Cameron's response to Isil: Weak abroad, draconian at home

Article updated following statement: See below

The security propaganda machine is spluttering into action. At the end of last week, the terror threat level was raised from 'substantial' to 'severe', the fourth in a five-tier alert system. Was there any evidence an attack was imminent? No, the home secretary admitted.

Then David Cameron announced a press conference on Friday afternoon. "What we're facing in Iraq now with Isil [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before," the prime minister said.

This type of hyperbole is typical of the security response to potential terror threats. There is no sense that citizens should be given realistic and accurate appraisals of the actual threat level. Instead, they must be scared into relinquishing rights with Biblical rhetoric of threats to their country and home. Recently senior Pentagon officials describe Isil as an "apocalyptic" group which posed an "imminent threat" to the US. Defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the group was "beyond anything that we've seen". What childish nonsense.

This type of exaggerated language – more suitable for the trailer of Expendables 3 than a security briefing - is intended to soften up public opinion for an assault on civil liberties. It was the tenor used by New Labour throughout the post-September 11th period. But it also has the unfortunate effect of drawing more recruits to terror groups, by magnifying and exaggerating their power and importance.

When those murderers killed James Foley, their intention was to spark fear in the leaders and citizens of the West. Newspaper editors, who plastered the images on the front page while pathetically quoting the wishes of Foley's parents that the video not be shown, played directly into their hands. Now Cameron does the same – legislating in haste when cooler heads should prevail. First he prevaricates on a beach and then he panics. It's hard to find anything to recommend Cameron's response.

Cameron was plainly right to warn of the possibility of a terrorist state in Iraq, potentially stretching out to the shores of the Mediterranean. But that is a foreign policy problem, and one which he has shown no ability to address. It is not primarily a home affairs problem, which is the only measure being addressed today.

The Liberal Democrats are still fighting the measures behind the scenes but at 3:30BST this afternoon, Cameron's statement to the Commons will lay out the new powers he wants to deal with the problem of the Brits who have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight. Reports suggest:

  • There has already been an agreement on requiring airlines travelling to and from the UK to provide advance information about passengers, including their reasons for travelling.
  • A temporary ban will be placed on suspected terrorists coming home to the UK, although they will not be stripped of their citizenship.
  • Legislation will make it easier to seize the passports of potential terrorists to stop them leaving.
  • Terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims), the replacement of control orders, will be toughened up.

The ban on those fighting overseas to return to the UK appears to be a compromise. Downing Street wanted to strip them of their passport and make them stateless. But as Tory MP and former shadow attorney general Edward Garnier said on the Today programme this morning, "the government is already bound by two UN conventions on statelessness". Even the bar on them returning to the UK may be illegal. It may also not be helpful. If we know who they are we would be better off letting them return and keeping them under surveillance and then putting them on trial for aiding terrorism.

Whether Britain will be able to spot these individuals is another matter. Doing so will require considerable cooperation from foreign states. Terrorists do not tend to return directly from Iraq or Syria. They will come back from intermediary countries like Turkey or Germany.

The home secretary could already revoke passports via the archaic legal fiction of the royal prerogative, but now border guards will be able to do the same. It is unclear why this is necessary. After all, the border guards could detain anyone they suspect of a crime until the home secretary passes an order. The move bears the whiff of a 'something must be done' frenzy. Its benefits are not obvious and the policy may in fact be harmful. Border guards often prove over-zealous when granted extra powers or discretions.

When government becomes obsessed with 'doing something' it is distracted from working with the powers it already has. There is also a risk that we are simply not enforcing existing legislation. This is not counter-terrorism. It is public relations.

The danger of replicating existing legislation is also strong, as Garnier observed this morning. The fact Cameron has been hammering out the plans in talks with Nick Clegg over the weekend and this morning suggests he's putting forward policy in haste. As is the case in the unfortunately-named Drip law, which expanded and extended surveillance powers available to the state, we are pursuing policy which goes against the civil liberties and privacy without fully thinking it through.

The most dangerous area is Tpims. Some of the powers the coalition trimmed from the measure during its early civil liberties period will almost certainly be reintroduced, although Clegg's opposition will help define how much. Quite probably this will include the ability of authorities to forcibly relocate the individual, as recommended by the reviewer of terrorism legislation David Anderson. They may also accept his recommendation to force those subject to Tpims to attend probation service meetings.

Possibly, there will be a return of powers to unilaterally ban phone and internet use, prohibitions on association with others and extend house curfews, which are called, with a certain Orwellian panache, "overnight residence requirements". It's possible the two-year limitation on Tpims will be extended, although it can already be extended if new information is found by authorities.

This is not enough for Labour, which is demanding the full return of control orders. The party's commitment to civil liberties, proudly trumpeted by Ed Miliband when he became leader, rarely survives contact with a media panic. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has been on the attack, pushing the government to go further when she should be recommending caution. Labour MP Hazel Blears, who sits on the intelligence committee whose role it is to fawn over security officials, demanded the deputy prime minister "get off this kind of high horse that he's on". That is her assessment of civil liberties. It speaks volumes about how she conducts herself in the behind-closed-doors meetings of her scrutinising committee.

Labour would restore the arbitrary powers handed to the home secretary by the control order legislation, allowing her to have "reasonable grounds to suspect" that a person may pose a terrorist threat, rather than "reasonable grounds to believe".

Tpims are an erosion of the British standard of law. Like control orders, they push aside due process and open justice in favour of rumour, suspicion and security service secret hearings. They are against the magna carta. They take and imprison men without the judgement of their peers, based on information which is not made available to him or the public. They're an abomination.

But if the power is to remain in place, the least the government could do is abide by Lord Macdonald's recommendation that they only be allowed if accompanying an ongoing criminal investigation authorised by the director of public prosecutions. The purpose of the measure must be to monitor and restrict freedom so that someone can be put on trial in open court. There can be no other justification.

We have the laws to pursue people suspected of aiding terrorism or terror groups. That is the appropriate way to pursue Isil fighters who return to the UK. But we should be extremely concerned at the manner the government has pursued the issue so far: negotiating down to the wire, pumping out apocalyptic rhetoric to soften up the public mood and reverting to instinctive authoritarianism. It will do nothing to stop terrorism and plenty to increase its support.

It is possible we will be pleasantly surprised when Cameron makes his statement this afternoon, but given the rhetoric he deployed on Friday it seems unlikely. We are weak and indecisive abroad and draconian at home. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy.

Update - 16:16 BST: Cameron confirmed that relocation and exclusion zone powers would be applied to Tpims. He also confirmed powers to revoke passports being handed to border guards, statutory requirements on airlines to provide details of passengers coming to the UK, and plans to exclude those going to fight for Isil from returning to the UK, although he could not provide any further details of the plan.

Ukip is full of racists and lunatics – but Carswell did us all a favour by defecting

Truth is, Douglas Carswell didn't seem that interested in Europe. When he announced his defection to Ukip yesterday, the Clacton MP seemed far more concerned with the structure of internal party democracy.  He expressed it rather well:

"All three of the older parties seem the same. They've swathes of safe seats. They're run by those who became MPs by working in the offices of MPs. They use pollsters to tell them what to tell us. Politics to them is about politicians like them. It's a game of spin and positioning. First under Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown, now David Cameron, it's all about the priorities of whichever tiny clique happens to be sitting on the sofa in Downing Street. Different clique, same sofa. Few are animated by principle or passion. Those that are soon get shuffled out of the way. Many are just in it for themselves. They seek every great office, yet believe in so little."

Carswell singled out the marvellous Tory MP Sarah Wollaston as a case study. Wollaston was chosen in an open primary and she showed the system worked: she is smart, principled and independent-minded. She's exactly what a member of parliament should be. Her success has been so obvious that the Tory leadership closed down the open primaries programme and refused to promote her to Cabinet, even during a reshuffle when they would have taken someone off the street if they could prove they were a woman.

Carswell's appraisal of the Tory party power structure is not so very different from that expressed by Baroness Warsi in her resignation letter last month. Both are interesting politicians who believed the party had no place for them.

Carswell's move seems designed to rock the structure of party politics much more than promoting euroscepticism. His former colleagues in the Tory party are right about one thing: the best way for someone to secure an in/out referendum on the EU is to vote Tory. My hunch is Carswell recognises this. His real motivation is about democratic culture in the UK.

He gave every impression of being a man trying to roll a grenade under the party political system, using euroscepticism and Ukip's apparent 'people's army' as an excuse.

That 'people's army' argument doesn’t stand up to much, as the centralised, top-down attitude of its hierarchy to its current Clacton candidate demonstrates. Roger Lord is technically subject to party rules which state that in by-elections party HQ will decide who is running, in 'consultation' with the local association. I mentioned this to a Ukip expert yesterday, who scoffed and said: "They'll do whatever Nigel says." 'People's army' this ain't.

Even when it comes to the party's views on other issues, Carswell's defection makes no sense. He is a genuine right-wing libertarian, strong on civil liberties and not unreasonable on immigration. He is miles away from the instinctive authoritarianism of Ukip members. The Clacton MP was at pains to disassociate himself from the image of the party during yesterday's press conference. Before he even explained why he was moving, he stressed his support for the political correctness, feminism and British diversity and attacked "angry nativism".

He may be tough on immigration, but a man who believes "we need those with skills and drive" is not a good fit for a party where 22% believe employers should favour white applicants and 18% believe non-white people are not really British.

But despite all its obvious flaws, Carswell's move can offer a genuinely useful mechanism to undermine political parties. As Alex Stevenson wrote yesterday:

"In Clacton, [Carswell] estimated a blank-faced Conservative candidate wouldn't be able to attract more than a third of the vote. In 2010 Carswell won 53%. Where did the extra 20% come from? The answer is the same one which explains Ukip's growing success: 'The anti-politics vote'."

Carswell is in a position to start untangling the nonsense mandates which the Westminster system claims for itself. By pitching his own personal brand against the Tory brand it will become more and more clear how tenuous people's support for the three main parties is. A vote can be a be a vote for a prime minister, a national party, a local party, or a local candidate. It’s never entirely clear which is being given a mandate. The establishment rather enjoy this fudge, because it expands the justifications available to it.

British political parties were created to represent the interests of social classes which have ceased to exist. Their membership has been hollowed out. They are widely detested. As their membership drifts away, they scrap ever more of their internal democratic structures. Conferences where a mass membership would vote on the direction of the party have been turned into events for lobbyists, journalists and politicians to drink themselves to death at overpriced hotel bars. Anyone capable of independent thought is considered useless to the proper functioning of the party. Conformity and lack of curiosity are signifiers of a potentially successful career.

Carswell's move may not make any sense in relation to euroscepticism or even his own apparent political principles. But it could provide a useful corrective to a party system which has become fossilised and hostile to talent.

Only the Tories still refuse to protect children from pornography

You cannot stop young people watching pornography. You can only equip them with the understanding of what it is. That is how to protect them from it. Currently, the Tories are the only mainstream Westminster party committed to not doing so.

The Liberal Democrats announced this morning they would be including "age-appropriate" sex education for children as young as seven in their manifesto. Labour signed up a year ago. Only the Tories remain.

Lib Dems say their coalition partners are immoveable on the subject. They subscribe to the idea that children must be protected from the mention of sex, and especially the circumstances which surround it, until adulthood.

David Laws made the Lib Dem announcement on sex education this morning

Of course, that is not a view ascribed to by pornographers, child abusers or young people themselves. Regardless of the Tories' views on sex education, children will come into contact with sex before they are adults. We must take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. 

A recent IPPR survey of young people found first contact with pornography typically comes between the ages of 13 and 15. Very quickly, accessing pornography is seen as typical. Almost half thought sending sexual or naked videos and images was an everyday part of life for teenagers.

Very worryingly, 45% of young men said "pornography helps young people learn about sex", compared to 29% of young women. Given the often aggressive, male-dominated nature of online porn, we should be seriously concerned about what this is doing to the sexual expectations of young men. Regardless of whether teachers are talking to them about sex, pornographers certainly are.

So are potential sex abusers. Lucy Faithfull Foundation research found failure to provide high quality age-appropriate sex education left young people at risk of inappropriate sexual behaviour and exploitation. Young people needed to learn appropriate language and develop confidence to describe unwanted behaviour, they needed to know where to go for help and understand that sexual exploitation is wrong. This can't be left just to parents, who are often too embarrassed to do it. We need a guarantee children are equipped with the knowledge they need in school.

That is not happening. Ofsted found sex education was inadequate in 40% of schools last year. Too much emphasis was placed on friendships and relationships in primary school, leaving pupils unprepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty. Too much emphasis was placed on the "mechanics" of reproduction in secondary schools, rather than the importance of healthy sexual relationships.

School pupils at the Bridge Learning Campus learning to use computers.

Under current rules, sex and relationship education is only compulsory in council-run secondary schools, but not for academies and free schools, or for primary school pupils.

Even children understand this is wrong. Eighty-six per cent thought "you needed to be taught these things in schools", with just two per cent disagreeing. They are quite specific about how they think this should take place. Sixty-eight per cent of 18-year-olds wanted sex and relationship classes taught by trained experts and 40% wanted it taught by an external visitor. Interestingly, just 19% were comfortable with it being taught by one of their usual teachers. It is worth following their lead on this. They will get the most from a situation they are most comfortable with.

We know this works - not just for protecting kids from the mental and emotional impact of porn, or sexual predators, or the requests of their peers - but even in their broader academic life. A recent Department for Education research report found: "Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school well-being on average have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school, both concurrently and in later years."

The Tory response to pornography and child abuse is to close the curtains and pretend it isn't happening. David Cameron's porn filter policy is actively damaging. It perpetuates the myth that there is a technological solution to porn. Not only is this false, but its implementation often ends up blocking the very websites children and young people can turn to for help and advice.

It is simply impossible to develop software which will be able to prevent 14-year-olds finding photos of naked people. There is no technological solution to teenagers sending naked photos of themselves to one another.

Instead children have to be given the intellectual, social and emotional armour with which to face sex. They need to be taught that they must only ever do what they wish to do, that certain situations - especially but not exclusively involving an adult - are dangerous and unacceptable, and that the world depicted in pornography is not the same as the one which features in real life. They must be taught that consent is the guiding principle and safeguard of a rich and healthy sexual life.

The Tory commitment to depriving children of this education is not an act of protection. It merely puts them in greater danger.

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