LONDON (Reuters) - The House of Lords firmly rejected a government proposal to tighten anti-terrorism laws on Monday, saying it would not support suspects being held for up to six weeks without charge.
In a vote carried by 309 to 118, the Lords defeated the government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill, which would have allowed police to hold suspects for 42 days before having to charge or release them. The current limit is 28 days.
The rejection is a setback for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour party but had been expected following sustained criticism of the bill from senior members of the Lords, including former intelligence chief Eliza Manningham-Buller.
Opponents, including many Labour members of the Lords, saw the proposed law changes as violating cherished civil liberties and out of line with other Western democracies where detention limits are already far shorter.
“This attempt to appear tough on terrorism, I believe, is a shabby charade which is unworthy of a democratic process and we should reject it,” Geoffrey Dear, a former senior police chief, told the Lords ahead of the emphatic vote.
Home secretary Jacqui Smith expressed disappointment at the Lords’ move, saying they had the balance between civil liberties and the rule of law wrong.
“For me there is no greater individual liberty than the liberty for individuals not to be blown up on British streets or in British skies,” she told the House of Commons, after the vote.
“Some may take the security of Britain lightly. I don’t.”
Despite her defiance, the government looks set to quietly let the proposed legislation drop as it concentrates on more pressing issues such as the international financial crisis.
Smith said the government could introduce an alternative bill to allow a 42-day-limit to be enforced “if and when the need arises,” but didn’t say when that could happen, suggesting the government wasn’t prepared to fight on it again now.
The defeat will be a disappointment for Brown, who has repeatedly stated his determination to push through tighter terrorism laws following a series of successful and foiled militant attacks in Britain in recent years.
Former prime minister Tony Blair had tried to increase the detention limit to 90 days but suffered a crushing defeat in the House of Commons on the issue, the first time he had been defeated in the lower house.
Under Brown, the Commons narrowly passed the 42-day bill in June after the Labour government put heavy pressure on sceptical members of its own party to give their backing.
It argued police could need the extra time to question suspects if faced with exceptionally complex investigations into a major attack or plot.
Suicide attackers killed 52 people in London in 2005, and authorities say they have thwarted a number of serious conspiracies before and since.
Smith said Britain currently faced a threat “at the severe end of severe.”
But senior police officers, intelligence experts, legal authorities and human rights groups have been vocal in their disagreement with the government’s proposals and campaigners welcomed the Lords’ vote.
“The upper house has demonstrated why Britain is the oldest unbroken democracy on earth,” said Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights’ group Liberty. “Common decency says we don’t lock people up for six weeks without charge.
“Common sense should tell the government that when you’re in a hole and you’ve lost the argument — stop digging.”
Editing by Sami Aboudi