Terrorism Act may be watered down

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A revised Prevention of Terrorism Act - possibly ending extended questioning without charge - was signalled yesterday by Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, 24 hours after announcing plans to end internment, writes Patricia Wynn Davies, Legal Affairs Editor. This has prompted an angry response from the Unionists.

Terrorists are changing their tactics and the Government wants to see what lessons can be learnt from elsewhere when drafting new laws, Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary said yesterday.

Ms Mowlam told BBC Radio Five Live that the Government would look at how Europe and the United States were responding to terrorism. "The Prevention of Terrorism Act should go and we should look at new legislation that responds to new forms of terrorism. That is what we will be looking at in the weeks and months ahead."

In fact, Labour's lengthy opposition to the annually renewable Act - which allows police to arrest people and question them for up to seven days without charge - was reversed last year when Jack Straw, then shadow home secretary, and Tony Blair recommended for the first time in 15 years that Labour MPs abstain. But the concession came just a fortnight after the IRA bombed Canary Wharf, and a couple of months later, Labour was embarrassed by a backbench rebellion over its decision to abstain on a Bill to give police new powers to stop and search for terrorist devices.

Within days, however, Mr Straw declared that another key provision in the PTA, allowing for exclusion orders from the UK mainland, went "a stage too far" when dealing with people who had not been convicted of any offence.

Spokesmen for the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office confirmed yesterday that the Government was looking at the future of the PTA as well as the 1973 Emergency Provisions Act, which includes the power of internment and other Northern Ireland security measures.

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman described Ms Mowlam's remarks as disturbing, saying: "It appears [she] has no concept of the importance of the talks process if she is determined to pre-empt every aspect of that process by vague but disturbing utterances. I find it offensive that she is pontificating about issues which should be dealt with in the talks." Changes in anti-terrorist legislation were "clearly a ransom paid to keep the IRA at the table", he added.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, urged:"The PTA and the EPA should go, full stop. We do not need a separate criminal justice system for alleged `political' crimes.Questions should be asked as to whether people who are suspected of bombing of killing for political reasons should have less rights than those motivated by greed. We need a fair criminal justice system for all."