Gordon Brown tonight abandoned his parliamentary battle to allow police to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 42 days, after the Lords overwhelmingly rejected the proposal by 191 votes. In an emergency statement to MPs tonight, Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, said that the counter-terrorism bill would continue its journey through parliament without the 42 day measure.
But in a face saving gesture, the government will publish a bill containing the 42 day plan; this bill will be held in reserve to be introduced should there be a terrorist emergency. Ministers said they had decided to follow this course because the introduction of the counter-terrorism bill would have been delayed by a year if the government had embarked on a lengthy battle with the Lords.
“I do not believe, as some Hon Members clearly do, that it is enough to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best,” Smith told parliament. “Mr Speaker, that is not good enough. Because when it comes to national security, there are certain risks I’m not prepared to take.
Smith’s announcement came after the former lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, dismissed the government’s arguments as “fanciful”. His comments came in a lengthy debate which ended in peers rejecting the 42 day plan by 309 to 118.
Government sources said Brown’s hand was forced because whips in the Commons told Downing Street that they would struggle to muster a majority in favour of the proposal. The 42 day plan was only passed by MPs in June by nine votes after the prime minister won the support of the nine Democratic Unionist MPs.
If ministers had insisted on keeping the 42 day plan in the counter terrorism bill, Brown would have to have held a series of votes in the commons to overturn the Lords’ rejection. The overwhelming opposition in the lords would have resulted in a game of parliamentary “ping pong” in which the bill would have been passed from chamber to chamber. Brown would then have had to use the parliament act to force the bill through next year.
The announcement by the government came after Falconer told peers how he had changed his mind after supporting Tony Blair’s plan to detain terror suspects without charge for 90 days in 2005.
He had done so because police could now detain terror suspects by using the so-called “threshold test”, an option under which they can charge a suspect on a lower threshold if they have a reasonable suspicion that evidence will be compiled in a reasonable time.
“It has changed in practice the basis upon which it operates,” Falconer said. “The idea that extending [the detention period] from 28 days to 42 days is going to make a difference is utterly fanciful.”
Lord West, the home office minister, warned peers of the dangers of voting against the plan. “If we get it wrong we could all live to regret it. When the need for more than 28 days arrives — and it will — we can either have a well considered and debated back-pocket measure in place ready to make available to prosecutors, or we will be forced to release terrorists on to the streets unless some hurried legislation is passed. And we all know hurried legislation in a period of emergency is bad legislation. Whoever is in power will find it a very uncomfortable moment.”
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, welcomed the government’s climb- down. “Liberty has been overwhelmed by public and parliamentary support for our campaign against the extension. Rest assured that if any government tries again we will be ready,” she said.