Fast-track Bill to combat terrorists

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The Independent Online
The Government is planning to introduce a new raft of fast-track legislation to tighten security in the wake of IRA's decision to end the ceasefire and renew its bombing campaign.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday held private discussions with opposition spokesmen in the hope of securing cross-party support for legislation as early as next week.

The move follows representation by police to put tightened security checks - particularly on passengers using public transport - on a firmer statutory footing and to strengthen stop and search powers in relation to suspected terrorist offences.

Details of the discussions were being kept confidential last night but ministers are believed ideally to be seeking to secure the new powers before the Easter recess which begins next Thursday. This would almost certainly only be possible if the government had cross-party support, including that of Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary who took part in yesterday's discussions.

Labour has been careful not to obstruct the Government on counter-terrorism measures and the party earlier this month shifted its stance towards the Prevention of Terrorism Act by deciding to abstain on the issue, although 25 Labour MPs defied the leadership and opposed the renewal of the Act. For the previous 12 years Labour had opposed the renewal of the Act on the grounds that it suspended civil liberties with powers of detention without trial, and orders to exclude Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.

Substantially tighter security checks have already been introduced at Britain's 27 ports, along with greater use of closed- circuit television. Police have a filmed record of the 7,000 vehicles coming into the country each day. Security checks have generally been tightened on passengers, luggage and vehicles passing through ferry ports, the Channel Tunnel and connecting railways.

But the police have also been pressing for measures to ensure that the newly tightened security is on a firm legal footing. One possibility is for vehicle checks to be underpinnned statutorily by an amendment to the Maritime Shipping and Aviation Act. But if there were cross-party support the required package could also be introduced under a simple piece of primary legislation.

Yesterday's talks are understood to have involved Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats Law and Order spokesman, and Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' Security spokesman. The SDLP and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists have also been informed.

The Intelligence and Security Committee said it would also investigate possible gaps in intelligence which may have helped lead to the Docklands bombing in February. The committee will also examine whether MI5 should be given the lead over police in Northern Ireland for counter-terrorism, as it has in the mainland.