By Kitty Donaldson | Two of Tony Blair’s former ministers and his top domestic security official said they will vote against anti-terrorism laws proposed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the upper chamber of Parliament.
Former Justice Secretary Charles Falconer and former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith joined Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of the domestic spy agency MI5 in saying they won’t support plans to extend the time police can detain terrorism suspects without charge to 42 days.
“I have weighed up the balance between the right to life, the most important civil liberty, the fact that there is no such thing as complete security, and the importance of our hard-won civil liberties,” Manningham-Buller, who as a so-called crossbencher is not affiliated to any of the political parties, said in the House of Lords today. “On a matter of principle, I cannot support 42 days pre-charge detention.”
The comments signal unease within the House of Lords that may derail the key provisions in the Counter-Terrorism Bill when it comes before lawmakers later this year. The lower House of Commons cleared the measures by a margin of nine votes after the Democratic Unionist Party supported Brown’s Labour government.
While the Lords have no authority to block the entire Terrorism Bill, their power to amend laws may mean the government is forced to strip out the provision or make more concessions to ensure civil liberties are protected. The Lords will consider the bill line-by-line in the autumn.
No party holds a majority in the House of Lords, which must agree with the rules before they can become law. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the two biggest opposition parties, voted against the government’s detention plan in the Commons and plan to do so again in the Lords.
Ministers argue that the increasing complexities of terrorism cases mean the police need longer to examine them. They have cited an alleged 2006 plot to bomb airliners as proof of the case for extra time, saying investigating officers were close to releasing the suspects because of the current 28-day limit.
Lord Falconer, a Labour lawmaker in the Lords who shared a room with Blair in university, said he would oppose the plans “root and branch.”
“I’m absolutely clear that there’s no advantage for fighting terrorism that will be obtained from extending detentions to 42 days,” Falconer said. The difference between the current limit of 28 days and the proposed 42 would “make no difference” to the police and to claim so is a “ridiculous assertion.”
Lord Goldsmith said he didn’t want to “take away freedoms that people, and our ancestors, have fought for without very good cause.” Brown took over from Blair in June 2007.
Security minister Alan West, former head of the British navy, argued the measures are necessary to protect Britain from the growing threat from international terrorists.
“We face an unprecedented terrorist threat,” West told lawmakers. “There’s a clear and present danger to our population.”
Brown says the security services are currently investigating 30 potential terrorist plots, 2,000 terrorist suspects and 200 networks. In recent cases, police needed to examine 400 separate computers, 8,000 discs and 25,000 exhibits, he says.
The main opposition Conservative security spokeswoman in the Lords, Pauline Neville-Jones, herself a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said the plans are another attempt by the government to broach civil liberties.
“It represents yet another attack, on the part of the government, without justification, on fundamental democratic rights and freedoms that have underpinned our society for centuries,” Neville-Jones said.
Martin Thomas, who speaks on legal matters for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, predicted “this draconian proposal will be defeated” in the upper chamber.
“The government’s proposals do not have serious support amongst senior police officers, ex-government law officers, the director of public prosecutions, the legal profession or, indeed, anyone who knows anything about the criminal justice process,” Thomas said.