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England draconian laws { November 14 2001 }

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Civil liberties

Anti-terror bill damned for catch-all powers

Government accused of smuggling in draconian laws

Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Wednesday November 14, 2001
The Guardian

The government's new anti-terrorist bill was last night attacked as a cover to smuggle into law draconian new police powers that have little direct connection to the war against terrorism.

Publication of the bill yesterday revealed it contains drastic measures such as making it a criminal offence to publish details of the movement of nuclear waste trains, and the power to jail for up to a month an animal rights extremist who refuses to remove a disguise such as a mask or face paint.

Details of the 125-clause bill, which is expected to become law by Christmas, confirm that suspected terrorists who could be interned for up to six months will not hear evidence from intelligence services that led to their detention as they and their lawyers will be excluded from parts of their hearings held in camera. Their interests instead will be represented by an advocate appointed by the attorney general.

Civil liberties groups last night voiced concerns that the anti-terrorism, crime and security bill goes far further than dealing with the specific threats posed by the September 11 attacks on America.

The bill will allow confidential information about an individual held by any government department or local authority to be disclosed to the police and intelligence services for any criminal investigation - not just an investigation into terrorist offences.

Home Office officials yesterday cited the example of an official in the Department of Transport passing confidential information about a train driver if that person was known to be wanted by the police.

During the eight weeks it has taken to draft the bill it has grown from just 40 clauses to 125 as other measures have been added. Some, including clauses relating to internet surveillance and disclosure, are powers that have failed to win parliamentary approval in the past.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, last night said that while the internment proposal was by some way the worst threat to civil rights, "other illiberal measures are being smuggled in under the cover of proposals to deal with the events of September 11. Too many of these proposals risk falling short of the highest British standards of justice".

But the home secretary, David Blunkett, insisted that the legislation contained "proportionate and targeted measures which will ensure and safeguard our way of life against those who would take our freedom away".

Ministers believe that about 16 suspected terrorists would have been caught by the detention powers had they been in force last year. "Because we are talking only about a handful of people, we are not threatening the civil liberties of this country, but we are ensuring those handful don't threaten those civil liberties," Mr Blunkett said.

He denied that the new offence of incitement to religious hatred would prevent reasoned debate, humour or criticism of religions or religious practices, stressing the new crime would protect atheists as much as Muslims.

The Home Office minister, Beverley Hughes, confirmed that plans for a much wider ranging anti-terrorist conspiracy law announced last month had been dropped. Ministers have also torn up plans to backdate to September a new offence of making hoax calls about anthrax and other noxious substances. The number of such calls has dropped sharply.

Although the opposition parties have said they will support the bill when it has its second reading next week, they made clear their unease yesterday. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Simon Hughes, said the legislation was a "mixture of the welcome, the reasonable, the worrying and the completely unacceptable". He said that while the detention powers would have to be renewed every year there were no similar expiry dates for the majority of emergency powers in the bill.

"Liberal Democrats will only support emergency powers restricting liberties if they have strict time limits and are in place for the shortest possible time," Mr Hughes said.

The ban on publishing details of movements of nuclear waste trains comes in clause 79, which outlaws unauthorised disclosures that may prejudice the security of any nuclear premises or nuclear material. Clause 93 makes it a criminal offence punishable by up to one month in prison to refuse a reasonable police request to remove a disguise such as a mask or face paint in a place where a senior police officer believes serious violence may take place.

The emergency measures

Detention of suspected terrorists Applies to foreign nationals certified by the home secretary as threats to national security. Detention will be reviewed every six months by a commission which will hear intelligence evidence in camera. Appeal allowed only on points of law. Powers will need annual renewal by parliament.

Incitement to religious hatred Penalty of up to seven years for using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief (or lack of religious belief)".

Airport security New powers will allow police to stop, detain, question and search aircraft passengers within Britain and to remove and arrest someone who refuses to leave an aircraft.

Hoaxes Creates new offence of threatening to use noxious substances, such as anthrax, smallpox and acid, to make people believe there is a threat to human life or health.

Internet data Requires internet service providers to retain data of internet and email traffic, such as itemised billing - but not content - for 12 months for use by police in serious crime investigations. To be renewed every two years.

Weapons of mass destruction Makes it an offence to aid the overseas use or development of chemical, nuclear, biological or radiological weapons.

Civil nuclear industry Bans publication of details of security of nuclear sites, transport of nuclear materials and sensitive nuclear technology such as uranium enrichment.

Withholding information Makes it a criminal offence to fail to disclose information to the authorities that could help to prevent terrorist attacks.

Security services Wider powers for MI6 and GCHQ to carry out "intelligence gathering" outside Britain.

Disguises Makes it a criminal offence to refuse a police request to remove hand and face coverings, such as masks and face paint, in certain public order situations. Could be used against animal rights extremists.

MPs bypass Anti-terrorist measures agreed by EU ministers to become law in Britain without need for legislation in British parliament.

Terrorist finances Allows immediate freezing of assets of overseas individuals and groups that support terrorists.

Bribery and corruption Introduces crimes of corruption committed by British citizens and companies abroad and by foreign nationals in Britain which "help to undermine good governance and contribute to the conditions which engender terrorism".

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