Minding the gaps

Richard Rosser on getting the balance right on new counter-terror and security legislation

June 2016 saw the terrorism related murder of Jo Cox. A further five terrorist outrages took place between March and September 2017; at Westminster, at the Manchester Arena, at London Bridge, at Finsbury Park and at Parsons Green. In March of this year we had the Salisbury poisonings using a military grade nerve agent with the involvement of the Russian state.

It is against that backdrop that the government have brought forward the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which continues its House of Lords Report stage next Monday.

The Bill seeks to close gaps in existing terrorism legislation, including addressing hostile activity by other states. Labour has expressed broad support during the Bill’s passage through Parliament but there remain specific issues of concern.

We have already secured one major concession from Ministers, in relation to stops at our borders. Here, the Bill provided for an officer not only to watch someone who had been detained at the border receiving legal advice, which is not new, but also to hear that advice as well. This would put a basic principle of our justice system – the right to legal advice in private – at risk.

Having raised this issue repeatedly in the Commons, we continued to push for a change once the Bill reached the Lords. We argued that the government’s concerns, that people may contact rogue or non-lawyers, can be properly addressed through other means – including the use of specified, screened lawyers where necessary. Ministers have since conceded the importance of the right to advice in private, and removed the offending power.

Another aspect of the Bill left largely outstanding when it left the Commons relates to a government clause that was laid at such a late stage that it precluded a full debate by MPs. This clause provides for an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000, of entering or remaining in a ‘designated area’ (as identified by the Home Secretary) outside of the UK.

The clause is intended to stop or deter people travelling overseas to support terrorist organisations and activity. There are however, those who would have legitimate reasons for travelling to, and being in, such ‘designated areas’ - for example, humanitarian aid workers or news reporters. People who would be deemed to have committed an offence simply by being there. A Labour-led amendment seeking to exempt such people from these designations was successfully voted through on the first day of Report.

Next week, we will press for an independent review of the Prevent. This programme, first introduced in 2003 under Labour, forms part of the government's approach to addressing the threat of terrorism by strengthening community cohesion. Long subject to both positive and negative comments, Prevent needs a proper evaluation of the extent to which it is achieving its objectives, with a view to making necessary changes and improvements. Peers will also consider the rather broad definition of hostile state activity and whether it needs to be tightened up.

Labour broadly supports the overall intentions and objectives of this Bill, which have been dictated by weaknesses in our existing counter-terrorism legislation. Gaps that have come to light following not just the recent outrages referred to above, but the experience and knowledge gained from thwarting some seventeen intended acts of terrorism since 2017.

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 13th December 2018

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