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We now have to consider clause 23 and the extension of the period of detention by judicial authority from 14 days to the Government's proposed 90 days. A large number of amendments to the Government's proposals have been tabled and I shall come to those in greater detail in a moment. However, I should like to deal first with some of the principles that are involved. As the Government acknowledge, this country has always been firm and resolute in maintaining civil liberties, none of which is more important than the expeditious charging or release of individuals who are arrested. The grounds on which someone is arrested need be no more than the reasonable suspicion that an offence has taken place and that the arrested person is connected with it. The purpose of the initial police inquiry is to ascertain whether there is evidence on which a charge can be brought. If so, thereafter, the person is in the hands of the court system as the case proceeds to trial.
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The Home Secretary will acknowledge that the proposals drive a coach and horses through that principle. We are not talking about 24-hour detention without charge or even the seven or 14-day detention period to which we have progressed, but a possible three-month detentionthe equivalent of a six-month sentence passed after conviction. During that time, the police and prosecutors can look for evidence against the person in detention. The Government have a great deal to justify if they wish to proceed down that road. They cannot pray in aid other countries' systems to justify their proposals, which are entirely unprecedented in common law jurisdictions. In Australia, despite the terrorist threat, 24 hours remains the period for which someone can be held before charge or release. Even in countries where Ministers have suggested that arrangements are much more flexible, there is a system of inquisitorial inquiry that takes place only after the threshold for charge has been reached. In most instances, the period for which someone can be detained before charge remains extremely short. The Foreign Office has published a useful document on the subject, which I commend to all hon. Members. The present 14-day detention period in this country is at the limit of practices elsewhere, and the three-month proposal takes us outside accepted international practice.
Hon. Members should remember that, of 895 people arrested until September 2005 under terrorism legislation, only 23 have been charged. The figure may have changed in the past eight weeks, but I am not aware that it has done so. In the past, arrest was, quite understandably, regarded as something that could be used reasonably frequently because the period for which someone could be detained while initial inquiries were made was very short. Indeed, all the codes that were drawn up under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and augmented to protect people in police detention were designed for short periods of detention, including opportunities for intensive questioning that disrupted the suspect's life and could last up to 18 hours in any day.
The Government's proposals in the Bill simply extend the period of detention to three months with a few safeguards, to which I shall return in a moment. However, they do nothing whatever to address the way in which a completely new regime of detention is to be organised. To take a practical example, very few police stations are suitable places in which to detain someone for three monthsI am not even sure that Paddington Green is suitable. If we allow a detention period of up to three months, a suspect could be questioned for 18 hours a day, with the consequence that any confession or information obtained would be slung out by the judge as soon as the case came to court.
I can think of few proposals that seem to have emerged so quickly and been presented to the House with so little back-up as to how they would be implemented. The justification that the Government offer is that the Association of Chief Police Officers requested the measure. There was then the suggestion that it was supported by the security services. I noticed with great interest today that when the Prime Minister was asked about that at Prime Minister's Question Time, he told the House about the ACPO support but
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studiously avoided mention of any other supporting organisations, notwithstanding the fact that the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety had suggested earlier that such support from the security services existed. Will the Home Secretary confirm that the proposal is merely ACPO-generated?
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In relation to any operational benefit that the provision might bring the police, will that not be more than offset by alienation among the very community whose support the police need if they are to bear down on future terrorist activities?
Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. If this proves to be a system whereby people are detained for 40, 50, 60 or 70 days and released because, unfortunately, the evidence is not there, the impact on their relatives, and from their relatives into the wider community, could not be worse in undermining respect for the rule of law. We know, because the issues that we are considering have been driven by Muslim terrorism, that one of the things that have made this country such an attractive place for people to come, settle, live, work and bring up their families is the rule of law that we have sustained. So when it is suggested that we can, in a rather cavalier fashion, breach the principles of the rule of law to allow for quite long-term detention without charge, the Committee must approach that with great caution.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed that the Government constantly repeat the excuse that the police want more powers? Does he agree that the police always want more powers? That is their institutional bias, but usually the solution is not more legislation and more procedures, but better use of existing legislation and existing procedures. Will my hon. Friend ask the Government to come up with a better excuse for authoritarian measures than that the security services and the police want more powers, which we have heard before?
Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The police should be listened to carefully, but the House of Commons and the Government should not give them a blank cheque. I regret to say that all my experience over the years that I have been involved in politics at local or national level suggests that we will end up with a police statevery nicely, by a series of ratchets. That is the logical consequence of such measures. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) says a police state without the police. That is indeed one of the problems that we need to bear in mind. There is in many quarters a low opinion of the ability of the police to deal with certain sorts of crime, and very low levels of respect. That is allied to the perception that the police may be turning into persecutors of those who are innocent.
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