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Anti-terror Bill 'still violates human rights'

By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent

05 March 2005

Amendments to soften the anti-terror Bill do not go far enough and may still breach human rights laws, a cross-party committee of senior MPs and peers has warned.

In a setback for the Government, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said yesterday that plans to give judges - rather than the Home Secretary - the power to put suspected terrorists under house arrest without charge still failed "to satisfy the basic requirement of legality".

The committee also said it was "not persuaded" that there was a gap in the current law that justified the sweeping new powers, because police could already hold a terror suspect for up to 14 days before bringing charges.

In a further setback for the Government, the committee warned that lesser "control orders", including electronic tagging and limits on telephone and internet use, should also be decided by the courts. The committee, which is reporting on the legislation for the second time in a week, also attacked the speed with which it was being rushed through Parliament, warning there was too little time to draw up a comprehensive assessment of its implications for human rights.

On Monday Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, backed down over plans to allow him to impose house arrest without first going to the High Court after an outcry from MPs, peers and human rights activists. Under the compromise, high court judges would make control orders imposing house arrest after an application from the Home Secretary. Initially they would simply decide whether there was a case to answer. Suspects would only be entitled to a full hearing after a few days, although cases could be heard in secret with suspects banned from knowing the full evidence against them.

The committee warned that such a system "falls far short of a requirement that the court be satisfied itself of the necessity for an individual to be deprived of their liberty". It said initial hearings would only decide if the Home Office had established whether there was a case to answer before putting a suspect under house arrest. "This is a low threshold for the making or a judicial order that deprives the individual of liberty." It questioned whether the proposed system of hearings "constitutes a sufficient safeguard against arbitrary detention to satisfy the basic requirement of legality".

Peers will resume the debate on Monday, before it returns to the Commons on Wednesday. The ex-law lord, Lord Ackner,said senior members of the judiciary would find the measures "unacceptable". But the Home Office said it was satisfied that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act.


Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, dropped plans to allow him to use "control orders" to place suspects under house arrest. Now he would have to apply to the High Court. A judge would review the case before making an initial decision. Suspects would be able to challenge the ruling. But Mr Clarke will retain the power to impose lesser orders without applying to a judge.