Terrorism suspects who have not been convicted of any offence face expanded and potentially never-ending measures to control their lives under proposed counter-terrorism laws unveiled by the UK government.
Ministers want to weaken the burden of proof for terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims) to be imposed on people suspected of terrorist activityand remove the two-year cap on their use.
Tpims are controversial and resource-heavy measures – usually based on secret intelligence – for controlling the risk presented by terrorism suspects at large where criminal prosecution is not an option.
Civil liberties campaigners said the changes posed “a threat to fundamental pillars of our justice system”. The Home Office said the proposals “support the use” of Tpims, which would continue to be used only when “necessary and proportionate”, but would not comment on whether the proposals would lead to an increase in their use.
The changes to Tpims come under the counter-terrorism and sentencing bill, which includes a new “serious terrorism sentence” with a 14-year minimum jail term and up to 25 years on licence for the most dangerous offences, broadly defined as featuring a likelihood of multiple deaths.
The bill scraps the statutory deadline for the independent review of Prevent, the government’s divisive anti-radicalisation programme, in a move likely to anger human rights campaigners.
And the legislation will allow judges to consider if any serious offence is terror-related, such as an offence involving firearms where there is a proven terrorist link, and allow tougher sentences to be imposed.
The legislation builds on the response to terrorist attacks in the last 12 months – at Fishmongers’ Hall in the City of London and Streatham High Road in the south-west of the capital – which led to the ending of automatic release at the midway point of a term for terrorist offenders jailed under standard determinate sentences.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “The shocking attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall and Streatham revealed serious flaws in the way terrorist offenders are dealt with. We promised to act and today we are delivering on that promise. Those who senselessly seek to damage and destroy lives need to know we will do whatever it takes to stop them.”
As well as lowering the standard of proof for suspected terrorist activity from “balance of probabilities” to “reasonable grounds”, the bill will introduce additional measures that can be used to control subjects.
There are already 14 measures that can be imposed, including overnight residence requirements, relocation to another part of the UK, police reporting, an electronic monitoring tag, exclusion from specific places, limits on association, limits on the use of financial services, and use of telephones and computers, and a ban on holding travel documents.
New measures may include requirements for mandatory drug-testing and attendance of drug-treatment programmes, as well as accounting for all electronic devices in a household, not just their own.
Breach of any Tpim measure is a criminal offence and can be punished with a prison term. The maximum length for which a Tpim can be imposed is currently two years but the bill will remove this limit so it can be renewed indefinitely.
Jonathan Hall QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said he was uncomfortable with the “big changes” to Tpims.
“I think what parliament will want to consider is: what is the operational case for these changes?” he said. “I’m going to release some technical analysis of the changes over the coming days, but overall, I am uncomfortable with getting rid of protections for individual rights that don’t appear to have caused any real problems for the authorities to date.”
Rosalind Comyn, Liberty’s policy and campaigns officer, said the proposed changes to Tpims would see the return in all but name of control orders, the more restrictive predecessor that was abolished by the coalition government.
She said: “Control orders allow people to be placed on indefinite house arrest without trial and this can happen based on suspicion rather than charges, evidence and proof. Control orders were abolished by the coalition government as a stain on our human rights record and that’s where they should remain.
“This bill also threatens our safety. Without an evidence-based approach, the government is failing to address the root causes of these incidents and therefore failing to stop them. The fact this bill is being issued during a pandemic, when parliament is not operating at full capacity or able to deliver normal levels of scrutiny, should be a cause of concern for all who care about the future of our democracy and justice.”
The legislation will end early release for terrorism offenders who receive a specific type of jail term, known as an extended determinate sentence, where the maximum penalty was life, and force them to serve their whole term in jail.
The bill will also increase the maximum penalty from 10 to 14 years for a number of terror offences, including membership of a proscribed organisation, supporting a proscribed organisation and attending a place used for terrorist training.
Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal expert, said: “It was never right to drastically curtail people’s liberty on the basis of secret, untested evidence using control orders or Tpims – and we seem to be diving headlong into that territory where the standard of proof is extremely flimsy and people’s liberties can be curtailed on an indefinite basis.
“Rushing this bill out while parliament is still operating under Covid-19 constraints suggests the government could be trying to minimise scrutiny for significant legal changes. We’ll scrutinise the bill in full as soon as possible, and we’ll be urging the government to adhere to the tried and tested principle that people reasonably suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activities should – if the evidence is there – be prosecuted in a court of law.”