We know this isn't going to be popular among a great many ConservativeHome readers and 92% of adopted Tory candidates but we ought to publicly nail our colours to the mast and stand up with Ann Widdecombe, Norman Tebbit, Matthew d'Ancona, Melanie Phillips and Frank Field as supporters of the Government's attempts to introduce a period of 42 days' pre-charge detention.
This debate is often portrayed as a great clash between those who care about civil liberties and those who don't. Between those who are too worried about the threat of terrorism and those who are blind to the dangers we face from extremists. This isn't helpful. Is there really a substantial, principled difference between the Conservative leadership's support for the existing 28 day detention period and the Labour leadership's preference for 42 days? David Cameron has always been careful to appear pragmatic on the issue - repeatedly saying that he and the Tory frontbench were open to persuasion that more than 28 days might be necessary. He hasn't been persuaded but he has never ruled out a longer period of detention on the grounds of high principle.
Experts are divided on the issue but we have heard enough in recent days to tip us into the camp supporting the Government's plans.
Crucial to our conclusion was last week's article in The Telegraph by Peter Clarke, former head of Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Unit. He argued that the complexity of the terrorist networks we currently face - using hi tech methods and operating across borders - may mean that more than 28 days of investigations might soon be necessary. Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, the former Met Chief, who advises David Cameron on security issues, has told this morning's Times that "anti-terrorist police have come close in the cases of six suspects to needing more than 28 days to detain them". A mature political party, interested in public safety, shouldn't lightly dismiss the arguments of such a senior anti-terrorist specialist and a senior police chief.
This is the point where those of us wanting to pay close attention to the views of the police are sometimes accused of wanting to build a police state. That's why the provisions of the proposed legislation are so important. Without judicial safeguards there would be a danger of a slippery slope but the police's powers to detain are heavily checked by the judiciary in order that a long period of detention is only used in special circumstances. When we last looked, our courts have a track record of being more than fair to extremists that the Government has wanted to deport or otherwise punish. We are beginning to worry, with Frank Field, that the concessions granted by the Government may risk gumming up the legislation but certainly welcome the latest announcement that any persons wrongly detained should receive proper compensation. Khurshid Ahmed, Chairman of the influential British Muslim Forum, has just announced that he is satisfied with the safeguards.
A willingness to back 42 days does partly depend upon your perception of the threat we face. In recent days Sir John Major and Patrick Mercer have reflected on the UK's battle against the IRA. We didn't need such powers then, they say, and are unconvinced by the case for them now. We reject the IRA/ al-Qaeda comparisons. We do not have such good intelligence about today's extremists. Not yet anyway. Today's terrorists attack without warning. They are willing to use mentally ill children as suicide bombers. They want to kill as many people as possible. They don't want some of our territory. They won't be satisfied until we are destroyed or enslaved. The nature of the threats are not comparable. Our defences must match the scale of the threat.
It is said that 42 days will be a recruiting sergeant for extremist groups but it has not been said why 28 days aren't a recruiting sergeant and 42 days will be. It has also been said that Britain already has some of the longest pre-charge detention periods in Europe but David Aaronovitch has pointed out that the situation in the EU is actually much more complex.
A clear majority of the British people favour a longer detention period. We believe that the British people are right. They won't readily forgive any politicians who allow a major atrocity to occur because our detention procedures prove to be inadequate.