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Sunday, 21 October, 2001, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
New law targets anthrax hoaxers
Decontamination unit
The government says hoaxes will not be tolerated
The government is to introduce new legislation to deal with bio-terror hoaxers, following scores of anthrax scares across the UK.

As of midnight on Saturday, people who carry out hoaxes involving bio-chemical, radioactive or nuclear weapons face up to seven years in jail.

This is an exceptional measure but these are exceptional times

Prime Minister's spokesman

Current law makes only hoaxes relating to explosive devices an offence.

The new legislation is unlikely to get parliament's approval until November, but because of public fears and disruption offences it will be backdated to 0001 BST on 21 October.


Health Secretary Alan Milburn said on Sunday that there was "no specific or credible threat" to the UK from bio-terrorism.

"What we're trying to do is in a responsible and proportionate way, plan for all eventualities," Mr Milburn told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme.

Member of the Merseyside Ambulance decontamination team
Specialist teams have been called out to a series of scares
The move to rush in legislation was agreed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett at the meeting of the War Cabinet last Thursday.

But it has been given only a cautious welcome by opposition MPs.

Conservative Home Affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin said the government was right to send out a strong signal, but added: "Manifestly we shall need to see the details of the legislation".

Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the way the proposal was presented showed the government was disdainful of Parliament.

"The government must learn that it's the role of ministers to propose legislation and the role of Parliament to decide whether that legislation will be passed."

'Exceptional times'

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "This is an exceptional measure but these are exceptional times.

"It sends the clearest possible signal that we will not tolerate these hoaxes and fear and widespread disruption they cause."

Mr Blunkett added: "Those who perpetrate these hoaxes... put us all at risk in the event of a genuine emergency, whilst disrupting business, commerce and our daily lives."

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, bomb hoaxers faced up to seven years in jail.

But people guilty of other types of hoaxes face less severe penalties.

Legal principle

The government intends to introduce the measure in the anti-terrorist legislation which will be brought before the House of Commons in November.

John Wadham, director of civil rights group Liberty, said backdating the law breached an important legal principle.

What we need from government is careful, well-considered measures ... not rushed, ill-thought measures

John Wadham
"What we need from government is careful, well-considered measures ... not rushed, ill-thought measures that cut across the basic principles of democratic government and the basic rule of law.

"It's a traditional principle of British law, and of our constitution that you don't make retrospective law so you can punish people more severely for offences they've already committed."

Spate of alerts

Police have been dealing with a spate of anthrax alerts around the UK, but so far none have proved to be genuine.

A man has appeared before magistrates in Cardiff charged with posting packages containing hoax white powder to various people including Welsh Assembly First Minister Rhodri Morgan.

He has been remanded in custody pending indication of his plea, facing four charges of sending articles with intent to cause distress and one of causing a nuisance to the public.

And a student has appeared before a special court in Bangor accused of placing a package containing a chemical substance with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He denies the charge.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"The government hopes a more severe penalty will cut down the hoaxes"

Key stories


War view



See also:

22 Oct 01 | UK
In the mind of a hoaxer
17 Oct 01 | Americas
Nearly 30 cases of anthrax exposure
12 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: A widespread threat?
19 Oct 01 | Americas
Q&A: The anthrax mystery
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