British MPs approve hotly debated terror bill

posted on June 15, 2008 | in Category International | PermaLink

by Helen Kinsella
Source: The Globe and Mail
Date: June 12, 2008

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown escaped defeat by a hair's breadth in a packed House of Commons yesterday over controversial plans to allow police to detain suspected terrorists for as long as 42 days without charge.

Backing for the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which the government had said was necessary to deal with the increasing complexity and ruthlessness of terrorist plots, will come as some measure of relief to the embattled leader, who has suffered a series of blows in recent months.

Mr. Brown's authority, however, remains in question after he was forced to go into persuasion overdrive and ultimately rely on the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party to ensure victory, with the final count at 315 to 306.

With several Labour backbenchers threatening to defy the government over what they saw as an infringement of civil liberties, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had announced a number of amendments in the lead-up to the vote. They included the requirement for an "exceptional and grave" terrorist threat, and parliamentary authorization within seven days of an application.In a flurry of last-minute arm-twisting during two days of Commons debate, the government unveiled a further concession to the dissenters in the form of a proposed compensation package for suspects held beyond 28 days and released without charge.

Within a matter of hours before the vote, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman warned that a defeat was likely, Parliament buzzed with party whips conducting fevered negotiations. Ambulances were even seen to arrive, taking seriously ill, loyal MPs through the gates.

The Association of Chief Police Officers had argued that it could "foresee circumstances in the future" under which the 28-day detention period would prove insufficient. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair also voiced his support for the bill.

However, several parties had lined up to declare their opposition, including the leaders of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald. The human-rights group Liberty has described the measure as unnecessary and counterproductive.

In the end, 36 Labour MPs voted against the measure.

The government now faces a battle to get the measure through the House of Lords.