"Serious concerns" that new powers in the UK Government's Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill conflict with human rights have been raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in a report published today.
The bill, which is being pushed rapidly through Parliament following a year-long review by the Home Office, is intended to enhance the powers available to counter the ongoing heightened terrorist threat, including by adding or extending a number of criminal offences, targeting modern online behaviour and patterns of radicalisation.
Among other provisions it makes it an offence to express an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organisation while being reckless as to whether this will encourage support for a proscribed organisation (clause 1); criminalises the publication of certain images which would arouse reasonable suspicion that the offender was a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation (clause 2); amends the existing offence of downloading terrorist material and extend it to viewing such material on three or more occasions (clause 3); strengthens the existing offences of encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications (clause 4); and extends extra-territorial jurisdiction over certain offences (clause 5).
It also changes the notification requirements for registered terrorist offenders, and introduces a new police power to enter and search their homes (clauses 11 and 12); and allows local authorities (as well as the police) to refer people who are considered vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism to the multi-agency panels which assess them and provide support (clause 18).
The committee, made up of MPs and peers, is concerned that some of the new powers are too vaguely defined and do not have sufficient safeguards to protect human rights. It concludes, among other points:
• On clause 1, it acknowledges the importance of the power to proscribe organisations but is concerned that criminalising "expressions of support" for proscribed organisations could prevent debate around the Government’s use of this power. Clause 1, at a minimum, should be amended to clarify what expressions of support would or would not be caught by this offence and to ensure that the offence does not risk criminalising debates disproportionately, for example in a way which would prevent someone putting forward a case for why a particular organisation should no longer be proscribed.
• Clause 2 goes too far and also risks violating the right to freedom of expression: it should be deleted or at a minimum amended to safeguard legitimate publications (e.g. for journalists and other legitimate activity which should not be criminalised).
• It believes clause 3 is a breach of the right to receive information, and at the very least should be amended to ensure that it only captures those viewing material with terrorist intent and to clarify the defence of reasonable excuse.
• There need to be greater safeguards for the increased period that the bill gives for the retention of biometric data (such as fingerprints and DNA). The extended periods must be justified, as must the bill's abolition of the oversight of the Biometric Commissioner, which risks violating the right to privacy of persons who have neither been charged nor convicted.
• Powers to stop and search at ports are defined too widely, and could be used to stop people to decide whether they threaten the economic wellbeing of the UK. These powers must be circumscribed and subject to more robust safeguards.
Committee chair Harriet Harman MP commented: "The Government has got an important job to keep us safe from terrorism. But it must also safeguard human rights. The Committee believes that this bill goes too far and will be tabling amendments in both the Commons and the Lords."