Government launches review of anti-terror laws

Guy Aitchison
14 July 2010

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a review of counter-terror laws that would, she said, reverse the "substantial erosion of civil liberties" under Labour. She told the Commons that: 

National security is the first duty of government but we are also committed to reversing the substantial erosion of civil liberties. I want a counter-terrorism regime that is proportionate, focused and transparent. We must ensure that in protecting public safety, the powers which we need to deal with terrorism are in keeping with Britain's traditions of freedom and fairness.

The review will look at the following six areas as set out in a Home Office press release:

  • the use of control orders
  • stop and search powers in section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the use of terrorism legislation in relation to photography
  • the detention of terrorist suspects before charge
  • extending the use of deportations with assurances to remove foreign nationals from the UK who pose a threat to national security
  • measures to deal with organisations that promote hatred or violence
  • the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) by local authorities, and access to communications data more generally.

The inclusion of control orders and pre-charge detention, in the face of dire warnings from Labour ministers, is welcome. As is the examination of RIPA powers which have allowed local councils to mount costly and intrusive snooping operations against local residents for such crimes as dog fouling, and sending children to school in the wrong catchment area.

However, the idea of more "deportations with assurances" to return foreign nationals to countries where there's a possibility they'll face torture, is a clear step backwards. The so-called "assurances" or "memorandums of understanding" with foreign governments, in which they promise to be good and not torture people, are widely known not to be worth the paper they're printed on.

Our obligations under the Human Rights Act require us not to torture people but also not to start processes that would ultimately end up with people being tortured (i.e. deporting people suspected of links with terrorism to countries that practices torture). When David Cameron first proposed to scrap the Human Rights Act in 2006 - a pledge which made it into the Tory manifesto - it was in order to shed this obligation and allow government to deport more foreign nationals to torturing countries.

This has proven difficult in coalition with the Lib Dems, who are fully committed to the Act. In another classic coalition fudge, the HRA is due to be looked at in yet another review. But even if it were scrapped we'd still be bound under our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. How the government plans to circumvent this isn't clear.

The Tories ultimate plan, I suspect, is to use more deportations as an alternative to the control order regime to deal with individuals suspected of links with terrorism on whom there isn't enough evidence to mount a conviction in court. This is no solution. Proper trials and due process in which defendants have a chance to put their case and see the evidence against them is the only way to deal with those suspected of terrorism. To do otherwise is to deny basic human rights on the basis of what could be mere suspicion and hearsay and refuse equal treatment to foreign nationals.

The good news is that - much to the chagrin of the Sun who dub him "soft" -  Ken MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions who was recently made a Lib Dem peer, will be conducting the review. MacDonald is a long-standing critic of the previous government's draconian anti-terror laws. He spoke well at the Convention on Modern Liberty last year. In a pre-election piece on "Why vote Lib Dem", republished here in OK, he wrote:

We do not have to sacrifice liberty for security.On the contrary, in this age of dangerous movements, what we need most is level-headedness and legislative restraint. The real threat to our way of life is not the existence of some shadowy and fearsome enemy in a faraway place or lurking in a British town. It is the risk that freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state. 

He also wrote that "a real dedication to fairness also means refusing to divide society into those who deserve rights and those who are somehow beyond their embrace. Human rights are for all humans." Quite right. Let's hope this noble aspiration informs his review.

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