Blair set to force terror law past Lords
LABOUR is planning to force through controversial plans to place terrorist suspects under indefinite house arrest if a frantic weekend of negotiations fails to produce a compromise.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that if the anti-terror proposals are rejected by the House of Lords, the government will use the Parliament Act to force them on to the statute book.
Last-minute talks to persuade the Liberal Democrats to back the new law appeared doomed to failure last night. Although the government is likely to win a Commons vote, Lib Dem support is vital to getting the measure through the Lords.
The contingency plan reveals the government's determination to push through "control orders" on suspects - the latest in a series of far-reaching security measures introduced since the September 11 attacks.
But invoking the Parliament Act over house arrest plans would expose ministers to renewed controversy at a time when they are desperately trying to rally opposition parties and their own MPs behind them.
The government still faces a legal challenge over its decision to use the act to force through the hunting ban.
A senior Home Office source said: "We have explained why we believe these [anti-terror] powers are necessary and we remain completely committed to seeing them added to the protection of the British people.
"We will do everything in our powers to see they happen. The Parliament Act is a last resort, but it has not been ruled out."
Home Secretary Charles Clarke and senior government colleagues were yesterday engaged in a hectic round of behind-the-scenes negotiations with opponents in a bid to prevent the bill being defeated when it returns to the House of Commons tomorrow.
Clarke is expected to table an amendment to the bill, watering down the house arrest proposals by ensuring that the power to issue a control order was not left entirely in the hands of politicians.
Clarke is prepared to concede that a Home Secretary must apply to a judge before confining a suspect to house arrest, in line with proposals put forward by the Liberal Democrats and senior Labour figures, including former Cabinet ministers Robin Cook, Frank Dobson and Chris Smith.
Tony Blair underlined the government’s eagerness to achieve a consensus when he agreed to meet fellow party leaders to discuss their concerns.
The Prime Minister last week insisted that the control orders were "absolutely necessary" to disrupt terrorist activity and protect the public, but said he wanted to proceed on the "broadest possible basis of consent".
Ministers are desperate to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing vote on the proposals last week, which was won in the face of opposition from other parties and 32 Labour MPs.
Stephen McCabe, the Home Secretary’s parliamentary private secretary, said: "We are actually very close to agreement on the main issues. What we have to do is find a way of getting the maximum degree of support for these measures."
Opponents made it clear that Clarke still had not gone far enough to appease them.
Mark Oaten, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, confirmed he had been in negotiations with Clarke, but said his party had not been persuaded to support the bill tomorrow.
"I am encouraged by the Home Secretary’s willingness to consider changes to the process of acquiring a control order, but I have made it clear that that is not the only issue we disagree on," he said.
"We have concerns relating to the legal representation of suspects and the standard of proof against them. He knows our position. A single change of the type he is talking about will not be enough."
Although ministers remain confident that they can win a vote in the Commons tomorrow without Lib Dem support, the party’s backing will be critical when the proposals move on to the Lords, where the government does not have a majority.
The Parliament Act, which allows a government to enact legislation regardless of the opposition of the Lords, has only been invoked four times since it was amended in 1949, with the last three occasions since Labour came to power in 1997.
"We are confident we can win the argument when people look at the merits of the case," a Downing Street insider said last night.
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