By Peter Walker and agencies | The head of MI5 has released a rare public statement to stress that his organisation is not arguing against the planned new 42-day detention limit for terrorism suspects. The move came as MPs prepared to debate the measure in the Commons ahead of a vote that could end in a humiliating defeat for Gordon Brown.
The comments by Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, officially known as the Security Service, follow an admission by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, at the weekend that MI5 had not requested to new powers.
Several subsequent reports suggested MI5 did not back the move, but Evans stressed today that it simply did not seek to have a view on the matter.
“A number of media reports have appeared in the last few days on the supposed position that MI5 takes in respect of pre-charge detention time limits,” he said in a statement posted on the MI5 website.
“I would like to make the service’s position on this issue clear. Since the Security Service is neither a prosecuting authority nor responsible for criminal investigations, we are not, and never have been, the appropriate body to advise the government on pre-charge detention time limits.
“We have not, therefore, sought to comment publicly or privately on the current proposals, except to say that we recognise the challenge posed for the police service by the increasingly complex and international character of some recent terrorist cases.”
MPs will today begin a two-day debate on the proposal to increase the maximum time that terror suspects can be held without charge from 28 to 42 days. The prime minister’s spokesman said Downing Street saw tomorrow’s vote as “very, very tight”.
In a further sign of government nervousness, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, was today flying back to Britain to be in parliament, after cutting short a visit to Israel.
Victory or defeat for Brown could come down to a margin as small as the decision of nine Democratic Unionist MPs, who have yet to decide which way they will vote.
Brown has faced vocal opposition from a series of senior legal and other figures. The government’s human rights watchdog said last night it would immediately launch a legal challenge to the 42 days limit if it reaches the statute book.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, chaired by Trevor Phillips, published legal advice from Matrix Chambers that the extended limit would violate the European convention on human rights.
Scotland’s chief legal officer, Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, has also come out against the idea, telling the Herald newspaper the move is “not supported by prosecution evidence”.
Earlier this week, Angiolini’s counterpart in England and Wales, the director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, repeated his view that the change was not needed.