New Clause 45 — Limit on Period of Detention Without Charge of Suspected Terrorists

Part of Criminal Justice Bill — [3rd Alloted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 20th May 2003.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:30 pm, 20th May 2003

I take a similar approach on this matter to that expressed by Mr. Grieve. The proposition has come late in the day, as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has said. We have therefore had no chance to consider it in detail in Committee, which is a disadvantage. It strikes me that the speed with which it was introduced was unnecessary, because if it were really urgent, we would not be legislating now with a view to implementation in the autumn. The case for changing the law to double the period for which people can be held without charge surely cannot be so urgent that it was only thought of two weeks ago and so urgent that it needs to be introduced today. I am unhappy about the procedure, and the Government have not explained how it is justified.

The questions that I asked the Minister, and amendment (a) tabled by my hon. Friends and by me, are meant to test that proposition, as the Minister understood. She has made arguments, which I understand, and the police have put a case to her. A second disadvantage is that nobody has independently verified the justification for that case—there has been no opportunity for the matter to go to the Home Affairs Committee and for it to take evidence on it. There has been no chance for the matter to go to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for it to take evidence, look into the human rights implications and consider its compatibility with our international obligations. My understanding is that it would not be the normal procedure of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to look into these matters on a routine basis. None the less, it would have been possible to speak to it and to get its view. Although the Minister made it clear that Lord Carlile of Berriew has been informed of the proposition, he has not reported on it. He has produced annual reports and recommended various changes, but he has not recommended the provision. Its only source is the argument of the police, which is backed up by the Government's willingness to introduce it.

I understand that the police think that they need the powers and that the case for longer detention might have changed. However, it strikes me that we must be careful that the case is justified on historical fact. I am sure that that is why the hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked how often the seven-day ceiling had been reached and it is also why I asked the number of times that the police have detained people for the maximum time permitted. The answer was 16 times in the most recent full year for which figures are available and the Minister told us that it happened a further 16 times in the past three months. Such information might strengthen the case for extending the period, but only for extending it by a little.

Liberal Democrat amendment (a) would change the period of detention to 10 days. Lord Lloyd of Berwick proposed a period of two days in 2000, although he made the concession of a four-day period in exceptional cases. The Government then asked for the period to be changed to seven days. However, doubling that period within three years could be a step too far.

Liberal Democrats are, of course, consoled by the facts that there will be judicial oversight and that the police will have to go to the courts to make their case. We are reassured that the Minister reported that the magistrate does not necessarily grant the whole period and often insists that the police come back after a day or two, which means that only small periods may be granted. Although our worries will not make us oppose the measure today, we shall try to get to the bottom of the matter in the House of Lords. It might be the case that we should accept the extension of the period by only a further three days—the 10-day period that we have suggested—or that there should be a sunset provision so that the extension of the period would last for only a year or two. Parliament would then legislate again if it wanted to retain the exceptional measure. Irrespective of the justification for a significant removal of people's civil liberties and a significant increase of the state's power, we must be careful not to do that without having the opportunity to recover the position in more normal times, as Mr. Mullin said.