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Theresa May wants to change human rights laws – but can she succeed where Tony Blair failed?

Theresa May isn't the first prime minister to make knee-jerk anti-terror pledges.

By Katherine fidler

Just a little over 36 hours before the polls opened, Theresa May announced one final policy proposal to woo voters.

If human rights laws prevent the government from effectively controlling or deporting terrorists, she will change them. Well, that’s all those Ukip supporters in the bag.

The announcement followed days of pressure on the Prime Minister in the wake of eight deaths in London Bridge during Britain’s third terrorist attack in as many months, after which May’s record of cutting police services was firmly in the spotlight.

Such a radical stance, abhorrent to many, is sadly unsurprising in the current political climate. It will not, however, go unopposed.

Martha Spurrier, director of civil rights group Liberty, said: “If Theresa May does what she threatens, she will go down in history as the prime minister who handed terrorists their greatest victory. For cheap political points and headlines, she is willing to undermine our democracy, our freedom and our rights – the very things these violent murderers seek to attack.”

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This is not the first time snap anti-terrorism policies have been drafted following mass murders in the capital – but such reactionary proposals often meet with a more reasoned response in parliament. 

In November 2005, Tony Blair suffered his first defeat in the Commons when a new terror bill allowing police to detain suspects for up to 90 days without charge was voted down 291 to 322 – including by the 49 Labour MPs who passed through the no lobby. Minutes later, a rebel Labour amendment reducing the period to 28 days passed 323 to 290.

Among those voting against the initial bill was Conservative MP David Davis, then shadow home secretary, and now Brexit secretary. Davis has long campaigned for civil liberties, with a particular focus on state surveillance.

Speaking after the 2005 vote he said: “I am delighted we have shown Tony Blair that there are limits to what he can do. This is a victory for parliament and for Britain’s freedoms.”

The bill was a key element of Blair’s anti-terror strategy formed in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, after which he said: “Let no one be in doubt. The rules of the game have changed.” It included a 12-point plan which, although not as obvious a knee-jerk reaction as May’s but unveiled just weeks after the atrocities, was described by some critics as having been written “on the back of a fag packet”. Not only that, but he also raised the possibility of amending the Human Rights Act should legal obstacles arise in relation to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, how have Blair’s quick-fire proposals stood the test of time?

1. New grounds for deporting undesirables, closing bookshops; negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with countries to take deportees from the UK, and the introduction of non-suspensive appeals

A handful of MOUs were implemented in the wake of 7/7. There appears to be no evidence of bookshops of concern having been closed down under the legislation.

2. To create offence of condoning or glorifying terrorism, here and abroad

This was signed into legislation under the Terrorism Act 2006 – in 2014, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said roughly two fifths of 338 terror-related arrests in 2014/15 were for offences such as glorifying terrorism or preparation for terrorist acts.

However, it was not universally approved. On the day the 2006 Act came into force, Jeremy Corbyn, then a Labour backbencher, said: “The legislation is misguided and the whole concept of glorification is frankly absurd and will end up entrapping the innocent and preventing legitimate debate.

“What some would call a freedom fight going on in another country others might term a terrorist offence.

“Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher; he was later branded a freedom fighter.”

David Davis added: “We welcome much of what is in this act but have concerns about the glorification of terror offence.”

3. To refuse asylum automatically to anyone who has participated in terrorism anywhere

This was not included in the 2006 Act, but a provision was made in the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill. 

4. To consult on powers to strip citizenship, applying them to UK citizens and making procedures simpler and more effective

This was again covered by an amendment to the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill. Tens of UK citizens have been stripped of their nationality, with the move by Theresa May (as home secretary) being upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

5. Maximum time limit of future extradition cases involving terror suspects

No time limit has ever been set.

6. New court procedures to allow sensitive intelligence to be presented

Came into force as part of the Justice and Security Act 2013, but was subject to intense debate and scrutiny. Proponents of the bill argued that it would allow justice in cases that could not at that time be heard in full, and assured that nothing currently public would be hidden in the future.

However, opponents feared that “secret justice” could not constitute a fair trial, and it would damage public confidence in the system – which, they argued, was not currently broken. There was also concern it would allow evidence of torture to be withheld. 

7. To extend the use of control orders for those who are British nationals and cannot be deported

The extension was initially implemented, but control orders, introduced in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, remained a contentious issue – those subject to the orders were prevented from using mobile phones and public transport, loss of their passport and were prevented from crossing a boundary set around their home, among other restrictions. In 2006 the High Court overturned control orders imposed on six individuals on the grounds they were in breach of their human rights – almost half the number of orders in place at that time. 

During the Coalition, control orders were abolished and replaced with the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act, which imposed “Tpims” – restrictions on individuals that include curfews, electronic tagging,reporting regularly to the police and prevention of travel overseas. They are employed in cases where the officials can neither charge nor deport a terror suspect – each case must be approved by the home secretary. While in the role, Theresa May extended the reach of Tpims to allow relocation of suspects up to 200 miles from their home city. 

In her last-minute announcement on Tuesday, May declared her intention to toughen up Tpims even further, including tightening restrictions on communication.

8. To expand the court capacity necessary to deal with control orders and other related issues. The Lord Chancellor will increase the number of special judges hearing such cases

After a ministerial review, the Home Office stated the number of control orders being issued did not warrant an expansion of the judiciary.

9. To proscribe Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the successor organisation of al-Mujahiroun, and to examine the grounds for proscription to widen them and put forward proposals in new legislation

Blair was forced to shelve the policy when advised such a move could serve as a recruiting agent. It was possible that outlawing the “glorification of terrorism” in point one would provide evidence enough for Hizb-ut-Tahrir to be added to the list, but when an order to the Terrorism Act 2000 was laid before the House of Commons on July 17 2006, it was not among the four groups added to the list. 

10. Set new threshold for British citizenship

Provisions again added in the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill.

11. New powers to close mosques

Dropped in December 2005, after a strong backlash over the indiscriminate association between Islam and terrorism, while also severely limiting citizens’ right to free speech and freedom of worship.

Rob Beckley, then Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman on terrorism, also warned it prove futile to enforce.

12. Securing borders, new visa controls, and biometric visas

The Border and Immigration Agency (BIA), UKvisas and the detection functions of HM Revenue and Customs were merged to create the UK Border Agency in 2008. However, the agency was plagued with controversy – most notably the Brodie Clarke affair, in which the former head of the border force resigned following allegations staff were told to relax some identity checks – allegations he denied. The agency since been replaced by UK Visas and Immigration.

So, a mixed bag. While some of the elements on social liberties were tempered after working their way through the halls of Westminster, Blair’s 12-point plan highlighted the constant tightrope Britain walks in its bid to keep citizens safe through adequate policing without curtailing the freedoms upon which the country is built.

Perhaps one of the most infamous pieces of anti-terror legislation imposed in the wake of an attack is the United States’ Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a bill of just 60 words allowing the president to act against any nation, organisation or person involved in the attacks of 11 September 2001. The act is still in use today, having been implemented in Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

Argument abounds as to whether the power vacuums left by American and British intervention in the Middle East have proven more dangerous than the regimes toppled by their military operations. However, for those who believe the fastest way to a secure the nation is to immediately apprehend or deport the 23,000 suspects currently living in Britain, the AUMF serves as reminder that radical anti-terror policy also has the potential to foster radical pro-terror sentiment.

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