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Civil rights groups condemn Blunkett's anti-terror plans

By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent

22 November 2004

Tony Blair faces a backlash from lawyers and civil rights campaigners over the string of anti-crime Bills and measures against international terrorism expected to dominate tomorrow's Queen's Speech.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, warned that the generations-old principle of innocent until proven guilty risked being eroded by the expected anti-crime legislation. The Law Society, which represents solicitors, warned that the measures could be seen as a step "in the direction of a police state".

Left-wing Labour MPs accused the Government of pursuing an American Republican-style emphasis on security and terror in the run-up to the general election, expected next spring. Crime legislation figures strongly among the 28 Bills and eight draft Bills to be outlined by the Queen as Mr Blair attempts to neutralise the opportunities for Conservative attacks in campaigning before the expected May polling day.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, confirmed yesterday that ministers were planning a draft Anti-Terrorism Bill which would include sweeping measures such as judge-only trials, new civil orders for people suspected of planning terrorist acts and the use of wiretap evidence in courts. He said a draft Bill would be produced in the new year, after the House of Lords gives its verdict on terror suspects held without trial in Belmarsh Prison.

Measures in the speech include the Bill to introduce ID cards, a Bill to establish a Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and laws to allow on-the-spot fines to deter antisocial behaviour. There is also expected to be an extension of compulsory drug testing for people arrested for certain crimes, due to be launched by Mr Blair on Thursday. Mr Blunkett is also planning a crackdown on activists who target directors, shareholders and employees in companies that do animal experiments. Measures include new harassment offences to stop extremists phoning employees at work and new powers to allow police to ban intimidating protesters from returning to an area within three months.

Mr Blunkett told ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme yesterday that the Government was not attempting to trade on fear in the run-up to the general election. He said:"Acknowledging them, understanding people's worries and then dealing with those worries is not to exacerbate, not to enhance but actually to lay aside those fears."

Senior government sources said the legislation was necessary to deal with terrorists and organised criminals, such as drug and people traffickers.

But Bob Marshall Andrews, the Labour MP for Medway and a leading QC, said: "It will be a George Bush speech. It will divide very strongly between the Prime Minister, who at the moment is haemorrhaging support, and the back benches."

The Law Society warned that the Government was planning legislation to give police powers to arrest people suspected of any crime. Home Office sources insisted that any change would be accompanies by safeguards.

Ms Chakrabarti said civil liberties campaigners would back the use of wiretap evidence and on-the-spot fines, but would fight attempts to erode the principle of trial by jury and ID cards.