Gordon Brown is planning to put the opposition parties on the spot by doubling the time that terrorist suspects can be held without charge from 28 days to 56 days.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has been holding talks with her Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposite numbers to try to achieve consensus on measures to be included in a new counter-terrorism Bill, which will be announced in the Queen’s Speech next month.
The Prime Minister, who originally considered having a second try at introducing the 90-day limit that was defeated in the last Parliament, is understood to have settled for a much lower figure, and one that he believes he will be able to get through the House of Commons.
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Ms Smith has yet to put a figure to David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, and Home Office sources insist that she will not decide on a figure until consultations have been completed.
But the attraction of going for the 56-day figure has grown considerably in the Government, particularly as ministers believe that Mr Davis would have problems in persuading Tory MPs to vote against a higher figure than 28 days. One minister said that David Cameron would be anxious to avoid Mr Brown monopolising a “tough on terror” mantle.
Mr Davis told The Times last night: “We have always said that if there was evidence to support this we would look at it carefully. So far, not only have we not had a shred of evidence to support this, but we have had an admission from the Home Secretary that there is not one new iota of evidence to support it and that any proposal to extend the term is because they ‘can imagine circumstances under which it would be necessary’.”
Ms Smith has seized on comments from Mr Davis and the campaigning group Liberty that suspects could be held under existing powers for 30 days under the emergency powers in the Civil Contingencies Act. She is arguing that they have therefore accepted in principle that suspects could be held for 58 days - 30 days plus the present 28-day limit - and that they should therefore be able to sign up to a bigger figure, perhaps 56 days, when the new Bill comes forward.