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Peers slam "ill-advised" terror law plan

LONDON (Reuters) - The government’s plans to extend the time terrorism suspects can be held without charge are ill-advised and a “recipe for confusion” that could jeopardise trials, a report by a committee of peers said on Tuesday.

Police officers following a series of anti-terror arrests in a January 2007 photo. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Under the proposals, both houses of parliament would have to vote on the Home Secretary’s decision allowing police to detain suspects for up to 42 days for a temporary period in the face of an “exceptional terrorist threat”.

The cross-party House of Lords Constitution Committee said the “muddled” plans in the Counter-Terrorism Bill mean parliament would be asked to make decisions which it is “institutionally ill-equipped to determine”.

It also warned that the bill could put parliament and the judiciary on a collision course as senior judges would also have to rule on every police application for extended detention, perhaps hours after a highly charged political debate.

“The bill risks conflating the roles of parliament and the judiciary, which would be quite inappropriate,” said the committee, which scrutinises the constitutional implications of all bills that go before the House of Lords.

“This is a recipe for confusion that ... arguably risks undermining the rights of fair trial for the individuals concerned.”

Lord Goodlad, the committee’s chairman, said there were serious fears that the proposed law would mean parliament would be acting in a quasi-judicial manner.

“Considering that any debate will be highly political in nature and any vote may well be whipped by the political parties, we are deeply concerned that the independence of the judiciary may appear to be undermined and that trials may be prejudiced,” he said.

In further criticism, the committee described the proposal to allow the chairmen of three parliamentary committees to examine the evidence for the Home Secretary’s decision as “untenable” and said it should be removed from the bill.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown won a narrow vote in the House of Commons in June to extend the detention time beyond the current 28-day limit, but the government’s majority was slashed to just nine after a revolt by 36 backbench Labour MPs.

The government needed the support of the Democratic Unionists to get the bill passed despite offering concessions to Labour rebels.

The bill is likely to face a tough ride in the House of Lords, which can hold up the legislation.

Senior figures, including the former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller and former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, have already spoken out to say the measures are unnecessary.

“The committee joins a long list of experts who have condemned the government’s ill-thought through proposals for 42 days as both unfair and unworkable,” said Conservative home affairs spokesman Dominic Grieve.