JCHR Press Notice 07-08 No 18


EMBARGO: Not to be published or broadcast in any form before 00.01 Thursday 7 February 2008


New measures in Bill actually undermine case for extension beyond 28 days

In a report released today the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) reinforces its criticism of the Government€™s proposal to extend the maximum pre-charge detention period for terrorism suspects from 28 to 42 days. In a report last December the Committee rejected the proposals put forward by the Government. The Committee said no evidence of the need for the change had been put forward: that there were other, more proportionate, ways of achieving the Government€™s aim of protecting the public from terrorism, and the safeguards against it being used arbitrarily were inadequate. The final proposals in the Bill are substantially the same. The Committee still considers that a maximum pre-charge detention period of up to 42 days is unnecessary, disproportionate, and the existing judicial and proposed parliamentary safeguards are not adequate.

Chair of the Committee Andrew Dismore MP said: €œMy Committee remains unconvinced by the Government€™s case to extend pre-charge detention to a maximum of 42 days. The evidence demonstrated a consensus against the proposal. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief CPS Prosecutor for terrorist cases both confirmed that the 28 day limit had proved adequate.

€œWe believe that a package of alternative measures obviates the need for any extension: post charge questioning, use of intercept evidence in court and the threshold charging test, together with the new broad offence of €˜acts preparatory to terrorism€™ all combine to produce a sensible and proportionate alternative that would protect the public and help ensure that community relations are not damaged by ever more Draconian laws.€

Drafted before yesterday€™s announcement on the Chilcot Review€™s findings, the Committee repeats their recommendation, first made two years ago, for the use of intercept evidence in court.

Chair of the Committee Andrew Dismore MP said: €œI am sure the Committee will welcome the Prime Minister€™s announcement yesterday. We have consistently argued the need for progress on this issue and I hope that proposals to implement the findings of the Chilcot review will be brought forward soon.€

The Committee also turns its attention to the other proposals in the Counter Terrorism Bill, including post-charge questioning for terrorism suspects, first proposed by JCHR two years ago. The Committee supports this proposal as a way of securing convictions if appropriate safeguards are in place. Post-charge questioning with appropriate safeguards reduces the need to hold terrorism suspects for longer before charge.

The Committee supports in principle the use of the €œthreshold€ test which allows the Crown Prosecution Service to bring a charge on €œreasonable suspicion€ in advance of the usual €œrealistic prospect of conviction€ test, once sufficient evidence has been accumulated. Combined with the new broad offence of €œacts preparatory to terrorism€, the threshold test makes it more likely that a charge can be brought within the current 28 day detention limit. But the Committee says it was introduced at the discretion of the Crown Prosecution Service, not as a formal change in the law, so should now be properly scrutinised by Parliament and put on an explicit statutory footing.

The Committee repeats its position, now supported by a recent judgement in the House of Lords (the MB case), that the current special advocate system for control orders is not compatible with the right to a fair hearing. It suggests it is now time for Parliament to look again at the control order legislation.

The Committee also criticises Government plans for secret inquests as recently included in the Terrorism Bill, which could compromise the independence of controversial inquests into the deaths of terrorism suspects in police operations or the deaths of service personnel in Iraq.

The Committee brands the inquest plans as €œastonishing€ especially as they were introduced at a late stage with no time for consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. The proposals would empower the Home Secretary to appoint a coroner and require an inquest to be conducted without a jury €œin the interests of national security, in the interests of the relationship between the UK and another country, or otherwise in the public interest€.

Chair of the Committee, Andrew Dismore MP, said: €œWe are seriously alarmed at the prospect that under these provisions inquests into deaths occurring in circumstances like that of Jean Charles de Menezes, or British servicemen killed by US forces in Iraq, could be held by a coroner appointed by the Secretary of State sitting without a jury. Inquests must be, and be seen to be, totally independent, and in public to secure accountability, with involvement of the next of kin to protect their legitimate interests. When someone dies in distressing, high profile circumstances their family need to see and feel that justice is being done, and where state authorities are involved there is a national interest in accountability as well.€ /ENDS