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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Coalition facing split over detention of terror suspects

Coalition facing split over detention of terror suspects

Richard Ford and Frances Gibb
Last updated October 29 2010 7:28PM

A top-level government review of counter-terrorism laws has been delayed amid deep divisions among ministers over controversial orders to detain terrorist suspects.

Ministers are facing an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by the security services, who warn that abolishing the orders would put public safety at risk of terrorist attack.

Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, has written to David Cameron to say that he cannot guarantee the safety of the public without being able to impose orders on suspects.

The Whitehall battle that has put back any decision until Christmas threatens to split the Coalition on an issue that is fundamental to the Liberal Democrats’ stance on civil liberties.

The party pledged at the general election to scrap the regime of control orders under which terrorist suspects are held under a form of house arrest.

Several senior Conservative ministers are also strongly oppposed to keeping the regime, which has been undermined by a series of key rulings in the courts.

The dispute has been further fuelled with an intervention by Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, The Times has learnt.

He has made clear his opposition to the keeping of the orders in a move that is an acute embarrassment to ministers, as the peer was appointed by the Government specifically to oversee the review of counter-terrorism laws.

The review is being conducted by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT), which is part of the Home Office.

Lord Macdonald is understood to have written to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, telling her that he could not support the retention of control orders.

He would have to make his views clear when he reports on the internal review. The reports will be published at the same time — now expected in mid December rather than a couple of months earlier as originally promised.

“Ken (Lord Macdonald) would go ballistic if the Government decides to keep control orders,” a source said.

The Prime Minister has yet to make a final decision and a fierce battle is waging among senior ministers over the control order regime, a key aspect of the counter-terrorism review.

Ms May, who set up the review, is understood to have been convinced by the security services of the need to retain control orders as a key weapon in the Government’s armoury against terrorism.

This week she is due to deliver her first big speech on counter-terrorism since becoming Home Secretary in May.

But other senior Conservative law and order ministers are against control orders in principle, including Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General.

With the Liberal Democrats having pledged to scrap control orders in their election manifesto, the issue threatens to produce the next major split in the Coalition.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “This is heading to be a coalition car crash. If the public campaigning of the security establishment is anything to go by, imagine what the private lobbying must be like.

“You cannot claim to champion civil liberties whilst reneging on years of opposition to control orders and converting to a belief in indefinite punishment without trial.”

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has taken a keen interest in the issue, with one Whitehall source saying that his interventions are causing “huge tensions”.

Six briefing papers have been drawn up by the Home Office review under Charles Farr, the leading counter-terrorism expert in the Home Office.

They cover control orders, pre-trial detention, deportation to countries where assurances about treatment have been given; local authority surveillance powers; stop and search powers and photography in public places.

The lobbying from the security services and the OSCT has made clear to ministers that they regard retaining control orders as a “red line” in the review of terrorism laws.

They also argue that the cost of any alternative such as 24-hour surveillance would be massive in terms of police manpower and finances at a time of budgetary restraint.

There is agreement, however, among ministers that the 28-day limit for holding terror suspects before charge can be reduced to 14 days, with the safeguard that some suspects could be bailed for longer, under conditions such as a ban on travel overseas, and with judicial approval.

Counter-terrorism powers that allow police to stop and search people in designated areas without suspicion are also likely to be abolished.

Figures published this week show that more than 100,000 people were stopped in 2009-10 under the so-called section 44 powers, but no one was arrested for a terrorist offence.

A Home Office spokesman said: “The counter-terrorism review is under way and we will report back shortly. No decisions have yet been made.”

The review was initially expected to report at the end of September, then next week, according to one source.

Ed Balls, the new shadow Home Secretary, is currently meeting security advisers and senior police officers but has not declared the party’s position.

A Labour party spokesperson said: “We would like to achieve a consensus on this critical issue [control orders] if possible.”

Last week Tony McNulty, the former Labour policing minister, admitted that the party had “misjudged control orders, stop and search and other civil rights issues” while in Government. He described control orders as a “clumsy tool”.

Senior Liberal Democrats have written to Mr Cameron arguing that control orders should be scrapped and that any marginal advantage gained from their use was cancelled out by the negative impact on the Muslim community.

Tom Brake, co-chairman of the Liberal Democrats home affairs parliamentary party committee, said: “It is very much a crucial issue for the coalition and in particular the Liberal Democrats. We have consistently opposed control orders.”

Tools to thwart terrorism

• Control orders are used to deal with terror suspects who cannot be deported or tried

• Nine are currently in use

• They were introduced under 2005 anti-terror laws after law lords’ ruling that terror suspects must not be detained without trial

• They put suspects under strict supervision

• Conditions include curfews, bans on whom suspect can meet; tagging; no internet; no passport; daily reporting to police; public transport ban

• Series of court rulings have reduced their scope: in 2009 the law lords ruled that control order suspects had been denied fair trial because they did not know gist of the case against them

• Critics say they amount to house arrest and punishment without trial

• Security services say they are an essential tool

• Police say they might be needed for terrorists released from jail

• Internal Home Office review set up in July by the Government in line with Conservative pledge; Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, former Director of Public Prosecutions, appointed independent reviewer of the Home Office inquiry

Source: Times (£)

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