UK – A New School on tackling terrorism

The tide is turning on counter-terrorism laws – but can the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation keep up?

A change has come. Judges know it; they have been gradually dismantling the architecture of Labour’s counter-terrorism measures, and one by one, the verdicts have been damning.

Control orders, imposed on a terrorist suspect where there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ but no known case against them? A violation of the right to a fair trial, the House of Lords said last June

Stop and search powers used under the Terrorism Act to apprehend people where there is suspicion – not necessarily reasonable – that they might have “articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism”? Not in accordance with the law, the European Court of Human Rights held last month, and a violation of the right to privacy.

Freezing orders, which effectively suspend the financial dealings – including the ability to earn a living – of people “deemed” to be involved in terrorism but who have never received any indication of the case against them, let alone a trial? An attempt to adversely affect the basic rights of the citizen without the clear authority of Parliament, the Supreme Court said in January; an excess of executive power.

Defendants know it. There are now only 12 control orders in force, down from 20 last summer. Despite the Home Office case that these were men so dangerous they needed to be kept under house arrest, when it came to producing evidence in court, the government preferred to free them from the order.

Their lawyers are talking about it; noticing a change in the tide, and the end of an era of knee-jerk, draconian counter-terror legislating.

Even the government knows it. Since Jack Straw said last May that he thought the time might be right for a repeal bill to roll back some of the counter-terrorism laws that were no longer “necessary”, there have signs of lessening confidence that the current regime could continue. “There is a case for going through all counter-terrorism legislation and working out whether we need it. It was there for a temporary period,” Straw said. His words were echoed earlier this week by Gordon Brown. Answering questions at the House of Commons liaison committee earlier this week, Gordon Brown acknowledged too the case for reviewing the legislation and repealing any excess.

But the allegation today is that there is one person who is yet to grasp this trend towards change. He has reviewed the above developments and decided that – so far as control orders are concerned – there should be no change.

The allegation is a problematic one because that person is Lord Carlile – the man charged with independently reviewing counter-terrorism measures. His fifth review – released earlier this week — has attracted criticism from the Joint Committee on Human Rights for its conclusion that “the control orders system remains necessary… for a small number of cases where robust information is available to the effect that the suspected individual presents a considerable risk to national security, and conventional prosecution is not realistic.”

The Guardian reported comments by the chair of the Committee, Andrew Dismore, calling Carlile’s independence and credibility into question.

“I think there is a risk of the perceptions of [Carlile’s] independence being undermined, and that then undermines [his] credibility,” Dismore said. “I think there ought to be a fixed term for his job.”

The thing about “the independent reviewer of terrorism” is that it does what it says on the tin. Carlile – who is by no means a stranger to the human rights brigade, as Council member of Justice and president of the Howard League, which campaigns for penal reform – has at times been a vocal critic of the misuse of counter-terrorism laws, recommended their continuation at others.

Carlile criticised the police for misusing counter-terrorism powers with the overzealous use of stop and search, something which the House of Lords failed to find and only the European Court of Human Rights has reflected in its ruling.

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