Clarke rejects Labour offer on terrorism Act

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A LABOUR attempt to resolve the long-standing dispute with the Government over the Prevention of Terrorism Act broke down in acrimonious exchanges yesterday.

In a lunchtime speech at Hull University, Kevin McNamara, Labour's frontbench spokesman on Northern Ireland, said: 'The Government seems to work on the assumption that the greater the powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the greater the infringement of civil liberties, the more effective the legislation will be. Yet there is no evidence of such a correlation.'

He said Labour would be willing to talk to the Government about effective counter-terrorist action if ministers would agree to end Soviet-style exclusion orders under which citizens could be banished from one part of the country to another, reduce seven-day detention powers for suspects to four days, and extend the recording of interviews with suspects from Britain to Ulster.

But within 90 minutes of Mr McNamara making his speech, it was rejected out of hand by a 'very disappointed' Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary.

Conservative sources suggested last night that Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, would attack the McNamara speech as an indication of Labour's weakness on law and order at a Tory local government conference today.

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio's The World at One: 'We're a liberal democracy defending ourselves against terrorists who have slightly aimless but very extreme aims, and I think we have to have the self-confidence to explain to the Americans and others that I don't believe the legitimate civil liberties of anybody have been damaged by the . . . Act.

'We are dealing with people who are so unscrupulous that the ordinary provisions of the criminal law are sometimes not sufficient to deal with them.

'So long as they are exercised carefully, powers are necessary to turn people away from the mainland who are probably coming here to be involved in terrorist activities, and certainly have a long history of involvement with terrorism, or strong suspicions that they're involved. Also, we do have to detain people whilst lines of inquiry are pursued against them, so we don't find that people have, as it were, escaped just before we discovered that we'd arrested the right people,' Mr Clarke said.

Mr McNamara said in his speech that while the right of the ordinary citizen to live in peace and security was something that united all democrats, 'the corroding effects of terrorism' must not be allowed to undermine basic freedoms. Citing the seven-day detention power, he said the Government had been criticised by the European Court and had been forced to derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights in order to keep it.

'It becomes increasingly difficult for the Government to claim that the IRA are to be dealt with by the ordinary process of the criminal law when it is clear that whenever the fairness of those processes proves inconvenient, they are simply jettisoned,' Mr McNamara said. 'The rule of law is not an a la carte menu, from which the Government can pick and choose at its illiberal whim.'