Labour went too far in trying to bring in a law allowing terror suspects to be held for up to 90 days without charge, the shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls admitted yesterday. Instead of wanting to increase the length of time prisoners could be held for questioning before a court appearance, Mr Balls indicated that Labour is ready to co-operate with the Government in bringing the limit down to 14 days.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced in June that she had ordered a review of counter-terrorism laws, adding that her personal view was that the limit on detention without charge should be 14 days.
Mr Balls's comments yesterday make it increasingly probable that this will happen, although the review, headed by the former director of public prosecutions and Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, is not yet complete.
The proposal to set the limit at 90 days led to the first defeat Tony Blair suffered in the Commons, in November 2005, when 49 Labour MPs rebelled. On the same day, the Commons voted to raise the limit from 14 to 28 days.
Mr Balls said yesterday that even raising it to 28 days seems to have been an unnecessary precaution – though he defended the record of past Labour home secretaries who demanded tougher anti-terrorism laws. "It was really hard – these massive terror threats," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. "I think successive home secretaries did a brilliant job to make sure that we acted and got the resources in and updated our legislation. But in retrospect, I think everybody would say 90 days was a step too far for pre-charge detention."
He added that there was "an emerging view" that the Government needs to strike a new balance between civil liberty and protecting the public from terrorism. Since the introduction of the 28-day limit, nobody had, in fact, been detained without charge for more than 14 days. "If we're ever going to have pre-charge detention, it should be at the minimum amount which is necessary," he said.
"So I've said today that if we can get it down to 14 days and if the police and security experts say that is consistent with the terror threat, then obviously we should do that."
He also admitted that the proposal to have every British citizen issued with an ID card, first mooted by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary, is now dead, because "that decision has been made and I think we need to move on".