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Peers rebellion inflicts defeat on anti-terror Bill

by Melissa Kite and Greg Hurst, The [UK] Times, 7 December 2001


AN ALLIANCE of Tory and Liberal Democrat peers inflicted seven defeats on the anti-terrorism Bill last night, setting the stage for a battle of wills between the Commons and the Lords.

Peers forced through a series of amendments, severely limiting the scope of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. They accused David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, of using the Bill as a vehicle to push through draconian new police powers that have nothing to do with the fight against terrorism. The mauling was the worst since peers rebelled against plans to cut disability benefits in the Welfare Reform Bill in 1999.

Mr Blunkett reacted furiously, authorising a spokesman to accuse the Tories of "disembowelling" vital parts of the Bill. In remarks that marked the collapse of the anti-terrorism consensus, the spokesman added: "Mr Blunkett's view is that Iain Duncan Smith (the Tory leader) has to explain why he goes round Washington saying he is right behind our fight against terrorism while allowing unelected Tory peers to wreck vital parts of a Bill to protect this country."

Peers succeeded in limiting new disclosure of information powers, which they claimed would allow the police to trawl through personal bank accounts, tax returns and e-mails. They also managed to write into the Bill the right to swift judicial review for terrorist suspects interned without trial.

The defeats centre on a single part of the Bill and there could be more trouble in store for the Government next Monday when peers are threatening to push amendments on a series of other security issues.

While peers may eventually back down on some of the amendments, the Conservatives are expected to stick rigidly to their opposition to one section of the Bill. They are expected to step up their objection to plans to fast-track new EU laws with just a 90-minute debate, rather than legislation, which they say are unprecedented.

Mr Blunkett vowed to reverse the defeats, but the tight timetable means that there is limited scope for the Government to play "ping pong" with the Bill between the Lords and the Commons. Ministers have only until next Thursday to get the Bill on to the Statute Book before Christmas. They are expected to keep the Commons sitting all night next Wednesday in a bid to ensure the safe passage of the Bill, introduced in the wake of the September 11 atrocities.

The Tories inflicted the first defeat on the Bill last week, widening the definition of terrorism to target domestic as well as international incidents, and bringing Irish republican terrorism within the Bill's remit.

In the latest revolts, members of the Lords forced through an amendment strictly limiting proposed police powers to trawl through personal information such as bank accounts. As they stood, peers complained that it would mean security services taking a "random walk through all our tax returns". They voted to limit the powers of disclosure to cases of suspected terrorism and threats to national security.

Baroness Buscombe, for the Conservatives, said: "The line has to be drawn somewhere between terrorism and minor traffic offences. This Bill fails in that task. We are very concerned that this and other parts of the Bill, as currently drafted, will inevitably lead to nothing short of extensive state interference in our rights of privacy and individual freedom."

Lady Buscombe said the powers the Government sought would eventually become used routinely by police in minor criminal cases. "The result will be that people will become less inclined to assist public authorities. They will feel their right to privacy has been revoked and they will be less frank. Is that what the police and intelligence services want? I think not."

Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for the Liberal Democrats, said there was widespread concern that the extension of existing powers over disclosure of information "is not confined to protection of national security". He said the Government should not try to preserve civil liberties by suspending them. It was, he said "a poor way of winning the battle for hearts and minds here or abroad".

Lord Rooker, the Home Office Minister, protested angrily that peers were trying to wreck the Bill. "There are no new powers for the police in this Bill," he said. "We are not inventing the wheel here."

Calling on the House to reject the amendment, he said that it would "hamper the police in the fight against crime. It can be misconstrued that the police have a way into people's bank accounts. This is not the case. There is no power for widespread trawls through people's bank accounts. The powers are not there, otherwise we would fall foul of the Human Rights Act," he said.

Lord Rooker said the Government had been listening to critics of the Bill. "We have obviously been seriously considering making adjustments -- we have made a few in the Commons before it reached the Lords, we have indicated even in the Lords there are some other concessions or adjustments we want to make," he said.

"Today -- there are a few hours to go before we start by the way -- we will be able to indicate further progress in meeting many of the legitimate areas of scrutiny that have concerned a vast majority of the Lords."

He rejected claims from the Opposition that ministers had signalled that the contentious clauses might be dropped, saying "you haven't heard a hint of anything".

However, Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, said: "I certainly detected a mood of a compromise, I think this is very welcome. The reason for that is at the end of the day we are going to have an anti-terrorism Bill that does remove some very ancient rights that exist in British law. They would have much more authority if they were born out of political consensus."

He rejected Lord Rooker's claim that the amendments wrecked the Bill. He said: "Contrary to the impression given by the Government, these amendments do not affect any of the central purposes of the Bill. They leave us with exceptional new powers to fight terrorism, which everyone wants. But they deny the State the right, which many feared, to go on fishing investigations into the personal lives of every citizen."

Voting was 227 to 145, against the Government, to limit disclosure of information powers to only those specifically suspected of terrorism. In a second defeat, peers forced through an amendment limiting disclosure of information held by the Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise that was backed by 227 votes to 138.

Powers conferred by the Bill on Ministry of Defence police were also limited to investigations of suspected terrorism or national security matters in a third defeat carried by 227 votes to 135.

In a fourth defeat, a move to restrict rules on retention of communications data to purposes relating to national security was carried by 228 votes to 133. A fifth defeat saw the Home Secretary's power to amend the code of practice on retention of communications data was carried by 209 votes to 134.

In a sixth vote, peers backed an amendment to allow judicial review of the detention of suspected terrorists by 191 votes to 117 and in a seventh defeat for the Government, they voted by 181 to 110 to remove the proposed derogation from Article 5 of the Convention on Human Rights over detention of terrorist suspects.

Outside the chamber, Mr Blunkett's spokesman said that the Government would attempt to reverse the defeats when the Bill returns to the Commons next Wednesday. "We will seek to use public opinion to put pressure on the Tory leadership over this," he said. "The distinction they are making between terrorism and crime is false. You cannot distinguish between them in the real world."

© 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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