A prevention of terrorism Bill in tomorrow's Queen's Speech is expected to have a broader scope than the existing terror laws. It is expected to cover threats to use violence and the use of serious violence against property.
Some environmental and civil liberties groups fear the legislation will be so wide- ranging it will give the police and security services draconian powers to conduct covert operations, and arrest and hold activists involved in legitimate protests.
But the Home Office, which is bringing in the Bill, argues that any legislation will be aimed at clamping down on extremists such as animal rights groups guilty of bombing scientists.
The Bill will also include a new definition of terrorism, extending it to "domestic" as well as purely political acts. It will also make it easier for law enforcers to seize cash and other assets belonging to people suspected of links with terrorist groups by pursing them in the civil courts.
At present, the definition of terrorism can be used in relation to terrorism linked with Northern Ireland or international terrorism. The new definition is copied from the FBI and is expected to read: "The use of serious violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence, to intimidate or coerce a government, the public, or any section of the public for political, religious or ideological ends."
Serious violence would be defined so that it included disruption to public utility systems, such as computer hacking and sabotage of water and electricity networks.
The change would enable counter-terrorist measures to be deployed against any groups that copy militant US anti-abortion activists, who have bombed clinics, or violent religious cults. The wider definition could also cover incitement to violence by foreign dissidents in Britain.
But despite the focus on extremists, mainstream environmental groups are concerned they may fall under the powers of the Bill.
Ian Willmore, of Friends of the Earth, said: "Our organisation is opposed to civil disobedience. However, we do have contacts with groups that are involved in direct action. This could open us up to scrutiny by the police and security services, which is clearly wrong. This legislation could give Special Branch and MI5 a licence to snoop."
Andrew Wood of Genetix Snowball, which advocates non-violent direct action to prevent the testing of genetic plants, said: "The proposals seems to extend the existing powers quite considerably and give wide-ranging powers to the authorities - it's quite a catch-all." A spokesman for Earth First, a direct action ecological group, said: "It's an attempt to criminalise protest."
John Wadham, director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, said: "Surely this is wrong in principle to have a twin-track criminal justice system. Committing violence to prevent harm to animals or to stop the building of a road is not justified in my opinion, but I cannot see the logic of a system that assumes that those suspected of such offences should have fewer rights than a person who assaults another for revenge or to steal their money."
Not all groups are opposed to the Bill. Greenpeace said it did not believe the new powers would have any impact on its activities.Reuse content