The government will rush through emergency legislation to allow police to hold terrorism suspects for 42 days without charge in the event of a serious threat or an attack, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said on Tuesday.
Smith’s vow came the day after the House of Lords resoundingly defeated proposals to extend the detention limit to 42 from the current 28 days, a measure the government says is necessary to deal with the terrorism threat.
“My priority is we need to find a way through this,” Smith told BBC radio.
“That’s why I brought to the Commons yesterday a bill that is ready-prepared so that if, and I fear when, we face a situation that is so complex, so difficult, so potentially dangerous that it actually requires us to investigate somebody for longer than 28 days it will be there ready.”
This bill would allow suspects to be held for up to six weeks and contains fewer checks and safeguards than the proposal defeated in the House of Lords by 309 to 118 votes.
Smith said she hoped there would be cross-party support for the bill if it was required, adding that some security advisers had described the current threat as being “at the severe end of severe.”
“There is a problem here. I have tried to work with the opposition parties throughout this to try and find a way through,” she said.
“They have steadfastly refused to engage in a process that might help us to solve this problem.”
Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems say the 42-day proposal is more about the government trying to look tough on security issues than dealing with the terrorism threat.
Critics of the proposal point out that opponents also include former members of the Labour government, former intelligence chief Eliza Manningham-Buller, ex-police chiefs and a former Director of Public Prosecutions.
“The upper house has demonstrated why Britain is the oldest unbroken democracy on earth,” said Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights group Liberty. “Common decency says we don’t lock people up for six weeks without charge.
“Common sense should tell the government that when you’re in a hole and you’ve lost the argument — stop digging.”
Media commentators were divided over the Lords vote.
The Guardian said the proposal was a “bankrupt scheme” which showed the best of the upper house of parliament which had been swayed by the power of argument.
“Now is time to yield to its force, by burying this poisonous proposal,” it said.
However the Sun accused peers of putting Britons’ lives at risk.
“A golden opportunity to make Britain safer from terrorists has been shamefully spurned,” it said. “The House of Lords has scuppered a bill that might have saved many lives.”
(Editing by Steve Addison)