Steve Richards: We need calm effective action on terror, not this rush to media-pleasing headlines

The lack of clarity has reached absurd proportions. Ministers show signs of panic
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The Independent Online

Briefly after the bombs exploded on July 7 there appeared to be an impressively resolute calm at the top of the Government. There would be no rush to legislation. If action were taken it would follow intense and widespread consultation. Ministers acknowledged that their response must not act as a recruiting agent for terrorists. Then suddenly the mood changed. Tony Blair popped up on the eve of his holiday to announce a 12-point legislative plan. With a headline in mind, Mr Blair declared that the "rules of the game had changed".

He could not resist the rush to legislate. I am told that even the Home Office was only fleetingly consulted about his proposals. They were drawn up while the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, was on holiday. Apparently Mr Clarke was kept "informed" but his input was inevitably limited. The rest of the Cabinet was nowhere to be seen or heard.

As I have made clear in recent columns, I do not believe the current laws are adequate for dealing with the new threat posed by terrorists. I am not one of those who argue that it is worth taking risks with people's lives in order to protect civil liberties. But I have watched Tony Blair closely over the years and am alert to the dangers of his political style. When the headline precedes the policy details, trouble lies ahead. In relation to his anti-terrorist legislation, the headlines scream that the rules have changed and yet no one knows precisely how the new rules will apply.

Mr Blair delivered the proposals with apparent clarity last Friday at a hastily convened press conference. But the subsequent questions suggested that the proposals were not entirely clear even to the Prime Minister himself. Would videos of al-Qa'ida leaders be banned as an incitement to terrorism? Mr Blair said that obviously the BBC would not be prosecuted for broadcasting such a tape. Well, it is not that obvious. The tape broadcast last week from al-Qa'ida was one of the more blatant incitements to terrorism. Indeed the leading figures of al-Qa'ida, apparently hidden away on a mountain or two in Pakistan, can do little more than incite on video tape. They are hardly in a position to hold an annual conference for all those interested in their latest thinking. As to incitement in Britain, will Islamic bookshops be closed for stocking extremist literature? Mr Blair's answer to that question and several others was woolier than the defiant tone of his introductory statement.

I do not begrudge Mr Blair a holiday but I worry about why he felt the need to make such an apparently significant announcement on the day before his departure. I am told that Mr Blair has left detailed instructions for those ministers who are left behind to follow his lead. He has instructed them to highlight initiatives, give interviews, be tough in tone in relation to the extremists but also to hold high-profile meetings with moderate Muslim leaders.

Nothing is wrong with any of this if the substance on which the hyperactivity is based is well judged. Instead there are rushed messages with contradictory implications. Last Friday Mr Blair suggested that new laws were required to tackle the extreme clerics. Earlier this week the idea surfaced from within the Government that the clerics could be arrested for treason under existing legislation. The idea seems to have disappeared, but the vacuum will be quickly filled.

Is the hyperactivity, or perception of hyperactivity, politically necessary in the light of the genuine fearfulness in London and other cities? Of course, ministers must avoid the impression of complacently heading for their sunshine holidays while the terrorists plot. But the nature of their actions, what they say and do, also matters. Before his holiday Mr Blair should have affirmed his determination to address the criminal activity of the terrorists now, to deport criminals wanted by other countries and to review existing legislation to see whether it can be applied more robustly. In the light of that review he would introduce new legislation. In the meantime he could have said that the reassuringly high policing levels would be maintained, and both the police and intelligence services would seek to track down other potential terrorists.

Instead Mr Blair succumbed once more to a campaign being run in parts of the media and promised a whole raft of legislation to be implemented quickly.

In the current unpredictable situation we want to know that, as far as possible, the Government is protecting us. The best reassurance of all is a clear sense that ministers know what they are doing.

Instead, the lack of clarity has already reached absurd proportions. John Prescott suggests that under current arrangements the recently departed cleric, Omar Bakri, can return to Britain, which is why the laws need to change. Others argue that he could be kept out under existing laws. No one seems to know for sure whether the cleric is on holiday or planning possibly a longer period of mischievous exile while returning briefly to Britain for a heart operation on the NHS. While such Monty Python-like fuzziness exists over a single clear- cut case, this is not a moment to rush through layers of new legislation.

We have been here before. Recently I interviewed several of Mr Blair's former Downing Street advisers for a series on Radio 4 to be broadcast in September. I will write about the views of the advisers in more detail nearer the time. For now I can reveal that many of them criticised a weakness in Downing Street for "initiative-itis" - a tendency to announce initiatives mainly to please the media. The former head of policy Geoff Mulgan noted in particular what he called a "river" of anti-crime legislation to meet the latest media frenzy, some of which was ineffective. Over the past eight years Mr Blair has proclaimed welfare revolutions that turned out not to be revolutionary and NHS revolutions that were incremental. Now "the rules have changed" for homeland security and we are promised another revolution. I wonder.

I stress that I am not against new legislation in principle. But let us get answers to some basic questions first. If we accept the terrorists and their associates are criminals, to what extent could the current legislation address the threat? How do we define incitement to terrorism in a way that avoids the net being cast too wide?

As ministers urge us not to panic, they show signs of panic. We need effective action and not a search for headlines when Mr Blair returns from his holidays.