GORDON Brown yesterday refused to say if he will implement a Home Office proposal to give the police sweeping new powers to stop and question people even when officers do not believe a crime has been committed.
The Home Office yesterday confirmed ministers are considering the change as part of a new anti-terrorism bill to be put forward later this year. If implemented, it would be the first time police in mainland Britain have had the power to stop and question members of the public since the Second World War.
The prospect of such a dramatic expansion of police powers prompted one Cabinet minister to warn against Draconian laws creating "the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay" that would severely alienate British Muslims.
In an early sign of such a backlash, one prominent Muslim yesterday appealed to Mr Brown to abandon the plan when he takes over as Prime Minister next month.
Ahmed Versi, the editor of Muslim News, said: "Gordon Brown has already said he's going to have more dialogue with the Muslim community. There is a complete lack of confidence in the government and the police service in the Muslim community. If this legislation is passed, it's going to get worse. I don't think Gordon Brown is going to succeed in getting this confidence back if this law goes ahead."
Last night, however, sources close to Mr Brown indicated that the Chancellor will not comment on the Home Office plan, insisting he would wait until the proposal is formally discussed at a Cabinet meeting.
Mr Brown's silence raised suspicions he is happy for Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and John Reid, the Home Secretary, to bear the brunt of the criticism over the move before they leave office on 27 June.
One Whitehall insider said it was "inconceivable" that the Home Office would have been floating the plan weeks before Mr Brown's appointment if the Prime Minister-elect had not been "sounded out" about it. Some MPs also suspect the government of using the prospect of tough new terror laws as a challenge to David Cameron, the Tory leader, who has stressed his party's liberal instincts.
As a legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, police there already have the power to stop and demand someone's name, where they have been and where they are going.
Tony McNulty, the security minister at the Home Office, yesterday said that extending stop-and-question powers to the whole of the UK is "one of a whole range of things we are looking at" as part of the next terrorism bill. Trying to allay concern about the move, he said the new powers could actually mean "far fewer searches and far less intrusion".
But yesterday's suggestion was another ratcheting-up of government rhetoric over terrorism and civil liberties.
Last week, following the escape of three terror suspects under control orders, Mr Reid threatened to opt out of European human-rights laws in order to impose effective house arrest on other suspects.
And writing in a Sunday newspaper, Mr Blair yesterday launched a bitter attack on MPs and judges whom he said have "again and again" watered down his government's toughest anti-terror measures.
"Consistently over the past few years and even after 7 July, attempts to introduce stronger powers have been knocked back in parliament and in the courts," the Prime Minister said, suggesting that terror suspects should no longer have a "right to traditional civil rights".
Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary running for the party's deputy leadership, yesterday openly expressed doubts about the police-powers plan.
"We've got to be very careful that we don't create the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, which was an international abuse of human rights, acted as a recruiting sergeant for dissidents and alienated Muslims and many other people across the world," Mr Hain said.
David Davis, the Tory shadow home secretary, said: "The driving imperative of these Draconian announcements appears to be more of a wish to project the reputation of Mr Reid and Mr Blair in their last weeks in office, than a need to protect the British public."
Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, said: "Pushing for the powers of a police state is probably the best guarantee for increased radicalism in exactly those communities where we need co-operation to defeat terrorism."
Shami Chakrabati of Liberty, the human-rights group, said: "This looks like political machismo, a legacy moment. Stopping and questioning anyone you like will backfire because people will be being criminalised."