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Clarke fails to stem revolt as majority collapses to 14

By Ben Russell

01 March 2005

The Government's controversial anti-terror legislation passed the Commons last night, but not before a rebellion among Labour backbenchers saw Tony Blair's majority slump to just 14 votes.

Despite the introduction of concessions designed to placate critics of the proposed house arrest of terror suspects, sixty-two backbenchers, including former Cabinet ministers Robin Cook, Frank Dobson, Clare Short and Chris Smith joined Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in an attempt to defy the Government's plans. A series of cross-party amendments which attempted to ensure that judges take decisions to impose all proposed "control orders" was defeated by just 253 votes to 267 after an impassioned six-hour debate.

The Bill, which passed by 272 votes to 219, a majority of 52, will now face stiff opposition in the House of Lords where Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers have the muscle to defeat the Government.

Mr Clarke confirmed yesterday that he would attempt to amend the Bill in the Lords, bowing to demands to allow the High Court to decide whether to impose the most severe control orders amounting to house arrest. But he also announced plans to create a new power for police to hold suspects while ministers apply for a control order. He also declared that he would not back down over plans to give ministers direct power to impose lesser orders, covering electronic tagging and other restrictions.

Mr Clarke was openly heckled by MPs in the chamber after last night's vote. Earlier he faced a barrage of hostile interventions during his 90-minute speech in the Commons yesterday as MPs from all parties reacted with fury in a chaotic start to an ill-tempered debate on the detail of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joined human rights groups in attacking the concessions, saying defendants would still face secret court proceedings without being told or being able to question the allegations against them.

The announcement came just hours after Tony Blair defended the proposals, insisting that Britain was threatened by "several hundred" active terrorists who are operating inside the country and planning attacks. Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour: "These will be restrictions on their liberty that we will use only in the most limited circumstances. But we genuinely believe that they are necessary in order to protect the country."

Mr Clarke said he was trying to seek "as wide a consensus as is possible across Parliament".

He said: "When considering the balance of these matters, and it is a matter of balance, the conclusion that I have come to ­ it is why I set this out in the letter today ­ is to say that I do propose to amend the Bill in order to provide for derogating control orders to be made by a judge in the High Court rather than as now by the Secretary of State. I have sought to acknowledge the strength of opinion that exists on all sides of this House."

But amid angry scenes, MPs accused ministers of displaying "contempt" for Parliament by forcing the bill through the Commons in just six hours, and condemned Mr Clarke for announcing major concessions without allowing MPs to debate his new proposals in detail. A string of senior MPs demanded the debate be halted to allow clarification of the proposals.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow Attorney General condemned the debate as "scandalous" and "grotesque".

He told the Commons: "We are being asked to pass this legislation which is of huge constitutional and legal significance ­ and we are being asked to do it on the basis of promises which will be fulfilled elsewhere."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This concession is a welcome step but does not go far enough. The changes promised today mean that judges will authorise some control orders but not all. The Home Secretary will still be able to restrict suspects' movements and communications without having to go to a judge."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group, Liberty, said: "Turning the high court of this country into a secret commission will not help someone facing indefinite punishment on the basis of undisclosed intelligence."


Diane Abbott; John Austin; Vera Baird; Harry Barnes; Andrew Bennett; Harold Best; Anne Campbell; Harry Cohen; Frank Cook; Robin Cook; Jeremy Corbyn; Jim Cousins; John Cummings; Jim Cunningham; Tam Dalyell; Valerie Davey; Frank Dobson; Gwyneth Dunwoody; Frank Field; Mark Fisher; Paul Flynn; Ms Barbara Follett; Neil Gerrard; Dr Ian Gibson; Win Griffiths; John Grogan; David Hamilton; Dai Havard; David Heyes; Kate Hoey; Kelvin Hopkins; Glenda Jackson; Dr Lynne Jones; Tony Lloyd; John McDonnell; Andrew Mackinlay; Kevin McNamara; Alice Mahon; Robert Marris; Robert Marshall-Andrews; Michael Meacher; Doug Naysmith; Kerry Pollard; Malcolm Savidge; Brian Sedgemore; Clare Short; Alan Simpson; Dennis Skinner; Chris Smith; Llew Smith; Paul Stinchcombe; David Taylor; Jon Trickett; Dr Desmond Turner; Robert Wareing; Brian White; Alan Williams; David Winnick; Mike Wood; Derek Wyatt