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Counter-terrorism and security bill: necessary or draconian?

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, introduced to the Commons yesterday, is intended to counter the threat posed by Islamic State (Isis) and the increasing number of Britons travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight on its behalf. The date for its second reading in Parliament – the first opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of the Bill – will be announced soon. Home Secretary Theresa May says the bill will not be emergency legislation but hopes that with cross-party support it can be fast tracked through parliament before the general election next May. It will be the seventh major counter-terror law introduced in Britain since 9/11. While May has stated that the terror threat to the UK is greater now than at any time in the country’s history, human rights groups have criticised the measures as “draconian”.

The most worrying elements of the nine principle elements in her package include:

Passport seizures at the airport

What does it mean? At present, the Home Secretary has to personally authorize seizure of a passport by Royal Prerogative. Under the new powers, police and border officers could temporarily confiscate a passport if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an individual is travelling abroad to engage in terrorism-related activity. Those passports could be seized for up to 30 days with a magistrate’s review after 14 days.

Although “reasonable suspicion” cannot be based on generalisations or stereotypical images, the stop and search powers of police in England and Wales are proof this doesn’t always translate. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Overall, black people were six times as likely as white people to be stopped. Reasonable suspicion in with regards to any counter- terrorism bill could translate into racial and religious profiling- a Quran in a hand or a beard may become enough grounds for “reasonable suspicion”.

Barring suspected terrorists returning to Britain

What does it mean? Under Temporary Exclusion Orders, suspected terrorists with British passports will be banned from Britain for two years, and only be able to return under “controlled” circumstances. The orders will be signed off by the Home Secretary on the basis of “reasonable suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity abroad”.

Suspected terrorists will have their passports cancelled and placed on international “no fly lists” to prevent them returning to Britain. Those that wish to return will be interviewed by police and security officials abroad. Those that do return will face prosecution, restrictions on their movements or be forced to attend de-radicalization programs.

Amnesty International has said measures like invalidating passports and excluding British nationals from their home country “pushes the boundaries of international law”.

Upgraded Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures

What does it mean?TPIMs replaced the Labour-era’s Control Orders, used to restrict the activity of suspected terrorists who had not been convicted. The Control Orders included electronic tagging, passport confiscation, restrictions on visitors, no internet and daily reporting to the police. Critics said the system was akin to house arrest with no end – and that it punishes the family as well as restricting the suspect. Under the 2011 TPIMs the controversial relocation element was scrapped- this element sought to break up alleged terrorist “networks”.

The bill proposes to bring back the power to relocate people, and limit the distance they can travel. The threshold for issuing a TPIM is to be raised to the civil standard of proof of “reasonable balance of probabilities” and the definition of terrorism narrowed to exclude those caught up on the periphery of terrorist-related activity.

Relocation has been described by Amnesty International as “internal exile” for suspects – which “potentially punishes the guiltless while leaving the truly dangerous at large.” Lord Macdonald, in his report on the Review of Counter-Terrorism and Security Powers, described relocation requirements as being “utterly inimical to traditional British norms”. That conclusion was echoed by the Review itself, which concluded that there should be “an end to the use of forced relocation and lengthy curfews that prevent individuals leading a normal daily life.” The real victims of these controls are the spouse and the children. Dr. Michael Korzinski, co-founding director of the Helen Bamber Foundation, told a committee of Parliament in 2011: “… all the controlees I have worked with and who have come off control orders have major mental health problems. You see breakdowns within their families, and children who are completely dysfunctional in school and who need support.”

An obligation to report extremism

What does it mean? A new statutory duty will be placed on colleges, schools, prisons, probation providers, police and councils to “prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism.” Universities will be obliged to draw up policies on extremist campus speakers, and prisons will have to draw up policies for dealing with radicals. The Home Office will be able to issue court orders obliging bodies to comply with directives to, for example, stop an extremist preacher from lecturing.

A definition of extremism is by no means cohesive in the UK. Banning supposed “extremist” speakers could lead to the misuse of the term and ultimately to infringements on freedom of speech. Teaching unions expressed concern at growing pressures on the education system with the legal requirement for schools, prisons, and councils to have programs to stop people being drawn into terrorism. “Schools definitely have a role to play, as they protect children, they also protect the neighbourhoods they serve but they are not a police service,” said Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. “A school’s main contribution to the cause of anti-extremism is to provide a broad and balanced curriculum in a safe environment where human rights are respected.”

Internet monitoring

What does it mean? A requirement for internet service providers to retain data on internet protocol addresses to allow individual users to be identified. The new law will require internet and phone companies to generate the records, retain them and hand them over to the police and security services on request.

Theresa May has reiterating the need for the Communications Data Bill- which was dubbed the Snoopers Charter – for more wide-ranging web monitoring powers to be enacted. The Bill was shelved after opposition from the Liberal Democrats. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of rights group Liberty, said: “Every Government proposal of the last so many years has been about blanket sur‎veillance of the entire population. The Snowden revelations demonstrate that they were even prepared to act outside the law and without parliamentary consent. So forgive us if we look for the devil in the detail of this new Bill.”

The Home Secretary has described the measures as “considered and targeted”. However this prescription of surveillance and control being rushed through parliament should be treated with the upmost caution. It is a slippery slope. We are talking about a return to policies disregarded and shelved due to concerns over their infringement on civil liberties and making schools, for example, face a legal duty to prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism.

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