Region reacts to terror bill vote

PRIME Minister Tony Blair had his authority severely battered last night after MPs voted against an extension of detention for terrorist suspects to 90 days.

By Graham Dines

PRIME Minister Tony Blair had his authority severely battered last night after MPs voted against an extension of detention for terrorist suspects to 90 days.

The majority of 31 against Mr Blair came after he told the Commons that since the July 7 attacks in London, the police had foiled two terror attacks.

MPs later backed a rebel Labour amendment to extend the limit from the current 14 days to 28 and outgoing Tory leader Michael Howard piled on the pressure by saying the Prime Minister's authority had been so diminished that he should resign.


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There was immediate speculation that Mr Blair would face pressure within his own party to step down sooner than the "before the end of this Parliament" deadline which he had set himself.

The Prime Minister had put his authority on them line, over-ruling Home Secretary Charles Clarke's efforts to reach a compromise deal with the opposition parties for an extension to 60 days from the current maximum period of detention which is 14 days.

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But his pleas were ignored by rebellious Labour MPs, who combined with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and nationalist parties to defeated the Government by 322 votes to 291, a majority of 31.

Government whips had believed the vote was on a knife-edge, but the scale of the rebellion took them completely by surprise. Believing they could pull off a narrow win, Chancellor Gordon Brown was instructed to return from a visit to Tel Aviv and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cut short talks in Moscow to enable him to vote.

The Opposition whips also took action to secure a vote against. With a handful of Tory MPs threatening to support the Government, they contacted a presiding judge at a trial in London to ask for the day's proceeding be adjourned early to allow Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley - who is on jury service - to be able to vote on a matter of constitutional importance.

The Prime Minister was in the Chamber for the result. As Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong whispered the result to him, he looked grim faced. After the voting figurers were announced, opposition MPs cheered and waved their order papers, he shook his head in disbelief.

Earlier, at question time, he took the unusual step of issuing a direct appeal to wavering MPs on both the Opposition and Government benches to back him - insisting it was their "duty" and to act "responsibly.

"We are not living in a police state, but we are living in a country that faces a real and serious threat to its security."

The big question at Westminster now is: where does this leave the Prime Minister? He is clearly undermined by the large rebellion, and Labour MPs opposed to controversial public service reforms on health and education will be emboldened to vote against the Government when the legislation comes before the Commons in the New Year.

Ipswich's Labour MP Chris Mole voted with the Government. "The Tories and Lib Dems have played politics with the nation's security although I acknowledge that a significant number of colleagues voted with the opposition against detention for 90 days .

"This has been a significant setback for the Prime Minister, but I think he will bounce back and champion the public service reforms he so clearly believes are in the country's interest."

Mr Ruffley confirmed the trial at which he is on the jury had been adjourned early by the judge to enable him to vote in the Commons just after 4.30pm

He said it was clear from walking through the voting lobbies that supporters of Gordon Brown were "ecstatic" at the scale of the defeat. Mr Ruffley said: "This is concrete evidence that the Prime Minister's authority is ebbing away.

"He has to face up to the fact that scores of his own MPs will not support his agenda for public service reforms, which he said he intended to carry out before stepping down from office."

Tory former Cabinet minister John Gummer and MP for Suffolk Coastal objected to the inclusion of the term “glorification” in the Bill.

“The very word is so difficult to define, loose and varied in the way people understand it, it will become a dangerous precedent for the Government,” he said.

As assistant to the speaker, Sir Michael Lord, Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and Ipswich North, by tradition, does not vote in divisions.

Colchester Lib Dem Bob Russell said the scale of the defeat was "amazing." He added: "I feel sorry for the Home Secretary - he was working away with Tory and Lib Dem spokesman to find a compromise but was bowled over by the stubbornness and arrogance of the Prime Minister.

"Tony Blair is clearly a lame duck prime minister with his authority very badly dented. MPs who voted against 90 days are not in favour of terrorism, but internment in Northern Ireland did not work and keeping people locked up in our jails would merely act as a recruiting sergeant for potential terrorists."

During the highly charged exchanges during question time at noon, taking up more than half the 30-minute session, Tory leader Michael Howard said everyone wanted to fight terrorism effectively. But he argued that the Government had failed to justify the need for 90-day detention and warned it could alienate minority ethnic communities.

Mr Blair said the police and those charged with fighting terrorism said the 90-day power was needed to make the country safe. "You and your colleagues are going to have to make your decision today,' he told Mr Howard.

"We have made ours. We believe this is right for our country. We believe it is necessary to protect our country from terrorism and I'm only sorry you don't agree.

"When those charged with protecting our country provide as they have a compelling case for action, I know what my duty is. My duty is to support them and so is the duty, in my view, of every Member of this House.'

Appealing to the House to have "some sense of responsibility here,” he added: “Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.”

Mr Howard told the Prime Minister: "We all want to fight terrorism effectively. But you don't have to look very far beyond our shores to see what happens if you alienate minority communities.' When the crucial Commons debate got under way, Mr Clarke faced a barrage of hostile backbench interventions as he defended the 90-day plan.

Joan Ruddock (Labour, Lewisham Deptford) accused the Prime Minister of making it a "simple matter of party politics' and the Government of having failed to reach consensus even with its own side.

Mr Clarke told her: "I simply do not accept your description of the Prime Minister's motivation."

In a bid to win support, he gave a "firm guarantee' that he would introduce a code of practice for the police in using the new detention powers and promised to look at demands that suspects held for more than 14 days but then released without charge should receive compensation.

Mr Clarke insisted that the 90-day measure was backed by every chief constable he had spoken to and the Crown Prosecution Service.

In further concessions, he promised a report to the House on the 90-day position and that the Government's reviewer of anti-terror laws, Lord Carlile, would review the definition of terrorism.

But Labour former minister Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central) warned that holding suspects for 90 days would "harden' support for terrorism and create "martyrs'.

He said: "Undoubtedly people will be detained on a week on week basis who are then released and found to be innocent. They will go back into these communities and say look this is the sort of state that we are talking about and working against. Surely it is going to be hugely counter-productive?

Shadow home secretary David Davis denied his party was being "soft' on terrorism by opposing the 90-day move. "Let's not pretend that we can win the war on terror by passing every single law the Government throws up. We'll win the war by actually being tough, not just talking tough,' he said.

Outlining his rebel amendment to double the detention period to 28 days Labour's David Winnick (Walsall North) said this was a reasonable compromise that could have "virtually united' the Commons.

"It should be borne in mind that not a single life destroyed by the mass murderers on 7th July would have been saved if this particular clause had been in operation,' he said of the Government's 90-day move.

For Liberal Democrats, Alistair Carmichael said the Government's proposed sunset clause, under which the detention clause would lapse after a year, was inadequate and urged the House to stand up to the Executive.

graham.dines@eadt.co.uk

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