions said he saw no need for it, the Scottish Lord Advocate spoke out against it, there was huge unhappiness even among Labour MPs, the last-minute compensation package which the government was offering was itself an implicit admission that the safeguards were insufficient, and yet there is such a crumbling of backbone among members of the Westminster parliament that after all there was a majority in favour of 42 days.
The frenetic activity of the Labour whips – inducements here, pressures there, a confused concession or two – has seemingly paid off – but although it speaks volumes about the government’s commitment to principle that they resorted to this kind of bargaining on an issue of such fundamental civil liberties, it is also a very depressing indictment of the kinds of people who represent us parliament, that they are prepared not to think so much in terms of principles and freedoms, as in terms of their own or their party’s short-term interests – when these fundamental liberties are at stake. We can still hope that the Lords will resist the 42-day extension, but it’s more that slightly alarming that the Commons and the Lords continue to be at odds on such fundamental liberties.
Noam Chomsky quotes Winston Churchill (see pdf here):
“It is most disturbing, indeed shocking, to learn of the plans to extend detention without charge to a level that should be completely intolerable in any free society, and will surely be welcomed as a model by brutal and repressive governments everywhere. I see no way to improve on the words of Winston Churchill, at a time when the very survival of Britain was under severe threat: ‘The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.”