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Clarke in retreat over his plans for 90-day detention

London Telegraph/Philip Johnston | November 3 2005

The Government was in retreat last night over plans to detain suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without charge.

Facing the biggest backbench revolt in the eight years since Labour took office, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said he recognised there was no consensus in parliament for the measure.

He agreed to hold talks with Opposition leaders and Labour rebels in an attempt to find a compromise - with one suggestion being to extend the current detention time limit from 14 to 28 days.

The move averted a possible defeat during a Commons debate last night. But Labour rebels said they expected the Government to water down the measure substantially or face defeat next week when the Terrorism Bill completes its Commons stages.

Earlier, Tony Blair's majority was cut to just one as MPs backed a new offence of "glorifying" terrorism.

Thirty-three Labour backbenchers voted against the Government: such a narrow margin is likely to embolden peers to defeat the measure when the Bill goes to the Lords.

It was the third major revolt in recent days on flagship Home Office legislation. Last week, 16 Labour rebels voted against the Terrorism Bill's second reading and the Government's majority was cut to 25 on the ID Card Bill last month.

Mr Clarke said he still believed that 90 days detention without charge was right. He said a "compelling" case for such an extension had been made by police and prosecutors, who had to conduct complex inquiries involving encrypted computer programs and investigations overseas.

David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall N, led backbench calls for the limit to be 28 days, which he said was "reasonable" in view of the threat. Anything longer than that risked "antagonising" the Muslim community and possibly fuelling terrorism.

David Heath, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said an extension to 90 days would represent "at least a partial victory for the terrorists".

David Heathcoat-Amory, the Conservative MP for Wells, said: "The Government constantly repeats the excuse that the police want more powers.

"The police always want more powers. The issue is not more legislation and more procedures but better use of existing legislation and existing procedures."

The Government has also agreed to reconsider the wording of the measure that outlaws comments or articles that are seen to encourage terrorism after MPs voted by 300 to 299 against an amendment to establish "intent" in the new offence.

Labour's majority then slumped to 16 as rebels joined the Tories in trying to remove the clause dealing with the "glorification" of terrorism from the Bill.

Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, said she recognised that the new offence was too widely drawn.

Bob Marshall-Andrews, the Labour MP for Medway, said both he and Cherie Blair could have been arrested under its provisions for comments made in the past about overseas terrorism.

John Denham, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said: "The test is whether … we prevent any young people being drawn into terrorism.

"As these clauses are currently drafted it's more likely to make things worse than better."

The rebellions came hours after Mr Blair had urged MPs to back the legislation as it stood. He said at Question Time that those charged with protecting the country had insisted the proposed new powers were vital.

"We need to be very, very clear as to why we are legislating to strengthen anti-terrorist laws," he said. "We are doing it because the police, the head of the anti-terrorist operations in this country say they need these powers to protect British citizens."

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