MPs quash series of Lords changes to terrorism Bill

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Indy Politics

The Government set itself on a collision course with the House of Lords last night after MPs moved to ensure that emergency anti-terrorism powers reached the statute book before Christmas.

In just five hours, the Commons overturned a string of defeats inflicted by the Lords over the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill drawn up in the wake of 11 September.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, secured large Government majorities for his plans despite a series of rebellions by Labour backbenchers worried about the Bill's impact on civil liberties.

Peers will have to decide tonight whether to continue to oppose plans to remove the right to judicial review for interned foreign terror suspects, outlaw incitement to religious hatred and other measures.

If the Lords backs down following a series of conciliatory moves by Mr Blunkett, the Bill will receive Royal Assent and statutory instruments will be laid in Parliament next week. However, if the Lords insists on its amendments, it will be locked in a game of "ping pong" with the Commons until one side gives way.

Peers have inflicted nine report-stage defeats over key elements of the legislation, including detention without trial for foreign terrorist suspects, disclosure of information to police and a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

But last night, all the amendments were reversed by the Commons after Tony Blair insisted at Prime Minister's Question Time that the emergency Bill was essential to combat terrorism. He said: "We genuinely believe these measures to be essential in order to fight terrorism properly. They are necessary to diminish the risk of terrorist attack in this country and elsewhere."

Mr Blunkett attempted to head off further revolts by announcing two new concessions to protect civil liberties in the Bill, one to ensure "proportionality" in the sharing of data by security bodies and another increasing the powers of an immigration appeals commission.

Mr Blunkett said that people would be protected from "unjustifiable intrusion" by the "proportionality test". Under this, agencies such as the Inland Revenue could not pass on confidential data to the police if there was not a strong enough suspicion about the threat to national security.

On powers to detain foreign terror suspects without trial, Mr Blunkett outlined a solution which he told MPs had the support of the law lords and former law lords who had led the opposition to the measures.

A Government amendment would make the Special Immigration Appeals Commission a superior court of record ­ giving it a level of legal authority which can only be challenged by the Appeal Court.

Despite this concession, 21 Labour MPs rebelled against Mr Blunkett's removal of judicial review. But the move was carried by 294 to 85, Government majority 209.

MPs also put back into the Bill a new offence of incitement to religious hatred and Beverley Hughes, the Home Office minister, assured MPs that the Attorney General would have to give his consent before a prosecution could proceed. But she came under attack from all sides after disclosing that the Attorney General would issue guidance as to what would be considered "legitimate expression of religious belief".

But despite the biggest revolt of the evening, by 27 Labour backbenchers, the Lords defeat was reversed by 307 votes to 236, Government majority 71.

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