With actress Honor Blackman and actors from the National Theatre during a public meeting on secret evidence
I have always had a strong interest in civil liberties since my work when I was younger for the National Council for Civil Liberties (now the campaigning organisation Liberty). The riots that took place in Bristol, London and Liverpool in the 1980s when relations between the police and Black and ethnic minority communities were at a low. Discriminatory police practices were common and a generation of young people grew up not trusting or believing in the Police.
When I first came to Parliament in 1987 I spoke out against Stop and Search laws which infringed on the civil liberties of young Black men. Since the tragic murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence and the McPherson report that followed it, the police have been forced to re-evaluate their equality policies and the situation has improved.
I am concerned that anti-terror laws brought in since the September 11th attacks will have the same detrimental effect on relations between the police and Muslim communities. In particular, I have campaigned against pre-charge detention. After September 11th the length of time someone could be held without charging them from 14 days to 28 days. At that time I voted in support of increasing the detention. My decision at that point was based on what the Government were telling MPs about the terror threat to this country.
However, last year the Government put forward an attempt to increase this time to 42 days. I was against this move from day one as I believe 42 days is much too long for anyone to be held without charging them for any crime. It is vastly important to ensure basic rights that have been enshrined in this country's system of law for hundreds of years are protected. It is all too easy for authorities to take advantage of such laws and for vulnerable people to be held when they have done nothing wrong. There was also not enough evidence to show that police need the extra time. The Director of Public Prosecutions, many police chiefs and people with experience of internment in Northern Ireland were all against the idea. After a very successful campaign led by Liberty, the House of Commons voted in favour of introducing 42 days detention without charge. Luckily the idea was then thrown out by the House of Lords. But the campaign continues to defend our civil liberties whilst still protecting the country from terrorism.
Most recently I have been involved in a campaign to prevent the use of "secret" evidence in UK courts. Currently people are being held either in prison, or under virtual house arrest, on the basis of closed evidence that they have never heard. Worryingly their lawyers are not allowed to hear this evidence either and so are unable to defend their clients fully. On 30th March I hosted a parliamentary meeting which will be the start of a campaign to push the government into eradicating the use of secret evidence. We saw further developments in this campaign when the High Court ruled the use of secret evidence unlawful. This article discusses the use of secret evidence:
Andy Worthington in the Guardian - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/apr/29/secret-evidence-terror-suspects
I have also been campaigning against the use of extraordinary rendition and the Government's apathy towards the practice. Following the case of former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Binyam Mohamed, there were questions raised over the British Governments involvement in extraordinary rendition and complicity in torture. I questioned former Foreign Secratary David Miliband on this issue in Parliament, of which the full exchange can be found here. I have also tabled an EDM reaffirming the need to hold a full inquiry into these allegations and further allegations raised in recent years.