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Clarke retreats on house arrest powers

By Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent

23 February 2005

Charles Clarke was backing down last night over plans to place terrorist suspects under house arrest in the face of opposition from MPs, police and security chiefs.

The Home Secretary was condemned by members of all parties and civil liberties groups as he published the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which gives him the power to order that suspects are held at home or in a detention centre without trial.

He justified the package by warning that Britain remained at risk from terrorists and that some planned attacks had been thwarted by the security forces.

But he made clear there was no immediate prospect of confining alleged al-Qa'ida sympathisers including the 10 detainees about to be released from Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons to their homes. In an embarrassing admission, he told MPs that the police and security services had advised him it was not necessary at the moment to put anyone under house arrest. He said: "They support the measures in the Bill which allow me to impose obligations up to, but not including, a 'requirement to remain in a particular place at all times'."

Lower grades of so-called "control orders", including curfews, travel bans and restrictions on using telephones and the internet, will go ahead.

The Tories have denounced the measures as "ill-thought out" and have called for more terrorist suspects to be brought to trial using intercept material, while the Liberal Democrats want house-arrest control orders to be imposed by judges rather than the Home Secretary.

The two parties, which have also protested that the measure is being rushed through Parliament, are planning to vote against the proposals in the Commons today, and may win the support of between 20 and 30 Labour MPs. The Government is at serious risk of the Bill being defeated in the Lords.

The "house arrest" power would require a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill explains that it could be triggered by a "particular public emergency", raising the prospect of internment if a Madrid-style atrocity occurs in Britain.

In a bullish Commons statement, Mr Clarke refused to give ground on the central principle of control orders, although he announced stronger and more rapid judicial scrutiny over how they were imposed. He said: "We must have the capacity to protect our people ... It would be the gravest dereliction of duty to wait until we have suffered a terrorist outrage here and then respond after the event."

But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government are introducing these powers in a climate not of a security emergency, but in one of political emergency."

He protested: "The Bill removes, for the first time in modern times, the presumption of innocence of the accused and it also removes the right of the accused to see the evidence and charges against them."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokes-man, said: "Charles Clarke's proposals are going to have a very rough ride through Parliament. It is wrong in principle, and dangerous in practice, to allow British citizens to be locked up in their own homes on the say-so of a politician."

Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International, said: "Today's details cannot disguise the essence of the new Bill: the Home Secretary has reserved the power to place anyone in the UK under house arrest without charge or trial, based on secret evidence. This is nothing short of internment at home."

A Home Office briefing paper published yesterday said plots had been uncovered that pointed to clear evidence of a "real threat to British people and British interests" from terrorists linked to al-Qa'ida.

* Ministers should consider setting up jury-less courts to conduct terrorism trials, Lord Carlile of Berriew, the watchdog overseeing anti-terror legislation, said yesterday. A three-judge court, with a duty to give full reasons for its decisions, could be effective in cases where evidence had to be kept secret for security reasons, he said.