by Ray Fleming

A MEETING is due to take place today between the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and the leaders of the UK's two main opposition parties, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy.

The subject will be how the House of Commons should handle the forthcoming proposals for changes in the Anti-Terrorism Act which has to be renewed before the end of March.

This inter-party consultation was proposed by Mr Howard two weeks ago and agreed to by the Prime Minister. Today's discussion will focus on the measures the Home Office intends to adopt to meet the severe criticisms made earlier this year by the Law Lords of the indefinite imprisonment without trial of foreign terrorist suspects.

This was one of the first challenges met by Mr Clarke when he took over from David Blunkett and his response was considered so inappropriate that Mr Howard suggested it might not get the support of the Conservatives when put to a vote in the Commons.

Mr Clarke's proposal was that the detainees should be released from Belmarsh Prison but put under indefinite house arrest; they would not be tried because the Home Office and the security services are unwilling to reveal in court the evidence they hold against these suspects.

In the face of the fierce criticism he received for this idea, Mr Clarke may today be putting new proposals to Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy but they should be wary of accepting anything short of full judicial procedure for the detainees.

The terrorist threat to Britain is greatly exaggerated and should not be used as an excuse for further repressive legislation which, once established, can be used more widely. Mr Howard missed an opportunity to make an issue of Iraq; the defence of habeas corpus might now be a rallying cry that would show what distinguishes Conservatives from Labour on matters of principle.

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