Anti-terror Bill passes Commons hurdle after MPs win concessions

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair faces a trial of strength with the House of Lords today to secure his anti-terror Bill after threatening to make the fight against terrorism a central election issue.

Tony Blair faces a trial of strength with the House of Lords today to secure his anti-terror Bill after threatening to make the fight against terrorism a central election issue.

The Prime Minister warned that he would hold the Conservatives responsible for destroying the Prevention of Terrorism Bill if peers did not drop their opposition to house arrest for suspects.

MPs overturned a series of defeats by peers last night as the Labour rebellion in the Commons crumbled after the Government made significant last-minute concessions to opponents over so-called control orders, which would range from electronic tagging to house arrest.

The Government secured comfortable majorities in seven Commons divisions on the anti-terror legislation.

The votes set the scene for a clash between MPs and peers today when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill returns to the Lords with many peers still fundamentally opposed to major parts of the Bill and Conservatives determined to ensure it expires in the autumn.

MPs and peers are now braced for a round of parliamentary "ping pong" between the Commons and the Lords that could stretch through the night. If the stand-off continues, ministers could be forced to abandon the Bill. They will accuse the Conservatives of derailing their defence against al-Qa'ida attacks.

Labour whips went on the offensive last night to maximise the party's majorities, meaning many ministers arrived late at a fund-raising gala dinner in Park Lane.

In the first division, MPs backed the Government's compromise to give judges power to decide control orders by 348 to 240, a majority of 108. It was this concession which appears to have won over many potential Labour rebels.

A Lords amendment calling for a tougher burden of proof before control orders are granted was also rejected by 340 votes to 251, a majority of 89.

MPs also rejected a Lords call for a "sunset clause" setting an eight-month limit on the Bill's powers, by 340 to 240, a majority of 100.

After the results were declared, Mr Blair called on the Tories to support the controversial legislation. He said that persisting with their efforts to "water it down" would be "irresponsible and wrong".

"Enough is enough," Mr Blair said, urging Michael Howard, the Tory leader, to ensure that Tory peers allow the Bill through when it returns to the Lords. Speaking in his office at the Commons, Mr Blair said: "The directly elected House of Commons has now made its view very, very clear indeed."

Earlier he clashed bitterly with Mr Howard over the Government's refusal to accept the insertion of a sunset clause into the legislation. The Prime Minister insisted it would send the wrong signal to terrorists.

But Mr Howard said: "I have come to the conclusion that this Prime Minister wants this Bill to fail. He wants to pretend he is the only one who is tough on terrorism. Isn't it a dreadful measure from a desperate Prime Minister and shouldn't he be thoroughly ashamed of himself?"

Mr Blair retorted: "We will have this debate here and we will have this debate in the country and we will see where the shame lies.

"But in my judgment it will lie with the Conservative Party, faced with legislation to prevent terrorism, they are going to vote against it. If they want to vote against it, let them. We will be content ultimately to have the verdict of the country."

The Lords inflicted eight decisive defeats on the Government in just 48 hours this week, with the biggest majority in favour of the sunset clause.

The size of the votes is likely to strengthen the resolve of peers to resist the measures. Early analysis by academics at University College London suggested that the votes in the Lords represented some of the largest against the Government since the hereditary peers were abolished in 1999.

If they refuse to back off and the Bill collapses, the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, could be forced to renew the orders detaining foreign suspects in Belmarsh and other jails, which expire on Monday.

However, the Government would be open to an immediate court challenge because the law lords have already ruled the orders to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Labour rebels cut the Government's majority to 14 over greater judicial scrutiny of control orders last week.

But yesterday Mr Clarke attempted to defuse Labour opposition by conceding a greater role for judges in deciding whether to impose lower level control orders covering restrictions such as electronic tagging and limits on telephone or internet use. He also promised that the legislation would be reviewed annually by Parliament. David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, asked why the Home Secretary had conceded the issue of judicial involvement when he should have backed down in the House of Commons last week.

Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, said it was "preposterous" to allow the Bill to expire as early as November.

But Bob Marshall-Andrews, Labour MP for Medway, questioned the extent of Mr Clarke's concession. He said: "The power of the court is expressly limited to the power of judicial review. It has no overriding jurisdiction over matters of fact."

The Conservatives maintained their assault on the Bill, demanding a sunset clause to allow Parliament to reconsider the law later this year.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, attacked the proposed system as a formula for multiple miscarriages of justice. He said: "In anti-terrorist law every miscarriage of justice is a seed from which anger and resentment grow."

Mr Clarke agreed to a tougher burden of proof for the most serious orders, although he insisted that lesser orders should still be made it the Government reasonably suspects someone to be involved in terrorist activity.

Douglas Hogg, the former Tory cabinet minister, said: "We are betraying our country and we are betraying our constituents. We should uphold the House of Lords' amendments."