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Goldsmith dashes Blair's hope of 90-day detention for terror suspects

London Telegraph | November 20, 2006
Joshua Rozenberg

Tony Blair's plans to let police hold suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without charge suffered a setback at the weekend when the Government's senior law officer said he had seen no evidence that the change was necessary.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, said that he would prefer to let prosecutors make greater use of telephone-tapping evidence and to let the police question suspects after they had been charged.

The Government's attempt to increase the maximum detention period led to Mr Blair's first defeat in the Commons a year ago.

Asked last week in a Downing Street webcast whether he still wanted to increase the limit from 28 days to 90 days, the Prime Minister replied: "I favoured it then and I haven't changed my mind".

But Lord Goldsmith said: "The recent investigations demonstrate that it was right to extend the period to 28 days, but extending it any further would need evidence to demonstrate that that was needed."

Asked if there was evidence to increase to 90 days, Lord Goldsmith said: "Well, I haven't seen it yet."

Legislation to allow police to interview suspects after they had been charged could apply to ordinary criminals as well as terrorists, he continued.

"While terrorism is top of the agenda I don't think that it needs to be restricted to that."

There would need to be safeguards to ensure that suspects were not "browbeaten time and time again" by police in the interview room, he added.

Asked why suspects should agree to talk to police once they had been charged, Lord Goldsmith suggested that juries might be able to draw inferences from a suspect's silence in such circumstances.

Lord Goldsmith also repeated his support for allowing intercept evidence such as telephone taps to be used routinely in the courts of England and Wales.

"We need to give the police and prosecutors the tools they need in order to be able to bring serious and dangerous criminals to justice," he said. "I do believe that intercept evidence could be a key tool to doing that."

There were "real and legitimate considerations", he conceded. Any change in the law would have to protect the security services' intelligence-gathering techniques and avoid them being "swamped" with defence applications for reams of irrelevant intercept material.

Asked whether legislation would be introduced to permit the use of intercept evidence, Lord Goldsmith said: "That is something where we ought to work very hard to try to find an acceptable solution, and that is what I'm trying to do."

Officials were considering how to let prosecutors use "critical evidence" while protecting sources, he added, and no proposals had yet reached Cabinet level. The issue was still under review.

Lord Goldsmith also disclosed that he had advised the Home Secretary, John Reid, and the police that they could release unprecedented details about the evidence against terrorist suspects arrested in August and accused of plotting to blow up transatlantic airliners.

"It was plainly necessary for the public to understand why it was that they were being subjected to significant restrictions on travel and what they could carry," he said.

Lord Goldsmith refused to say whether he was heartened by the progress Scotland Yard was making in the cash-for-honours inquiry.

"I don't think it's for me to be heartened or disheartened by it," he said. "Like the police, I agree that speculation about the ongoing process is not helpful."

Declining to be drawn further on how he would respond to a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service, Lord Goldsmith said: "I don't want to speculate because the more that is said about this, the more it sounds as if I know that something is going to happen and I absolutely don't.

"I know absolutely no more than you do," he told reporters, "and I know it later than you do because I have to read it in your newspapers."

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