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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 17:12 GMT
Head to Head: New Terrorism Act

The new Terrorism Act which came into effect on Monday is proving highly controversial - with critics saying it could lead to thousands more people becoming terrorist suspects.

Here, the Labour MP Ian Cawsey, a member of the Commons home affairs select committee, defends the new Act while John Wadham, director of Liberty, the human rights organisation, outlines his criticism of the legislation.

Ian Cawsey, Labour MP for Brigg and Goole

The Terrorism Act 2000 became law on 19 February 2001 and provides legislation to deliver a modern, permanent, UK wide counter-terrorism framework.

It replaces the current separate, temporary legislation for Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Terrorism is a cowardly and barbaric crime.

The new Act gives new powers to combat the wide-ranging and evolving threats from terrorism, while at the same time it properly ensures that the rights of individuals are preserved.

The main provisions of the Act are:

  • Permanent and UK-wide.

  • The definition of terrorism will apply to all forms of terrorism, not just international terrorism or acts linked to the affairs of Northern Ireland.

  • The police will retain their current powers and have new powers to tackle terrorism financing and to seek the forfeiture of terrorist assets.

  • Police applications for the extension of detention under the terrorist power of arrest will now be considered by a judge rather than by a minister.

  • Northern Ireland may still have additional measures which will remain temporary.

    The government's legislation had its base in the report on the subject undertaken by Lord Lloyd of Berwick in 1996.

    This was supplemented by the 1998 consultation, Legislation Against Terrorism, issued by the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office.

    The Act sets in place an appropriate and effective range of measures, which are proportionate to the reality of the threats that we face and are of practical operational benefit.

    It provides the police and security forces with the necessary powers to deal with terrorism and sends a clear message to terrorists and their supporters that terrorism will not be tolerated.

    It also enables the UK to cooperate more fully in the international fight against terrorism.

    The simple truth is that terrorist organisations are becoming better organised and better equipped and we need to ensure that we have the capability to combat their activities.

    Everyone accepts that getting the balance right in this area of legislation is very difficult.

    Indeed, the Lords amended the Act and this was accepted by the Commons.

    The result is an Act that will protect UK citizens against terrorist threat and that is surely a liberty worthy of permanent protection in law.

    John Wadham, Liberty

    From Monday there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, more "terrorist suspects" in Britain.

    Under the new Terrorism Act, protestors and activists with no interest in overthrowing the state or harming the general public could find themselves falling under the Act's expanded definition of terrorism.

    These people could find themselves subject to draconian powers of investigation and incommunicado detention (up to seven days) - even though, as the experience of previous terrorism laws has proven, the vast majority will never be charged with a remotely terrorist offence.

    The Act's extended definition of terrorism includes the use or threat of action that involves serious damage to property (such as GM crops?); is designed to interfere with an electronic system (hackers beware); or "creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public".

    'Wide and vague'

    The definition is so wide and vague that much will depend on the police's interpretation as to who is a terrorist.

    In fact the police already have very substantial powers under existing criminal law (which already covers most of the offences this Act seeks to address).

    The Act creates a two-tier system in which people suspected of a criminal act for moral or political reasons will have fewer rights than someone who commits a similar crime for reasons of lust, greed or viciousness.

    We believe that the public, like us, may have difficulty in seeing GM food protestors or anti-roads protestors as 'terrorists' in the accepted meaning of the word.


    The Home Secretary now also has the right to ban a whole range of groups.

    Liberty believes that only actions should be subject to criminal sanctions and imprisonment, not mere indications of support or involvement in political organisations.

    Freedom of expression and assembly are too important in any democratic society to be eroded in this way.

    Furthermore this particular law is unnecessary.

    Aid and abet

    Under the general law it is already a criminal offence to aid and abet another to commit an offence, so direct support and raising money for the purposes of crime are already outlawed.

    Furthermore, under this Act exiled supporters of Nelson Mandela who publicly supported the armed struggle in South Africa would have been classified as terrorists.

    The offence of "incitement" may be committed by mere words and there will be clashes with the right to freedom of expression.

    It will also be very difficult to ensure that the trials are fair if the witnesses and evidence are from another country.

    Those who support struggles for human rights and democracy in other countries may find themselves under investigation by the police.

    Those who have fled from repressive regimes to the safety of this country will become a legitimate target of the police merely because they support the overthrow of that regime, even when they themselves are opposed to violence.

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    See also:

    19 Feb 01 | UK Politics
    Straw defends new terrorism powers
    19 Feb 01 | UK
    Britain's 'safe haven' past
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