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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 16:27 GMT
Ministers defend terror crackdown
Armed British police
Police will have new powers under the proposals
Nyta Mann

Home Office ministers insist that the sweeping, and highly controversial, anti-terrorism laws they intend to push through parliament are far from hastily drawn-up or insufficiently considered.

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill published by the home secretary on Tuesday comes eight weeks after the terrorist attacks in the US, they stress.

The last time comprehensive emergency anti-terror laws were frogmarched through the House was in the immediate wake of the IRA's Birmingham pub bombings.

Twenty-one people were killed on 21 November 1974. On 29 November the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was introduced.

Identity cards

"Two months is certainly not rushing it," is how Home Office Minister Jeff Rooker describes the period between the 11 September attacks on the US and the bill's publication on Tuesday.

Certainly some proposals previously floated in newspaper headlines by Home Secretary David Blunkett are nowhere to be seen.

Identity cards have been dropped. So too has any notion of harsher penalties for anthrax hoaxers and the like applying retrospectively.

But there is plenty in the bill to worry civil libertarians - dismissed as delusionally hankering after an "airy fairy" world by Mr Blunkett at the weekend - of all political parties.

Most contentious is the power to imprison suspect non-UK nationals without trial - a move some critics have compared to internment, which proved little deterrent to terrorism when introduced in Northern Ireland in the seventies.

Secret evidence

The proposal is actually more akin to the old Diplock courts, where a judge sitting in camera will alone hear any evidence and decide the outcome. The evidence will remain secret and beyond public scrutiny.

Outlawing incitement to religious hatred has already drawn the ire of civil libertarians, arguing that it is a back-door blasphemy law.

Contained within the bill are also sweeping proposals to give police access to the communications of all telephone, e-mail and internet users.

Ministers point out that the powers contained in the bill, if passed - and no one expects it not to - will be subject to review after 15 months. Thereafter, it will be subject to annual renewal - as was the PTA.

Civil liberties

Civil liberties campaigners protest that emergency laws introduced in the name of national security always begin by being time-limited and aimed at a defined minority few, only to later widen in scope and become in effect permanent.

The much longer-lived than envisaged PTA is a case in point.

It was meant to be temporary, and Roy Jenkins - the home secretary responsible back in 1974 for introducing it - later wrote in his autobiography that he "would have been horrified to be told at the time that it would still be law nearly two decades later".

This time round, few expect any similar line to appear in the future biography of any current Home Office minister.

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See also:

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UK anti-terror measures unveiled
28 Sep 01 | Business
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