Legal debate series: “Do our laws keep London safe from terror?”

The Thomson Reuters legal debate series, featured a distinguished panel debating the motion “Do our laws keep London safe from terror?”.

Supporting the motion were Adam Wagner, a barrister and author of Human Rights Blog, and Diane Abbott MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Against the motion were Lord Blair, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and Jonathan Swift QC.

The debate began with a pre-vote that revealed the YES side to be in the lead (37%) over the NO side (29%). With at least a third of the votes undecided, there was plenty to play for.

The first speaker was Adam Wagner for the YES side, who addressed the general balance between liberty and security and the rule of law. He referred to seven key decisions that have sought to challenge the boundaries of liberty, including the powers to stop and search individuals and the power to detain those suspected of terrorism pre-charge. He concluded by stating that freedom means more than simply physical security.

Lord Blair, opening the case for NO, made the case that the current laws used by those investigating terrorism, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), was simply out of date, and reforms outlined in the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill were a necessary move with the times when communication is undertaken through encrypted digital channels rather than by telephone. He concluded with the robust assertion that anyone believing that no changes were needed was either complacent or unrealistically idealistic.

Diane Abbott’s contributions were based on her twenty-eight years in Parliament, witnessing numerous debates on additional counter-terrorist measures and those proclaiming that members refusing to support ever more draconian measures were “soft on terrorism”. Ms Abbott suggested that ever more draconian measures to tackle terrorism were actually counterproductive, and that those associated with ISIS abroad and prepared to act as suicide bombers would not be deterred by harsher criminal penalties or UK laws. The central theme was that terrorism was better tackled by examining the root causes, rather than extending the criminal law.

Finally, Jonathan Swift QC accepted that in a liberal democratic society, the laws used to counter terrorism would never keep London entirely safe, but that it was entirely possible to reform existing legislation without moving towards a totalitarian state. Mr Swift provided a number of examples of courts enacting legislation while protecting civil liberties, and ended by quoting David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism’s comments regarding the ineffectiveness of RIPA.

Some helpful contributions were made from the floor. The YES side were asked whether they considered RIPA to be fit for purpose. The NO side were asked whether, given the UK has seen very limited terrorist activity since July 2005, the existing laws were good enough.

After some brief concluding remarks, the second vote was cast. In a drastic turnaround, 25% supported YES, 63% no with 11% undecided.

All parties made an excellent contribution to the debate. The result perhaps reflects the YES side simply did not counter the arguments put forward regarding the need to reform RIPA, and that the central theme of their argument, new laws could be an excessive infringement on civil liberties, was accepted by the NO side, who agreed new laws must come with appropriate scrutiny. For further information on RIPA, see Practice note, RIPA: intercepting communications data and RIPA: surveillance. For information on the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill see detailed analysis.

Missing from the debate was any consideration of the current legislation used to prosecute those suspected of terrorist offences in the UK. The YES side may have built a strong argument around the multitude of different laws in this area, and the limited effect to which they have been used. For further information see practice notes, Terrorist financing offences: reporting requirements and offences.

Neither did the debate consider the  powers the UK have to extradite those charged with terrorist offences. The European Arrest Warrant system under Part one of the Extradition Act 2003 has significantly sped up the extradition process and entrenched cross border collaboration to deal with terrorists . An example of how the extradition process works effectively with maximum co -operation was in the case of Hussain Osman, one of the 21 July 2005 London bombers. A European arrest warrant was issued for his extradition to the UK. He was arrested in Rome a few days later and returned to the UK in 56 days. He was prosecuted and sentenced to 40 year’s imprisonment. Contrast this with the position before EAW when the UK authorities were dependant on bi-lateral extradition conventions. The return from the UK to France of Rachid Ramda for his part in the 1995 Paris metro bombings took nearly 10 years.

For more information see the Extradition topic in TR Practical Law Business Crime and Investigations.

Practical Law David Bacon

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