Clarke admits terror law concern is 'well founded'
• Home Secretary accepts there may be doubts over terror plans
• Prime Minister, however, defends them
• New rulings would only apply to a 'handful of people'
"I pay great attention to the civil liberties of the country. But ... it is also right that there is a new form of global terrorism in our country, in every other European country and most countries around the world." - Tony Blair
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MINISTERS were on the back foot last night over controversial plans to allow British citizens suspected of plotting terror to be put under house arrest.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, conceded that concerns about his extended anti- terror laws were "well founded", as it emerged that the Cabinet had deliberated over the proposed law change until the 11th hour before he unveiled the legislation.
In the face of widespread condemnation from legal experts, Mr Clarke also defended his decision not to allow phone-tap evidence in court - a move that would allow terror suspects to be brought to criminal trial. It was "perfectly reasonable" that people had concerns about the extension of powers, he said. "Anybody who says that what I have done is wrong is absolutely entitled to that view; it is a perfectly reasonable thing to say and it is well founded," he said in a radio interview.
However, he said his critics had to "weigh the wrong which is being done to a tradition in history of the primacy of law" with the threat posed by terrorists. He said it was "a very heavy burden and, of course, there is controversy about it" but it would be foolish if the government were to ignore the destructive desires of the terrorists.
Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, speaking from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was more robust in his defence of the plans and said they would apply to only a "handful" of people."I pay great attention to the civil liberties of the country. But ... it is also right that there is a new form of global terrorism in our country, in every other European country and most countries around the world," he said.
His spokeswoman said Mr Clarke had been congratulated at yesterday’s Cabinet for his handling of a difficult issue.
However, the legal profession criticised Mr Clarke for not relaxing the rules to allow phone-tap evidence in court. Instead, he extended the powers that allowed him to incarcerate foreign terror suspects without criminal trial to include British nationals, although now suspects would be detained in their homes rather than in jail.
Guy Mansfield, QC, chair of the Bar Council, said the Home Secretary had "missed a trick" in not allowing phone tap evidence to be used in courts to prosecute terror suspects.
He said there was a danger the new powers would "end up radicalising minorities ... you end up with sleepers in the population and we make this country, ironically, a more dangerous and not a safer place". It would be fairer to construct a proper law and convict people under it, he said.
Mr Clarke’s changes could force the government to seek another temporary derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights. But one of its guardians, Lord Judd, a member of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, said this would "hand victory to the terrorists".
He also backed the use of phone-tap evidence in court, like most other western countries.
Mr Clarke has argued that allowing phone-tap evidence would not necessarily lead to successful prosecutions and that technological advances would quickly make the law outdated. There are also fears it would jeopardise security sources, but critics say intercept communications have helped prosecute terror suspects abroad without endangering intelligence gatherers.
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