Sean O’Neill – Times Online.co.uk October 9, 2007
Police will soon need the power to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge, the country's most senior policeman said today.
Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the growing complexity and magnitude of terrorist plots meant that before long anti-terrorist officers would need extra time to hold suspects beyond the current 28-day limit.
His remarks represented Scotland Yard's first public intervention in the debate on new counter-terrorism laws since senior officers were accused of meddling in politics in the run up to the extension of detention periods from 14 to 28 days.
Sir Ian said that Parliament should pass measures now, rather than debate the issue in the middle of an emergency.
He said: "At some stage 28 days is not going to be sufficient, and the worst time to debate whether an extension is needed would be in the aftermath of an atrocity.
"The number of the conspiracies, the number of conspirators within those conspiracies and the magnitude of the ambition, in terms of destruction and loss of life, is mounting; has continued to mount, is increasing year by year...
"If you can see the epidemic moving towards you, you take precautions before it arrives - and I think that is the situation we are in."
Appearing before the Commons Home Affairs select committee, Sir Ian declined to specify the exact number of days detention that he thought appropriate. But he indicated that a doubling of the current period was at the lower end of what the police wanted.
He said: "Somewhere out there, between 50 and 90 days, there is a limit which should be acceptable."
Sir Ian told MPs he regarded lengthy detention without charge to be an affront to the normal rule of law, but it was a power that he regarded as necessary and one that would be used "immensely sparingly" to protect the public from terrorist atrocities.
He added: "We are talking about this now because we are so concerned by the threat."
Sir Ian conceded that no case had yet arisen when detectives had wanted to hold someone beyond 28 days.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Counter-terrorism Command, told the committee that 204 people had been arrested under terrorism legislation since the 28-day power became available in July 2006.
Only 11 people had been detained for between 14 and 28 days and eight of those had been charged with terrorist offences.
But, Mr Clarke added, the trend was towards more complex investigations which required his officers to decipher encrypted data, to analyse multiple computers and mobile phones, and to trace international connections.
He said: "We have had fewer cases, marginally, in the last year, but the number of documents, exhibits, computers and phones has grown - the scale of investigations is getting larger."
Mr Clarke, who retires from his post next January, said that the quality of the evidence being gathered by his officers was helping the public to understand the nature of the terror threat, and forcing more defendants to plead guilty in the courts.
He said: "It has been hard to show the public the reality of the threat because of the delay in getting cases to court, and there were times when I was frustrated that we couldn't get across what we were seeing.
"But there has now been a series of major trials. This year 37 people have been convicted in the courts of terrorist offences and 15 of those have pleaded guilty."
David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that England and Wales already had the longest period of detention without trial in the democratic world, and should not increase it lightly.
"Any increase needs to be based on evidence - not guesswork - that it is needed to protect the public," he said.
"Instead of more draconian legislation, there are immediate practical measures the Government should be taking that would make Britain safer, including the introduction of a real Border Police force, post-charge questioning of terror suspects and lifting the ban on using intercept evidence to prosecute terrorists."
Last updated 11/10/2007