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August 24 2004

Cook warns against 'staggering' rise in anti-terror arrests

By Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent

24 August 2004

Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, warned last night that the "staggering" rise in numbers of anti-terrorist raids by police threatened to alienate British Muslims.

Mr Cook, who quit the Cabinet over the invasion of Iraq, broadened his criticism of the conduct of the war and its aftermath to raising the alarm over the impact of police operations against terror suspects in this country.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Mr Cook said: "I'm deeply troubled by the increase in raids under the Anti-Terrorism Act which are now running, staggeringly, at 10 times the level of three years ago.

"There were 30,000 raids under the Prevention of Terrorism Act last year, from which less than 100 individuals were charged with offences relating to terrorism."

He added: "There's a real risk that if we continue ... we will end up alienating the very people we need for a successful multi-cultural society and a successful appeal to people around the world of a different culture."

Mr Cook made the comments in response to a question about David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, as he gave the annual Donald Dewar lecture at the literary event.

The former cabinet minister warned Tony Blair that such a military campaign could not be repeated in another part of the world. He said: "Iraq is unique, it's a one-off. It's exhausted Tony Blair's capacity to take the nation to war against any substantial resistance."

He added: "If he hopes to bring back to the Labour Party all those millions who opposed the war or those who supported it on the basis he sold it to them, he's got to make it plain that he's learned the lessons from the past two years and that [he] is going to be different in the future."

During his speech, which was well received by the audience, Mr Cook set out his vision of a conflict between "cosmopolitans" who welcomed contact with the outside world and "chauvinists" who felt threatened by it.

It was reported earlier this month that Mr Cook had been a regular visitor to mosques across the country in an attempt to win back support for the Labour Party among disillusioned Muslims.

In March an ICM poll suggested Labour's support among Muslims had collapsed from 75 per cent in 2001 to 38 per cent, and the desertion of Muslim voters has been blamed for the party losing two previously safe seats in by-elections in Brent East and Leicester South in the past year.

His comments chime with a series of warnings from Muslim leaders over the effect of terrorist raids - as well as the steep rise in numbers of Asians stopped and searched by police - on law-abiding members of their community.

The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, a think-tank first set up by the anti-racism organisation, the Runnymede Trust, said in May that persistent and untackled Islamophobia in the UK could lead to "time-bombs" of bitterness.

It said the aftermath of the 11 September attacks - particularly harassment by the police - had made life more difficult for Muslims in Britain.

During his speech, Mr Cook also urged critics of devolution and the Scottish Parliament to "give it a break".

He listed the achievements of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive, including land reform and the "pioneering" policy of free care for the elderly.

He also offered some advice to the Scottish National Party, which is in the middle of a leadership election campaign.

He said: "We live in a world where what we need to aspire to is not national independence, but successful inter-dependence with the rest of the world."