Palpable concerns about latest Terrorism Bill

27th Jul 2018
Palpable concerns about latest Terrorism Bill

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill currently going through Parliament is no less than the eighth bout of anti-terrorism legislation to be introduced in the past 16 years. Aimed ‘to make provision enabling persons at ports and borders to be questioned for national security and other related purposes,’ the new proposal makes no attempt to invent new offences as such but to ‘update’ the already draconian reach of terrorism laws. After being reviewed by the Government for the past 12 months, it is disappointing that Sajid Javid made it one of his first tasks to bring the bill forward after his promotion to Home Secretary.

Certain provisions have become the subject of valid and serious concern by the Parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee (JHRC). Powers under the Government’s latest proposals are “too vaguely defined” and do “not have sufficient safeguards to protect human rights,” it has warned. At risk was the danger of not only criminalising ‘curious minds’ but interfering disproportionately with the ‘right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought and belief, and the right to freedom of expression.’

There are many areas of concern in this Bill, including criminalising freedom of expression. People who view extremist content online more than three times could face a prison sentence, except one can prove the purpose was for journalism. At present, it is an offence only if the extremist content is downloaded and stored on a suspect’s computer, saved on a separate device or printed.

The MPs are concerned that this could take the criminal law in a “dangerous direction for human rights, risking a ‘chilling effect’, not only on journalistic and academic freedoms, but also the inquisitive and the foolish mind.”

Reporters Without Borders fear “restrictions on press freedom to express legitimate concerns, for example, around a new proscription or a proscribed group. Such discussion around criminalisation, proscription, and state power are undoubtedly in the public interest, but this new offence will have a clear and disproportionate chilling effect on press freedom to engage in such debate.”

Max Hill QC, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Law, criticised proposals to criminalise people who view content linked to terrorism online, warning that “thought without action must not be criminalised. While we can all agree that there should be nowhere for real terrorists to hide, we should also agree that legislating in the name of terrorism when the targeted activity is not actually terrorism would be quite wrong.”

It is important to note that this offence requires no active expression, invitation or encouragement at all; it simply involves looking at a website. It may be a different website on each occasion and the viewings may occur over an extended period of time as there is no time limit included in the clause. “We consider criminalisation of passive activity a dangerous direction of travel. By way of comparison, we note that an individual may not be prosecuted for merely viewing indecent images of children,” said the MPs.

There is a clear risk that this clause would catch academics, journalists and researchers, as well as those who view such material out of curiosity or foolishness without any intent to act upon the material in a criminal manner.

Professor Clive Walker of University of Leeds notes that “the Government and researchers have repeatedly asserted that there is no clear production line from viewing extremism or even being ‘radicalised’ into becoming an active terrorist.”

The Parliamentary Committee said that unless this clause is amended, “implementation of this clause would clearly risk breaching Article 10 of the ECHR and unjustly criminalising the conduct of those with no links to terrorism.”

Other areas of concern was over the expansion on the controversial Prevent [Extremism] programme to allow not just a police officer but local authorities to refer people to ‘Channel panel’ to assess the risk and develop a support plan for individuals regarded as vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. “We are also concerned that any additional responsibility placed on local authorities must be accompanied by adequate training and resources to ensure that the authorities are equipped to identify individuals vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism,” the JHRC report said.

The committee has been among many others to have previously called for an independent review. The programme has been widely criticised for alienating certain communities, especially Muslims, and for undermining efforts to tackle counter-terrorism. The Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill, gave evidence to the committee during which he cited the hearing of various examples of how Prevent is having a “chilling effect in different contexts” and urged for urgent attention to address “a strong sense of grievance” about the programme.

Associate Professor at Warwick University, Charlotte Heath-Kelly, also expressed serious concerns with local authority involvement in Prevent. “We have found that this leads healthcare professionals and Local Authority processes to enquire into incidences of dissent and illiberal political beliefs – rather than vulnerability to abuse in persons with formal care needs (the legal definition of safeguarding).” Her study cited cases where children had been “referred to safeguarding teams for watching Arabic television, and where adults were referred for planning pilgrimage trips.”

Over the years, so much dire legislation has been passed by successive governments as a result of knee-jerk reactions without any seeming forethought about the impact on communities, as well as civil liberties, and often risks being counterproductive in the goal of keeping us safe. The problem with most counter-terrorism laws is that since the notorious Terrorism Act 2000, lessons still seemed not to be learned about how misguided and ill-advised each round of emergency powers are and result instead in keep making the legislation worse.

It certainly does not help for Security Minister, Ben Wallace, to flippantly dismiss the MPs concerns, insisting that the conclusions made are just “misplaced and wrong.” The Government, he said, had “carefully considered” the case made by the intelligence services and police for an update of existing legislation to keep the public safe. “The committee couldn’t be more out of touch with the very real threat to life we all now face,” Wallace rather insulting claimed.

Much more needs to be expected from our ministers. Perhaps even more so from Sandhurst-trained commissioned military officers.

Listen to our experts, listen to communities and listen to independent people appointed to oversee terrorism legislation. Perhaps through listening, we can get a better output.

[Photo: UK Parliament. © Oast House Archive/Creative Commons]

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