Government 'is losing its grip' on anti-terror strategy

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Indy Politics

A former Home Office minister accused the Government of losing its nerve in recent days, dismissing its latest anti-terror proposals as "half-baked".

Tony Blair produced a 12-point action plan for combating terrorism on Friday, leaving officials to work the proposals into legislation for the autumn.

Since then it has emerged that the Crown Prosecution Service was considering whether to levy treason charges against three preachers, Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Izzadeen and Abu Uzair.

The Government was in retreat over both sets of proposals yesterday, prompting accusations that its response to last month's terrorist attacks in London was in confusion.

Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of anti-terror legislation, warned that treason charges were not very practical or sensible and said he would be "very surprised" if treason was used.

"It is remotely possible, but treason law is very specific. I suspect that there are far more appropriate crimes already on the statute book," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

"I don't think there is a lawyer still working who has ever appeared in any part of a treason case and I think we should tread in that historic territory very carefully. Treason tends to apply to war between nations."

Downing Street yesterday played down the prospects of prosecutions for treason being mounted. As talks began between the CPS and police over bringing charges against the three preachers, the CPS signalled that a charge of treason was the least likely course of action.

A former Home Office minister, John Denham, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he was very disturbed at the latest handling of the crisis. He said media pressure meant Downing Street had returned to its "old instincts" to try to win back the headlines.

"The issues at stake here are just far too serious to play it like that," he told Radio 4's PM programme. "The last few days really give the sense the Government has got into a real state of nerves about the whole thing, displaying a lack of confidence in its own strategy.

"They have got to get a grip on it very, very quickly, stop floating half-baked ideas and get back to proper cross-party consensus on the serious measures that need to be taken."

Edward Garnier, a Tory home affairs spokesman, said: "They will get the support of the Opposition for proper, fair, good proposals that deal with the problem. But what we find difficult to deal with is a Government which says one thing on one day and another thing on another. We are getting mixed signals."

Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, said fellow Muslims in his constituency in south London were worried by several elements of the Government's anti-terror package. The former human rights lawyer said sections of the Human Rights Act could not be simply suspended and criticised moves to close down mosques used by controversial preachers.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat legal affairs spokesman, warned that such serious charges as treason were less likely to secure a conviction and could affect community relations. "If you start resurrecting treason to apply to specific people at a specific time it looks to me as if it will aim at a particular part of the community. That won't be generally helpful.

"Where we can get consensus, we will deliver. If there isn't consensus in Parliament, that means there won't be consensus in the country either, and the law will be less widely respected."

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, welcomed the intention of the anti-terror legislation, but warned it could penalise the wrong people. "Any laws must be precisely worded to deal with the terror threat without criminalising those who are our allies in fighting it," he said.

"Unfortunately, the wording presently reported is so vague that 20 years ago it would have meant banning Nelson Mandela or anyone supporting him."