Kennedy attacks Hain over terror claims

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Tony Blair was urged last night to stop his ministers "playing politics" with terrorism after the Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain provoked a storm of protest by claiming Britain would be safer under Labour than other parties.

Tony Blair was urged last night to stop his ministers "playing politics" with terrorism after the Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain provoked a storm of protest by claiming Britain would be safer under Labour than other parties.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, wrote to the Prime Minister expressing his "profound concerns" that terrorism was in danger of becoming a "party political matter". He condemned as "irresponsible and counterproductive" the claim by Mr Hain that the terrorist threat would be lower under Labour because the Government had boosted the security services' budget.

Mr Kennedy said: "At no stage have the Liberal Democrats - nor, to the best of my knowledge for that matter the Conservatives - have been anything other than supportive of the substantial additional resources which have been made available to our vital security services." Calling for the traditional cross-party consensus on terrorism to be maintained, he asked Mr Blair to make clear that Mr Hain's remarks would not be repeated.

Downing Street and the Home Office distanced themselves from Mr Hain's claim as he came under fire from politicians in all parties, including Labour. The row undermined Mr Blair's attempts to use Tuesday's Queen's Speech to focus the political spotlight on law and order in the run-up to the general election which is expected next May.

The outspoken Commons Leader, who first made his claim on Tuesday, repeated it yesterday when he said: "Britain obviously is vulnerable to terrorist attack and you can't predict where it would come under any government. My point is if we are tough on crime and on terrorism as Labour is, then I think Britain will be safer under Labour, yes.

"The Tories and Liberal Democrats oppose lots of our measures against terrorism and lots of our measures in tackling crime."

He added that the Tories and Liberal Democrats were "wriggling" because they did not have a clear alternative.

But John Denham, formerly the Home Office minister responsible for terrorism, said: "It is obviously the case that, to the security services, to the police, to the other people professionally involved in protecting us, it will make no difference to their personal and professional commitment which political party is in power. You do have to be careful not to suggest that these services are more on the side of one party than another, because clearly they are not."

Baroness Kennedy, the lawyer and Labour peer, said: "How do we know if Britain will be less safe under the Conservatives? This American-style campaigning is regrettable. I want to see a Labour government returned, but I don't want us to run a campaign based on the idea that it is all about security."

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said: "It is dangerous to start making this into a party political issue. What we need is trust, and trust means you don't actually try to gain political advantage out of a very serious issue."

John Major, who was Prime Minister during the 1991 Gulf War, said: "It seems to be rather a desperate comment that the nation is safer under any one political party. To make that point is very silly. Did people feel safer after Gulf War One, when we had a Conservative government, or after Gulf War Two, when we had a Labour government?"

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, accused Mr Hain of trying to create "a climate of fear". He added: "If he goes around saying we are safe from terrorism under Labour, that is a challenge to the terrorist. It is an irresponsible thing to do. He is playing party politics with an issue which really should be above and beyond party politics."

Asked if Mr Blair agreed with Mr Hain's remarks, Downing Street replied: "The threat we face is real. What the Government is proposing to do is to take measures which allow it to address that threat in a way that is practical, sensible and commensurate with the nature of the threat." It denied that the Government was fostering a climate of fear.

Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister with responsibility for terrorism, refused to back Mr Hain's warning. Asked if Britain would be a less safe place under the Tories, she said: "The measures we're bringing in, people have characterised them as being about fear and insecurity. I would say absolutely the opposite is the case - it's about bringing safety and security to communities."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: "None of us believe that countering terrorism is about party politics. That is not what Peter was saying, nor is it what I am advocating."