Phone-tapping evidence to be permitted in trials

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The Independent Online
Radical proposals for reducing the use of anti-terrorist courts in Northern Ireland, seven-day detention without charge, and the threat of internment in the battle against the IRA are to be made today by Lord Lloyd, a law lord, in a sweeping review of anti-terrorist legislation.

Lord Lloyd is also expected to throw his weight behind powerful calls for evidence gained by telephone taps to be made admissible in courts of law in Northern Ireland and the mainland of Britain.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have been considering rushing through a short Bill to implement Lord Lloyd's proposals on phone tapping evidence.

A change in the law to allow the use of telephone tapping evidence in court has been urged on the Government by Sir Hugh Annesley, the retiring RUC chief constable, and David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, who met John Major last week to discuss the peace process. Sir John Wheeler, the Northern Ireland security minister, has led the pressure within Government for telephone tapping evidence to be made admissible.

The RUC has been frustrated at the collapse of trials in the Diplock courts using evidence from supergrasses on the grounds that their evidence was not corroborated. The police believe telephone tapping evidence, in which the suspects' voices can be heard, should enable more convictions to be upheld. The use of tapping evidence is prohibited under section nine of the Interception of Communications Act.

Police on the mainland also believe it would be a vital weapon in the campaign against terrorism in Britain. It was responsible for a breakthrough in the battle against the Mafia in the United States. However, ministers may be forced to abandon any prospect of introducing the legislation before the election because of difficulties over the rest of the package.

The more radical proposals for reducing the apparatus established to combat terrorism - including the use of Diplock courts for trials without juries - will embarrass the Government. Extended detention without charge, and trial by judge in Northern Ireland have led to continuing civil rights protests against the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. Lord Lloyd's report will be seen by Labour as justification for its refusal to support the annual renewal of the legislation.

However, ministers believe it is too soon to dismantle the machinery for dealing with terrorism. They also believe that the power of internment needs to remain on the statute book for the time being, until there is a long-lasting ceasefire. They are prepared to point out that when Lord Lloyd was ordered to carry out his comprehensive review of the legislation, the ceasefire was holding. His report has been overtaken by the resumption of violence by the IRA with the Docklands bombing earlier this year.

"We will want to think long and hard before deciding on any action. It is unlikely anything will happen before the election," a Whitehall source said.

The Home Secretary is due to take the lead in announcing the results of the review in a written Commons answer and Sir Patrick will also respond.