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Clarke faces backlash over terrorism laws

By Nigel Morris and Ben Russell 28 January 2005

Charles Clarke suffered a growing backlash against his plans to hold British terror suspects under house arrest without trial as he revealed that their families and friends could also be subject to sanctions.

The Home Secretary admitted that people living with terrorist suspects placed under a control order could be banned from using the internet or telephone in an almost unprecedented move to curtail the rights of individuals who are not accused of any crime. "Just because somebody's wife wants to chat with her friends about going shopping that's not therefore a reason to let somebody cause a bomb explosion at Bluewater, " he told The Daily Telegraph. "I accept that an individual is different to a family but where there is an individual who is deemed to be a threat on security grounds we need the powers to stop that person engaging in terrorism."

Criticising lawyers who place the right of the individual over the security of society as a whole, he said there were "serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society" and it was necessary "to take steps which we would prefer in a different world not to take".

Mr Clarke was forced to devise alternative plans for dealing with terror suspects after the law lords ruled last month that the detention of 12 foreign terrorist suspects was unlawful and discriminatory.

The proposals will treat Britons and foreigners equally, prompting criticism that he has replaced one form of injustice with another.

He was warned of a bitter battle both in the House of Lords and the courts over the legislation, but the Government is adamant that its central provision that UK nationals suspected of being involved in terrorism could be subject to the new system of orders cannot be altered.

He is facing an uphill struggle to convince other ministers of the wisdom of the move, which has been condemned as the greatest extension of state powers over United Kingdom citizens for 300 years. Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "It will not apply to anything other than a handful of people. It is important we put the security of the country first while recognising that there are civil liberty issues."

Mr Clarke is now searching for modifications that could defuse the dismay among politicians of all parties, lawyers and civil rights groups. Ministers and officials are still agonising over the detail of the provisions, including the power of judges to police the system and the levels of proof that will be required before a control order is enforced. Mr Clarke is considering releasing more details of the terrorist threat to the UK as part of a "national debate" on the issue.

He admitted: "Anybody who says what I have done is wrong is absolutely entitled to that view. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to say and it's well founded. On the other hand, I would invite them to put themselves in the position I'm in to weigh the wrong which is being done to a tradition in history of the primacy of law versus the wrong that would be done were any of these terrorist organisations to succeed in their ambitions."

Mr Clarke outlined the scheme yesterday in a lengthy presentation to a meeting of the Cabinet, but ministers are worried that the move could antagonise Muslim communities and increase feelings of resentment.

One told The Independent: "It's the wrong solution for what is basically an immigration problem. It sets a dangerous precedent to put our own people under house arrest."

With legislation still several weeks away, Mr Clarke is expected to appeal for a cross-party approach. The Conservatives are likely to support the control orders, while the Liberal Democrats could abstain.

But he will face opposition in the Lords, where many peers of all parties have expressed horror over the proposals. Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a former law lord, said the plans were "very depressing". He said: "The effect of the legislation would seem to be we are simply extending deprivation of liberty to a wider number of people than before."

Civil liberties groups plan a major campaign against the proposals, warning they will challenge them in the courts while an Amnesty International said that they would be "vigorously opposing them".