Compromise may help Brown avoid 42-day defeat

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Indy Politics

A compromise has emerged which may allow Gordon Brown to avoid a humiliating Commons defeat over plans to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days.

Ministers and Labour backbenchers are discussing new safeguards to restrict the use of a "reserve power" to extend the current 28-day limit in the Counter Terrorism Bill now before Parliament. The power would be implemented only after the Government asked Parliament to approve it and would require a "yes" vote in both the Commons and Lords.

The Prime Minister is desperate to avoid a Commons defeat on such a major Bill, which would further erode his authority. But he does not want to appear "weak" on the terrorism threat and said this month that it would be better to be right and lose the crucial vote on 11 June than to back down.

Geoff Hoon, the government Chief Whip, and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, are exploring ideas for a compromise with Labour MPs. More than 50 Labour backbenchers are threatening to vote against 42-day detention, more than enough to defeat the proposal because it is also opposed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

One government source said yesterday: "There is scope for a deal. The question is in what circumstances we would trigger these additional powers. That is up for negotiation."

Ministers have already promised that the powers would be activated only after a chief constable and the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed there was an "exceptional operational need" for it to happen. The circumstances could include the discovery of plans for an imminent multiple attack or the launch of a huge security operation following a terror atrocity.

Two further concessions look certain. The Bill guarantees a parliamentary vote within 30 days each time the current 28-day limit is exceeded. Ministers will now promise the vote will take place within seven to 10 days.

The Bill also says that the exceptional powers to hold suspects for up to 42 days would last for 60 days. Ministers are suggesting that the 60-day period could be reduced. The planned compromise could put the pressure on the Tories, who propose using the Civil Contingencies Act in the event of a terrorist emergency. It gives police the power to detain suspects for another 30 days on top of the current 28, making a total of 58 days.