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Despite changes, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill still endangers free speech

Despite changes, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill still endangers free speech
4 min read

Liberal Democrat Lords Home Affairs spokesperson, former Met Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lord Paddick writes ahead of the final stage of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill in the House of Lords.

Under the cover of Brexit, the Conservatives, aided and abetted by Labour, are continuing to erode human rights in the UK in ways that are counter-productive to our safety and security, and that run the risk of unfairly targeting minorities and endangering Press freedom. The Liberal Democrats, the only party to oppose Brexit, are also the lone voice when it comes to ensuring our freedoms.

Today is the last stage of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill in the House of Lords. Thanks to Liberal Democrat amendments and arguments, we have secured some concessions.

You might not get locked-up for 15 years for clicking once on a website that contains information that may be of use to a terrorist, provided you’re doing academic research or you’re a journalist, for example. These legitimate reasons are now specified in the legislation. But if you click accidentally, or out of curiosity, you might still be arrested and charged before getting a chance to mount your defence.

We have limited the Government’s power to criminalise travelling to certain parts of the world, so that you do not commit the offence if you travel there for one of the reasons specified in the Bill. Sadly, we were unable to similarly limit the other new offences.

So if you say something that could be interpreted as supporting a banned organisation, whether you intended to or not, or if you post a selfie on social media taken in a friend’s house not realising there was an ISIS flag in shot in the background, you commit an offence, no matter whether you did it innocently or accidentally. Only once charged is there a defence of having a reasonable excuse.

This is an important distinction. We have seen recently in the Gatwick drone incident how innocent people can be arrested and detained by the police. If the law says you commit an offence, but might have a defence once charged, it suggests to the police that they do not need to investigate your reasonable excuse before arresting you. If, however, the law says you do not commit an offence if you have a reasonable excuse, the police cannot arrest and detain you if you can prove to them, at the time, that you had a legitimate reason for your actions.

Worse still, you could be arrested for supporting a proscribed organisation, when legally that organisation should not be on the banned-list in the first place.  The former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Anderson, believes that at least a dozen proscribed organisations do not meet the legal requirement for a ban. We supported his attempts to ensure that only organisations that legally qualify for a ban are proscribed, and that the banned-list is regularly reviewed, but were defeated because Labour refused to support the changes.

You can already be stopped, searched, questioned and detained at the border for up to six hours on suspicion of terrorism, even when there is no evidence whatsoever that you might be involved in terrorist activity.  The Bill extends this to suspicion of being involved in “hostile activity”, which includes doing things that are not even illegal.

Indeed, the Government originally wanted “hostile activity” to include anything that “threatens the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”. But, as a result of Liberal Democrat intervention, that has been limited to cases involving national security. If it hadn’t, anyone supporting Brexit could have been detained at the border!

Still, journalists risk having sensitive material examined, copied and retained. But, thanks to cross-party pressure, the Government has now agreed to look at this aspect again and has backed down on not allowing those detained to consult privately with a lawyer. 

Together, the opposition parties have also forced the Government to undertake a completely independent review of the Prevent programme that many believe unfairly targets Muslims, black and other minority ethnic people. We also pressured Ministers to publish the numbers being referred by Prevent, and the numbers being detained at the border, broken down by race and religion, so there is at least more transparency.

Liberal Democrats have forced a number of changes to this Bill, but the fact remains, it endangers free speech, it risks criminalising the innocent and the foolish who have no intention of causing harm, and ramps-up prison sentences yet again, making an overcrowded and ineffective prison system even worse.  

No-one is more committed to making the United Kingdom safe and prosperous, a place where everyone feels welcome. Whether it’s remaining part of the European Union or protecting our freedoms, the Liberal Democrats may be alone but that doesn’t mean we’re not right.

Lord Paddick is a Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson in the House of Lords and a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Met Police

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