War crimes: Will the government ever act?

● Jack Straw blocks change and Gordon Brown does nothing. The Tories have called it 'crazy' and the deadline for action is about to pass...

By Martin Bright and Stephen Pollard, January 28, 2010

Legislation to prevent magistrates issuing arrest warrants for high-profile foreign visitors accused of war crimes has been delayed because it is still awaiting a decision from Gordon Brown.

One senior government source close to the process told the JC this week: “There is no evidence that the Prime Minister is having second thoughts, but he needs to press the button.”

At the same time, Downing Street sources said that Number 10 was furious that the Justice Secretary Jack Straw is still dragging his feet over the issue.

Mr Straw is known to be highly sensitive to the views of his Muslim constituents in Blackburn and is close to the Muslim Council of Britain, which opposes a change to the law.

Shadow Middle East minster David Lidington said there was no excuse for the delay:"It is absolutely crazy that they seem to be incapable of acting. This has to be sorted and quickly. Subject to seeing the details we will help the government get this through.

"It is very clear to me that this issue is doing serious damage to relations with Israel. This needs to be resolved. If we hope to play a part in the Middle East peace process senior Israelis need to know they can travel freely in the UK."

The Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced his intention to change the law on ‘universal jurisdiction’ late last year and is pushing hard within Whitehall for a solution.

But according to a highly placed source, the Justice Secretary is “pulling every trick in the book” to frustrate Mr Miliband’s move to deal with it.

The source said: “Every time a deal seems close to being done, Jack finds another ‘obstacle’. He is the block. Without him this would have been dealt with weeks ago.”

Were the Prime Minister to signal his approval of Mr Miliband’s proposals, Mr Straw would no longer be able to block them, but Mr Brown has yet to make his final view clear.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Office briefed that an announcement of the law change was imminent.

After apparently overcoming its initial reservations about removing the power from magistrates, the Ministry of Justice told this newspaper two weeks ago that a decision was just days away. But following the Justice Secretary’s continued blocking of the proposed law change, there is now a very tight window to get the legislation through Parliament before the general election.

The date originally considered as the deadline was February 2. However, the delay has meant that February 12 has now emerged as a possible extension.

But there is thought to be no further leeway if no proposal is agreed by then.

There are serious fears within the leadership of the Jewish community that the government will not act in time.

Sources close to the Jewish Leadership Council confirmed that representations to the government had intensified over the past week. It is believed that a make-or-break stage has been reached.

Another senior community figure told the JC that “the chance must be somewhere close to zero” of the government “doing what it promised”.

The source added: “The MCB must be laughing its head off. It was let back in and the government has gained nothing in return. Nothing.”

We understand that there were initial concerns from the Ministry of Justice that the usual process of consultation on the legislation had not been followed.

There has also been a great deal of discussion about whether to attach the necessary amendment to a Ministry of Justice or Home Office bill.

It is now thought likely that Home Secretary Alan Johnson will be asked to guide any law change through Parliament in order to reduce the political damage to Mr Straw.

JC Opinion: Crystal clear who is to blame

The time for excuses is over. For weeks the government has been giving every possible off-the-record promise that it would change the law on universal jurisdiction. No longer would unsuitable magistrates be able to issue warrants for the arrest of some of our closest allies, doing the bidding of Palestinian activists. Yes, they said, we know how ridiculous it was that Tzipi Livni had to cancel her visit last month. Trust us. We will sort out this mess. So trust them we did. Which, it now seems, was a big mistake. The Foreign Secretary has indeed been attempting to reach a solution, although he has hardly been a model of consistency: earlier last year, in the wake of Israel’s Gaza military action, he broke a promise made to Ms Livni in 2008 that he would change the law. But now that he has realised the necessity for changing the law, he has been frustrated at every move by the behaviour of the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw. Mr Straw is behaving as if he is the MCB’s place man in government, using the smokescreen of technical legislative problems to cover what is in reality a deeply political position — doing everything in his power to prevent a change in the law. Mr Straw must take the Jewish community for mugs if he thinks his behaviour is not transparent. As for the Prime Minister: all he has ever needed to do is make clear that he backs Mr Miliband, and the issue would have been over. That he has done precisely nothing since promising action speaks volumes about his own bona fides. If — and now it looks like when — the deadline for action passes and nothing is done, it will be crystal clear who is to blame.

Last updated: 9:52am, March 26 2010