Blair turns down Tory offer of time-limit compromise

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The Independent Online

The Government has rejected a compromise plan from the Conservatives that would have salvaged Labour's plans for new anti-terrorism laws.

The Government has rejected a compromise plan from the Conservatives that would have salvaged Labour's plans for new anti-terrorism laws.

The Prevention of Terrorism Bill faces a mauling in the House of Lords today. Peers are likely to approve a series of amendments that would enhance the role of judges when the Home Secretary wants to issue "control orders" restricting the movements of suspected terrorists, and to demand other changes to safeguard the civil liberties of suspects.

Ministers dismissed as a "media stunt" a Tory offer to drop some of its objections if Labour agreed to time-limit the new powers so they expired in November. It would have allowed Parliament a full debate on the need for new laws after the general election.

With no guarantee that the Bill will become law when the existing powers lapse on 14 March, ministers accused the Opposition of taking fright when an opinion poll suggested that the public supported the Government's approach. They claimed the Tories were preparing for a "blame game" if the measure was blocked. Senior Tories fear Labour would then accuse them of being "soft" on terrorism.

After a three-day Lords debate, the Bill will return to the Commons next week. The Government, which has already given some ground to its critics, may be forced to make more concessions to avoid a defeat. Its Commons majority was cut to just 14 after a revolt by 62 Labour MPs on Monday.

The prospect of an agreement between the two main parties was dashed when Tony Blair dismissed the Tories' proposed "sunset clause" during Prime Minister's Questions. Asked about it by Michael Howard, he replied: "No, I don't support it."

Mr Blair insisted the proposed powers were backed by the police and security services and were not an affront to civil liberties. "On the contrary, I believe they are a proper balance between the civil liberties of the subject and the necessary national security of this country that I will not put at risk," he said.

He pointed out that the most draconian powers - to put suspects under house arrest -were "already effectively going to be subject to a sunset clause" because they would be "annually renewable". The less stringent control orders, such as restricting people's right to use a mobile phone and the internet, were subject to a court appeal within 14 days and a three-monthly report on their use "by an eminent and independent person".

Mr Howard told the Prime Minister: "Wouldn't it be far better if the whole of the legislation was made subject to this sunset clause provision so Parliament had the opportunity to consider it in a proper way rather than having it rushed through the House and ramrodded through in the way that is presently happening?"

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, predicted that the Lords would revise the Bill on a number of fronts. "There are a whole series of issues that we are going to press the Government on. We will then make a judgement at the end of that," he said. "But, whatever we do, we will not be able to make this Bill acceptable in the long term. We might be able to make it something which is useful in the short term to deal with terrorism, but not acceptable in the long term."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said the Bill could be defeated in the Commons next week. "I would be uneasy about supporting a very bad Bill even if it was just for eight months," he said.

The Government tabled some amendments yesterday, including a clause saying the Home Secretary must apply immediately to a court to make a house arrest control order. But he would be able to impose lower grade orders himself.