Leading article: The politics of fear

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When Parliament voted to increase the detention period without charge for terrorist suspects, from 14 days to 28, they imposed a dangerous curb on our civil liberties. But now we are told that even 28 days is not enough. The Home Secretary, John Reid, is lobbying for even greater powers of internment.

Mr Reid told ministers at yesterday's Cabinet meeting that he believes it is worth trying to convince Parliament and the nation that "going further" is necessary. This is because, "the scale of the terrorist threat is becoming larger and more complex, because the scale of operations is increasing and the amount of evidence is growing larger".

But we fail to see how this justifies an extension of the period in which police are permitted to hold suspects without bringing charges. Ministers have been able to provide no example of a suspect going free who ought to have been questioned further; no instance of the police running out of time in their search for evidence. According to Mr Reid, the police "think it is right and proper for government to address the issue". Yet citing the advice of the police is a poor justification. If such matters were turned over to the police, they would no doubt award themselves the power to hold suspects indefinitely. And is this not the same police force that some Government figures were describing only a week ago as "theatrical" in their handling of the cash-for-honours investigation?

Mr Reid claims he would like to revisit this issue with a cross-party consensus. But this is disingenuous because he knows he is very unlikely to get it. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were admirably firm in rejecting the Government's proposals to hold suspects for 90 days without charge two years ago.

The truth is that this suggestion owes more to politics than the terror threat. It is intended to make Liberals and Conservatives look "weak" on matters of security. Mr Reid appears to have seized on the aftermath of this week's raids in Birmingham to resurrect an old "dividing line" between the Government and its opponents. As well as being an assault on our civil liberties, an extension in the detention period could actually damage efforts to foil terror plots by giving extremists another grievance against Britain to parade before potential recruits.

The convention of "collective responsibility" meant the Cabinet had to go along with the original 90-day proposals by the Government. But this convention is disintegrating as Mr Blair's time as Prime Minister runs out. There is no reason why ministers should have to damage their own reputations further by acquiescing in this cynical attempt by Mr Reid to exploit the public's fears for naked political ends.

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