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42-day detention: a refresher

By Alice Tarleton

Updated on 14 October 2008

As the House of Lords rejects plans to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge, Channel 4 News recaps the progress of the controversial legislation.

Plans to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge were scuppered yesterday by the House of Lords.

In June, Gordon Brown narrowly beat a backbench rebellion to push the increased detention measures through the House of Commons.

Channel 4 News recaps the events of the summer, and looks at the likely future of the terror legislation.


The vexed issue of increasing detention without charge - which gave Tony Blair his first Commons defeat - has been on the agenda since September 11 increased fears about international terrorism.

In 2003, the Criminal Justice Act increased the pre-charge detention period for terrorism cases from seven to 14 days.

The government wanted to increase the limit to 90 days in 2005, but Tony Blair suffered his first ever Commons defeat when Labour MPs rebelled in November 2005. Instead, parliament voted to extend the limit to 28 days.

Gordon Brown indicated a further extension was on the cards in the run-up to becoming PM. On 2 June 2007, he told a hustings meeting:

"Anti-terror methods must be more sophisticated, with earlier intervention. That is why I support an increase in the length of detention to build up evidence across nations and I support post-charge questioning with an increase in police resources".

Build-up to the bill

The first official statement from the new PM came on 25 July 2007. Brown said the government was proposing for consultation a further extension of up to 28 days - paving the way for a maximum of 56 days' detention.

The measure would come with controls: as well as a judge approving every seven-day extension the case would be reported to parliament, with the option of a later parliamentary debate.

The day before, home secretary Jacqui Smith told the home affairs select committee the 28-day limit had been "pushed" in recent cases, and that it was legitimate to consider again extending it.

The move gets a mixed reaction. It was opposed by human rights campaign group Liberty, which says the UK already has the longest pre-charge detention period of 15 comparable democracies.

In November 2007, the director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, said prosecutors have "managed comfortably" with the existing 28-day limit.

The head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, told MPs that terror suspects may need to be held for up to 90 days without charge, and callls for parliament to pass measures now rather than in an emergency.

In December, both the home affairs select committee and the joint commitee on human rights report that there is no evidence to suggest the law needs to be changed.

In January 2008, the counter-terrorism bill is introduced to parliament.

It proposes extending pre-charge detention to 42 days in exceptional circumstances. Other measures include the sanctioning of post-charge questioning and the use of intercept evidence, and the power to ban the public from a coroner's inquest in the interests of national security.

Getting it through the Commons

In early June, Jacqui Smith announces concessions to the bill, winning over some rebel Labour MPs. Among the measures, police would require a judge's approval to hold suspects for more than 28 days, the home secretary would have to report to parliament on each use of the new powers.

The bill is passed by just nine votes - the number of DUP MPs, who had agreed to support the bill late in the day.

The fall-out

The consequences of June's vote extended far beyond a change to the letter of the law.

  • Shadow home secretary David Davis resigns both his front-bench position and his seat as MP for Haltemprice and Howden. He fights a "freedom" by-election in order to campaign against what he sees as Labour's erosion of civil liberties, including the national DNA database and the proliferation of CCTV cameras.

    The two main parties decline to put up candidates - the Lib Dems agree with Davis's stance, and Labour tries to dismiss the whole thing is as a time-wasting charade. Davis regains his seat with a comfortable majority, and takes up a place on the Tory back benches.

  • Culture secretary Andy Burnham apologises to Liberty chair Shami Chakrabarti after a spat develops over his comments on her "ate-night"chats with shadow Davis.

    There is something "very curious in the man who was - and still is I believe - an exponent of capital punishment, having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti," Burnham told Progress magazine.

    Chakrabarti had warned Burnham would face a libel action if he continued "down the path of innuendo and attempted character assassination".

  • Rumours rumble over "favours for votes" after the DUP MPs vote with the government. Brown denies doing a deal with the party.

  • In July, David Cameron uses PMQs to tackle Brown on a leaked private letter in which then-chief whip Geoff Hoon says he hopes home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz, chair will be "appropriately rewarded" for backing the bill.
  • Over to the Lords

    Committee scrutiny of the bill in the House of Lords started last week. Yesterday peers got their first chance to vote on it.

    They were widely expected to reject the 42-day detention. Although the government had remained committed publicly to getting the legislation passed, it seemed unlikely it would employ its Commons santion, the Parliament Act, to force the Lords to adopt the measure.

    The Lords voted by 309 to 118 to include an amendment stopping the extension of pre-charge detention beyond 28 days.

    Last night home secretary Jacqui Smith told MPs that, rather than reintroduce the proposals to the House of Commons, the government would instead prepare a new, temporary, bill to be rushed through as emergency legislation, if necessary.

    The Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill, which would only have a 60-day law life, would allow the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the courts to hold a terrorist suspect for up to 42 days "should the worst happen, and should a terrorist plot overtake us and threaten our current investigatory capabilities".

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