Page last updated at 22:32 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 23:32 UK

Smith pledges terror safeguards

Jacqui Smith
Ms Smith was praised for her 'powerful speech' at the meeting

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has told Labour MPs she will bring forward safeguards on controversial anti-terror plans, to try to win over rebel MPs.

She met Labour MPs ahead of a vote next week on extending the 28-day limit on holding suspects without charge.

The PM earlier said he would stick to plans for a 42-day limit but Ms Smith said safeguards would ensure it was used only in exceptional circumstances.

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and about 50 Labour MPs are opposed to the plans.

Ms Smith addressed a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday evening.

'Constructive discussion'

Her concessions are likely to include an earlier Parliamentary vote on any decision to allow someone to be held for 42 days, a shorter period in which the powers can be used and a tight definition of the circumstances in which the laws could be used.

Currently terrorist suspects can be held for up to 28 days before they have to be charged or released.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said there was a sense of a change in mood among Labour MPs in favour of the proposals, partly because of Ms Smith's willingness to make concessions over safeguards.

Leaving the meeting Ms Smith said there had been a "constructive discussion" about the promised strengthening of proposals.

Mr Brown refused to be drawn on whether the issue would become a vote of confidence

She said MPs should accept her proposals "if they are serious about the security of the country".

The home affairs committee chairman, Labour MP Keith Vaz, told the BBC after the meeting he sensed the mood among Labour rebels was changing.

"I think [Jacqui Smith's speech] is going to go a long way to reassure backbench opinion in the Labour Party that the government has moved since its original proposals last year," he said.

But Labour MP John Grogan said while Ms Smith had made a "powerful speech", he was still not convinced she had made the case on security grounds for extending the 28-day limit.

He told the BBC: "We should not give up lightly liberties which have taken centuries to establish. Reluctantly, I still can't support the government."

The government is expected to outline amendments to the Counter-Terrorism Bill on Tuesday, or later in the week, in an effort to win over Labour rebels.

An estimated 50 Labour MPs had been thought to be unhappy with the proposal, which, along with opposition from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, could spell defeat for the government when Parliament votes.

'No knockout blow'

Speaking at a news conference to mark the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Mr Brown said the "scale and complexity" of the terrorist threat facing Britain provided compelling evidence of the need to increase the amount of time suspects could be held without charge.

He said security services were pursuing about 2,000 terrorists, 30 potential plots and 200 networks.

"I've tried to build consensus around our proposals, but I am determined that we stick to our principles and that is that up to 42 days' detention is and will be necessary in the future," he said.

"But Parliament will make the final decision on the individual incident itself.

"And when we put forward all our proposals, people will see very clearly that the civil liberties of individuals are taken fully into account."

The hard politics is very simple: are Labour MPs prepared to defend British civil liberties even if it's at the cost of their own party leader?
Nick Clegg
Liberal Democrat leader
He refused to be drawn on whether defeat would mean a vote of confidence on his leadership.

He listed safeguards that would be made to maximise protection against "arbitrary treatment" - including allowing the longer limit only in specific circumstances and only if sanctioned by the home secretary, director of public prosecutions, the police and Parliament.

And the judiciary would oversee each individual case.

The government is thought likely to offer two main concessions to potential rebels:

  • MPs could be allowed to vote after seven days - instead of after 30 days - on the decision to allow someone to be detained for the longer period.
  • The window of time in which police are allowed to use the power could be halved from 60 to 30 days - once the home secretary has granted permission.

The prime minister received backing for his stance on 42 days by ex-home secretary David Blunkett.

Mr Blunkett said that Mr Brown's government had "hit rock bottom" but said while defeat on the issue would be "yet another blow", it would "not be a knockout blow".

The Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe has indicated she is likely to vote with the government and ministers are trying to win over the nine DUP MPs.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: "The hard politics is very simple: are Labour MPs prepared to defend British civil liberties even if it's at the cost of their own party leader?"

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has said holding someone for 42 days without charge would be "excessive".


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