Jacqui Smith faces a desperate struggle to avoid defeat in Parliament over new plans to lock up terrorist suspects without charge for up to 42 days.
The Home Secretary provoked a civil liberties storm and anger among opposition parties as she announced a fresh move to increase the current 28-day maximum. Ms Smith has backed off from earlier proposals for a 56-day limit and promised the Government would only ask for 42-day detention in extreme circumstances.
But parliamentary opposition began building against the controversial move immediately after its announcement. The Government will face a knife-edge vote on the plans in the Commons and looks likely to be defeated in the Lords. The votes are expected to take place within two months.
A previous attempt to bring in a 90-day limit led to Tony Blair's first Commons defeat two years ago when 49 Labour MPs rebelled against the plan.
In a further sign of the political pressure she faces, Ms Smith has been summoned back before the Labour-controlled Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to justify the move. It has already made clear its objection to increasing the 28-day limit after a majority of witnesses to the committee including the Director of Public Prosecutions opposed any extension.
Under Ms Smith's new proposals, the 28-day limit would be exceeded only if there was an "exceptional operational need" and would last for only two months. She promised judicial oversight of any such move and that it would be debated in Parliament.
Ms Smith said of the new powers: "If they did need to be used it would be in exceptional circumstances and in a way where there was a proven need for it. It is not something we are expecting to become mundane or everyday."
But critics said the parliamentary debate would be meaningless as it would only have to take place within 30 days of the 28-day limit being exceeded. That could mean the debate being staged 16 days after a suspect had been charged, or released, on the 42nd day of questioning. Opponents also argued that judges' ability to quash the move would be limited.
Ministers hope that the new measures will buy off some Labour critics. One said: "We hope that some who voted against will abstain and some who abstained will hold their noses and support us."
But the early signs were that Labour opponents were holding firm. David Winnick, the veteran MP for Walsall North, said: "No evidence has been produced in my view and in the view of a good number of other people who have taken a close interest in this matter - that any extension is necessary."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government are making a proposal for something they still have not proved necessary. They have lost the argument to further extend pre-charge detention beyond 28 days again and again." Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "It is pig-headed stubbornness for the Government to push on with extending pre-charge detention."
The director of the human rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "There is no evidence to extend beyond what is already the longest period in the Western world."
Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said the plan would rob people of their basic rights, adding that "no amount of parliamentary window-dressing can disguise that fact". Eric Metcalfe of the human rights and law reform group Justice said: "The UK already has a greater period of pre-charge detention than Zimbabwe. The Government should be looking at reducing it, not extending it."
The national security lottery
7 days Limit brought in by Terrorism Act 2000.
14 days New maximum under Criminal Justice Act 2003.
28 days Limit allowed under Terrorism Act 2006.
42 days Jacqui Smith's proposed new maximum.
56 days Preferred option floated by Government five months ago.
58 days The maximum if the Government were to declare a state of emergency.
50-90 days Described as a sensible limit by Met Chief Sir Ian Blair.
90 days Tony Blair's favoured limit, thrown out.Reuse content