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By Jonathan Isaby

Yesterday saw a debate in Parliament over whether to approve the order to extend 28-day detention for terrorist suspects for another six months.

Theresa May Big BenWhilst she has previously indicated that personally she favours a reduction to 14 days, Home Secretary Theresa May proposed the motion, saying that she did not wish at this stage to pre-empt the result of the current counter-terrorism review:

"I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that I consider the 28-day limit to be a temporary measure, and I want it brought to an end once I have completed my review. Since the power to detain for 28 days was passed by Parliament and came into force in July 2006, 11 people have been held for more than 14 days, eight were charged with terrorist-related offences, and four were found guilty. Of those, six people have been held for between 27 and 28 days, three were charged with terrorist-related offences, and two were found guilty. No suspect has been held for more than 14 days since July 2007. When one considers that in the 12 months ending in December 2009 28 terrorism-related trials were completed, with 93% convictions, including six life sentences, it is clear to me that the power to detain for up to 28 days is not needed routinely for the police to investigate, interrogate and charge terrorist suspects.

"The possibility remains that in some extreme circumstances it might be necessary to detain some suspects beyond 14 days, but those circumstances remain rare and extreme, and we need to be sure that the powers are never abused. That is why we need to take time to consider pre-charge detention as part of the review of counter-terrorism powers. Therefore, in moving today’s motion, I am asking hon. Members not to support 28 days indefinitely, nor to support 28 days for 12 months, as was envisaged in the Terrorism Act 2006, but to support a renewal for six months while the counter-terrorism review considers how we can reduce the limit."

"The review of counter-terrorism powers will, as I said yesterday, be informed by the principles of the coalition Government. Those principles—shared principles—are based on a respect for our ancient civil liberties and individual freedom. There is nothing we take more seriously than our duty to protect the public, but in doing so we will not, as the previous Government did, forget to defend our way of life."

In making the case against retaining 28-day detention, former shadow home secretary David Davis discussed the details of what happened surrounding the Heathrow plot, aka Operation Overt:

DAVIS DAVID "Six people were held beyond 14 days; five people were held for 27 or 28 days, and at the end of that process it turned out that three were innocent. I used the word “innocent” when the previous Government were in power, and I was almost shouted down. I mean innocent: no control order, no surveillance, no open file—the police thought they were innocent. When I obtained that information I had with me as my witnesses my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and the Attorney-General. What was thought was therefore very plain."

"Let me turn to the remaining two people who were detained, because some further facts have come to light. We were told at the time, “Here is a serious case and we have to go to 27 or 28 days—right to the edge—in order to bring a case against them.” However, we pressed the matter and asked when the evidence was obtained to charge those individuals. It was obtained not at 27 or 28 days, but before 14 days—if I remember correctly, on day three and day 12. It was perfectly possible to charge those people before the 14-day limit; now we find, however, that they were charged on day 28. They spent nine months in prison on remand, and even in that time not enough evidence was found to convict them. One of the cases was thrown out by the judge after hearing it—it did not even go to a jury. The other was rejected unanimously by the jury and the individual concerned was exonerated. It was not a soft jury: the same jury convicted three other terrorists in the same trial. So, we had five people, every single one of whom was innocent. That is what our policy has done so far and why it is a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.

He concluded:

"The simple fact is that our policy is built on political machismo, not on effectiveness. What we have to do is recognise what all the other civilised countries in the world are doing and go in the right direction, which is to cut 28 days."

Dominic Raab Commons The aforementioned Dominic Raab, formerly chief of staff to David Davis, opted to give the Government the benefit of the doubt pending the review:

"Twenty-eight days’ pre-charge detention was an emergency measure introduced on a temporary basis. We need a clear and convincing justification to retain it, because it undermines the ancient right of habeas corpus, which goes back to Magna Carta…  Since Operation Overt, only one person has been held for longer than 14 days—an isolated case of 19 days’ pre-charge detention. Last year, in 2009, no suspects were held in pre-charge detention for longer than 14 days and 70% were dealt with within 48 hours. So the raw facts in the debate are that, in four years, we have not needed longer than 19 days’ pre-charge detention, let alone 28 days. If we are judging the necessity of the order on the pressures that the police face during the pre-charge period, the evidence no longer supports a limit beyond 21 days at the very most."

"I will support the order. I recognise that the Home Secretary needs time to examine these difficult issues further, but in the absence of convincing new evidence, I will be inclined to oppose renewal in six months’ time."

Jesse Norman Commons Jesse Norman (Hereford) also sounded a note of caution, and opted to abstain when it came to the vote:

"We must never forget that we are considering suspects—they have not been convicted of any crime. The Home Office has tools at its disposal that it did not have in 2006. It has the ability to question people post-charge, and to draw on new offences, especially training, preparation and dissemination in the context of terrorism.

"I conclude with two questions. First, has thought been given to 21 days as an intermediate period between 14 and 28 days? Are there merits in that? Secondly, has adequate consideration been given to the use of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 as an alternative to 28 days’ detention? If we answer those questions, I am sure that we can make progress overall."

Of the 47 assorted MPs who opposed the order, there were three Tories: David Davis, Patrick Mercer and Richard Shepherd. The official Labour line was to abstain.

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