Tories and Lib Dems support terrorist Bill
The British government's draft Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill received the full support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats last night, while several Labour backbenchers and civil liberties groups remained unconvinced that the measures were justifiable.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Mr Andrew Mackay, said his party would back the legislation when it is put before the Westminster parliament for a two-day emergency sitting today.
"The first duty of any government and the official opposition is to protect the lives of the innocent people of this country. There are special circumstances in Northern Ireland with the intimidation of witnesses that require anti-terrorist legislation not normally acceptable in a democracy."
Similarly, the Liberal Democrats' Northern Ireland spokesman, Lord Holme, declared that the draft Bill was the "first example of parallel anti-terrorism laws in the UK and Irish parliament, which is something we have urged for years. Some of the key safeguards we have asked for have been incorporated.
"The law will be subject to annual review and renewal, the evidence of a police officer on membership of organisations will require further corroboration, and the right to consult a solicitor will be protected," he added.
Some Labour backbenchers unhappy with the restriction of the right to silence may decide to abstain, while others may vote against the Bill. The former shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Mr Kevin McNamara, has said he will table a "reasoned amendment" to the Bill this morning, highlighting his concerns that it is being rushed through too quickly and that it may be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Others concerned about the remit of the legislation include two Labour MPs, Mr Jeremy Corbyn and Mr Tam Dalyell.
Last night the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights said the draft Bill did appear, in part, to be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. It was concerned that legislation of such serious implication was being rushed into law and should be given more detailed scrutiny.
Mr John Wadham, the director of the civil rights group, Liberty, said the Bill was "the single most draconian piece of legislation" designed by any government since the second World War. "The structure of this Bill gives unprecedented importance to the unsubstantiated opinion of a police officer and will, like the Star Chamber, force the subject to speak or be damned. It is also likely to make dissidents who have escaped from other repressive regimes a target of police harassment and prosecution. I find it utterly shocking that this has been introduced by a government which regularly proclaims its commitment to human rights."
Earlier Mr Michael Mansfield, QC, who has challenged many terrorism convictions during his career, said a senior police officer could claim in court that the evidence of a defendant's membership of a proscribed organisation was a security matter that could not be divulged. "This is an extremely troubled area. There are too many situations in which decisions are made behind closed doors and in camera."