The Tories and control orders: saying one thing, voting another way

by Stephen Tall on November 17, 2009

Control orders were introduced by Labour in 2005, and give the Home Secretary powers to impose a limitless range of restrictions on any person they suspect of involvement in terrorism.

As the Lib Dems noted in our proposed Freedom Bill, ‘The restrictions imposed by some control orders amount to house arrest and they can include controls on who a person can meet or speak to; when they can leave their house and where they can go. This undermines the freedom not only of those on control orders but of their families as well.’

Lib Dems are, unsurprisingly, opposed to Labour’s arbitrary control orders:

These restrictions can be placed on British citizens and foreign nationals on the basis of reasonable suspicion, thereby undermining the presumption of innocence as Ministers do not have to prove that they have committed any crime. Control orders also undermine the separation of powers and the right to a fair trial, as decisions to impose them are made by politicians not judges and are based on secret evidence, which the individual concerned is unable to see and powerless to dispute. They can also be renewed annually for an indefinite period.

And if you believe the utterances of their shadow security minister Baroness (Pauline) Neville-Jones so do the Tories:

Control orders deny due process to the defendant, do not provide a reliable remedy to the security problem posed by terrorist suspects, and on top of all that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. A Conservative government would review the morally objectionable and costly control order regime with a view, consistent with the security situation, to replacing it by the trial of suspects through the normal court system.”

You can’t get much clearer than that, can you? “Morally objectionable”, “deny due process”, “costly” (in reverse order of Tory concerns, I suspect). The trouble is, Baroness Neville-Jones’s words do not match the Tories’ actions.

You see, Parliament has to vote to renew control orders every year – and, in 2007, the Tories voted for their renewal. It’s only fair to note that the party’s then-security spokesperson Patrick Mercer did express serious reservations and pledged not to support another renewal unless the regime was substantially improved.

And so for the last two years, in 2008 and 2009, the Tories have bravely … erm, abstained on the control orders vote. That’s right, they’ve stuck by their pledge not to support the renewal – but by merely abstaining the Tories have allowed Labour to use their crushing majority to push them through. In each of these years the Liberal Democrats voted against the renewal of control orders.

In the most recent Commons vote, on 3rd March 2009, just three Tory MPs turned up to vote on control orders – none of them frontbenchers. In the most recent Lords vote, on 5th March 2009, only two Tory peers turned up to vote on control orders. Neither of them was Pauline Neville-Jones.

On those occasions when the media (and more occasionally still) the public ask that most irritating question, “What’s the point of voting for the Lib Dems?”, it’s worth remembering … only the Lib Dems had the political guts to vote against a deeply illiberal measure.

Not because we thought it would be a vote winner – indeed, it’s probably a net vote loser, as it’s all too easy to be stereotyped as ’soft on terrorism’ by a reactionary government and an even more reactionary media – but because it was against the Lib Dems’ political principles. The Tories might not like control orders – but they’re too afraid of the political ramifications even to turn up to vote, let alone to cast a vote against them.