UK Government Proposes Updates, Reforms to Counterterrorism Policies

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February 15, 2011

Parts of a bill proposed by the United Kingdom’s (UK) coalition government on Feb. 11, 2011 would reform counterterrorism measures and increase judicial review of government surveillance practices. The Protection of Freedoms Bill was introduced after an 18 month review of the UK’s counterterrorism policy found that certain laws passed after 9/11 and the London bomb attacks were excessive and violated civil liberties. The bill's drafters rejected proposals that would have allowed banning organizations based on their ideology. The bill is in the early stages of the UK legislative process and is not expected to receive a vote in the House of Commons until late 2011 or early 2012. 

Introducing the bill before the House of Commons, UK Home Secretary Theresa May said, "The first duty of the state is the protection of its citizens, but this should never be an excuse for the government to intrude into people’s private lives.” 

Some of the proposed changes in the bill are the result of several key findings from a review of the UK anti-terror laws.  Beginning in July 2010, the review considered six key elements of UK counterterrorism policy, including control orders, long pre-charge detention, police powers to stop and search people without suspicion of wrongdoing, and the deportation of foreign terrorism suspects. The head of the review and former UK director of public prosecution, Lord Macdonald, said that "traditional ideals" had been lost in pursuit of reducing the threats of terrorism, and a balance had to be drawn between security and freedom. "It's always been of critical importance,” MacDonald said, “that we don't, in trying to respond to these threats, give up the things that the terrorists would like to take from us.”


Proposed changes to UK counterterrorism measures include:

  • Eliminating the “Section 44” powers that permit law enforcement to stop and search people without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 2010 that “Section 44” powers breached the European Convention on Human Rights.  (Current US law does not require a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before law enforcement may begin an investigation- see here for more information.) 
  • Reducing the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects from 28 to 14 days.
  • Permitting citizens to apply for judicial review if they believe the closed circuit TV cameras located around the city are being used inappropriately.
  • Scaling back the vetting, monitoring, collection and indefinite storage of personal information of over nine million people who wished to work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults . A February 2011 report from the UK Home Office determined that these procedures were “disproportionate” and recommended significant reforms.
  • Additionally, the rules governing the actions and movements of terrorism suspects, called control orders, would be replaced by a new series of procedures called “terrorist, prevention and investigation measures.”  Control orders place terrorism suspects under close supervision that some say is similar to house arrest. Proposed changes include shorter curfews and ending the practice of relocating suspects far from their homes and families. Restrictions would be imposed for a maximum of two years, and the imposition of a new order after that time would require new evidence. Since 2005, at least 48 people in the UK had subject to control orders.

"Today's changes on stop and search and pre-charge detention are a step forward," said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "But overall the government has missed an opportunity for bolder reform to end abusive policies that have tarnished the UK's reputation at home and abroad," he added. 

The BBC reported that the review rejected a campaign proposal by the Conservative party to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which it accused of being part of a so-called ideological "conveyor belt" of terrorism. The proposal would have allowed the government to ban groups found to espouse hatred or violence. The BBC said the "government says it will not extend the definition of terrorism to make it easier to do so because that would interfere with freedom of speech." HT has advocated for an Islamic state in Muslim countries, but denies links to terrorism. Reportedly, Tony Blair tried to shut them down while he was Prime Minister but "was told it was not possible because it hadn't done anything wrong."

For more about the process of drafting new laws and getting them through the UK Parliament, click here.