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Tuesday, June 29, 2010 

The Con-Dems, collusion and civil liberties.

The first few weeks of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have been wearingly familiar. We were told that this was going to be a thoroughly new and modern government, with the competing philosophies not resulting in conflict but in a, err, liberal conservatism. David Cameron, less than a month before election day, gave an interview in which he pledged to govern for all, and stressed his "one nation" credentials. The party's manifesto, already notoriously, emphasised how they would create a "big society" out of the broken one. If anyone has since heard any mention of that social policy, it's been drowned out by a budget which wore its debt to Thatcherism on its sleeve. All the chancellor and the work and pensions secretary want to discuss is how to get the scroungers off incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance, so that other far more deserving parts of public spending can instead be somewhat protected from Osborne's hatchet.

If the resort to the comforting bosom of Keynes was always going to be short lived and the return to suckling on the shrivelled teat of monetarism inevitable, then it has to be admitted that on the social policy front, away from the evaporating "big society", there's been a couple of things to cheer, as well as some warnings of how little difference there may well in reality be between the New Tories and their liberal partners and the now even more inaccurately monikered New Labour. Despite signs that the Tories would start to repudiate the legacy of the last government immediately, at least for the next six months 28 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects will remain. There's been no discussion as yet of what will happen to control orders, which the Liberal Democrats pledged to repeal, and while ID cards and the ContactPoint database have both been flushed away, they were always going to be two of the easiest steps to take. It remains to be seen what the "great repeal act" we were promised will in fact aim to remove from the statute books, but away from that the only real sense of a change we've been given is the possibility of a more liberal penal policy, with Ken Clarke to give an insight into that tomorrow, having previously outraged the Daily Mail by suggesting that perhaps the last 18 years of "prison works!" might not have in fact been the best use of public money, nor been effective in preventing crime.

Where both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had talked a good game was over our alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition and the torture of our own citizens and residents. The only way to get to the bottom of just how far our intelligence services had cooperated with others who had no qualms in mistreating detainees was a judicial inquiry, both parties argued. Around a month ago it emerged that there would indeed be such an inquiry, although it was still uncertain which form it would take. Today we've learned some more details, yet now that the security services are free to be completely "open" with the new government it's natural their "deep concerns" at a light being shone on their past activities are being considered far more carefully. It's also complicated by the numerous compensation cases which were brought and are still going through the courts when it became clear that Labour would never countenance any sort of independent inquiry, as well as by the incredibly long time it's taking to decide whether "Witness B", the scapegoat in the Binyam Mohamed case, should face any sort of charges.

It's equally clear that there are going to be major difficulties in the openness of any sort of inquiry. You only have to look at the ridiculous censorship which the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee's yearly reports into the security services undergo, where whole sections are redacted and where it's possible to be less informed having read one than when you began to see what any inquiry will have to fight against. Then there's the supposed 250,000 documents which may have some relevance to the cases currently being brought, one of the arguments being used by the last government as to why such an investigation should be resisted. This is without considering whether the inquiry, if it is to be judicial, could be held in public as much as possible, or entirely behind closed doors, and whether those called as witnesses would have to give evidence under oath. Considering that it's already almost certain that a former head of MI5 lied to the ISC during past hearings, and that other agents are hardly likely to be completely open without assurances as to the consequences of doing so, getting these things just right may well be crucial to the inquiry not becoming just another establishment stitch-up.

For those of us opposed to much else of the new government's programme, it has to be admitted that while there was some form of Labour government an inquiry into rendition and collusion in torture was never going to happen. After all, those still at the top of the party were the ones who had ultimate responsibility for exactly the policies which the security services involved themselves in, even if there's a suggestion that MI5 and SIS were not being entirely honest at times with their ministerial masters. Jack Straw talked of "conspiracy theories" back in 2005 at the mere hint that there might have been skulduggery, while last year after the seven paragraphs were revealed Alan Johnson, who since the election seems to have vanished from the face of the earth, said that "ludicrous lies" were being told about those who were protecting us from harm. It was suggested in the ruling that released those seven paragraphs that the leading candidate for the Labour leadership, David Miliband, had been lied to when he issued the public immunity certificates involved in the case. We have no indication that in opposition the party is now supporting an inquiry, and considering that Harriet Harman in the Commons today seemed to be more determined to continue with the insanity in Afghanistan than the new government, the party's bizarre foreign policy seems unchanged.

It's clear that in order to start afresh there needs to be the widest possible inquiry established. It should be judicial, as much as possible should be held in public, and while some evidence will almost certainly will have to be heard in relative secret, the ultimate report should be free from redaction. We need to know for certain how high the authorisation went for active collusion in the misdeeds of other intelligence services, and those responsible should be named, with prosecution a potential possibility. Most of all, it should be those making the decisions rather than the agents on the ground that bear the ultimate responsibility for resorting back to the techniques of the early 70s. It will also enable us to judge the coalition on its deeds rather just its good words prior to the election, and just how far their adherence to civil liberties really goes.

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