Monday, 5 June 2017

Responding to terrorist attacks

Terrorist crimes in Manchester (May 2017) and London (June 2017) prompted the Prime Minister to make this statement in which Mrs May said: "We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are. Things need to change, and they need to change in 4 important ways."

1.  The attacks were 'bound together by the single, evil ideology of Islamist extremism that preaches hatred, sows division, and promotes sectarianism. It is an ideology that claims our Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are incompatible with the religion of Islam. It is an ideology that is a perversion of Islam and a perversion of the truth.

this ideology is one of the great challenges of our time. But it cannot be defeated through military intervention alone. It will not be defeated through the maintenance of a permanent, defensive counter-terrorism operation, however skilful its leaders and practitioners. It will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence – and make them understand that our values – pluralistic, British values – are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.'

2.   Second, we cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet – and the big companies that provide internet-based services – provide. We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.  [My emphasis]

3.  While we need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online, we must not forget about the safe spaces that continue to exist in the real world. Yes, that means taking military action to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But it also means taking action here at home. While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.

4.  We have a robust counter-terrorism strategy that has proved successful over many years. But as the nature of the threat we face becomes more complex, more fragmented, more hidden, especially online, the strategy needs to keep up. So in light of what we are learning about the changing threat, we need to review Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need.  And if we need to increase the length of custodial sentences for terrorism-related offences, even apparently less serious offences, that is what we will do.'


The Prime Minister's statement indicates certain specific areas for possible future action - Cyberspace regulation - Counter terrorism strategy review - Custodial sentences. In the wake of these appalling events it is only natural that government will seek to review policies and legal powers but there is always the risk of rushing to increase State powers possibly at the risk of loss of liberty for the majority and we need to remember that the UK has a very extensive array of laws touching upon terrorism in all its forms.  In this recent post I listed some of the Acts of Parliament in this area.  More and more laws are not necessarily an answer to this major problem.

Barrister Adam Wagner has commented - Rights Information 5th June - that:

' is hardest to talk about civil rights after an atrocity. To many people it feels beside the point, or even part of the problem. People are in no mood for “niceties”, for giving terrorists the liberties which they seem hell bent on destroying.

These are the danger times. Human rights, civil liberties – whatever you want to call them – are designed for times like this. They are a moral check list. An insurance policy against our worst natures. Because at times like this, when the world is fearful and trust is in short supply, we need to remember that our judgment in the better times was sound.

None of this points to a particular policy response. I do not claim to know the answer to exactly how many police we need in city centres, how many should carry weapons or what levels of online surveillance is too much. But human rights have a lot to offer in this conversation. Not least because as lucid as we feel after a terrorist attack, the policy responses which emerge from the aftermath may simply be wrong.'

Pre charge detention:

The Terrorism Act 2000 section 41 permits detention without charge for up to a maximum of  14 days.  The time limit was 28 days until it was reduced on 25th January 2011.  This would appear to be a likely candidate for review and possibly a return to a longer period.  Official statistics for Financial Year 2014-15 about the Operation of Police Powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation are available - HERE.   These show that, in that year, 61 individuals were detained under section 41 of which 29 were charged and the others released.

Government policy on the detention without charge time limit has been controversial and the history of this is summarised at House of Commons 16th March 2012 - Pre Charge Detention in Terrorist Cases

Although civil liberties concerns have been raised about the time limit - e.g. see Liberty - it is probably fair to say that the general public would now be content to see the limit increased.  Liberty has the concern that - 'Extended detention without charge flies in the face of our basic democratic principles of justice, fairness and liberty. Unjustifiable and unnecessary, it is also counterproductive in practice, alienating innocent people, their families and communities.'

It is highly debatable whether the power is 'unjustifiable and unnecessary' and it is important to note that the 14 day is a limit and that the Terrorism Act 2000 (Schedule 8)  imposes safeguards such as detention reviews and the need for specified grounds to justify on-going detention.


Mrs May referred to increasing maximum sentences for terrorism related offences.   These can already carry heavy sentences such as a maximum of 15 years imprisonment for possession of an article for terrorism purposes - Terrorism Act 2000 section 57.   The fact that this offence is either-way (i.e. triable either at Crown Court or in the Magistrates' Court) is possibly a point for any review to consider.

A further example is Terrorism Act 2000 section 54 where the maximum sentence for providing instruction or training in the making of firearms etc. is 10 years imprisonment.  It is surprising that this maximum is less than that under section 57.  The section 54 offence is also either-way.

There is surely a case for review of the sentence maxima and venue for trial.

The Harris Review - October 2016:

Lord Toby Harris conducted an Independent Review of London's Preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident.  His report is HERE.  The report was commissioned by the Mayor of London on 27th May 2016 and there are 127 recommendations.  The recommendations required many bodies to take action including bodies not within the Mayor's remit.

This article in Policinginsight considered the report.

Investigatory powers:

With regard to legal powers and the internet it is worth reading in full the report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation - Bulk Powers Review - August 2016.   This Report evaluates the operational case for four of the powers in what became the Investigatory Powers Act 2016: bulk interception, bulk acquisition, bulk equipment interference and bulk personal datasets. These powers can be used only by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.  It provides a full introduction to each of the powers (chapter 2) and notes the generally favourable conclusions of those security-cleared persons who have in the past commented on their utility (chapter 3). The security-cleared Review team comprised technical, investigatory and legal experts. We consulted widely. Each member of the Review team authorises me to say that they are in agreement with the conclusions of this Report and with my recommendation (1.28-1.55).  The Review applied itself in particular (chapter 4) to some 60 detailed case studies provided by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, together with associated intelligence reports.

The report's author - Mr David Anderson QC - said on Twitter:

The Investigatory Powers Bill received Royal Assent in November 2016 and is now the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

The Independent Reviewer's reports on the Terrorism Acts are available HERE


The Independent 5th June 2017 - A new Snooper's Charter won't prevent another terror attack - but a dedicated online police force might


Calm and wise voices urge restraint and avoidance of knee-jerk reactions.  That is sensible but it is also sensible and wise that the incoming government, irrespective of political persuasion, takes stock of the situation.  Beneficial changes are possible including ensuring that recommendations from well-considered reports are addressed. 

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