News

Tougher terrorism laws approved

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown narrowly won a key vote Wednesday on plans for tougher terrorism laws, surviving a rebellion in his own ranks after a fierce political battle that pitted national security against civil liberties.

Brown had staked his political credibility on giving police more time to hold terrorism suspects in custody – and investigate alleged plots – before they are charged or released.

Following months of testy debate, lawmakers voted 315-306 to approve plans to increase the time from 28 days to six weeks.

But opponents said the fact Brown squeezed by only with the support of nine minor party legislators from Northern Ireland meant his victory was hollow.

Brown holds a 66 seat majority, but 36 of his Labour legislators opposed the plans and others abstained.

Some accused Brown of pork barrel politics, saying funding promises – not principle – had won the vote. Brown's office denied he offered deals in return for support.

“Securing votes by threats, bribes and personal pleading demeans the role of the prime minister,” said John McDonnell, a rebel Labour legislator.

The victory offers Brown respite after a troubling few months which have brought defeat in a special election, heavy losses in municipal elections and embarrassing policy gaffes.

But his struggle to win the vote underscored Brown's fragile position.

Brown courted dozens of lawmakers Wednesday to secure backing in a round of meetings and telephone talks. Some surprised legislators said they hadn't heard from Brown personally for years.

Lawmakers said they had been offered an array of inducements to back the plans: from a promise to review Britain's relations with Cuba to a prized post as Queen Elizabeth II's envoy on the idyllic Atlantic island of Bermuda.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband was ordered to abruptly curtail a Middle East tour to vote, risking offense to Israel by canceling talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on short notice.

Brown has a double digit deficit to his rival Conservatives in most opinion polls and needs a swift revival ahead of a likely mid-2010 national election.

The proposal must now be passed by Britain's House of Lords, where resistance is likely to be stronger.

A broad alliance of libertarians, lawyers, right-of-center lawmakers, and activists had opposed Brown's plans, claiming the draft laws are draconian, unnecessary and an affront to liberties won centuries ago.

Some critics see the issue as part of a wider fight to balance civil liberties and national security – following skirmishes on the use of police profiling, DNA and plans to introduce identity cards to the U.K. for the first time since World War II.

Brown insists police need more time to crack encrypted computers, chase leads across the globe and map out sprawling terrorist networks.

He cited an alleged 2006 plot to down trans-Atlantic airliners, when police seized 400 computers.

  Comments