UK Prime Minister David Cameron unveils new counter-terrorism measures

Citing the threat posed by the “creation of an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the Islamist-extremist export of terrorism on which it is based,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled new counter-terrorism measures in a statement to the House of Commons yesterday [full statement]. The statement follows last week’s announcement that the threat level in the United Kingdom has been increased from “substantial” to “severe” for the first time in three years.

Cameron outlined two “key areas” to strengthen security: (1) preventing suspects from travelling to Syria and Iraq; and (2) “dealing decisively with those already here who pose a risk.”

On the first issue, Cameron introduced his proposals by stating that passports are “not an automatic right.” Instead, the government intends to introduce “specific and targeted legislation providing the police with a temporary power to seize a passport at the border” in order to prevent people from travelling to take part in terrorist-related activity. Additionally, the government will “work up proposals” for a “targeted, discretionary power to allow us to exclude British nationals from the UK,” in order to prevent foreign fighters who pose a threat to the country from returning to the UK.

On the second point, the Prime Minister announced that the government will introduce new powers to add to the existing terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs), “including stronger locational constraints on suspects under TPIMs.” [The TPIMs framework allows restrictions to be imposed on individuals whom the Home Secretary reasonably believes to be engaged in terrorism-related activity, but whom it is not practicable to prosecute or deport. Introduced in 2011, TPIMs have been controversial as they impose intrusive restrictions on unconvicted persons.]

Cameron’s proposals are worrying for several reasons, and have come under attack from civil liberties and human rights groups [see here, for example].

In an interview this morning with BBC Radio 4 Today (audio below), the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, voiced his concerns in relation to the measures. On the granting of powers to the police, Anderson said: “when you give these very strong powers to very large numbers of people – in this case the police – I think you have to be very very careful about safeguards.” Anderson also highlighted the numerous legal and practical difficulties with the government’s position on excluding citizens from the country. In particular, he pointed out the problems if all states began to refuse to admit their nationals. However, on the TPIMs proposal, Anderson suggested that this was not problematic. Anderson stressed that TPIMs would retain their two-year limit, unlike the controversial control orders scheme (which preceded TPIMs) which rolled over year after year.

A final aspect of the speech that I wish to highlight is Cameron’s direct threat to the courts over the Home Secretary’s discretion to revoke passports (which is exercised under the archaic “royal prerogative powers”). In relation to legal challenges to the government’s use of royal prerogative powers, Cameron said:

“I want to be clear: if there is any judgment that threatens the operation of our existing powers, we will introduce primary legislation immediately so that Parliament, not the courts, can determine whether it is right that we have this power. I can announce today that we will start preparing the primary legislation and consult Parliament on the draft clauses.”

A message to the independent judiciary, in such clear terms, on how certain cases should be decided appears to reveal exactly the kind of “knee-jerk reaction” on part of the government, which Cameron’s speech acknowledges would “ultimately be ineffective.”

While there is reason to worry at this stage, the full implications of the new counter-terrorism measures can only be properly assessed when we have more details from the government, which has thus far promised “appropriate safeguards” and compliance with the UK’s international obligations.

You can listen to David Anderson’s (6-minute) BBC interview here:

 

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Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).