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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK
Change in tone over terror plans
Analysis
By Andy Tighe
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

John Reid
John Reid outlined proposals to toughen counter terror laws

There is little genuinely new in today's anti-terror proposals. The basic themes have all been discussed - and in many cases rejected - before.

What is significant, however is that John Reid, in his final weeks in office, thinks that public opinion has evolved sufficiently for some of these measures to be worth revisiting.

There is also an important change in tone - the outgoing home secretary hopes that by trying to reach agreement with his political opponents he stands a better chance of getting at least some of his ideas into law.

And, in truth, there is already considerable acceptance for much of his anti-terrorist agenda.

Sensitive information

The police have long complained that they should be allowed to continue questioning suspects after they have been charged with a terrorist offence.

At the moment, unless there is an imminent risk to public safety, they need to get the suspect's agreement - something that is rarely given.

The Conservatives say this is something they proposed two years ago.

The area where John Reid is likely to face most opposition is if he tries to extend the period of detention without charge

Using intercept or phone-tap evidence in court is a practice already commonplace in many Western countries. Even the civil liberties campaign group Liberty regards this as a good idea.

Most of the reservations so far have come from the intelligence community. And even they do not object in principle. They are more concerned about having to disclose sensitive information about how they gather their information. And also about the sheer cost of supplying the huge amount of data that might be requested by defence solicitors.

Intelligence sources also warn against regarding intercept material as a "silver bullet." They say it is often too equivocal and vague to meet the evidential standards required for a successful prosecution.

Police in London
The government is trying to build consensus across party lines

Submitting the issue to a panel of Privy Counsellors might be a shrewd way of meeting some of these concerns.

But the area where John Reid is likely to face most opposition is if he tries to extend the period of detention without charge beyond the current 28 days.

The last attempt to do this in 2005 led to a backbench rebellion by Labour MPs. And many British Muslim leaders are already concerned about the number of young Asians arrested and detained for long periods without ever being charged.

Home Office sources say the police think there could still be cases where the complexity of evidence gathered - much of it electronic - means that 28 days is not enough.

Tracking terrorists

But the Conservatives are opposed. And they point out that the in the so-called Transatlantic Bomb Plot last summer, most of the defendants were charged within 14 days - half the current limit.

The government is offering safeguards in the form of regular judicial review of any extended detention and an annual report to Parliament with the opportunity for a debate.

By taking things slowly and trying to form a consensus, John Reid could make some progress. Especially if his calculation that the public are with him is shared by his opponents.

And his proposal for a register of convicted terrorists is likely to be unopposed.

The idea seems to be that offenders would have to register changes in their address or travel plans, similar to the Sex Offenders' Register.

But sceptics are already asking how much confidence the public can have in the government's ability to produce a system that successfully tracks terrorists - especially at a time when the police are still trying to find a number of individuals who've gone missing while supposedly subject to control orders.


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