Mon, Nov 07, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Blair backs down on the detention of terror suspects

AFP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has accepted he will have to compromise over a controversial plan to hold terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

Following a report in the Observer newspaper, a government spokeswoman said that Blair will accept next week that he cannot push the tough new anti-terror powers through parliament.

The spokeswoman said, "The prime minister acknowledges there will have to be negotiations and/or compromise but as far as he is concerned 90 days continues to be right."

Fresh talks

Last week, interior minister Charles Clarke was forced to promise fresh talks after it became clear opposition lawmakers -- and some backbenchers from Blair's Labour party -- would vote down the measure.

Clarke is due to meet his counterparts from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats today.

Blair also plans to address rebel MPs himself on the importance of the issue while British police forces were being urged to put pressure on lawmakers to back the greater detention period, several weekend newspapers reported.

But the Independent yesterday quoted Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, as saying: "They [the government] are not going to get this bill through unless the Home Secretary [Clarke] moves significantly on 90 days. I can guarantee this Bill will be defeated without that. There has to be give and take on all sides," he said.

Despite the apparent climbdown, Blair reiterated his belief in the 90-day proposal, which was recommended by police after the deadly July 7 attacks in London that killed 56 people, including four apparent suicide bombers.

Currently, terror suspects can be held for up to 14 days when they must be either released or charged.

"I still think there is a woeful complacency about a lot of the public debate about this," Blair said in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph.

"The police told me, and the security services back them up, that they may have stopped two further attempts since July 7. I find it really odd that we're having to make the case that this is an issue, when virtually every week, somewhere in the world, terrorists loosely linked with the same movement are killing scores of people," he said.

He was backed by Andy Hayman, head of anti-terrorism operations at London's Metropolitan Police.

"All of the new elements mean that in the most complicated cases, there must be the opportunity to extend detention before we make the decision to charge or release a suspect," he told the News of the World.

Blair acknowledged it would be a setback for the government if lawmakers voted against the measure when the Terrorism Bill returns to the lower house of parliament for debate next week.

"I will feel a sense of a defeat not so much for me, as it were -- although obviously that's true -- but for the security of the country," he told the Sunday Telegraph.

Opponents have sought to cast doubt on Blair's authority following the resignation on Wednesday of one of his key allies, the work and pensions secretary David Blunkett, over his business dealings.

Blair told the Sunday Telegraph he was frustrated that claims about the erosion of his authority were diverting attention away from the issue of national security.

`Sleaziest'

Meanwhile, Blair is ruling the country's sleaziest ever government, his predecessor John Major said in a TV interview yesterday.

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