Gordon Brown has placed security for all at the heart of this year’s Queen’s Speech, paving the way for a parliamentary battle over counter-terrorism measures.
The prime minister did little to dispel expectations he will push for an extension to the 28-day limit on detention without charge.
Senior police officers have pushed for an extension to the length of time for which they can detain terror suspects before pressing charges, arguing at some point in the future the present four week limit may be insufficient to protect the public.
The Queen’s Speech today said: “My government will seek a consensus on changes to the law on terrorism so that the police and other agencies have the powers they need to protect the public, while preserving essential rights and liberties.”
Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have questioned the need for an extension to the 28-day limit, in a barrier to Mr Brown’s desire for consensus.
Labour backbenchers have also raised concerns, meaning the prime minister may be forced to follow his predecessor in facing down a backbench rebellion over detention without charge.
The present 28-day limit was agreed as a compromise measure after Labour MPs refused to back a 90-day limit.
It is expected Mr Brown would seek a 56-day limit as a further compromise measure.
In an early blow to the bill, acting Lib Dem leader Vince Cable pointed to the home secretary’s recent admission that no case has collapsed because of insufficient time to detain suspects.
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said there was no evidence to support extending the 28-day period, yet the government appears intent on returning to a “misguided attempt to demonstrate superficial toughness on terrorism”.
The Liberal Democrats have joined Liberty in calling for the use of post charge questioning and intercept evidence to improve counter-terrorism measures without infringing on individual liberties.
Liberty argues extending the limit for detention would be excessive and is not backed by a “shred of evidence”.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group, said: “In the face of genuine constructive alternatives, extension would smack of political posture. Britain needs yet another counter-productive terror law like it needs a hole in the head.”
In a bid to maintain his libertarian credentials, set out in an intellectually rigorous speech on liberty last month, the prime minister included plans for constitutional reforms in this year’s Queen’s speech.
Mr Brown has vowed to strengthen the relationship between MPs and the government, as well as taking forward the recommendations in Lord Goldsmith’s review of citizenship.
The Hansard Society welcomed Mr Brown’s commitment to renew the constitutional settlement.
Fiona Booth, chief executive of the campaign group said: “Parliament is the central, sovereign body at the heart of our representative democracy and should have a more equal and independent relationship with government.”
But based on today’s Queen’s Speech, Lib Dem justice spokesman David Heath said the government appeared unwilling to tackle the major constitutional issues.
While the proposed measures would facilitate a fairer and more transparent government, Mr Heath questioned what ministers planned to do to reform the voting system, establish fixed term parliaments or devolve power to local governments.