Dead Men Left

Sunday, January 30, 2005

ASBOs and the "war on terror"

Thanks to Harry Hutton, taking a brief detour away from the usual drollery, this article was brought to my attention:

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is transforming Britain into a police state, one of the country's former leading anti-terrorist police chiefs said yesterday.

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Mr Clarke's proposals to extend powers, such as indefinite house arrest, were "not practical" and threatened to further marginalise minority communities...

He added: "I have serious worries and concerns about these ideas on both ethical and practical terms. You cannot lock people up just because someone says they are terrorists. Internment didn't work in Northern Ireland, it won't work now. You need evidence."

Particularly cruel and unusual in Clarke's scheme is the way in which what is basically a freakishly overgrown Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) will be used to detain those who could not be held under criminal law. The humiliation - supposed international terrotist suspects threatened by measures more generally applied to fourteen year-old shoplifters.

There's a serious point in this flippancy. It's not the "police state" that should cause alarm, since the police (theoretically) need never be involved in the process. What should make us twitchy and nervous are the expanding range of quasi-legal tricks the government has discovered, and are applying more and more frequently.

At present, an ASBO is administered through a civil process by civil authorities. This might include a local council, who would make an application to a civil court for the Order. It will stipulate certain conditions that the individual receiving the Order must fulfil. Conventional common law standards of proof, access to legal defence, and so on, need not apply. If the terms of the ASBO are broken at any point, however, the individual will find themselves facing criminal proceedings: even if the act breaking the ASBO is itself not criminal.

Perhaps we can admire the Kafkaesque logic behind it all; but if anything like "police state" approaches in Britain, it will come through this unpleasant tangling of special civilian procedures with draconian powers.