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Friday, 14 December, 2001, 20:52 GMT
Terror laws face court threat
David Blunkett
Blair thinks Blunkett has done a "good job"
Civil liberties campaigners are threatening to challenge the government's new anti-terror measures in the courts now the laws are in force after days of parliamentary wrangling.

The House of Lords finally agreed to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act early on Friday morning after concessions from Home Secretary David Blunkett.

In a major policy U-turn, Mr Blunkett agreed to drop proposals making incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, which Downing Street now suggests will not be reintroduced separately.

Bill timetable
13 Nov: Proposals published
26 Nov: Bill clears Commons despite revolt by 21 Labour MPs
29 Nov: 1st Lords defeat
6 Dec: Peers inflict seven more defeats
12 Dec: Commons reverses Lords defeats
13 Dec: Bill "ping-pongs" between Lords and Commons until compromise agreed

Downing Street is backing Mr Blunkett, saying Tony Blair believes he has done a "good job" in getting the plans through Parliament.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the UK now had some of the toughest anti-terrorism legislation in the world.

Despite Mr Blunkett's concessions - designed to get the laws on the statute books by Christmas - police and security services now have significantly more powers.

The new act allows foreign terror suspects to be detained without trial where they cannot be deported - those arrested will have a right to appeal although not to a full court of law.

That power will, however, have to be renewed by Parliament after 15 months.

Other measures mean police can access more data, such as tax returns, but the government has agreed an amendment so disclosure must be proportionate to tackling terrorism.

Civil rights group Liberty welcomed the concessions, especially the removal of the religious hatred clause, but said the act still contained "alarmingly repressive measures".

Court challenge

Liberty's campaigns director, Mark Littlewood, said: "This remains a direct attack on an ancient principle of British justice - and one we will seek to challenge in the courts."

Such a challenge can only happen once a case is brought under the new law, but as ministers say they had foreign terror suspects in mind when they drafted their plans that could happen soon.

Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes said the government had already ensured the laws would stand up to scrutiny in the European Court of Human Rights.

But Amnesty International described some of the provisions as draconian, warning they would have far reaching implications for the protection of human rights.

A spokesman said: "The UK is the only EU government that has derogated from its international human rights treaty obligations and it must not be allowed to undermine the European human rights framework."

Beverley Hughes
Ms Hughes said bill passing was "major achievement"

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats argued the religious hatred provision was ill-thought out and rushed.

Both opposition parties indicated on Friday they would support fresh moves to introduce the proposals where they could be properly scrutinised.

Mr Blair's spokesman dashed such hopes on Friday when he said there was not now time to make it law.

Yousef Bhailok, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the onus was on the government to give parliamentary time for the measure, especially as other parties said they would examine it positively.

But Ms Hughes said they could not trust the Tories and Lib Dems, whom she accused of hypocrisy.

The minister said the two parties were trying to hide the fact "they have let down all the religious communities in this country because they were not big enough to face down their own peers".

Other concessions Mr Blunkett had to offer to make the bill acceptable to opposition parties included:

  • Limiting the introduction of anti-terrorist measures agreed at a European level

  • Allowing seven "wise people" to review the measures after two years

  • Limiting police access to electronic data such as e-mail and the internet on suspicion of terrorist activity.

The Conservatives said the proposed amendments made the bill acceptable.

Oliver Letwin, shadow home secretary
Letwin says the act is better for its changes
Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the debate had been an arduous task but it had "proved the value of parliamentary process and parliamentary checks."

He said Mr Blunkett had ended up with a better bill as a result.

For the Lib Dems, Mr Hughes said the terrorism bill was now "safer and sounder" but he said the wide-ranging powers needed the strictest scrutiny.

"We still believe that even the events of 11 September do not justify citizens' liberties being excessively restricted or the executive taking too much power," added Mr Hughes.

The BBC's Robin Chrystal
"Defeat and compromise are not words Tony Blair is used to hearing"
Lord Strathclyde, Conservative leader in the Lords
"We have reached a consensus position, it is a better bill"
Labour MP Khalid Mahmood
says the lost parts of the bill would have protected people of all religions
See also:

14 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Blunkett pays price for his bill
14 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Anti-terror Act at-a-glance
14 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Battle ends over anti-terror bill
13 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Setback for anti-terror bill
12 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Blair rallies round terror bill
07 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Compromise over anti-terror plans
06 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Peers and MPs battle over terror bill
26 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Religious hatred law survives
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