Q&A: The UK's controversial draft counter-terrorism laws

Marwan Sultan in London , Sunday 1 Feb 2015

Ahram Online answers the most frequently asked questions about the UK government's controversial draft anti-terrorism bill that soon could become law

File photo of Prime Minister David Cameron (Photo:Reuters)

The United Kingdom has witnessed heated debate in recent months on the best ways to fight extremism, radicalisation and terrorism and how to strike a balance between civil liberties and maintaining national security and protecting the British public from terror threats.

At the end of 2014, the UK government has vowed to give the police and security services new powers to protect the country from terror. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May proposed new draft Law —  the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014.

On 26 November 2014, May introduced the bill to parliament.

Why does the UK need these laws now?

The UK government says the police and intelligence services need more robust powers to tackle terror and extremism-related activities as soon as possible.

The home secretary argues that security services will not able to carry their duties in fighting terrorism without the proposed powers.

She asserted that three serious terrorist plots were disrupted in recent months alone, adding that terrorists could attack the UK without warning. 

How would the bill help the security services?

The bill affords the police and intelligence services powers to: make it more difficult for people to travel abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups; enhance controls if terror suspects attempt to return to the UK; enhance the ability to monitor and control the actions and communications of those believed to pose a threat; and combat ideology that feeds, supports and sanctions terrorism.

Is there common agreement among political parties in parliament on the text of the bill?

No. The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the current coalition government, opposes and seeks major amendments to the bill. The Labour Party, in opposition, warns the powers outlined in the bill would not stand in court. Human right groups have called the bill draconian and against liberties.

What are the most controversial powers the bill introduces?

The main powers include:

— Seizing passports for up to 14 days, without a court order, from individuals the police think are involved in terrorism, to stop them from travelling.

— Deny British citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism or related activities the right to return from abroad, as part of what the Home Office calls Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEO).

— Enforcing communication service providers to retain and provide data about communications by phone and social media.

— Making to a duty for a range of bodies, such as universities, mosques and schools, to cooperate with authorities by reporting suspected extremists and preventing people from being drawn into extremism.

If it became a law, would the bill give the home secretary the unprecedented right to cancel passports?

According to the British Nationality Act, the home secretary can already use the Royal Prerogative to revoke the citizenship of any British subject for security reasons.

According to Home Office records, between May 2010 to April 2013, the home secretary revoked the citizenship, refused passports or cancelled passports of 56 people “because their activities were not conducive to the public good" and included involvement in "terrorist activities.”

May said such steps managed to “disrupt the travel of people planning to engage in terrorist-related activity overseas.” 

How does the Independent Terrorism Legislation Reviewer see the bill?

The Independent Terrorism Legislation Reviewer, David Anderson, argues TEOs are against the law. He is concerned about the absence of judicial scrutiny. “Where are the courts in all this?" he has asked.

Anderson insists that a court order should be issued prior to stopping any British citizen returning to the UK.

What guarantees is the government offering in dealing with concerns over the bill?

The government points out the bill would create a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to support the statutory duties of the Independent Terrorism Legislation Reviewer.

The suggested board will be chaired by the Independent Reviewer. One of its main tasks is to provide assurances to the public about current counter-terrorism arrangements, including ensuring that legislation and policies have due regard for civil liberties and privacy concerns in the face of threats to the UK.

The Home Office also hinted at considering any “constructive” ideas and suggestions, meaning changes to the bill are possible.

Why is the Muslim community more concerned than others?

Muslims, and others, argue that the bill will significantly curtail civil rights.

Although the bill does not use the term “Islamic terrorism,” which is widely used by the British government and media, the Muslim community feels strongly targeted.

Muslim activists fear that mosques, religious schools and social and health services will be obliged to monitor, detect and report any potential extremists to the police.

As there is no crystal clear legal definition of extremism, Muslim activists are concerned the bill, if it becomes law, will be misused to violate Muslim rights.

They argue whether it is in mosques, education bodies or charities, the perception is that all aspects of Muslim life must undergo a "prevent/compliance" test to prove Muslim loyalty to the UK.

Some Muslim activists warn that the bill will add to the climate of fear and victimisation within the Muslim community, further weakening trust with public authorities.

Activists say there should be extensive consultations with communities impacted by the bill, which they say is being used for election purposes.

Who else is concerned about the text of the bill?

Universities express fears they might not be able to perform their new duties properly.  

The bill says the home secretary will issue statutory guidance that universities would need to follow in fulfilling the duty of cooperation on fighting extremism and extremist ideas.

Universities UK, which represents universities all over the country, is concerned at the lack of scrutiny and oversight of the powers given to the home secretary.

According to education laws, universities have a duty and mission to promote freedom of speech and academic freedom, including a legal duty to ensure that the use of university premises is not denied to any person or group on the basis of their "beliefs or views."

University professors warn there will not be freedom of thought on campuses if the bill is passed in its present form.  

What stage did the bill reach in parliament?

After two readings in the House of Lords, it reached the report stage in the House where members are further examining the text, where possible amendments are debated, and votes take place to decide whether to make any changes.

It was first introduced to the House of Commons where it has been through five readings before it was sent to the House of Lords. There is still one more stage in the House before MPs and Lords agree on a final text prior to sending it to the Queen to approve it as law. 

When is the bill expected to become law?

There is no obligatory timeframe. The government is seeking to pass the bill as soon as possible, saying time is of the essence in spotting terrorism and preventing it.

However, parliament scrutiny could take several more weeks, given the controversy and heated exchanges ongoing between ministers and opponents and human rights groups.

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