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Blair, Political Opponents Clash Over Anti-Terrorism Legislation

Tom Rivers

New proposed anti-terrorism legislation is causing a storm of political debate in Britain where politicians are weighing how to balance the need for safety and security on the one hand and preserving centuries old civil liberties on the other.

At the heart of the issue is the government's desire to either electronically tag or place individuals under house arrest without charge.

As Tony Blair says, this measure is required in cases where surveillance alone may not be enough and where there might not be enough evidence to formally charge people and bring them to trial.

Opposition Conservative party leader, Michael Howard says the bill is fatally flawed and he alleges that Mr. Blair will be using it as a political weapon is the upcoming election campaign.

"I have come to the conclusion, Mr. Speaker, that this Prime Minister wants this bill to fail," Mr. Howard said. "He wants to pretend that he is the one who is tough on terrorism. Is it not a dreadful measure from a desperate Prime Minister and should he not be thoroughly ashamed of himself?"

But the prime minister responded in the House of Commons that he backs the measure because security authorities say it is necessary to combat terror.

"We will have this debate here and we will have this debate in the country," the prime minister said. "And we will see where the shame lies. But in my judgment, the shame will lie with the Conservative Party faced with legislation to prevent terrorism, faced with legislation advised on us by our police and security services that are going to vote against it. If they want to vote against it, let them. We will be content ultimately to have the verdict of the country on it."

The leader of the Liberal-Democrats, Charles Kennedy, went further in attacking Prime Minister Blair's motivation.

"Is it not time that he began to put the fundamental liberties of the British people before his own political pride," he asked.

Current statutes that allow for the detention of terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge expire next Monday, and many political observers here believe the government will have no option but to back down and strike a compromise in order to secure an agreement to fill the gap.

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