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