By Paul Donovan | The decision of the Court of Appeal that the state can place people under control orders (house arrest) without ever telling them what they are accused of has huge implications for civil rights.
A control order works by tagging the individual around the ankle and restricting him or her to a house or flat for a set number of hours each day. When the individual leaves the premises, they have a set area in which they are able to move. The individual has to ring the tagging company a number of times each day from a dedicated phone and may also be required to report to a police station.
The case of Ceri Bullivant underlines the dangers. A Muslim from Essex, Bullivant was put on trial before last Christmas for breaking the terms of a control order. His solicitor, Gareth Peirce, argued successfully for his acquittal and says he was cleared after it emerged that the basis for the control order was a tip-off from “a friend of Ceri’s mother who, after drinking heavily, had phoned Scotland Yard, which failed to ever contact the caller to ask for further information”.
The way in which anti-terror laws can be used for purposes other that those for which they were purportedly enacted are becoming legend. For instance, anti-terror powers were deployed against pensioner Walter Wolfgang for his protest at the 2005 Labour Party conference. He was forcibly ejected from the conference centre after observing that Jack Straw was talking “nonsense”. The ensuing publicity helped Wolfgang to get elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee.
Others to have fallen foul of the contentious legislation include arms protesters arrested outside London’s ExCeL exhibition centre. Most recently, it was used as the reason for freezing of the funds of Icelandic banks as they collapsed into bankruptcy.
All this is aside of the 1,343 times that 46 councils have used anti-terror laws under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act for offences such as rogue trading, benefit fraud and anti-social behaviour.
To find the root of this diminution of human rights, it is necessary to go back to the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. The biggest mass murder in British history at the time claimed 21 lives and led to the passing into law of the first Prevention of Terrorism Act. Then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins introduced the PTA on November 25 1974 declaring that “the powers… are draconian. In combination, they are unprecedented in peacetime.” The Bill bringing in seven-day pre-charge detention passed in record time, clearing both Houses of Parliament by November 29.
The PTA was rewritten in 1976, 1984 and again in 1989. However, it continued to be used as emergency “temporary” powers that had to be renewed each year.
The first person arrested under the Act was Paul Hill, who was one of the innocent men subsequently convicted of the Guildford pub bombings. He served 15 years in prison before being freed by the Court of Appeal. A succession of miscarriages of justice followed over the next two decades, with the whole Irish Roman Catholic community becoming regarded as generally suspect.
It is mistake to think that the PTA was brought in solely to combat Irish terrorism. The real agenda has been the gradual erosion of human rights in the name of security. This could be clearly seen at the start of the new millennium when the Government brought forward the Terrorism Act 2000 — at a time of peace in Northern Ireland and before the events of September 11.
The Terrorism Act doubled the period of time allowed for pre-charge detention from seven days to 14. It also broadened out the definition of terrorism beyond Irish groups. Terrorism was also to include “the threat” of “serious damage to property” in ways “designed to influence government” for a “political cause” anywhere in the world. Notably, there was no pretence of the legislation being temporary and so in need of renewal each year.
The next step was the British Government’s response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. This included the reintroduction of internment with the Anti-Terror Crime and Security Act. This allowed for foreign nationals who cannot be deported or removed for fear of torture abroad to be detained indefinitely without trial on the basis of secret intelligence that neither they nor their lawyers could view.
After September 11, 12 men were taken almost immediately into custody in Belmarsh prison. They were then detained for three years until the House of Lords ruling the ATCSA unlawful under the Human Rights Act.
This led to the next Prevention of Terrorism Act in March 2005 which introduced the concept of control orders. Those who had been held in Belmarsh were put under control orders. They still were not told of what they were accused.
Bruce Kent, who has visited several men put under control orders since 2005, describes the system as “callously cruel”. The veteran peace campaigner recalls a man under the conditions of his control order in north London not being allowed to visit Finsbury Park, which was 100 yards away from where he was living. However, he was permitted to go Clissold Park, which was three quarters of a mile away.
Says Kent: “At the same time, in the two hours that he was allowed out at lunchtime, he had to report to a police station in the opposite direction,”
He describes another case in which “a man under a control order was checking into the police station every day as required. On one occasion, he was just grabbed by the police and sent to Long Lartin prison.”
In other cases, suspects were allowed to go to the mosque, but parts of the bus route they wanted to take were ruled outside the area of movement. This meant it was impossible to get there in time for prayers.
At the time that control orders were first imposed, there was also an attempt under the PTA 2005 to increase the pre-charge detention period from 14 days to 90. However, in one of those rare victories for civil liberties, this was rejected in favour of 28 days. This still constituted a doubling of the previous limit and a quadrupling of Roy Jenkins’ previous “draconian” measure.
More recently, Gordon Brown Government’s attempted to demonstrate its anti-terror credentials with an introducing 42 days’ detention with charge. This was overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Lords, but it is unlikely that the House of Commons will let the issue lie indefinitely.
Bruce Kent’s view is: “The problem is that, with control orders, we have had indefinite detention for years. There is a tendency among some campaigners to focus on headline-grabbing issues like 42-day pre-charge detention, while ignoring the iniquity of control orders. It’s a bit like ignoring the elephant in the room.”
The project that began back in November 1974 has come a long way and it is still a work in progress. First, it was the Irish who were the suspect community; now it is the Muslims. In the future, it could be another group and ultimately anyone who dissents. As Gareth Peirce warns: “The continuing experiment is dangerous and insidious in more than one way. It has become very clear that, when one challenge is overcome, the goalposts are moved and a new system comes in.”
The Court of Appeal’s recent decision to uphold the right to impose control orders without the subject knowing what they are charged with is another dangerous step.