Terror law mess is Blair's fault

THE constitutional battle between the Commons and the Lords over the Anti-Terrorism Bill is a mess of the Government's own making. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background.

THE constitutional battle between the Commons and the Lords over the Anti-Terrorism Bill is a mess of the Government's own making. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background.

THERE is only way word to describe the way Tony Blair has tried to force his Anti-Terrorism Bill on to the statute book - a shambles.

There is one clear message for the Government and its successors from this farce - never again should there be an attempt to steamroller such an important piece of law affecting civil liberties without proper debate in the Commons.

Ministers have argued that because of the desperate urgency of the situation they had to act fast.

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However, they could have cleared the parliamentary timetable, extended the sitting hours of the Commons and Lords, and had extra Friday sessions to ensure that MPs from all sides of the political divide had enough time to debate the fundamental issue of executive detention on the say-so of a politician rather than judicial detention on the orders of a judge.

And if the Bill was so urgent, what is the real objection to the "sunset clause" being insisted up by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, rebel Labour MPs and peers, and that band of wise, cross-bench peers?

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The Government could have produced some sort of temporary "paving" legislation which would have avoided the trouble.

A one-off Bill which expires in 12 months would have ensured the terror suspects at the centre of the row remained in detention in Belmarsh and allowed Parliament to debate properly and thoroughly a new Bill which met concerns over European human rights legislation.

How did we get in this stew?

On December 16 last year, just days after David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary over his affair with the publisher of Britain's leading Conservative-supporting magazine The Spectator, the Law Lords voted by an eight-to-one majority that detaining foreign terrorism suspects without trial or charge breaks human rights laws.

Lord Bingham said the anti-terrorism law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights because it was disproportionate and discriminated against foreign nationals.

Blunkett's successor Charles Clarke was left to sort out the mess and on January 26 he outlines plans for tough restrictions on British citizens suspected of terrorist activities including curfews, house arrest and tagging. It was immediately condemned by the Law Society as an "abuse of power."

On February 22, Mr Clarke unveiled a Bill to the House of Commons featuring travel bans and bars on access to phones and the internet, with house arrest proposals were kept in "reserve''.

Next day, a combined Conservative, Liberal Democrat and backbench Labour move to defeat the Bill was lost in the Commons by 309 votes to 233.

The all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights said the house arrest plans "may breach European human rights law" and should not be rushed through Parliament.

On February 28, the Government's 161-strong majority was cut to just 14 on a cross-party amendment to force the Home Secretary to apply to a court before imposing control orders.

Mr Clarke caved in - he agreed to introduce an amendment in the Lords under which a judge would now decide on the imposition of the most severe control orders, amounting to house arrest. MPs vote 272 to 219 in favour of the Bill.

The Tories introduced a "sunset clause" when the Bill reached the Lords for discussion which would see the legislation expire at the end of November.

Tony Blair angrily rejected the Tory proposals, telling MPs that the Bill was vital to national security.

On March 3, the Lords approved Government amendments to the Bill, including the key concession of transferring house arrest powers from politicians to judges.

But on Monday of this week, the Lords vote against the Government by 249 to 119 in favour of an amendment under which all control orders would be made by a judge rather than ministers. Among 20 Labour rebels were the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg and former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Condon, a cross-bencher, also backed the amendment.

Peers also voted to raise the standard of proof for making a control order from "reasonable grounds" for suspicion to on the "balance of probabilities."

On March 8, peers inflicted five defeats on the Bill, most significantly backing the "sunset clause" by 297 to 110. A total of 24 Labour peers defy the whip, with Lord Irvine again among them.

The Home Secretary retreated again. He said a judge would be involved in all stages of the process of control orders, but in the most serious situations the Home Secretary would have the power to detain suspects who might flee, subject to a judge's confirmation within seven days.

He also proposed an annual independent review of the laws presented to Parliament; an annual review of any parts which require the UK to opt out of any European Human Rights laws and a quarterly report by the Home Secretary to MPs.

But importantly he continued to reject the "sunset clause"' and the Lords' insistence on raising the burden of proof. The Commons overturn that amendment by a majority of 89. And Tony Blair told the Cabinet a "sunset clause" would "cast a pall of uncertainty over the legislation.

At 11.30am on Thursday morning, the Commons and Lords entered a war of attrition over the sunset clause, sitting in all-night session and batting the Bill back and forward.

Liberal Democrat life peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury said as there is no immediate threat of terrorist activity, Labour should not be trying to bamboozle the country by pretending it was tougher on terror than the other parties.

Whatever the outcome of the stand-off, the Government has done itself no favours by presenting a sceptical House of Commons and a hostile House of Lords with so little time to deal with an imperfectly drafted Bill of such massive implications.

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