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John Vander Luit

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Theresa May 'pretends human rights are the problem' in fight against terrorism

Theresa May 'pretends human rights are the problem' in fight against terrorism


Prime minister's 'dead cat' diversion comes under fire ahead of general election

The prime minister has been accused of using human rights legislation as a political football after she promised to rip up laws that ‘get in the way’ of tackling extremism and terrorism.

Just 36 hours before the polls open for the general election, Theresa May suggested imposing new restrictions on extremists and introducing new powers for the deportation of foreign terror suspects, even when there is not enough evidence to bring a prosecution.

The proposals would strengthen terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs), which replaced Labour’s controversial control orders in 2010.

It has been speculated that the new TPIMs would include further curfews, restrictions on association with other known extremists, control over travel, and limits on access to communication devices.

It has also been suggested that the period for which terror suspects can be held without trial – currently 14 days – could be extended, potentially to 28 days.

Speaking to Conservative supporters at a rally in Slough last night, the prime minister said: ‘In light of the changing and increasingly complex threat, we need to make sure that the police and security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need.

‘I am not going to announce lots of new policies on the hoof a couple of days before the election, but I can tell you a few of the things I mean by that.

‘We should have longer prison sentences for people convicted of terrorist offences. We should make it easier for the authorities to deport foreign terror suspects to their own countries.

‘And we should do even more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court.

‘If our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it. If I am elected as prime minister on Thursday, I can tell you that this vital work begins on Friday.’

The policy shift follows recent terror attacks on Westminster, Manchester, and last Saturday night’s attack on London Bridge and Borough Market which left eight people dead and 48 injured. Fifteen remain in hospital in critical condition.

The prime minister’s critics have used her latest statement to claim she has once again U-turned on a Tory manifesto pledge. The Conservatives had promised that the UK would remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights during the next parliament and that the Human Rights Act would not be repealed during the Brexit process.

‘The right response to the recent attacks is to halt the Conservative cuts and invest in our police and security services and protect our democratic values, including the Human Rights Act,’ said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, while the shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer QC MP, added: ‘Desperate but predictable stuff from weak PM. Instead of serious response, pretends human rights are the problem.’

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Starmer added: ‘There is nothing in the Human Rights Act that gets in the way of effectively tackling terrorism. I can say that with this authority, I was director of public prosecutions for five years.

‘I worked very closely with the security and intelligence services and we prosecuted very serious criminals. The Human Rights Act did not get in the way of what we were doing. This is a diversion.’

Meanwhile, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘We have been here before – a kind of nuclear arms race in terror laws might give the appearance of action, but what the security services lack is not more power, but more resources. And responsibility for that lies squarely with Theresa May.’

The Conservatives have denied any reversal in policy, however. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has since reported: ‘Tory sources say only looking at derogating from aspects of ECHR, rather than pulling out – flatly deny U-turn.’

The government has already pledged to derogate from article 2 of the ECHR to prevent human rights claims against British soldiers in future military situations

Lawyers have been quick to respond to the prime minister’s latest intervention. Robin Murray, a partner at Tuckers Solicitors, commented: ‘Ludicrous further “flip flop” by panicked Tories. Go into the campaign committed to human rights but abandon commitment when exposed on [policing] cuts.’

Former government lawyer Carl Gardner added: ‘British politicians must give up the despairing belief that they can’t live with or influence human rights laws. They can.’

‘Oh look! There’s a dead cat on the table! Human rights are not the issue,’ Matrix Chambers barrister Rachel Logan said. ‘Human rights are a fundamental part of what makes our democracy so strong. They must not be a political football.’

‘And just as I was about to have a break, the Mad King starts shouting “Burn Them All” about human rights law,’ tweeted Preiskel & Co consultant and Financial Times commentator David Allen Green.

‘Human rights law does nothing to limit government dealing with terrorism. But human rights law demonstrates the values that need defending.’

Photo: Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement about the terrorist attack in Westminster on 22 March 2017. Credit: Jay Allen. Copyright: Crown Copyright

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD