Terrorism offences

Some of the worst excesses of the Counter-Terror Bill are gone, but without further changes it is still a threat to our civil liberties

Posted by Gracie Bradley on 30 Nov 2018

As the Bill goes back to the House of Commons on Monday, MPs have a chance to fix the problems that remain, and protect our rights

After months of campaigning, the Government has finally listened and made amendments to some of the worst excesses of its Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill. These concessions are a step in the right direction, but the Bill still represents a serious threat to our civil liberties.

Introduced to Parliament without consultation, it unnecessarily extends existing terrorism offences, including banning careless talk about banned groups and travel to certain areas overseas. It further entrenches the deeply divisive Prevent programme in our communities, and introduces draconian new powers of stop, search, interrogation and detention at the border on the grounds of conveniently ill-defined “hostile state activity”. It is symptomatic of a poorly conceived strategy that mistakes knee-jerk expansion of Government power for evidence-driven responses to national security concerns.

Freedom to think, and to dissent, must be shared by all of us

In its initial draft, the Government wanted to punish three clicks on online content deemed “likely to be useful” to terrorists with a prison sentence of up to 15 years. It then reduced that threshold – astonishingly – to a single click.

The latest amendments add welcome protections for journalists and academics, but as Lord Davies put it, “freedom of speech belongs to every citizen in a free society,” not only to journalists and academics.

Ministers have also reinstated the right of confidential consultation with a lawyer in the context of intrusive border stop and search powers – a right that was first egregiously compromised by the Terrorism Act 2000. But the real problem is that suspicionless border stop, search and detention powers should not exist at all.

The new powers in the Bill, and the controversial power under the Terrorism Act – known widely as Schedule 7 – provide for travellers to be effectively profiled, interrogated, and forced to give the State access to sensitive information on their devices, and even DNA under threat of criminal penalty. Such a serious intrusion of our right to private life should be restrained by a minimum threshold of reasonable suspicion. Otherwise these powers are open to discriminatory and ill-founded over-use.

While the Bill has the potential to undermine the civil liberties of every one of us, the reality is that the effects of counter-terrorism legislation do not fall on all groups equally. British Muslims and British Asians have been increasingly stigmatised and alienated by counter-terror laws. As academic Dr Tarek Younis has argued, “If the new Bill is introduced, British Muslims will live with increasing uncertainty, needing to not only monitor their own intentions but manage the gaze of others too.”

Protections for academics, journalists and humanitarian workers as the Government has introduced are welcome. But it is a brave person who risks trying to advance a ‘reasonable excuse’ against the offences in the Bill. A white British person may feel they have the privilege to do so. British Asians and British Muslims are likely to feel differently, and after years of being conflated with terrorists in State and media narratives, are likely to be treated differently by juries and decision makers too.

There is still a chance to fix the Bill, and protect our rights

The latest Government climbdowns are welcome and long overdue. But the fundamental point is that browsing the internet, travelling overseas, or debating banned groups are not inherently harmful activities, and should not be criminalised absent malicious intent.

There is a panoply of criminal offences on our statute books which cover a broad range of terrorist-related activity, as well as a raft of more generic offences such as murder, or causing an explosion likely to endanger life or property, which suffice to criminalise terrorist violence.

In the context of a furore about ‘free speech’ that seems to fixate on trigger warnings, no-platforming in university spaces, and the perceived sensitivities of ‘liberal snowflakes’, what is conveniently glossed over is that the State itself is one of the biggest threats to free speech today. It is minority groups who pay a heavy price.

The Bill reaches the final stages of parliamentary scrutiny on Monday. There is still time for Government to amend it further. But if it fails to do so, Peers of all parties and none should be prepared to make a stand in defence of civil liberties, and push through wide-ranging and radical changes to the Bill. Claims that our society is built on fundamental values of free speech, non-discrimination and dissent are meaningless if they do not.

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