Terror alert: Blair to force through 90-day detention
TONY Blair is planning to push through 90-day detention without charge for terror suspects following the alleged plot to murder thousands of airline passengers by blowing their jets out of the sky.
Senior ministers believe public concern about terrorism is now at such a level that they will be able to reintroduce the controversial detention powers, which were rejected in favour of a 28-day limit following the 7/7 attacks.
A senior government source confirmed that Blair, Chancellor Gordon Brown and Home Secretary John Reid all believed that the UK's apparently narrow escape from a major disaster proved the case for a clamp-down on "the enemy within".
The source said: "It is one of the few things that Brown, Blair and Reid can agree on."
The 90-day proposal - rejected following a humiliating rebellion by Labour MPs last November - is expected to form the centrepiece of further anti-terror powers to be included in the Queen's Speech this autumn.
The uncompromising response to the growing threat came as it emerged that the ban on hand luggage on British aircraft is set to continue indefinitely, and could be bolstered by stringent new security screening at all the nation's airports.
Britain remained on its highest state of terror alert last night as detectives continued to question more than 20 suspects over the alleged plot to bring down airliners by using liquid explosives.
As UK detectives interrogated suspects seized in Thursday's dawn raids, officials in Pakistan arrested British-born Rashid Rauf, saying his detention and that of others in the country had "triggered" the raids in London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
But suggestions that the government was ready to return to the fray over 90-day detention have been greeted with horror by opponents, who claim the original drive to extend police powers was a draconian attack on human rights.
David Winnick, the veteran Labour MP who put forward the 28-day "compromise" limit agreed by Parliament last year, said the move would be "totally unjustified", but added that he fully expected ministers to use the latest terror scare to push for a longer period.
He told Scotland on Sunday: "Under no circumstances should they be allowed to raise the limit. My view remains that if the police have got evidence they should charge.
"Going back only a few years ago, police had just two or three days to release or charge suspects and that figure has repeatedly been increased by Parliament with little opposition.
"The danger is that by increasing it steadily, you get up to 90 days and then people will start saying 90 days isn't enough."
A spokeswoman for human-rights watchdog Liberty warned that the government should not try to "legislate its way to safety".
She added: "The doubling of the detention limit - from 14 days to 28 - only took effect last month. We should be observing how satisfactory that is before rushing off and demanding a higher limit."
Former home secretary Charles Clarke argued that the 90-day proposal, put forward by the police, was required to help them carry out the enormous and meticulous counter-terror investigations demanded by the modern threats.
But the plan was rejected by 49 Labour MPs, who helped deliver Blair's first Commons defeat as leader.
Clarke hinted earlier this year that he had not given up hope that the 90-day limit would feature in future government proposals when he confirmed plans to produce another Terrorism Bill next year or in 2008.
The momentum gathered last month, when a report from the MPs' Home Affairs Committee concluded that the number and scope of investigations, and the requirement to move in to make arrests at an earlier stage meant the 28-day limit would have to be extended at some stage.
Brown has publicly stated his support for extending police powers to detain without charge, although he insists that there must be "safeguards" in place to ensure suspects are not unfairly imprisoned.
Government aides last night claimed that the scale of the alleged bomb plot reinforces their repeated warnings about the threat facing the country. Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly will attempt to improve co-operation with British Muslims through a renewed "roadshow" tomorrow.
But more senior colleagues in the Cabinet are considering a less conciliatory response to the threat.
"We are concentrating on the threat which is in front of us right now," a Home Office source said last night.
"But there is a consensus about what we require to tackle this threat. The government has never hidden its views on detention."
Ministers are understood to be considering new bomb-detecting screening systems for British airports in the wake of last week's scare.
The current machines are unable to pick up the cocktail of liquid chemicals which the alleged terrorists were planning to smuggle onto flights.
New so-called 'puffer machines', which shoot jets of air at passengers and gather particles of skin and clothes to check for evidence of explosive material, are likely to be considered.
Similar machines have been installed in several American airports and are being tested to see if they successfully identify chemicals used to make bombs.
Alternatively, airports could install X-ray machines which can pick up organic materials used in many explosives.
Ministers met on Friday to discuss introducing new technology into airports to counter the growing threat.
One insider said: "They are going away to think up a system that the airlines can deliver, that is safe and people will tolerate.
"They are looking at new technology that might be delivered without taking up too much of passengers' time."
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