Government divided over 90-day detention

Britain’s top lawyer last night expressed doubts about the government’s intention to reintroduce plans allowing police to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

Attorney general Lord Goldsmith said he had yet to see evidence to suggest an extension beyond the current 28 days, which replaced the previous 14-day limit only in July.

His comments put him at odds with the prime minister, who has said he still backs 90-day detention despite the proposals being rejected in the House of Commons a year ago.

“The recent investigations demonstrate that it was right to extend the period to 28 days, but on extending it any further we need evidence to demonstrate that that is needed,” Lord Goldsmith told reporters.

Tony Blair said any decision to return to the 90-day proposal would be based on firm evidence, but asked about this, the peer said: “Well, I haven’t seen it yet.”

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the attorney general’s comments proved the Conservatives were right to oppose the proposal last year.

“What the attorney general is saying is, what we thought all along, that there’s no evidence there to argue for more and that 28 days, as it stands, is sufficient,” he told BBC News.

Lord Goldsmith also suggested that police be able to interview suspects after they were charged – currently this is very difficult, even if new evidence comes to light.

However, he stressed there needed to be proper safeguards to ensure suspects were not “browbeaten time and time again” by police – something the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, has also expressed concern about.

He told Today: “I think what the attorney general has said is a helpful intervention because it would enable the police after they’d collected evidence, which is sometimes very distant from the time of original interview, to place before suspects accusations that they might reasonably be expected to answer.

“However, this has to be protected by very substantial civil liberties protections, because the risk of unfairness always has to be resolved in favour of individual freedom.”

Lord Goldsmith also repeated his support for allowing intercept evidence, such as wire taps, in court cases, saying it could be a “key tool” in bringing serious and dangerous criminals to justice.

However, he acknowledged the intelligence services were concerned they may be swamped with requests for data.

Speaking yesterday, home secretary John Reid said he was personally convinced that 90-day detention should be introduced, but said he would only take the proposal back to parliament if the evidence was there to support it.

However, he told ITV’s The Sunday Edition: “I haven’t concluded the review that I’m carrying out into all our counter-terrorism operations.”