Police get new anti- terrorist powers

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The Independent Online
Emergency legislation to meet police demands for greater powers to stop and search terrorist suspects is to be rushed on to the statute books by Wednesday.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday told the Commons that the measures - to be introduced through amendments to the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act - were urgently needed to counter the renewed IRA threat, following the Docklands bombing, which ended the ceasefire.

But the announcement was immediately condemned by some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, while justice and human rights groups warned against the dangers of sweeping through "ill-thought through" legislation. Parts of the 1974 Act have already been found to be in breach of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

And Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of Northern Ireland's nationalist SDLP, described the move as "underhand in the extreme".

He said ministers had not mentioned proposals to "railroad" new measures through the Commons when the Prevention of Terrorism Act was renewed last month.

"It shows complete contempt for parliamentary procedure ... They have engineered a situation where important and far-reaching powers will be introduced, affecting the communities in Britain as much as Northern Ireland, without any notice, analysis, consultation or amendment."

But Labour's front bench - anxious to avoid attacks from Mr Howard that it is soft on crime or terrorists - has already made clear it will not obstruct the Government's counter-terrorism proposals.

The new measures will enable police to stop and search pedestrians for terrorist items. They will do away with the need for a search warrant if they have intelligence which suggests weapons or terrorist paraphernalia are stored inside a building and give increased powers to search vehicles and goods coming into the country.

They will also place on a formal footing, measures officers already take in the face of a bomb or terrorist threat - to cordon off areas where there is a terrorist threat and to impose parking restrictions.

The most controversial of the new measures are the stop-and-search powers. Mr Howard said they would end an anomaly which meant police could currently search people's luggage or vehicles but not their outer clothing.

But civil liberty groups maintained police already had sufficient powers under other legislation. John Wadham, director of Liberty, said: "Six hundred people were arrested under the PTA last year and not one of them was convicted of any offence. Without a Bill of Rights, it is appallingly easy for the Government to rush through such ill-thought out emergency legislation which is far more likely to be used to harass the innocent than to catch the guilty. The new powers will undoubtedly lead to an even greater number of people being stopped and searched for no good reason, when their only `crime' is to be Irish."

Mr Howard said: "We face a real threat of a continuing IRA campaign of murder. No one should be deceived by the fact that for a few weeks we have had a lull."