David Blunkett: Clegg risks taking liberties with our hard-won security

THE Government is due to announce its decision on alterations to, or the abolition of, control orders. According to Nick Clegg, he and his Liberal Democrat colleagues are winning the argument in their efforts to substantially remove restrictions on suspected al-Qaida terrorists.

One of the most galling things about the way the Deputy Prime Minister has gone about this debate is that he has mounted his moral high horse and painted everybody who disagrees with him as some sort of tyrant.

From anti-terrorism measures to the checks that we put in place in the wake of the Soham murders, Mr Clegg says that Labour was "ruthless" in the way that it went about protecting our security.

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Let's be clear. Ministers – myself included – didn't wake up in the morning thinking, "How can I take away the hard-won liberties of the British people today?" We were not anti-human rights authoritarian bully boys.

What all previous Home Secretaries would plead guilty to is rising to the challenge of facing down a destructive terrorist philosophy that isn't interested in any negotiable objective, like the IRA – but simply wants to kill as many innocents as possible.

After September 11, 2001, we listened, we observed and we were informed. We weighed in the balance the civil liberties of those who were accused or suspected of plotting heinous acts alongside those of the law-abiding citizens who were being targeted. We debated endlessly in the two Houses of Parliament and adapted, amended and debated again in every branch of our broadcast and print media.

And we had to do so with a courts system which simply isn't set up to prevent atrocities, only to prosecute after the event.

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Well, when you're talking about the possible deaths of thousands, that's simply not acceptable.

When you know someone is involved in planning an attack, but the evidence is not able to be disclosed within our present system, the politicians in charge are faced with an impossible dilemma. Let the suspect wander the streets unmolested, potentially putting you, the innocent member of the public, at risk; or come up with a way to thwart the suspect until you can charge or deport them.

It's not a betrayal of the people to maintain restrictions on the civil liberties of those threatening our life and limb. Betrayal would be capitulation to those who put the rights of terrorists before those of the British people.

I understand the anxiety of those who have watched the direction of travel and have had their concerns. Often, they have spoken in the best traditions of freedom and liberty that we all wish to protect.

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But as the danger has grown and become more sophisticated – not least through the use of technology – the police and security services have sought to meet the threat. When I was in office, they asked me to increase the time that they could detain a suspect from seven to 14 days. Later, they put to my successors the need for longer periods.

Of course, as those changes came in, the courts were active. With the co-operation of the judges and some more imaginative thinking from our leading lawyers, we might well be able to adapt the rules of evidence and admissibility of material, together with some anonymity for those whose lives would otherwise be at risk in giving evidence, to offer trial rather than house arrest to those who will not – or who, under human rights law, cannot – leave the country.

Sadly, the legal profession prefers to denounce and strike down the measures taken by elected government rather than being prepared to come forward with ideas for adapting our procedures so that we can secure some convictions and protect our people.

I would say to Theresa May and the highly-experienced Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke: listen first to those with in-depth knowledge – and then listen to your conscience.

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It matters not that you fall out with Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats, or that you upset the ultra-libertarians who have the loudest voices in the media.

What matters is that you safeguard the people of our country; that you work with our democratic partners across the world and with countries like the Yemen – who have the most dangerous terrorist criminals in their midst – so that we can together tackle what is a threat to global society.

Make no mistake. The people who threaten us, who explode bombs in Turkey or take innocent lives in Bali, despise those who care about human rights. They will do their utmost to ensure that the very civil liberties we rightly espouse are used against us to create uncertainty and weakness on which they can play.

Clearly a balance has to be struck. But the pendulum must not swing from one extreme to the other. We are, after all, aiming to prevent a disaster, rather than to prosecute after a disaster has taken place. That is the measure, as well as the dilemma, of government – responsibility with power, rather than platitudes without.

David Blunkett is Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. He was Home Secretary from 2001-05.