Smith begins fight for 42-day pre-charge detention

The government has formalised plans to hold terror suspects for 42 days without charge with publication of the counterterrorism bill.

The home secretary has outlined the government’s plans for tackling terrorism as Labour whips warn her that backbenchers are sceptical about the most controversial measure in the bill; the extension of pre-charge detention.

Ministers argue the current 28-day limit may prove inefficient if police discover a particularly complex case. They argue it is better to formalise the possibility for longer detention now, rather than acting in an emergency.

But critics point out the proposed legislation does not appear to define the seriousness of an offence which would warrant the extended detention period.

Less controversially, the counterterrorism bill also enables post-charge questioning of suspects, increased sentencing for general offences linked to terrorism and increased use of DNA evidence in terror offences.

It would also subject convicted terrorists to closer monitoring, potentially including a terrorist offenders’ register, modelled on the sex offenders’ register, and a ban on foreign travel.

Ms Smith said the country was facing an “unprecedented” terror threat, with the government “determined to take what ever action necessary” to prevent future attacks.

She said: “This counterterrorism bill contains a broad range of measures to ensure the police and others have the tools they need to deal with the terrorist threat.

“It will help to strengthen terrorist prosecutions and our ability to deal with terrorist suspects after they have been charged.”

Despite criticisms, Ms Smith said the bill would “strike the right balance between the need to protect human rights and ensuring police have the powers they need, when they need them, to tackle terrorism”.

The government’s case for extending pre-charge detention was further weakened last night when the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR) became the latest to criticise the legislation.

CEHR chair Trevor Phillips has written to Jacqui Smith warning pre-charge detention risks disproportionately affecting Muslims and warned the CEHR would consider seeking a judicial review if it is passed.

Terror watchdog Lord Carlile this morning said he was “completely convinced” by the need to extend the period terror suspects can be held without charge in complex cases.

Speaking to Sky News, he said the bill contained sufficient provisions and urged critics to read the bill before “rushing to judgement”.

Smooth passage of the bill is far from guaranteed with members of both houses opposing 42-day detention without charge.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have vowed to vote against the legislation in the Commons and Lords.

Several Labour backbenchers are also opposed and Ms Smith has been meeting one-on-one with her critics in order to wield off a rebellion.

But according to the Guardian, the home secretary has been warned by Labour whips that any vote would be “touch and go” in the current climate.

Under the proposals, the home secretary would have to personally approve detaining terror suspects for 42 days following a request from the director of public prosecutions and relevant chief constable.

Parliament would then have to approve this decision within 30 days.

Both the Commons home affairs committee and joint committee on human rights have criticised this procedure, with safeguards dismissed as “meaningless”.