Labour rebels reject anti-terror Act plea

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair faced one of the biggest backbench rebellions since he became the leader of the Labour Party last night when 25 Labour MPs defied the whips and voted against the renewal of the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The rebellion was led by the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs but also involved former Labour Northern Ireland spokesman Kevin McNamara and his deputy, Roger Stott.

The Labour leader was accused of "moral cowardice" by ministers for ordering his side to abstain, which is certain to be exploited by the Tories against Labour in the run-up to the general election.

But some on his own side criticised the Labour leadership for refusing for the first time in 12 years to oppose the Act, which they protested infringed civil liberties with its powers of detention without trial and exclusion orders from the mainland.

After the vote, Mr Stott said: "I am a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Prime Minister [Lord Callaghan] and I have never disobeyed the party whip in 23 years but this was something on which some of us need to take a stand on principle."

The Labour leadership ordered its MPs to abstain on the renewal of the Act for another 12 months after the Government met its demands for a fundamental review of the anti-terrorism legislation.

Labour's refusal to vote with the Government in the midst of the renewed bombing campaign by the IRA led to an angry attack on the Labour leader by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, breaching the spirit of the bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland peace process.

After the vote, one ministerial source said: "The Labour leadership is guilty of moral cowardice. There would have been a much bigger rebellion if they had decided to vote with us. There is a genuine feeling of dismay that they abstained, and a political need not to let them get away with it."

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, played down the extent of the rebellion as less than the front bench had feared. He said none of the rebelswould be disciplined. "We respect their opinions because the whole party is united in opposing terrorism."

Attacking the tone adopted by the Home Secretary, Mr Straw added: "I thank God that Michael Howard has been kept as far away as possible from the peace process in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, it would never have got off the ground."

Mr McNamara said yesterday that the party was panicking and should stick to its principles by opposing the renewal of the Act.

Another rebel, Chris Mullin, said: "I will not vote for a measure which permits suspects to be detained without access to a solicitor for up to seven days."

n In addition to Mr McNamara (Hull North) and Mr Stott (Wigan) and Mr Mullin (Sunderland South), the rebels included Maria Fyfe (Maryhill), Bill Michie (Sheffield Heeley), Eddie Loyden (Liverpool Garston), Diane Abbott (Hackney N and Stoke Newington), Tony Benn (Chesterfield), Alan Simpson (Notts S), John Austin-Walker (Woolwich), Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough), Bernie Grant (Tottenham), Brian Sedgemore (Hackney S and Shoreditch), Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish), Ken Livingstone (Brent E), Harry Cohen (Leyton), John Marek (Wrexham), Bill Everington (Sunderland North), Maxwell Madden (Bradford West), Dennis Canavan (Falkirk W) and Dennis Skinner (Bolsover).