December 30, 2005

Terrorism bill debate in parliament

I'm just playing a game of poker online and watching the repeat of the commons debate on the 90 day detention bill, thought I'd write up a few comments as I watch it.

My first impression is that many politicians make considerably more intelligent points than you'd expect and many make considerably less intelligent points than you could imagine.

Much of the discussion has been about the question of why it should be 90 days exactly, and why the alternative offered was 28 days. David Winnick (Labour) proposed the 28 day extension as an alternative to 90 days. In answer to the question of how he settled on the number 28, his answer was that since the police had asked for an extension, and in light of the terrorist threat, doubling it felt reasonable. In other words, no good reason at all. It's interesting the lack of rationality or evidence that informs debate on such a crucial issue.

Even more curiously, immediately after this response, another Labour party MP asked indignantly whether he believed that the terrorist threat was only twice as bad as it was before. For someone responsible for the governing of this country to make a statement like this is simply staggering to me. The level of ignorance, stupidity and obeisance displayed is shocking. In this statement, there was an unchallenged assumption that the terrorist threat is substantially worse than it was at the time the period was extended from 4 to 14 days. I'm not exactly sure when this extension was made but I believe it was reasonably recently. There is also a rather crude attempt at a mathematical theory of terrorism threats, the idea that you could measure how bad the terrorist threat is on some linear scale, and that any such measure would show that the threat is much worse now than ever before (by a factor of 6 times at least if you accept the rest of the logic of her argument). It seems clear to me that if you measure the threat of terrorism on any objective scale it will be about the same or lower than in the past. In particular, I seem to remember reading that the annual number of deaths due to terrorism worldwide is at quite a historical low over the last couple of years (with a big spike in 2001 of course). Finally, and by far the most insane part of her question, she seems to imply that if the threat of terrorism is twice as big, it follows that you need to detain people without trial for twice as long! This is obviously complete gibberish which went without comment. It's a pure example of the logical fallacy known as non sequitur – "it doesn't follow" – two statements P and Q which are unconnected to each other described "P and therefore Q". In fact, it might be quite amusing to look at her statement in these symbolic logical terms. In her case, the statement P is meaningless, is false under any obvious objective interpretation, and is unconnected with the statement Q. And this is what passes for debate in the house of commons.

On the positive side, I was impressed by David Davis' rather intelligent objections to the 90 day idea, although unimpressed by his support for the 28 day idea. In all fairness, he pretty much openly admitted that his support was purely political expediency. Myself I think he let himself be hoodwinked there, but that's a matter of judgement, and it's by no means clear.

I was also impressed by how well various MPs responded when one servile Labour party twit criticised David Davis for not listening to what the police chiefs were asking for. They made various comments about this of the sort I would make, including saying that it is the job of politicians and not police to decide on these issues, asking whether or not we should just accede to police requests if they asked for 180 days, a year, two years, etc., pointing out that a state in which police requests are automatically granted is a police state, etc. Of course I was disappointed at the Labour party twit making this critifcism in the first place, but I was impressed by the robustness of the defence against it.

Overall though, my impression on watching this debate is that most MPs are very weak minded, servile to their masters, uncritical and rather crassly stupid. One Labour MP told us that in one case the police had mentioned that if they had printed out all the relevant computer data it would have been a pile of paper 66,000 feet high. It's just laughable. What font size? How big were the margins? How thick was the paper? Are they printing it in binary? If you printed out in binary all the information on my computer, including all the system files which after all the terrorists might have injected encrypted plans into, it would be that big too I expect. Even if you had 10 years to study a computer you wouldn't be guaranteed to have found everything if you had a sufficiently obsessive terrorist hiding information on it. Completely ignorant and credulous the lot of them. They even admitted it themselves. One conservative MP made the point that since none of them knew or understood why 90 days was necessary they should probably just accept the professional judgement of the police.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I wish I could say that I was surprised by the crass stupidity of MPs but I'd be lying. Lloyd George once said that the Lords were 500 ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the ranks of the unemployed; throw in a few women and the Commons aren't radically different by and large.

    30 Dec 2005, 03:04

  2. Where can I find a repeat of the debate?

    (I seem to remember reading somewhere that many Labour MPs went to second-rate universities. They're certainly not the finest minds the country has to offer, nor the wisest.)

    30 Dec 2005, 12:44

  3. Luke, that's quite funny, I like that.

    Edward, you can look it up in Hansard November 9th 2005 1.39pm (columns 325 onwards). This link may or may not work.


    I saw it on BBC parliament channel, I don't know if they'll repeat it. There were other debates in parliament on the 90 day thing, this is just the one I happened to see last night.

    Some choice quotes:

    Mr. Winnick: I was asked that question in Committee and pointed out that it did not come from one of my research assistants, if only because I do not have a research assistant. I do not know whether it is a unique form of advanced mathematics, but given that we already have 14 days, and in view of the acute terrorist threat and the police request, I thought that it would not be unreasonable—being a very reasonable and flexible person—to double that to 28 days. If that does not satisfy my hon. Friend, there is nothing that I can do.

    Shona McIsaac: Is my hon. Friend therefore telling the House that he feels that the terrorist threat in this day and age is only twice as bad as before? If he wants Members to support 28 days, he ought to give an evidence-based case.

    (I had forgotten the added insult of her demanding that he give an evidence based case!)

    Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I want to say at the outset that I shall support the Government in the Lobby this afternoon. However, I have tabled an amendment, which would provide for a period of detention of up to 60 days. The reason for tabling amendment No. 33 is simple: we support the Government's position because we believe that the case is compelling and we want to support the police. Like other Lancashire Members of Parliament, I have a letter from the acting deputy chief constable of Lancaster, Julia Hodson, who urges us to support the Government so that she and her colleagues can protect the public in the way that they wish. My plea is simple: if amendment No. 55 falls—I sincerely hope that it does not; it has my support—28 days is not long enough because, as a Liberal Democrat Member said, it is insufficient for the police to do their work. In their recent evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the police referred to one case in which, if they had printed out the computer data that they had recovered, it would have made a pile 66,000 ft high. That is the sort of challenge that the police face and they need our help to meet it.


    30 Dec 2005, 15:19

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