Human Rights Committee criticises Terrorism Bill for plans to block UK citizens and for challenges to academic freedom

The knee-jerk reaction to any act of terrorism is to propose yet more regulations and legislation to prevent future attacks or to deal with the attackers. As liberals we have to be very careful to ensure that our civil and human rights are not being curtailed unnecessarily.

So the conjunction of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill passing through Parliament, the events in Paris and the response to the Bill by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights are worth examining from a broad perspective. By extraordinary co-incidence, the Human Rights Committee published their scrutiny of the  Bill on Wednesday, just as the drama was unfolding at Charlie Hebdo.

The BBC reminds us that the threat of terrorism in the UK remains at ‘severe’, implying that an attack is highly likely, and informs us that the Prime Minister has been fully briefed by security and intelligence chiefs in the light of the Paris atrocities.

Tomorrow will see the second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords – an event that will no doubt carry a more emotional punch than usual. Peers will be aware of the criticisms and recommendations made by the Human Rights Committee.

The Committee was unhappy about the plans to block suspects who are UK citizens from returning to Britain, and suggested an alternative approach.

However, as the Minister confirmed in his evidence to us, the provisions in the Bill still have the effect of invalidating a UK national’s passport while they are abroad, and of preventing their return unless they comply with conditions imposed by the Secretary of State, without any judicial process apart from ex post facto judicial review which, by definition, will have to be pursued from abroad. In our view this gives rise to a very real risk that the human rights of UK nationals will be violated as a result of the imposition of Temporary Exclusion Orders. We are opposed in principle to any exclusion of UK nationals from the UK, even on a temporary basis.

In our view, the Government’s objective of managed return could be achieved by a much simpler system requiring UK nationals who are suspects to provide advance notification of their return to the UK on pain of criminal penalty if they fail to do so. “Notification of return” orders, which could be substituted for temporary exclusion orders without too much drastic surgery to this Part of the Bill, would constitute a more proportionate interference with the right of a UK national to return to the UK, as they would not involve any cancellation of a citizen’s passport or prohibition of their return, nor make that return conditional on the individual accepting conditions imposed by the Secretary of State. We recommend that the Bill be amended to replace temporary exclusion orders with notification of return orders in order to achieve the Government’s objective of safe and managed return in a way compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.

The Committee also expressed concern at the encroachment of academic freedom implied by the duty to prevent extremism.

In our view, universities are precisely the places where there should be open and inclusive discussion of ideas. Broad terms such as “extremist” or “radical” are not capable of being defined with sufficient precision to enable universities to know with sufficient certainty whether they risk being found to be in breach of the new duty and therefore subject to direction by the Secretary of State and, ultimately, a mandatory court order backed by criminal sanctions for contempt of court.

In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new “prevent” duty is not appropriate for application to universities. We recommend that the Bill be amended to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies. Alternatively, we recommend that the Bill be amended to add the exercise of an academic function to the list of functions which are excepted from the application of the duty.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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4 Comments

  • Mary
    Good article !    I am surprised nobody commented on it last night.

    This Tuesday morning – on the day that the bill will be discussed in Parliament it – is also the anniversary of Emile Zola’s letter beginning J’Accuse.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/J'accuse

    The Dreyfus Case and the issues surrounding it are not a million miles away from events in Paris and London today.

    Prejudice, religion, the threat of terrorism and spies were as much a feature of the last few years of the 19 Century as they have been in the first fifteen years of the 21st Century.

    The prejudices of reactionaries in the establishment, the military and the secret police are never the best foundation for good government or sensible legislation.

    So I am very glad that you have drawn attention to these words —

    “The Committee also expressed concern at the encroachment of academic freedom implied by the duty to prevent extremism.

    In our view, universities are precisely the places where there should be open and inclusive discussion of ideas. Broad terms such as “extremist” or “radical” are not capable of being defined with sufficient precision ….

    In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new “prevent” duty is not appropriate for application to universities.

    … …”

  • Tsar Nicolas 13th Jan '15 - 8:15am

    You are all wrong – we must give up our freedom for the sake of our liberty.

  • Secret police to start “Kettling” ???

    ”   Mr Clegg said he agreed it was right for the agencies to have power to access the internet communications of terror suspects and that Britain retained the right to “steam open letters” of those considered a threat.  ”

    From the Sky News website.
    http://news.sky.com/story/1406944/clegg-condemns-pms-internet-spying-plans

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