Terror Bill re-drafted in concession to backbenchers

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR last night offered further concessions to Labour critics of his emergency anti-terrorist laws, in the hope of limiting a backbench rebellion when MPs approve the measures tonight.

The Government insisted that a suspected terrorist could not be convicted on the basis of uncorroborated evidence from a police officer, as its critics have claimed, and promised that the courts would also require other evidence.

The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, which is being rushed through Parliament in two days during its three-month summer break following the Omagh bombing, was hastily redrafted yesterday in an attempt to allay the fears of rebel MPs.

Although only a small number of Labour MPs are expected to oppose the bill or abstain, ministers are bracing themselves for strong criticism that the legislation is being approved without a proper debate.

"It is just treating Parliament as a rubber-stamp," Tony Benn, the former cabinet minister, said last night. "Its like the Supreme Soviet. But even Boris Yeltsin has to face the Duma, so perhaps there should be some fire here."

Labour rebels remain concerned that the courts would be heavily influenced by evidence from a police officer that a terrorist suspect was a member of a banned group, such as the Real IRA, which could not be corroborated because it was from intelligence sources.

Robin Corbett, (Lab., Birmingham, Erdington) warned the Government might be repeating the mistakes made after the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, which led to a rushed Prevention of Terrorism Act.

But Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, insisted that the ``tough but necessary" bill would safeguard the rights of the accused. He said the burden of proof would remain with the prosecution, which would have to prove terrorist activity "beyond all reasonable doubt".

He said that no inference could be drawn from a suspect remaining silent until he had first had the opportunity to consult a solicitor.

The Liberal Democrats announced last night they would support the Government, after winning concessions in talks over unsupported evidence and a promise that the law would be reviewed annually.

William Hague's Shadow Cabinet decided last night to support the bill but will seek to table two amendments.

One would ensure a full review of how the new law is operating within 12 months. The other would allow evidence from a police officer to send back to prison a terrorist released from jail under the Good Friday agreement. The Sentence Review Commission is considering 429 applications for early release and ministers promised yesterday that victims of the violence of Ulster and their families would be kept informed about the release of those who inflicted their suffering. Muslim organisations criticised the provisions in the bill to crack down on groups in Britain which conspire to carry out terrorist activities abroad.

Some Labour MPs share their concerns, arguing that the measure could hamper the work of opponents of Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadaffi.