Goldsmith exposes Cabinet rift on terror Bill

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The Independent Online

The Cabinet and its senior legal adviser are divided over plans to allow the police to hold terror suspects for 90 days, a key part of the government's anti-terrorism policy.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, appears to disagree with Tony Blair and John Reid when he tells journalists today that he does not think there is enough evidence to press ahead with longer detention periods.

But the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have both made it clear that they support the police in their renewed request for a 90-day power of detention, a proposal that was thrown out by MPs last year.

Asked if there was evidence to hold a suspect for 90 days without charge, Lord Goldsmith said: "Well, I haven't seen it yet. The recent investigations demonstrate that it was right to extend the period to 28 days, but on extending it any further we need evidence to demonstrate that that is needed."

This appears to directly contradict Mr Reid, who confirmed yesterday that he was considering re-introducing the 90-day detention period in a counter-terrorism Bill which is expected early next year.

He told ITV that he was drawing up new safeguards to prevent arbitrary detention, in the hope of winning over MPs who believe that holding a suspect for 90 days without charge is a draconian and unjustified power.

Mr Reid and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, are both being backed by the Prime Minister who last week said in a webcast on the Downing Street site: "I favoured it then, and I haven't changed my mind."

He added that he would seek cross-party backing for any extension of the detention limit rather than attempt to push new terror laws through Parliament in the face of opposition.

He indicated that government proposals for new counter-terror legislation would be issued before Christmas. But he said it was too early to say whether the Government would again seek a 90-day limit, saying that the new proposals would be based on the latest police advice.

Lord Goldsmith appears to favour a different approach, which includes the use of intercept evidence. He repeated his support for allowing intercept evidence, such as telephone taps, to be routinely used in courts in England and Wales. "We need to give police and prosecutors the tools they need in order to bring dangerous criminals to justice," he said. "I do believe that intercept evidence would be a key tool to doing that. There are real and legitimate considerations, which we have to take into account."

But Mr Reid said yesterday he was "yet to be persuaded" of the case for allowing evidence from phone-tapping to be used in court, warning that the change could threaten the effectiveness of Britain's secret services. Proposals backed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to allow phone-tap evidence to be used in court were "worthy of consideration", but it was not "an open and shut case", said Mr Reid.

"I am not yet persuaded of it," he said. "But I have not yet concluded [my review], nor have I yet received the results of a study we are carrying on to see if we could use it while minimising the damage to the operational effectiveness of MI5 and MI6. It would not necessarily give us benefits that outweigh the disadvantages."

Commenting on the Attorney General's remarks on increasing the detention of terrorist suspects to 90 days the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said that it confirmed his belief that 28 days was sufficient to deal with the threat. "The only reason Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others are seeking this extension is for party political advantage, rather than making the public safer."