Parliament's Human Rights watchdog challenges anti-terror measures

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)

Tuesday 14 February 2006 for immediate release

Parliament's Human Rights watchdog challenges anti-terror measures

Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) today published a damning report on the "Control Order" powers contained in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. The report includes a submission from SACC documenting the effect that control orders have had on the men subject to them and on their families.

The JCHR says it has concerns over whether "this regime of control orders is compatible with the rule of law and with well established principles concerning the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary."

In its conclusion, the Committee says that it would be "premature" for it to express a view on whether the extraordinary anti-terrorism powers are necessary. It confines itself to saying that parliament should be given a chance to decide the question. But the body of the report criticises these powers in such a fundamental way that it's hard to see how the legislation can survive in its present form.

The control order powers are due for renewal on 11 March as a result of a "sunset clause" forced on the government when parliament passed the legislation last year, following an epic debate. The government is now planning to fast-track the renewal by bringing forward a renewal order, instead of a Bill. The JCHR says that it "regrets" this move, which it argues "severely restricts the possibility for it and other parliamentary committees to report in a fully considered way to both Houses."

The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 gives the Home Secretary wide powers to impose restrictions on anyone suspected of widely-defined "terrorism-related activities". These powers were introduced after the Law Lords ruled in December 2004 that earlier legislation allowing the Home Secretary to jail "terrorist suspects" was in breach of Britain's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). But the JCHR says that control orders themselves are "so restrictive of liberty as to amount to a deprivation of liberty for the purposes of Article 5(1) ECHR." According to Lord Carlile, the control orders fall "not very far short of house arrest." SACC has always argued that the control orders amount to house arrest, but it's not a term that Charles Clarke likes.

The Committee also notes that "bail conditions amounting to 'full house arrest' have been imposed on some of those formerly subject to control orders but since rearrested and detained pending deportation." This is an issue that SACC is deeply concerned about, and we referred to it in our submission to the JCHR. Strictly speaking, it falls outside the terms of reference of the JCHR investigation. It is a measure of the profound concerns evidently felt by the Committee that they have chosen to highlight it in their report.

Control orders do not involve any criminal charge. But the Committee says that "the very act of making a control order therefore involves allegations of very serious criminal conduct on the part of the controlled person;" that the control order conditions are "of a nature and severity to be equivalent to a criminal penalty" and that "they are also of a duration to make them tantamount to a criminal sanction." We'd put it in less parliamentary language. The JCHR's findings suggest to us that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 is neither more nor less than a cheap trick calculated to allow extra-judicial detentions to fly beneath the radar of Britain's human rights obligations.

In giving his ruling against detention without trial in December 2004, Lord Hoffman said "The real threat to the life of the nation… comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these... It calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has, until now, been very proud - freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention" It seems that the government learned nothing from his words. It continues to hold the dearest principles of human rights in contempt, and to treat binding international obligations as rules made to be bent. It's time for parliament to do it's job and rein the government in.