| 11.3°C Belfast

Watchdog urges terror laws change


Dr Hywel Francis has called for changes to the Government's counter-terrorism Bill

Dr Hywel Francis has called for changes to the Government's counter-terrorism Bill

Dr Hywel Francis has called for changes to the Government's counter-terrorism Bill

Universities should be removed from a list of institutions required by forthcoming terror laws to crack down on extremism, a parliamentary human rights watchdog has said.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said Government plans to impose a statutory obligation on universities to prevent people being drawn into terrorism is riddled with legal uncertainty and will stifle genuine academic debate.

The cross-party committee, made up of both MPs and peers, also raises concerns over plans to temporarily block UK nationals from returning to Britain if they are suspected of engaging in terrorist activity overseas - saying the human rights of some British citizens could be violated by such plans.

The measures are outlined in the Government's Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, which is due for its second reading in the House of Lords on January 13, and was unveiled against a backdrop of rising fears over potential extremist attacks in the UK.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, the chairman of the committee, said: "This balance between liberties and security is a difficult one to strike, but the Government's attempt in this Bill to place a duty upon universities in connection with the Prevent strategy has not been well thought-through.

"It might result in academic freedom and freedom of speech which we know are both key to the functioning of a democratic society being restricted.

"As open and rigorous debate about ideas is itself one of the most powerful tools in the struggle against terrorism, and the extremism which often breeds terrorism, this is surely counter-productive."

With regards to so-called temporary exclusion orders, the committee said that the Government's objective of "managed return" could be achieved by a much simpler system requiring UK nationals who are suspects to provide advance notification of their return to the UK on pain of criminal penalty if they fail to do so.

The group of MPs and peers recommends that the Bill is amended to provide for a judicial role prior to the making of such a notification of return order.

Dr Francis added: " Recent events in Paris make clear the challenging times in which we live and the need for Government to carry out their function of fighting terrorism and assuring the security of their people.

"We are satisfied that in some areas there are gaps in the Government's counter terrorism powers but some of the powers proposed in this Bill require extra safeguards so that they are not used unreasonably and to permit individuals affected to challenge them where there are grounds to do so.

"We should never forget that these are exceptional powers which could be mistakenly used against any of us, and in a civilised democracy there must always be processes for subjecting the claims of the state to independent scrutiny."

Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire said: "The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill represents a considered and targeted response to the very serious and rapidly changing threats we face.

"These important new powers will only be used when it is necessary and proportionate and are subject to stringent safeguards and oversight.

"We believe the Bill strikes the right balance in strengthening security whilst protecting civil liberties. We will give careful consideration to the Committee's report."