By Alan Travis and Patrick Wintour | The government’s human rights watchdog last night served notice that it will immediately launch a legal challenge to the government’s plan to extend the pre-charge detention limit to 42 days if it reaches the statute book. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, chaired by Trevor Phillips, backed its claim by publishing legal advice from Matrix Chambers that the extended limit would violate the European convention on human rights.
The advice from leading human rights lawyers Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Aileen McColgan says that the amendments tabled by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, last week to win over potential Labour rebels still leave the measure breaching human rights law, as extended detention without charge is likely to involve inhuman or degrading treatment and discrimination against Muslim detainees.
Phillips said: “As the body charged with the promotion of human rights, we agree with ministers that the right to life is paramount, but that does not give us the liberty to take actions that unnecessarily violate other human rights … Should the proposed measures be carried, the commission will immediately move to test its legality by launching a judicial review.”
Government whips are not expecting the nine Democratic Unionist MPs to vote with the government on the measure, as the prime minister warned his backbenchers privately that he may be humiliated if he is defeated tomorrow.
The prime minister’s spokesman insisted that the government would not be doing any side deals to win over the DUP, which is likely hold its position to the last minute in an attempt to win concessions.
In a further development ahead of the vote, the security services clarified their position, stressing that they were neutral about the proposed extension of pre-charge detention to 42 days. In a statement they said they did not think it appropriate for them to take a view on a politically controversial issue.
The prime minister’s spokesman insisted he was not bluffing when he said that the government saw the vote as “very, very tight”. He said Gordon Brown was personally telephoning wavering backbenchers and was even prepared to debate the matter personally with some of the serial rebels that make up Labour’s Campaign Group.
Ministers were encouraged by the news that one regular rebel, Jon Trickett, the Labour MP for Hemsworth, had decided to back the government. Some leading Labour peers opposed to the measure now think the government will win in the Commons, leaving Labour peers at the forefront of a battle this summer.
The children’s secretary, Ed Balls, said there was no reason for the vote to be treated as a confidence measure for the prime minister.
MPs will start voting on and debating the counter-terrorism bill today, when they consider some of its lesser measures.
The Conservatives have shored up their own supporters, although at one point it looked as if four Tories would vote with the government.