New British guidelines on handling terrorism suspects held overseas have been delayed over a dispute about how to deal with potentially life-saving information from detainees who may be at risk of torture by allies.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised a year ago that new rules would be drawn up, and the government was expected to make them public for the first time on Thursday. But officials have acknowledged the document won't appear before the country's national election, due within three months.
Brown ordered the rules to be rewritten following accusations that British officials were complicit in the torture of terror suspects held overseas by other nations, including the United States. Police are investigating two cases related to the actions of intelligence officers from the MI5 and MI6 spy agencies.
Two government officials, who demanded anonymity to discuss the issue, said Britain's government and Parliament's intelligence oversight committee disagree over a section of the new rules dealing with how ministers should handle material gleaned from suspects who may be at risk of mistreatment.
"The problem is that there is a difference of opinion about something we have written in the report," said Michael Mates, a Conservative lawmaker and a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security oversight committee.
A report by the committee on detainee handling will be published alongside the new guidelines. Opposition lawmakers and human rights groups have accused the government of purposely delaying publication of controversial material until after the election, expected in May.
Conservative Party legislator William Hague said Brown is "suspected in some quarters of wishing to suppress difficult issues" and accused the government of "mounting incompetence" over national security issues.
In a new report on human rights, Britain's Foreign Office hinted at the likely tone of the new rules. It acknowledged the U.K. can't "afford the luxury of only dealing with those" who share Britain's standards or laws.
The report claimed "there are times when we cannot reduce the risk to zero" that detainees held by other nations are being mistreated.
"Why does it take more than a year to change a torture policy that should be perfectly simple — we never do it, we are not complicit in it, and when we learn that someone has been tortured we do as the law requires and report it," said Clive Stafford Smith, director of human rights group Reprieve.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the House of Commons that drafting the new rules had been more complex than first imagined. "The most important thing is to get this guidance right," he told lawmakers.
Lawmaker Kim Howells, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said it was now was "a matter for the prime minister" to decide when the rules are finalized and made public.
Howells on Thursday issued an annual report by his oversight committee, warning that Britain's intelligence agencies are preparing for cuts to their budgets for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
MI5 director Jonathan Evans told the panel that his agency is readying for "a more austere financial climate." It has already scaled back plans to increase its staff numbers to 4,100, setting a new target of 3,800.
The committee said MI5 — which Evans said is dealing with "a couple of hundreds cases" of international terrorism — has issued a program called "Living Within Our Means," aimed at reducing its spending.
Britain is grappling with a net debt of 857.7 billion pounds ($1.3 billion), equal to 60.3 percent of gross domestic product. A key issue in the looming national election is over how fast, and how deep, cuts to public spending should be.
Domestic spy agency MI5, overseas intelligence service MI6 and the eavesdropping and intercept organization GCHQ have a combined annual budget of about 2.35 billion pounds, and receive several billion pounds more for spending on equipment upgrades and other additional costs.
MI6 chief John Sawers defended his agency's budget to the committee, saying MI6 work "saves a great deal of investment and resource here in Britain ... investigating terrorist plots and strengthening our border security."
Agency chiefs give testimony to the committee — whose members are selected by the prime minister — behind closed doors. However, some portions of their comments are quoted in the committee's reports.
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