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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 12:53 GMT
Terror threat sparks new powers
Troops in Heathrow
The Army took part in an anti-terrorist operation at Heathrow
Police and ministers are to get new powers to deal with terror incidents and other emergencies.

Plans announced in the Queen's Speech mean that in a "catastrophic incident", the police could evacuate danger areas and requisition specialist equipment.

They could also be able to restrict public access to "sensitive sites" if there was a serious terror threat.

Some of the measures have already been attacked by civil rights campaigners but ministers insist they are needed.

1920s laws

In the speech, the Queen said: "The threat of international terrorism and a changing climate have led to a series of emergencies and heightened concerns for the future.

"My government will introduce a bill creating a long-term foundation for civil contingencies capable of meeting these challenges at a national and local level."

Earlier this year the government unveiled its draft Civil Contingencies Bill and the Queen's Speech announcement is the next step.

Decontamination team
Volunteers would play a crucial role in the force
The draft bill was aimed at modernising and improving the way the UK deals with potential threats from terrorist incidents or other civil emergencies.

The measures are aimed at shaking up legislation that date back to the 1920s, giving ministers all the powers they need to tackle a wide range of incidents - ranging from foot-and-mouth to an attack on the internet.

They included enabling the government to rush through temporary legislation without prior Parliamentary approval, with authorities having new powers to declare a regional state of emergency.

Key infrastructure organisations such as water and power companies, telecommunications operators, railways and airports would have a statutory duty of "co-operation and information sharing".

The bill was intended to ensure the actions of the police are "legally watertight" in the event of circumstances not envisaged when the laws were drawn up.

Public information

The definition of an emergency was extended in the bill to encompass emergency situations affecting national security, human welfare, the environment and "political, administrative or economic stability".

A new structure of multi-agency Local Resilience Forums based on police force areas would be set up.

These would be made up of a "core" of bodies such as local authorities, emergency services and hospitals, on top of government organisations such as the Environment Agency, which will have a general duty of "civil protection".

Emergency planning, warning and informing the public, risk management and ensuring business continuity would be included.

Other bodies, such as infrastructure organisations, will form a second tier, with a duty to co-operate with the "core" in the event of an emergency.

Safeguards are contained in the bill, including a requirement for Parliament to retrospectively approve any temporary legislation "within days".

Current legislation is based on the 1920 Emergency Powers Act and the 1948 Civil Defence Act, drawn up to deal with an attack by the Soviet Union.

'Proper protection'

The new emergency powers were welcomed by Alan Goldsmith, spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

"The powers would be subject to triple safeguard - that is a serious emergency, a genuine need and application to the minimum necessary specific geographical area," he said.

"We believe the availability of such powers, openly arrived at and accountable, is necessary if the people of this country are to be properly protected."

Barry Hugill, of civil rights campaign group Liberty, said evacuation or even quarantine powers were clearly needed for major incidents such as terror attacks or the River Thames flooding.

But he told BBC News Online: "What is very worrying about the bill is that it would seem to give the government a blank cheque to define anything it wants as a civil emergency."

That could leave open the possibility of using such powers for events like the protests against President Bush's visits or the Countryside Alliance's march, he claimed.

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