Page last updated at 21:32 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 22:32 UK

Labour MPs debate terror stance

An armed police officer
Downing Street says the vote is not "in the bag" yet

Labour MPs threatening to rebel over plans to extend the time terror suspects can be held without charge have met to discuss their position.

They were addressed by Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti - one of the most high-profile opponents of the measures.

Former minister Frank Dobson, who chaired the meeting, said he would not support the measures as they stood.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the Spectator she believed the government would win next week's Commons vote.

"I don't think the government could fall over this," she adds in her interview with Thursday's edition of the magazine.

About 50 backbenchers are said to be ready to defy ministers in a crucial Commons vote next week on whether terrorist suspects should be able to be held for up to 42 days, without charge.

Magna Carta

Some have said they have changed their minds, following a series of government amendments.

But Mr Dobson, speaking after the meeting, told the BBC he would rebel if more concessions were not offered. "As it's put in the amendments that the government's put forward, I will certainly vote against," he said.

With all the safeguards we have put in place, I believe it is right for the House to vote for the up-to-42-days proposals that we are putting forward
Gordon Brown

"We're not talking about some sort of fancy-nancy new human rights act or something. This, the requirement that people be not held without being charged, is actually in Magna Carta which became the law of this country nearly 800 years ago."

At prime minister's questions earlier, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the revised plans for the Counter Terrorism Bill included "major civil liberties safeguards".

"With all the safeguards we have put in place, I believe it is right for the House to vote for the up-to-42-days proposals that we are putting forward," he said.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also oppose the plan to extend the maximum time terror suspects can be held without charge from 28 to 42 days.

This raises the prospect of Mr Brown suffering his first Commons defeat since becoming prime minister last year.

Labour MPs are studying proposed amendments to the Counter Terrorism Bill, published by the Home Office.

The main concessions are:

  • MPs must vote on whether to grant police the new powers within seven days of an application rather than 30
  • The 42-day limit can only be made available in the event of a grave exceptional threat
  • The time the higher limit is available is reduced from 60 days to 30 days

Despite the concessions, BBC political correspondent Norman Smith said there was a "significant number of Labour backbenchers who are absolutely determined to vote against the 42-day proposal".

Ms Chakrabarti dismissed the proposed amendments as "fig leaves".

"Forty-two days' detention without charge has not been transformed into the emergency power promised by ministers. The policy is as dangerous as ever," she said.

Even with these changes the power could still become "routine, triggered for operational convenience in individual cases", she added.

The outcome of the vote may depend on smaller parties such as the DUP, which voted against the government three years ago on plans to extend pre-charge terror detentions to 90 days.

The loss of the 90-days vote in 2005 was Tony Blair's first Commons defeat as prime minister.


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