John Reid, the Home Secretary, has been warned that Britain's safety could be put at risk if he succeeds in an attempt to lengthen the period that terrorist suspects can be held without charge.
He told the Cabinet yesterday that he wanted to increase the 28-day maximum detention period available to detectives investigating alleged terrorist plots.
Mr Reid was accused of trying to make political capital from the massive operation by West Midlands Police. But the Home Office dismissed suggestions that he was taking advantage of the headlines from the Birmingham raids to press for the extension.
Tony Blair suffered his first Commons defeat as Prime Minister 15 months ago when a move to bring in a 90-day limit was thrown out by MPs and the Government was forced to settle for 28 days. Although the Home Secretary said yesterday he wanted to achieve consensus over a new limit, he faced immediate protests from MPs of all parties and from civil liberties groups.
Mr Reid argued that the police wanted a fresh look at the issue following the discovery of an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners in August. He said there had been no cases so far in which 28 days' questioning had not been sufficient, but it was possible to foresee circumstances in which that was the case.
The police and Home Office say advances in computer technology make it even harder to decode encrypted information and terrorists' conspiracies were becoming larger and more complex all the time. The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "Given the continuing trend and experience over the last year, [Mr Reid] now believes it is worth trying once again to convince Parliament and the nation that going further would be a useful tool in the counter-terror effort.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, countered: "Holding suspects for months without charge is an attack on British justice and could be catastrophic for British security as well.
"If young people see friends and family interned without trial, they are far less likely to help the police, let alone join up. We've had years of rough and ready anti-terror laws and we are not any safer."
Alan Simpson, the MP for Nottingham South, said any effort to bounce Labour MPs into extending the limit would run into resistance. He said: "People are going to want to see the evidence that this is really relevant."
The Tories and Liberal Democrats also reacted sceptically, calling for concrete proof that the fight against terrorism was being hampered by the current 28-day limit. A senior Tory source said: "We are suspicious that Reid is trying to do this the day after the newspapers were dominated by the terrorist threat."
The Home Office said yesterday's cabinet discussion had been planned well before the Birmingham raids and had originally been scheduled to take place last week.
Mr Reid also faced criticism for authorising a statement about the operation early on Wednesday morning. The Home Secretary was said to have been "fully briefed on the operation and is receiving regular updates as developments occur". A source involved in the operation said: "There was no need for the Home Secretary to wade in and get his name on the job. He was clearly trying to make capital out of it. This was not appreciated." Another police source added: "This was not a job that needed to be bigged up. Everyone was very surprised that the Home Office should comment so early - it was not helpful."
The Home Office said last night that Mr Reid believed a new consensus on detention could be achieved. It said any extension of the limit would be balanced by strong judicial oversight of the process. It said the Home Secretary had no specific period in mind.
His predecessor, Charles Clarke, believed that he could force a 42-day limit through the Commons, but was told by Downing Street not to compromise over 90 days.Reuse content