By Jonathan Isaby
Answering an Urgent Question from Ed Balls – in his last outing as shadow home secretary – Home Office Minister Damian Green yesterday confirmed that the Government is next week reducing the maximum period for pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects from 28 days to 14 days.
Here's how he made the announcement to the Commons:
"On 13 July last year, the Home Secretary announced that she was renewing the current order for 28-day pre-charge detention for six months, while the powers were considered as part of a wider review of counter-terrorism powers. As the Home Secretary will be giving a full statement to the House on Wednesday on the outcome of that review, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt her statement by giving details of the review today.
"This Government are clear that the power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 28 days’ detention before they were charged or released was meant to be an exceptional power—that was always Parliament’s intention. But under the last Government, it became the norm, with the renewal of 28 days repeatedly brought before the House, despite the power rarely being used. Since July 2007, no one has been held for longer than 14 days, despite the many terrorists arrested since then. That is a testament to the efforts of our prosecutors, our police and our intelligence agencies.
"As I said, the Home Secretary will, next Wednesday, announce to the House the findings from the wider review of counter-terrorism and security powers. She will set out the detailed considerations of the Government in determining whether the current regime of 28 days should be renewed and, if not, what should be put in its place. In the interim, I can announce that the Government will not be seeking to extend the order allowing the maximum 28-day limit and, accordingly, the current order will lapse on 25 January and the maximum limit of pre-charge detention will, from that time, revert to 14 days. We are clear that 14 days should be the norm and that the law should reflect that. However, we will place draft emergency legislation in the House Library to extend the maximum period to 28 days to prepare for the very exceptional circumstances when a longer period may be required. If Parliament approved, the maximum period of pre-charge detention could be extended by that method.
"In the Government’s announcement on the wider review, the Home Secretary will set out what contingency measures should be introduced in order to ensure that our ability to bring terrorists to justice is as effective as possible. This country continues to face a real and serious threat from terrorism. That threat is unlikely to diminish any time soon. The Government are clear that we need appropriate powers to deal with that threat but that those powers must not interfere with the hard-won civil liberties of the British people. There is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting our security and defending our civil liberties. The outcome of our counter-terrorism powers review will strike that balance, and it is this Government’s sincere hope that it will form the basis of a lasting political consensus across the House on this fundamentally important issue."
The statement was widey welcomed by Conservative MPs with Dominc Raab, for example, saying:
"I welcome the statement and the fact that the trajectory of pre-charge detention under this Government is going down, not up, as it did under the last Government. We will have wait and see what the legislation says and look at the detail, but can my hon. Friend confirm one point in relation to evidence? A lot of evidence is already in the public domain in the form of the Home Office statistical bulletins, which show that in more than four years we have never needed 28-day pre-charge detention. Will he confirm that, and also that he has not seen any countervailing evidence that contradicts that?"
Damian Green replied:
"My hon. Friend, who is a considerable expert on these matters, is of course right. No one has been detained for more than 14 days since July 2007, despite the many terrorist outrages that we have regrettably seen since then. To put the House fully in the picture, to date, 11 individuals have been held for more than 14 days pre-charge, six of whom were held for the maximum 28 days, three of whom were charged and three were released without charge. Again, for the those on the Opposition Front Bench to talk about evidence when they tried to foist 90 days on the House without any evidence at all was completely disrespectful."
But not all Tories were happy. Here's how Gainsborough MP Edward Leigh reacted:
"All the pressure on this comes from the civil liberties lobby. May I urge my hon. Friend to put the safety of the British people first? I suspect that most people in London, if it were a choice between their daughters being blown up on a London tube or a terrorist who hates everything we stand for spending 28 days in relative comfort before being charged, would choose the latter. So act on the evidence and put the safety of the people first."
The minister responded:
"As I said in my statement, the first duty of any Government is the security of the people, but that has to be balanced against the wider civil liberties that my hon. Friend and I both hold dear. What we are achieving is the proper balance. What was in place before was unbalanced and, as I just said in answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), it was not contributing to extra safety against terrorism, but was potentially a power in the hands of the state that could have been abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) will not want the state to have powers that it could potentially abuse."