David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has attacked as "airy-fairy" any critics of his plans to seek sweeping powers to detain suspected terrorists without trial.
Mr Blunkett will effectively declare a "state of public emergency" in Britain when he asks Parliament to prepare the way for new legislation in response to the September 11 atrocities. The Government will seek an unprecedented opt-out of the European Convention on Human Rights to allow the tough new measures to go ahead. However, Labour MPs and the Liberal Democrats joined forces yesterday to warn of the dangers of what they called "internment", while civil liberties groups pledged to fight the plans in the courts.
Mr Blunkett will lay an order in the House of Commons seeking the opt-out of Article 5 of the European Convention, which prohibits detention without trial. This move will lay the ground for the Government's Emergency (Anti-Terror) Bill, a package that includes powers to lock up terrorist suspects who seek asylum. The bill will mean suspects can be jailed for up to six months on the orders of a High Court hearing in private.
Mr Blunkett stressed that civil liberties must be balanced against the need to maintain order in the face of the threat posed by al-Qa'ida and others.
"We could live in a world which is airey-fairy, libertarian, where everybody does precisely what they like and we believe the best of everybody and then they destroy us, that isn't the world, regrettably, we live in," he told ITV's Dimbleby programme.
Mr Blunkett said that only a small number of people would be detained under the scheme but said numbers were not important. "I don't give a damn whether it's one, a dozen or 20; the important thing is that they don't put our lives at risk or enable others to put people's lives at risk elsewhere."
Mr Blunkett said there had been "dozens" of cases where people arriving in the country had claimed asylum to protect themselves after being presented with security services' evidence on them.
Holding hearings in public could harm national security and the European Convention, did not require it, he added. John Wadham, the Director of Liberty, the civil liberties group, said last night that it was preparing to mount a legal challenge to Mr Blunkett's "fundamental violation of the rule of law, our rights and traditional British values".
"The situation in the UK does not warrant such an extreme attack on a historic core principle of British justice. Arbitrary detention locking someone up indefinitely, without trial or any hope of release is wrong in principle."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that his party would not tolerate "serious erosion" of civil liberties and warned the Government that it must consult other parties over the new laws. The Government wants to push the emergency legislation through Parliament before Christmas, but Mr Kennedy said that both his party and crossbenchers could block it in the House of Lords.
Mark Fisher, the Labour MP and former minister, told GMTV that both MPs and the public would need "a great deal of convincing" that such restrictions were justified. Any legislation would have to be treated "with great caution and scepticism" and could cause public "hysteria", he warned.Reuse content