Peers line up to condemn 'terrifying' house arrest plan

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Peers bitterly criticised the Government's proposals for house arrest yesterday as a string of former judges and law lords declared that planned anti-terror laws undermined Britain's historic legal rights.

Peers bitterly criticised the Government's proposals for house arrest yesterday as a string of former judges and law lords declared that planned anti-terror laws undermined Britain's historic legal rights.

Peers lined up to attack the Prevention of Terrorism Bill as they started four days of debate on it, warning that it was "unconstitutional" and attacked fundamental protection for citizens by allowing ministers to hold or tag people without trial.

But the Conservatives last night said they were prepared to drop opposition to the Bill in return for a "sunset clause" forcing ministers to draw up fresh proposals in the autumn.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said the party would table amendments to the Bill to make it expire in eight months' time, and set up two reviews of the measures before it came back to Parliament.

He insisted that the party would continue to seek to improve the existing Bill during its passage through the Lords over the next few days. But a spokesman made it clear that the party would not oppose the legislation if the sunset clauses were accepted.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said: "I am pleased the Conservative Party has come round to accepting the principle of control orders. I have always said I wanted to build wide consensus across Parliament and political parties to deal with the threat of terrorism to the UK."

Civil rights campaigners believe the deal could be a way of defusing pre-election tension over the issue. A spokesman for Liberty said: "Of course we want this terrifying Bill to be defeated once and for all. However, Parliament should not have a gun to its head and be forced into a rushed pre-election sham of a debate about such grave issues."

The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Peter Selby, condemned the legislation as representing a "victory for terrorists", declaring that it threatened the "spirit" of British life.

The Liberal Democrat Lord Goodhart said: "It is entirely wrong that the Home Secretary, or indeed the courts, should have power to restrict liberty in ways that are not specifically authorised by Parliament.The Government needs to sit down with the opposition parties and work out what it can legitimately do in the 10 days before the anti-terrorism Act runs out of time. What it cannot do is force this Bill on us. That would be an affront to the constitution."

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, insisted that the Bill contained safeguards to protect the public. He said: "This Bill needs to be seen in the context of the scale of the continuing and serious threat to the security of the United Kingdom from terrorism.

"A primary issue raised by this Bill is whether in the light of the threat that this country faces it is appropriate and necessary to introduce a process which goes beyond the powers of the normal criminal prosecution process to protect the nation against terrorism.

"It is the Government's view that there is such a requirement to introduce such a process and to impose restrictions on individuals where absolutely necessary. But it is also the Government's view to ensure that such powers are subject to stringent safeguards."

Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, said: "That in itself assumes that this House will pass those amendments unaltered. It was a shocking way to treat the elected chamber by a Home Secretary who has legislated in such haste that we face the very real danger of getting the proposals in this Bill wrong."

Lord Merlyn-Rees, a former Labour home secretary and Northern Ireland secretary, told the House that although Lady Anelay "rehearses the dangers of allowing a Home Secretary to lock people up without due course of trial ... it's been going on for 20 years. I locked people up without trial. The paper was brought to me and I signed it and I made my own investigations. It happened under the Conservative administration beforehand. Why the outcry now?"

The retired law lord Lord Lloyd of Berwick said ministers "have produced this illiberal Bill and told us that, unless it is passed by March 14, the heavens will fall. I do not believe it."

Lord Lloyd, whose review of the law formed the basis of the Terrorism Act 2000, dismissed the proposed judicial involvement in control orders as "a charade" and "a sham". He said: "It is essentially a political decision, which would expose judges to a political backlash of just the kind from which it is our duty to protect them. I am deeply opposed to this Bill."

Lord Harris of Haringey, Labour former chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said the Bill was necessary and was "an honest attempt to try to balance the realities of the situation we have before us". He added: "In terms of discussions I have had, and information I have received, I am convinced that a number of serious terrorist attacks on this country have been averted over the past few years, as a result of the work of the Metropolitan Police security service and others."

Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, the Labour peer and human rights barrister, said: "Sugar-coating the unpalatable by suggesting all will be well if a judge makes the order, is to forget that it will not feel significantly different if a judge or the Home Secretary issues a house arrest order if you still do not know the allegation or evidence on which it is based.

"What we are going to see in this new process which is being cobbled together is a debasement of the High Court whereby it will be turned into a secret commission hearing cases in camera. It would turn the judiciary into a fig leaf for unacceptable practices."

The Lords have their say

"Security is no justification for the breach of the fundamental principles which underpin our democratic system. No deprivation of liberty by ministerial say so, no midnight secret knock on the door, no gulags whether in Siberia or in Guantanamo."

Lord Thomas, Liberal Democrat, former High Court judge.

"When you are dealing with the orders that are to be made to keep a person in his own house, when you are basically destroying his liberty albeit for a short time, then the burden of proof should be the ordinary criminal standard - beyond reasonable doubt."

Lord Ackner, former law lord.

"In March of 2004... they said that to extend executive detention to British subjects would be a grave step; such draconian powers, their words not mine, would do much damage to community relations and could not be justified in the circumstances. Yet here we are less than a year later being asked to give the Government just such draconian powers."

Lord Lloyd, former law lord.

"Throughout modern history, our sea defences against unfair executive power have been serially attacked by the threat of erosion. The executive, like the sea, will always come back. Provisions that commit such wide incursions into liberty as these do need to be examined by other minds as well [as the police and security services]."

Lord Mayhew, Conservative, former attorney general.

"The Home Office practice now is to bring forward new legislation which is absolutely abhorrent and totally disgraceful in its abuse of civil liberties and then, when there is uproar, replace it with something only slightly less abhorrent and tell us a major concession has been made. The concession being made should provide this House with no comfort."

Baroness Kennedy, Labour, human rights barrister.