Page last updated at 13:21 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 14:21 UK

Terror bill: What's left

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs reporter

Armed police
The government says more time is needed to foil complex plots
The government has dropped two of the most controversial elements of its massive Counter-Terrorism Bill. Ministers said the legislation would include "tough new measures to protect the public."

But critics said parts of it went too far and lacked proper safeguards. So what's gone - and what's left behind?

PRE-CHARGE DETENTION: SHELVED

The key element of the bill was the proposal to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days. This is the period the police can detain a suspect without charging them with a crime, the trigger for the process that leads to a trial.

Ministers got the measure through the Commons by a whisker - and only with the support of the Democratic Unionists. But peers blocked the move in the House of Lords - and the Home Secretary has now removed it from the bill.

The Home Office has meanwhile published a provisional bill to ask Parliament to introduce 42 days detention in the event of extreme circumstances. This would mean MPs and peers could face a future vote on the power in the middle of a major national security operation.

The maximum the police can hold someone without charge is 28 days - but ministers gave four examples of situations where there would be a "compelling operational need" for two extra weeks' detention:

  • A major operation
  • A complex individual case
  • The foiling of a major plot
  • An operation involving many countries

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith attacked opponents of the measure, saying some critics were "prepared to ignore the terrorist threat". Peers who opposed 42 days included two former Lord Chancellors, the former head of MI5, a Metropolitan Police Commissioner - and the former Lord Chief Justice.

SECRET INQUESTS: DROPPPED FROM BILL

One of the clauses of the bill which initially received little attention was a proposal to allow the Home Secretary to ban the public from a coroner's inquest in the interests of national security. The Home Secretary would also be able to replace a coroner with their own appointee.

Coroners rule on most deaths that come before them - but must call upon a jury if a death has occurred in controversial circumstances, particularly where it involves the police or other agents of the state.

An example would be the current inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by two police marksmen in a London Underground station.

The government wanted to introduce the measure to avoid information it regards as sensitive or damaging to national security becoming public. Ministers said it would be used sparingly.

But critics said that it could prevent families getting to the bottom of important events - such as what the security services knew or didn't know about the men who carried out the 7 July 2005 suicide bombings.

Ministers insist that the measure has not been dropped entirely. There are ongoing plans to reform the ages-old coroner system and the proposal is expecting to reappear in that "forthcoming" legislation.

POST-CHARGE QUESTIONING

There is nothing in law that prevents police from questioning someone after they have been charged - but police codes and practice prevent it happening at present.

The new law will explicitly allow officers to further question someone on the same terrorism-related offence with which they are already charged.

This limited expansion of the power means an officer cannot charge a suspect with a minor offence and hope to use post-charge questioning to introduce more severe matters.

LONGER TERRORISM SENTENCES

Under the proposals, judges may impose longer sentences where terrorism connections are considered an "aggravating factor".

Crimes involving bombs are usually prosecuted under an all-encompassing 19th century law. Additionally, any alleged terrorist accused of trying to kill people will be charged with conspiracy to murder or its related offences. In each case these important laws were drafted to cover the act not the motivation.

Ministers say the new power will mean that the courts will be better placed to attach appropriate sentences to offenders who had a terrorist intention. The proposal will work in a similar fashion to prosecutions for assault where the attack was racially motivated.

TERRORISM REGISTER AND MONITORING

People convicted of terrorism-related offences will in the future be put on a special register similar to that for sex offenders, according to the proposals.

Remember how internment didn't work in Ireland? This will just alienate the Muslim community, who are mostly gong to be the victims of it, further.

The register will apply to anyone sentenced to more than a year - in practice meaning virtually everyone who is convicted. The list will also cover British nationals convicted of a terrorist offence overseas.

The register will hold personal details, such as home address and it will be an offence not to keep police fully informed of any changes. In the most serious cases the government envisages that people will be on the list for life.

Those sentenced to less than five years will be on the list for up to 10 years.

Under another power, the Home Secretary will be able to ban someone from travelling abroad if the security services suspect they may be going for terrorist purposes. In practice, this can already be done by seizing a passport as part of a control order.

New powers will be created allowing police to enter the home of someone on a control order if they think there is a risk they may be about to abscond.

INTERCEPT EVIDENCE

The bill changes some of the rules surrounding the use of the security services' "intercept material" - intelligence gathered in secret operations like phone taps which cannot currently used as court evidence.

A Privy Council committee is debating whether intercept material can be used in prosecutions, with the security services worried that it has the danger of compromising their methods.

But the bill would allow the use of intercept material in cases where the authorities want to freeze the assets of a suspected terrorist. These are hearings that are held behind closed doors - so there's no chance of the information being made public.

ASSET SEIZING

The bill will also seek to introduce powers to seize the assets of convicted terrorists which can be proven to be associated with plotting.

An example would be a home used by conspirators as a bomb-making factory. Courts will be able to order compensation to be paid to victims out of proceeds of the seized assets.

EVIDENCE GATHERING, DNA AND FINGERPRINTS

Police will be able to remove documents from a property search to decide whether or not they need to be legally seized as part of an investigation. The idea behind this power is to allow detectives to take documents, discs and so on which may need translating into English before they can decide whether or not they constitute possible evidence.

The bill allows greater use of DNA samples taken by the police to be used in terrorism investigations, in particular for cross-checking against material held by the security services.

The legislation also allows the police to take the fingerprints or DNA of someone subject to a control order. These orders are not criminal offences - they are civil restraints against an individual because of what the security services think that suspect may do in the future.




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