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What do we think of counter-terrorism legislation?

18/03/2010

The UK is often seen at both the forefront of the violent Islamist threat and also the legislation that is being crafted in the West to counter it. Consequently, it was very interesting to see the Home Office publish a paper by DSTL (which I always thought was a more tech-based lab) that provides an overview and analysis of the current research that has been undertaken in the UK looking at counter-terrorism legislation and its impact on public opinion and opinion forming.

The conclusions are pretty bleak for those actually seeking to obtain useful information from the sea of research that has been produced on the topic (as someone in HMG put it to me late last year, much of what has been pumped out under the aegis of research on countering terrorism is “dross.”), but I suppose are quite positive for those who are in fact planning to produce more of this research: the report concludes highlighting “the need for further research”.

This would I suppose discount reams of speculative articles essentially re-treading what are believed to be public perceptions based on reading the press or Comment is Free (one can only hope that previous pieces I have done do not fall into this category, apologies if they do).

Here are a few quick points I took away from the DSTL paper:

Perceptions are at the heart of what this paper is trying to probe and government is clearly trying to understand: the very title “What perceptions do the UK public have concerning the impact of counter-terrorism legislation implemented since 2000?” shows this, but at the same time, the report highlights how this is something that has not been analyzed or measured effectively at all. In part this is a problem since more generally the report concludes this is a topic that is hard to measure.

But with regards terrorism legislation, it is an even harder thing to measure practically when we consider the low number of actual terrorist attacks (though this is a good problem to have), and thus measuring reactions to legislation which can appear to be targeting individuals who, in practical point of fact, have failed yet to carry out their murderous plans.

A big tangible take-away is that people don’t like stop and search and think that it is targeting groups unfairly, etc. In fact, according to the paper stop and search is the only demonstrable policy which can conclusively said to be unpopular in implementation (conclusions about reactions to other policies are mostly anecdotal). Hardly a surprising conclusion to reach, and one that increasingly makes me feel as though I need to see some conclusive evidence that it actually helps or does anything if we are to continue it – under certain circumstances maybe it is necessary, but blanket stop and search for terrorism issues cannot have stopped or disrupted many terrorist plots.

In a way connected to this, it seems as though the public has absolutely no faith in the government on terrorist matters, though this likely is exacerbated by my earlier point about perceptions. While apparently if something has a judicial stamp on it, it is seen in a more positive light, I have a feeling people are in fact equally skeptical about that if pushed.

I recall giving a presentation in which I highlighted that in fact police had to present a suspect before a judge every 7 days while he was being held in a pre-charge state on terrorism charges to present their case for keeping him longer, I was met with a wave of skeptical hems and haws about the fairness of this.

Two statistical details highlighted which I rather enjoyed: it turns out we really don’t like the government getting their hands on our DNA unless we have done something very naughty. An understandably high degree of paranoia I would have thought, but good to see in numbers. Secondly, and less amusing, apparently 45% of people think that denying people a trial for terrorism charges is a “price worth paying.” Admittedly the date the poll was taken is relatively soon after 7/7, but it seems to me that this is a fundamental thing that we need to hold on to if we are planning on marking long-term success in this conflict.

We will only do this if we fight it on terms that we have laid out before we step on to the battlefield, not making it up as we go along. We may have to build some flexibility into this in the long-term, but nonetheless there are certain key elements we have to establish agreement on before we proceed too far.