The UK has recently been the target of a number of heinous terrorist acts which have elevated terrorism to centre stage in the public and electoral discourse.
The causes of terrorism and the solutions to it are multi-faceted and complex. Understandably, terrorism dominates political debate given its aims of spreading fear and coercing the peaceful political process through brutal violence.
The proliferation of such acts inevitably lead to reactionary political statements such as Theresa May’s ‘enough is enough’ pronouncement and culminates in calls for tougher anti-terrorism laws. It is indisputable that something needs to be done to prevent the occurrence of terror acts, but ‘tougher’ anti-terror laws are not the answer.
Why No More Laws Are Needed
The reasoning behind support for a more extensive and rigorous counter-terrorism legal framework is fallacious given that the UK has enacted a plethora of anti-terrorism legislation since 2000 giving state authorities far-reaching powers.
Much of this legislation comprises many broad and vague provisions which are designed to enable early intervention by authorities despite them sitting uncomfortably with well-established criminal law principles such as legal certainty.
For example, under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Secretary of State has a power to exclude potential suspects who’ve been involved in terrorism abroad from returning to the UK for two years. However, this power has only been used once, which gives rise to the question why the Secretary of State is not making more use of the extensive powers she already has.
Since 2000, the UK Parliament has passed the Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.
In addition, the UK has also created a multitude of secondary legislation extending counter-terrorism powers. As the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill QC rightly points out, ‘Parliament has added an abundance of modern provisions’. ‘Those who keep us safe…need resources – rather than yet more law – to do the job.’
Although terrorism itself is not a crime like murder and theft are, there exist many ‘tough’ and controversial terrorist offences that give wide discretionary powers to police and special officers to catch potential terrorists.
For instance, under s.58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, ‘a person commits an offence if he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.
There is no need for there to be a terrorist intention behind the possession of such information which in essence makes it a strict liability offence. The breadth of this offence is so vast that, when read according to the ordinary meaning of the language, the offence can potentially catch an engineer who possesses a map of the London Underground within its scope as this information is ‘likely to be useful’ to a terrorist.
Under the Terrorism Act 2006, there is a speech offence of ‘encouragement of terrorism’ which includes both direct and indirect encouragement. The vague nature of ‘encouragement’ can encompass statements made in criticism of oppressive foreign regimes and creates considerable tension with the right to free speech.
In any case, whether one agrees with the breadth of these offences is irrelevant. The point is that the UK has enough legislation and police and other state authorities have the necessary powers to deal with terrorism. Whether they have the competence and the resources to use these powers effectively is another question.
Where Should the UK Go from here?
Aside from suggestions of creating new terror offences, the Human Rights Act has once more gained political traction. Given that some of the counter-terrorism powers in the UK give rise, in certain situations, to tensions with various rights under the European Convention, the Prime Minister has recently expressed her support for a repeal of the Human Rights Act in the belief that human rights impede action on terror.
This belief must be questioned. It does not necessarily follow that scrapping the Human Rights Act will result in increased security and, in fact, may have the opposite effect of exacerbating division and hatred if people of a particular religious faith are disproportionately targeted.
Whether eroding the UK’s individual protections from excessive state power and abuse is a prudent course of action to take is a matter for another debate.