Civil Liberties Under Threat: Labour and the Counter-Terrorism Bill

On Tuesday night, with very little fanfare, the Conservative government and Labour opposition voted on the third reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill. The bill came in response to the horrendous terrorist attacks in London and Manchester and sought to ensure that we remain safe and secure whilst giving the security services the powers they need to ensure these tragedies are not repeated. Whilst that is something we must all work to achieve, this legislation does not do enough to balance security and freedom and could have potentially chilling effects on our most basic civil liberties.

In its third reading, the legislation came under scrutiny and criticism, including from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. The committee – which is cross-house and cross-party – determined that “some of these offences risk a disproportionate interference to the right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought and belief, and the right to freedom of expression.” There have also been doubts raised on whether or not the legislation would be accepted under the European Convention on Human Rights, a breach that should concern those of us who continue to campaign for international cooperation on human rights.

Many of the clauses seem entirely open to abuse. Clause 1, for example, changes the offence from “inviting support” for an extremist organisation to simply “recklessly supporting” one. The concept of recklessness is already confused and open to huge levels of subjectivity with regard to physical acts of harm, however there is no legal precedent for reckless speech. This legal loophole opens up all sorts of potentially innocent behaviour to being criminalised.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this legislation is the extra powers given to border security staff. Under Schedule III of this bill, security guards will now be able to stop, question and detain individuals at the border without having to justify their reasoning at any level. To quote the bill, that Conservative and Labour MPs including Bristol West’s Thangam Debbonaire voted for, “An examining officer may exercise the powers under this paragraph whether or not there are grounds for suspecting this person is or has been engaged with hostile activity.”

This not only represents unprecedented powers for our border force, but an inability to hold bad behaviour to account and protect people under the law. How on earth can Thangam Debbonaire, as Chair of the APPG on refugees, not believe that these extra powers will be targeted at vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers?

These powers go beyond anything we’ve seen before. We have never been comfortable giving unrestrained powers to our police and border control team. Not only are they unwanted by the police, they have been decried as unnecessary by counter-terrorism experts.

For me, it was hugely significant that it was the Liberal Democrats in Parliament led the opposition to this bill. Only 10 MPs voted against one of the most significant pieces of legislation this parliament will pass. Like many in Bristol West, I am appalled that our local representative sided with the Tories over the rights and liberties of her constituents

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