Labour could back terror detention changes

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Shadow home secretary Ed Balls indicated today that Labour was ready to support moves to cut the pre-charge detention period for terror suspects to 14 days.

Shadow home secretary Ed Balls indicated today that Labour was ready to support moves to cut the pre-charge detention period for terror suspects to 14 days.

Paving the way for a cross-party agreement on reducing the current 28-day limit, he said he would back the change if it would not impede the police and the security services.

His comments mark a significant policy shift for Labour and a break from the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments which introduced 28 days and tried to extend the pre-charge period still further.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Balls admitted Labour had been damaged by its attempts in office to increase the limit to 90 days and then 42 days.

"Even 42 days was a step too far. Our reputation as a party which protected liberty as well as security suffered as a result," he said.

"Our approach should always be that, if the evidence shows we can go down from 28 days without impeding the police and security services from doing their jobs, then we ought to do it."

Home Secretary Theresa May announced a review of counter-terror legislation in July, when she said her personal view was that the limit should be 14 days, which the Liberal Democrats also support.

The review, overseen by former director of public prosecutions and Lib Dem peer Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, is ongoing.

It is also considering the issue of control orders, which Mr Balls is also prepared to see scrapped if there is a workable alternative.

"They are such exceptional measures that in an ideal world of course we would want to manage without them," he said.

On both control orders and pre-charge detention, Mr Balls' final stance will depend on the evidence of the police and the security services to the Government's review.

But he made clear his intention to move away from what was widely criticised as an authoritarian approach under Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

"I'm quite clear we must always strike a balance between protecting our country from the risks of terrorist attacks on the one hand, and preserving our democratic freedoms and fundamental liberties on the other; it should never be a case of one or the other," he said.

"In government, I've no doubt that my Labour colleagues did their best on every occasion to get that balance right in the face of the real and dangerous threats against the country, but did we always succeed? Probably not."

The pre-charge detention period was increased to 28 days under Mr Blair's premiership in 2006.

The previous year he had been defeated in the Commons, thanks to a Labour rebellion, in his bid for 90 days.

Mr Brown tried to increase the limit to 42 days after he became prime minister in 2007, but backed down in the teeth of opposition in the Lords the following year.

Prior to 2000, terror suspects had been treated under ordinary criminal law which meant police had only 24 hours to charge them or let them go.

Mr Balls' policy shift is arguably the most substantial break yet since Ed Miliband was elected leader at the end of September.

Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch said the Government now had "no excuse" for keeping the pre-charge limit at 28 days.

Alex Deane, its director, said: "This is good news. It means that there is simply no excuse for the Government to keep the limit at 28 days - even the authoritarian Labour Party which introduced 28 detention now agrees that it's wrong.

"The debate should now be about whether to go lower than 14 days - and I firmly believe that we should."

Backbench Labour MP David Winnick, a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "I very much welcome what Ed Balls has said. We need to restore our position on civil liberties.

"This step is very much in the right direction of making it clear that while everyone recognises the continuing threat of terrorism, 14 days should be the maximum for holding someone without charge."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "This new approach from the Labour leadership opens up a real opportunity for a different conversation in British politics about hard-won freedoms.

"No-one is protected by miscarriages of justice which recruit more terrorists than they ever prevent.

"Credit to all three main parties for this more rational tone but the real tests are yet to come."