The first duty of government

Street of houses

The first duty of any government is to protect the public. This requirement for protection cannot, of course, be absolute because there will always be those determined to break through or get around whatever security measures are put in place. But it is the government’s job to do what it can to ensure that in a free society people can go about their lives facing the smallest possible risk of crime or terrorist attack.

When the coalition came into power it made a decision to water down the anti-terror laws which had previously been put in place by the Labour government. This was a political, not a security decision. The government’s own independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, has confirmed that ministers did this, not because they were forced to by the courts, but because they wanted to.

The government decided to grant new freedoms to terror suspects because of a view developed by both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in opposition – and maintained in government – that it was Labour’s anti-terror laws which posed a risk to liberty, not the murderous intent of those who seek to kill and maim innocent people.

In doing this, ministers in effect viewed increased risk to the public as an acceptable price to pay for the civil liberties pose they adopted.

The government legislated for more freedom for terror suspects in three main areas.

First, they granted them some access to mobile phones and the internet.

Second, ministers disarmed themselves from the relocation power they had to stop suspects living in specified parts of the country – usually London – and thereby limit their access to networks of similarly motivated people.

Third, they created a sunset clause where the watered-down provisions would lapse after two years – even if it was believed the threat posed by the person had not changed.

In an implicit admission that these measures posed a greater risk to the public, the government tried to compensate for its actions by increasing the surveillance budget for the police and security services. However, surveillance is not foolproof. Keeping someone under 24-hour watch is difficult and resource-intensive. And those being watched are highly motivated and security-aware.

Now, Ibrahim Magag, who was subject to one of the government’s watered-down control orders and who has been jailed in the past for breaching the terms of his control regime, has absconded. He has not been seen since Boxing Day in the Camden Town area of London. Under Labour’s anti-terror regime Magag was not even allowed to live in London, but he used the freedom granted to him by the government to move to the capital before his disappearance.

The government’s defence is that some people absconded under the old control order regime too. Some did, but that objection sounds more like an argument for a tougher regime than the intentionally weaker one the coalition has created. At no time did the last government take a decision to weaken the control regime for political reasons, increasing the risk that those subject to it might abscond.

The lesson of all of this is that the wrong analysis leads to the wrong policy. The idea that the anti-terror regime in place posed a greater threat to society than the intentions of those to whom it was applied was a damaging and dangerous mistake.

Putting the public at risk, and changing the odds in favour of terror suspects and away from those charged with protecting us is at best grossly complacent and at worst potentially disastrous for public security. The government should remember that first duty of protecting the public.

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Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-east. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP

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Photo: Dom Stocqueler

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  • DerekW

    If we are to be free from terrorism we have to address injustices in the world. Instead our Governments seem to go out of their way to add to feeling in resentment. Support for Israel is seen by many in this country as well as in the Middle East as support for Israel’s programme of ethnic cleansing in Palestine; supplying arms to despotic leaders and ignoring the poverty around the world also adds to the resentment of Britain. It seems conscience goes out of the window once people gain power – expediency rules the day.

  • Harry Goldstein

    DerekW, this is nonsense. Firstly, there is no ‘programme of ethnic cleansing’ by Israel, only an attempt to protect their citizens from an even more extreme terror threat than the one we face in the UK.
    Second, the Islamist terrorists are motivated by their own fascistic ideology. It is through the prism of this ideology that Israel’s existence, or a Salman Rushdie novel, or a few silly cartoons, can become a ‘grievance’ that justifies (in their own minds) the murder of innocent people, including huge numbers of their fellow Muslims.
    Islamist terror is no more motivated by the alleged suffering of the Palestinians than Nazi genocide was motivated by the alleged suffering of the Sudetan Germans.

  • RonM

    I have a lot of problems with this. Despite being a Labour supporter for over 30 years I could not bring myself to vote for the party in 2010 precisely because of the thoughtless disregard for our liberties in this stream of thinking within the party, resulting in ever-lengthening periods of detention without trial for “suspects”. I would contend that the first duty of government is to protect our liberties, not our skins. We should not be locking people up or imposing restrictions on them without due process. If someone has done wrong they should be tried and convicted; if not they should be let free. I remember how scandalised I was in my youth when I learned that in South Africa people could be detained for 90 days without trial, and I am so ashamed to see this come to Britain! Two cheers for the Coalition for mitigating at least some of this abuse.

  • Tony Meehan

    You talk about the governments duty to protect, now let’s just analyse the statement for one moment, you use the word DUTY. It seems a lawyer gave you some guidance on your use of this word, as in English Law DUTY has no legal definition. Why you failed to use the phrase DUTY OF CARE now becomes obvious, as you have actually made no legal statement about the governments Duty to Protect because actually the government makes it clear it has no Duty to Protect anyone. Now this can be proved very simply, in the last 10 to 15 years 340 ( it’s actually a few more, but for a round figure and giving the police the benefit of the doubt, we’ll say 340 ) British citizens have died in police custody, yes that’s RIGHT 340. Yet not 1 SINGLE police officer has ever BEEN CONVICTED of an unlawful killing or manslaughter or murder, even though there is a proven Valid Cause of Action to Prosecute, as under Corpus Delicti 2 elements are fulfilled. They are Injury or Damage, and the criminal causation, a legal abuse of someone’s Rights, also peaceful protestors are beaten illegally, arrested and detained and BEATEN with STICKS by MEN in RIOT GEAR. Apparently we live in a democratic society which as we can see is a LIE that every POLITICIAN tells every day, as you have done in the statement above, so if you have no DUTY to PROTECT there can be no CITIZENS apparently have these written RIGHTS :
    As a result of the above agreements, British citizens have the following basic rights and liberties:

    freedom of movement;
    freedom from arbitrary arrest or unjustified police searches;
    freedom of conscience in matters of religion and politics;
    freedom of expression;
    freedom of association, including the right to protest peacefully;
    social freedoms – such as the right to marry, divorce, procure abortions or have homosexual relations; the right to vote and to stand for election;
    the right to a fair trial;
    the right not to be coerced or tortured by agents of the state;
    the right not to be subjected to surveillance without due legal process;
    the right to own property.

    Above you will READ coerced or tortured by agents of the STATE, so this being the case there are no CITIZENS as the police being Agents of the State, are legally beyond redress for the deaths of 340 human beings, also the RIGHT to Protest peacefully which again is a LIE, there is no STATE there are NO CITIZENS there LEGAL FICTIONS the Government has no DUTY to PROTECT, but apparently all are seen equal in the eyes of the LAW, your LAWS are a SHAM Government is a SHAM, Democracy is a SHAM, with the use of simple TRIVIUM if you know what that is, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric the Deceit can be unravelled, YOUR ALL LIARS using the threat of State Agents to inflict violence on any that don’t OBEY your WILL, it’s actually EVIL the way POLITICIANS believe there own LIES. You’ve all been found out. You have no DUTY to PROTECT we’re all jus SLAVES born into SERVITUDE of the STATE.

  • alex

    Referring to your comments about the Police being responsible for 340 deaths, have you ever considered that the individuals might bear responsibility for themselves? A report stating that, of the 333 deaths, nearly three quarters were relating to drug or alcohol abuse. So before you start slagging off the Police like many do, take a minute to consider the role of the individual in their death. It wasn’t the Police who forced them to down a bottle of vodka or take an ecstasy pill. The problem with many in this society is that we constantly look for someone to blame and are never man enough to accept responsibility for our own actions.