Following the news last week that the government has raised the terror threat level to “extreme”, David Cameron is expected to set out in the Commons how the government plans to widen anti-terror legislation, as parliament returns after recess today.
As conflict in Iraq and Syria builds, there is a mounting concern in the UK about those British nationals who are travelling overseas to join the jihadists, who may then return and pose a direct terror threat to the UK. Cameron is to speak specifically about how best to deal with British national jihadists either travelling to or returning from these zones. He promises to close what he sees as “gaps in our armoury” when it comes to anti-terror laws.
However, it won’t be that simple for Cameron. Although a matter that is clearly of highest priority to the government – whether it’s a “knee-jerk reaction”, as Paddy Ashdown and others have called it, just to look like it’s doing something, or a genuinely necessary response to a very real threat – it has become a subject of coalition contention.
The Lib Dems have clashed with the Tories over the latter’s wishes for expanding existing anti-terror legislation. It is reported that the Conservatives in government want to introduce new measures to seize passports, and also impose temporary bans on fighters travelling back from foreign conflicts. Under these new proposals, if a Briton was thought to have been involved in terrorism abroad, they could be prevented from returning to the UK for some time, although allowed to retain British citizenship, according to the BBC.
However, the Lib Dems – including high-profile figures who have been heavily involved in foreign policy in the past, such as former leader Paddy Ashdown, and current MP and former leader Ming Campbell – are concerned about the legality of these measures. Nick Clegg has been locked in talks with Cameron over the weekend, regarding the government’s response to the terror threat unfolding in light of intensifying terror acts by Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).
Also, UN conventions on statelessness mean that the government could be breaking international law with such measures as stripping people’s passports, and denying them access to Britain. Tory MP and barrister Edward Garnier warned the Today programme this morning that, “parliament can pass any law it likes, but the government is already bound by two UN conventions on statelessness.”
Clegg and the Lib Dems are concerned about the encroachment on civil liberties of the Tories’ proposals, and also warn about the potential illegality of rendering citizens stateless, even if done so temporarily. The Lib Dems have been accused of putting a brake on the government’s action against terrorism, although Tory Defence Secretary Michael Fallon denied this, and the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and Labour MP Hazel Blears called on the Deputy Prime Minister to “get off this kind of high horse that he’s on” and drop his opposition to the controversial control orders.
Indeed, Labour, at odds with the caution of the Lib Dems, has been calling for the return of powers allowing authorities to put jihadists under close surveillance and enabling them to force jihadists to move away from their homes if necessary, placing restrictions on their movements.
The Prime Minister will address the Commons later today, laying out the government’s plans, but his talks with the Lib Dems are likely to continue this morning, revealing the last-minute nature of the agreement over new anti-terror measures, and also hinting that the new plan will be watered down from that which the Tories were initially hoping for.