Parliamentary Oversight of 42 Day Detention

Just watched PMQs, where all three party leaders did pretty well, I think (Dale continues to push the line that Nick is no good at PMQs, but frankly just looks a bit silly doing so).

What I want to talk about, however, is the point that both Nick Clegg and Michael Howard raised, asking very focussed questions about this parliamentary vote within 7 days business. The Government has suggested that this allows democratic oversight of the use of this power, and that therefore the 42 days legislation does not hand over undue power to an overmighty executive for ever more.

Today, the point was raised that any genuine setting out of a case for extended periods of detention in an individual case would require the potential criminal trial which would follow to be prejudiced, or sensitive information to be disclosed at a time when such revelations would be counter-productive in the ongoing investigation. “Quite right”, replies the government, “which is why all that would happen is that the Home Secretary would come before the house, say that she felt this particular case was jolly important, and could she please bang up without charge someone non-specific who in her judgment is a real rotter?”

If this is the case, then what is the point of this check on the power at all? A Home Secretary who comes before the house asking for approval to use this power without having to make any argument that it is justified in the specific case in question is going to get that approval almost automatically. Here is what will happen:

Home Secretary: I come before the house today to ask for approval of the detention of a person who, in our opinion, poses or posed a threat to the security of the country, and who we need to detain for longer to bring them to justice and/or prevent a terrorist atrocity.

Opposition: Why should we approve this, can you give us any evidence we should do so?

Home Secretary: You know full well I can’t, and when this power was legislated for it was made quite clear that no specifics of the individual case could be discussed. BUT, if you don’t approve this, then you might be responsible for the deaths of a lot of people.

Opposition: *sigh* OK then.

I would put money on this happening 99% of the time. Parliamentary oversight would become a piece of ceremony, with little doubt over the outcome. If the government thinks this is a concession worth shouting about, I can’t hold out much confidence for the other concessions that they claim makes this power more palatable.

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