Leading Article: Howard's wayward

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The Independent Online
"We face a clear threat from terrorism," said the Home Secretary yesterday. Yes, but do also face a threat from Howardism? The way the Government has rushed to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act to extend police powers to stop, search and cordon has Michael Howard's fingerprints all over it.

There may be a case for these new powers being rushed through at breakneck speed. The IRA is restocking and moving weapons into place to resume bombing. That seems to be the gist of the intelligence briefing. There is new danger from small, easily concealed explosive devices. It may be that existing police powers to detect them are insufficient. None of us would stand in the way of the police doing their job of making us more secure against a genuine terrorist threat.

But the way Mr Howard has gone about this opens him once again to the accusation of moving too fast, without thinking openly and deeply enough about the consequences. Today he is expected to announce plans for a tougher sentencing regime that will further antagonise the judges and require a massive prison-building programme.

As for stop and search, the police record for using such powers "on suspicion" is mixed, to say the least. Where are the guarantees that a law intended to be used against Irish terrorists will not be amended on the streets as a catch-all permission to stop anyone. Till now police roadblocks and cordons have been set up under common law; now, it seems, there is a need to put them on a statutory footing. Why the rush?

Michael Howard's reliability as an interpreter of statute law is testified to by the number of court appearances he has recently made. Howard's proposals need to be subject to the most intense scrutiny. The House of Commons' job is to make law that sticks because it is based on popular consent, stout principle and practicability. To test proposals coming from the executive, time is needed for debate and reflection. No convincing case has been made for these extra police powers to be legislated for as quickly as they have been. For Tony Blair and Labour to join the Tories in the lobby may be an act of bipartisanship for which they will earn electoral reward. Labour wants to present itself as capable of government, understandably so. But it must remember its current job is that of Opposition. And the Opposition's job is to stimulate debate and subject legislation to the test of argument.