Richard Rosser on the work about to be done in the House of Lords to ensure new counter-terrorism legislation is fit for purpose
In the Queen’s Speech last June, it was announced that the government would be reviewing its counter-terrorism strategy in the light of the terrorist attacks at Westminster, the Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park. The Counter-Terrorism and Borders Security Bill, which received its Lords Second Reading earlier this week, is intended to reflect the outcome of that review.
The Bill has already been through the Commons where our Labour colleagues did not divide at Second Reading and supported Third Reading. But they did table substantial amendments in the Commons – some of which led to concessions and alterations in the government’s position.
Labour accepts the need for updates to counter-terrorism legislation, to reflect changing situations and circumstances, as well as technological developments. Since however, the Bill seeks to plug loopholes in existing legislation, it contains a number of separate distinct provisions rather than reflect a coherent theme.
One adverse feature of the passage of this Bill has been Ministers laying down key amendments just prior to both the Commons Report stage and Third Reading. That means it now carries provisions for which there was insufficient time for MPs to properly consider.
For example, a new clause was laid providing for an offence under the 2000 Terrorism Act of entering or remaining in an area outside of the UK that has been designated in regulations by the Home Secretary. And it would carry a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.
Ministers maintain that a ‘reasonable excuse’ defence would cover journalists or aid workers. But the wording of the clause is that the burden of proof will be on the individual putting forward that defence, rather than the prosecution having to disprove. Our team in the Lords will be pursuing this issue, and looking at the process, procedures and criteria against which the government seek to designate these areas. We will also consider the adequacy or otherwise of the safeguards for those with legitimate business to be there.
Further late amendments relate to offences on the viewing of online material, with another ‘reasonable excuse’ defence if the person has no reason to believe the information is likely to be useful in connection with terrorist related activities. Once again, Labour Peers will address the issue of burden of proof and ensuring appropriate protection for those with a legitimate business interest, for example journalists and academics.
We have also made the point that counter-terrorism is not just about creating new offences and fixing maximum penalties, and suggested that the Bill should include an independent statutory review of the long-standing and contentious Prevent programme.
Of course, we also raised various other counter-terrorism related issues at Second Reading. Firstly, on proposals affecting legal professional privacy and opposing a provision for an office to be able to hear, as well as watch, legal advice being given. Second, on proposals for border stops, which need to be considered particularly careful for their impact in Northern Ireland. And third, the continued participation of the UK in the European Arrest Warrant in relation to terror suspects – something the government should seek as part of the Brexit negotiations.
Peers across the Lords should have an interest in ensuring this Bill is balanced and proportionate, that its provisions are necessary, and that it strengthens our hand in countering terrorist activity while safeguarding human rights. That is certainly what we on the Labour benches will do as the Bill moves through its further stages.
Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 11th October 2018