Page last updated at 17:49 GMT, Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Brown steps up fight against terror

By Andy Tighe
BBC home affairs correspondent

Tourists visiting the capital often question why there are no litter bins on the London Underground.

Armed police outside Parliament
Gordon Brown has pledged to extend anti-terrorism laws

The simple answer, wearily repeated by staff, is "security".

It is a throw-back to the 1970s and 80s, when IRA bombers struck London and many other British cities.

Those with long memories can also recall lockers on railway stations being sealed and even post-boxes temporarily closed.

So the threat from terrorists determined to attack "soft" locations is nothing new.

What is, of course, especially frightening is the phenomenon of the suicide bomber.

The 7 July 2005 bomb attacks on the London transport system left 52 people dead - a devastating wake-up call to the government, the intelligence services and the police.

Critics say ministers in particular have been slow in responding.

The US, for example, has had a director of homeland security with a substantial staff and budget, since 2003.

'Design-in' measures

But, as Gordon Brown has said, the domestic security service MI5 will soon have doubled in size, employing over 4,000 people.

Significant numbers of them now work outside London, in towns and cities where there are large Muslim communities.

Around 2,000 staff members now work for the regional Counter Terrorism Units, incorporating Special Branch and anti-terrorist officers.

The prime minister has now turned his attention to the protection of the public in crowded places, such as airports, railway stations, shopping centres and theatres.

The vulnerability of locations like these was highlighted earlier this summer, with the attempted bombing of Glasgow Airport and a car bomb left outside a London nightclub.

In future, architects and builders will be encouraged to "design-in" safety measures to new developments, such as vehicle exclusion zones and blast-proof barriers.

Forensic officers at the scene of the attack on Glasgow Airport
The attempted bombing of Glasgow Airport highlighted vulnerabilities

New guidance will be issued to a wide range of buildings, ranging from football stadiums to hospitals.

But how much safer will Britain really be as a result?

Certainly, new buildings such as the Emirates Stadium in north London, home to Arsenal FC, have successfully incorporated the latest protective measures into their design.

However, older properties in congested city centres will present much greater challenges.

And then there is the question of cost. Who will pay for the modifications needed to provide adequate levels of safety?

The government will probably foot the bill for places like stations and airports.

But privately-run theatres, cinemas and hotels will have to pass the expense on to their customers.

Of course, the public may decide this is a price worth paying in order to keep their day-to-day lives as normal as possible in the face of potential terrorist outrages.

The government's package is presented as further evidence of Gordon Brown's determination to be as visibly tough on terrorism as his predecessor
Andy Tighe

And while Gordon Brown said additional screening of rail passengers and their bags would soon be introduced, his Cabinet colleague Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, promised that the unpopular "one-bag" rule for air travellers will be phased out from early next year.

But the latest statement reinforced the government's view that radical Islamist groups present an enduring threat.

At airports, along with their smart new uniforms, the new UK Border Agency comprising customs and immigration staff will have powers to stop people suspected of terrorist involvement.

And the government is pressing ahead with its "electronic-borders" scheme, requiring further biometric checks for foreigners.

Along with measures to combat violent extremism among Britain's young Muslims, the government's package is presented as further evidence of Gordon Brown's determination to be as visibly tough on terrorism as his predecessor, Tony Blair.

Indeed, his critics' main objection is that the government has gone too far, ignoring civil liberties in its insistence that the period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects needs to extended from the current 28 days.

'Popular' policy

The prime minister hinted that compromise on this controversial issue may be at hand.

But he knows that a hardline stance on terrorism is broadly popular with the electorate, even if it causes him difficulties with some traditional Labour supporters.

If there should be another attack like the 7 July bombings, he needs to be able to say that he and his ministers have done everything reasonably possible to prevent it.

In the 1970s and 80s the public soon learned to live with the inconveniences associated with IRA terrorism.

There were still bombings and killings, but on the ground at least, there was an awareness that measures were being taken to protect the most vulnerable.

Even if - as everyone knows - there can be no fail-safe defence against a determined suicide bomber.


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