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Clarke pressed to reveal legal advice on terror bill

Matthew Tempest and agencies
Friday November 4, 2005

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is facing pressure today to reveal the attorney general's legal advice on the government's proposal to detain terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days.

Mr Clarke was yesterday forced to apologise to the House of Commons for telling MPs that the government's most senior law officer had given the new anti-terrorism bill his personal seal of approval.

That apology led to demands for Lord Goldsmith's advice to be made public ahead of this weekend's cross-party talks on the bill, which will focus on the controversial proposal to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge, from the current 14 days.

Both opposition parties are against the move, with compromises suggested around the 28 day mark - although Tony Blair yesterday insisted he was intent on the full 90 days.

It is not the first time the government has been embroiled in a row over Lord Goldsmith's legal advice - anti-war campaigners demanded that his judgment on whether the Iraq war was legal under international law be released. The document, in which he ruled that it was legal, was finally leaked in the dying days of the general election campaign.

Referring to the terror bill, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, said Mr Clarke's apology left a "cloud of uncertainty" over its legality.

Reports last month suggested Lord Goldsmith was unhappy with the 90-day proposal, which has come under fire from all sides of the Commons.

His spokesman was quoted at that time as saying: "He believes the case is there for longer than 14 days but is not convinced he has seen a case for 90 days."

During a stormy debate on the bill on Wednesday, Mr Clarke told MPs on three separate occasions that he had spoken to the attorney general and received advice from him that the provisions sought by the government would comply with Britain's human rights obligations.

But in the Commons yesterday, Mr Clarke told MPs: "I should clarify that the clear legal advice I received as to the bill's ECHR [European convention on human rights] compliance ... did not come from the attorney personally.

"Further, in making that statement, I inadvertently breached the long-standing convention that the fact that the law officers have or have not advised on any matter - long-standing over many governments - and the content of their advice should not be disclosed.

"And for breaching that long-standing convention I want to apologise to the House."

In a statement released last night outside parliament, Mr Oaten said: "The home secretary's remarks this evening leave the legality of the government's terrorism bill under a cloud of uncertainty. It is hard to see how the home secretary could have declared the bill human rights compliant without the endorsement of the attorney general.

"The attorney general's opinion of the legality of extending detention without charge to 90 days should be made public ahead of cross-party talks this weekend.

"Whatever the normal arguments about the confidentiality of the attorney general's advice, this announcement from the home secretary relates to views that are already in the public domain.

"On such a controversial measure it is now in everyone's interests for the advice to be published."

The former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who initially asked the home secretary to confirm in the Commons that Lord Goldsmith was satisfied with the bill, said: "We now no longer know what the attorney general's opinion is, despite the press speculation there has been that he is deeply disturbed."

Mr Clarke offered cross-party talks on the 90-day period on Wednesday after it became clear the government risked losing a vote on an amendment setting a 28-day limit on detention without charge.

Police have requested the extension on the grounds that two weeks is not long enough to complete complex investigations into suspected international terror plots, sometimes involving the decryption of vast quantities of computer data and inquiries in several foreign countries.