Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Thursday, 13 December 2007

'No case' for longer terror limit

Policeman at Westminster
The government faces a battle over extending detention limits

Ministers have not made the case for extending the limit on holding terror suspects before they are charged, an influential committee of MPs has said.

The home affairs committee said there was no evidence to support extending it and suggested other changes such as allowing phone-tap evidence in court.

Ministers have proposed extending the current 28-day limit to 42 days.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the committee's report "decimated" the argument for doing so.

The government and police say the limit needs to be extended because the complexity of terrorism plots is growing.

Intercept evidence

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has proposed allowing a home secretary to extend the limit to 42 days in exceptional circumstances, if a joint report from the director of public prosecutions and a chief constable supported it. That decision would then be subject to a Parliamentary vote within 30 days.

We saw no evidence that there was a case for extending the pre-charge detention beyond 28 days
Keith Vaz
Committee chairman

But the report suggested that instead, the government should look at changing the law to allow the use of intercept evidence - such as evidence from phone taps or bugging - in courts - and to continue questioning suspects after they have been charged.

Intercept evidence is used in many other countries, but has been resisted in Britain for fear of compromising intelligence sources and of concerns that security staff will have to sift through huge amounts of evidence.

'Significant problems'

But the committee said it was "ridiculous" that other countries used it in court and British prosecutors were denied the right to do so.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz said the committee recognised there was a "real and acute" threat from terrorism but said there was a danger Muslims could come to view detention as a form of internment.

He said there should be "evidence of need" before limits were extended any further.

Locking people up for six weeks without charge is totally excessive
Kate Allen
Amnesty International

"The home secretary herself told us that only six of 71 responses to the government's proposals on going beyond 28 days were supportive. This was a surprisingly small number."

He added: "We saw no evidence that there was a case for extending the pre-charge detention beyond 28 days."

The committee also said that a proposal from the campaign group Liberty that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 could be used to hold suspects longer in an emergency would cause "significant legal problems".

Committee split

The report added that "it would not be sensible for a national state of emergency to be triggered in the middle of a major investigation" but said the CCA powers could be reformed to allow a temporary extension.

That recommendation split the committee, with Labour backbencher David Winnick voting against the report - because he said he could not support any moves to extend the limit.

The home secretary should realise that all the evidence so far has undermined, not supported the case for extension
David Davis
Shadow home secretary

In 2005, Tony Blair suffered his first Commons defeat as prime minister after seeking to extend the detention without charge to 90 days.

Ministers face opposition from Tory, Lib Dem and some Labour MPs in any attempt to extend the detention limit.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the report's conclusions "decimated" the home secretary's arguments and backed up the Tories' arguments against extension.

"The home secretary should realise that all the evidence so far has undermined, not supported the case for extension," he said.

Amnesty International's UK director Kate Allen said more and more people were fighting the "draconian" proposals.

"They quite rightly recognise that locking people up for six weeks without charge is totally excessive," she said.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg added: "The fact that this is an all-party committee with a majority of Labour members on it surely spells the end for Gordon Brown's misguided attempt to play tough on terrorism."



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