Tony Blair said something remarkable last week, so remarkable that I still can’t quite believe he said it. At Prime Minister’s Question Time he announced that he was going to change the law so that foreign nationals released from prison: “would be deported irrespective of any claim they have that the country to which they are going back may not be safe".
Did he really mean that he would be prepared to send foreign nationals, even refugees from persecution, back to the countries from which they came even if this meant they would be liable to be tortured there? Well, I can’t see any other way of reading it, though the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, tried to argue on BBC’s Question Time that Blair was confused by the bear pit atmosphere of the Commons and that he meant only to say that he wanted to tighten up the rules.
That might have washed had she been talking of a less competent parliamentary performer - John Prescott perhaps whose mangled syntax often defies rational understanding - but not with the PM. Tony Blair is the most sure-footed and clear speaker in parliament. He says exactly what he means. And what he means is that he intends to legislate so that Britain derogates from our international obligations to combat terrorist regimes which threaten their own citizens.
The irony clearly escapes the PM that one of the reasons we invaded Iraq (according to him) was that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who used torture against his own people. Well, under Tony Blair’s new edict, refugees from Baathist Iraq would automatically have been forced to return if they had committed an imprisonable offence in Britain. Number Ten has not sought to qualify or resile from the PM’s words on Wednesday. It is yet another notch on the authoritarian ratchet. Another attempt to solve short term political difficulties with legislative changes that could fundamentally alter the climate of civil liberties in this country.
The presumption of deportation has already replaced the presumption of innocence in our judicial system. We were told that after the hapless former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, discovered that over a thousand foreign prisoners had been released into the community without being assessed for deportation. In future, thee need be no assessment - they'll be out on their ears.
This is, in itself, highly questionable in law. The implication is that we are more at risk from foreigners who have been released from jail than we are from British citizens who have served their time. Of course, in some cases this may well be the case - terrorists perhaps, or international drug dealers - but the Home Secretary already has the power to deport people on grounds of public safety. Assuming that every foreigner released from prison is a threat to society is something new.
Under our criminal justice system, people who have served their time are supposed to leave prison with the slate clean. They are seen to have paid their debt to society. Not any more. if you are black (and let?s face it, that?s who we're really talking about here) it you have to pay your debts twice over because you will be summarily deported to another country, where you might have to pay with your life. Indeed, merely being deported is itself a punishment, since the disruption involved breaks up families and destroys careers.
But is an American-born businessman who has been convicted for drink-driving to be deported on the grounds that he is a threat to the public? Or an Italian prosecuted for football hooliganism? Or Ernesto Leal, the Chilean arts promoter - in Scotland for thirty years - who served 18 months in prison for a pub brawl? He was re-arrested three weeks ago in Edinburgh and is to be deported to, of all places.
It is now possible that people who have lived here for most of their lives could be forcibly removed for committing relatively trivial crimes which happen to carry a prison sentence - like possession of certain drugs, shop-lifting and even traffic offences. It's possible too that people could be deported who have committed no crime at all, if they are unfortunate enough to have found themselves accused of paedophilia or under age sex and been placed on a register.
The Prime Minister insists that such people will have the right to appeal. A presumption of deportation doesn't mean inevitable deportation. Perhaps, but it does certainly add a new dimension to the existing legal status of immigrants. For the first time they are being condemned as a class for constituting a collective threat to public safety. This is hard law based on bad cases.
Now, of course, many people will say that we shouldn't take any chances. Better to send them home to where they came from. A majority will probably re-offend. True, but so will a majority of British nationals who are sent to prison for serious offences. Surely the logic of this is that we should deport all criminals upon release - and if there isn't anywhere we can send them, shouldn't we keep them under lock and key here just to be on the safe side.
I hesitate event to suggest something so draconian in case it finds its way into the Prime Minister’s next missive. He is clearly determined to challenge every liberal presumption, every cherished freedom, every civilised convention of British civil society. He wants Britain to abandon the Human Rights Convention, which has been the foundation of civil society in Europe since the Second World War and which was ratified by Winston Churchill in 1951.
Tony Blair is out of control. Last week’s row over illegal immigration was another unnecessary panic. Of course we don’t know how many illegal immigrants there are living in Britain. If we did they wouldn’t be illegal. Some of them have even been cleaning the Home Office. But the Prime Minister, and the new Home Secretary, John Reid, seem content to allow this panic to grow if only to feed the demand for new repressive legislation.
Tony Blair said that only identity cards and tougher border controls could stem the influx of illegals. But weren’t we told that ID cards were supposed to be about combating identity theft, and not terrorism or immigration?
Identity cards in European countries like France and Spain haven’t made the slightest difference to the problem of illegal immigration. Anyway, the Home Office has admitted losing hundreds of passports, so what makes anyone think it could manage something as complex as the world’s first biometric identity card?
The government may believe it is only responding to public demand. Many ministers, like the immigration minister Tony McNulty, evidently believe that Britain can remain a liberal country even with a Prime Minister who seems to take his lead from editorials in The Sun. We are told by such as Harriet Harman not to pay too much attention to the PM’s rantings in parliament because he doesn’t really mean it.
But even if he doesn’t, setting the dogs of war loose does have an effect. After the July London bombings Tony Blair announced a twelve point plan for dealing with domestic terrorism through bringing back 14th Century treason laws, introducing detention without trial for three months and outlawing the glorification of terrorism. The treason laws were not re-enacted and nor was ninety day detention. But glorification of terrorism is on the the statute book, and suspects can now be detained for a month without any charge, longer than in any other European country.
Words matter - especially if they are uttered by Number Ten. It is time that Labour MPs in parliament opened their ears and listened.