Today is Max Hill QC‘s last day as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. This evening, he steps down from his current role to take up his new appointment as Director for Public Prosecutions at the end of the month. Tomorrow, for the first time since Sir Cyril Philips was appointed in 1984 to undertake an annual review of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, there will be no person tasked to review the UK’s counter-terrorism laws.
This is a crucial time for terrorism legislation in the UK. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. Along with a range of other measures, it includes a number of new criminal offences, including one which has previously been described by the Independent Reviewer as the ‘three clicks offence’ on the grounds that it sought to criminalise persons who, on three or more different occasions, viewed on the internet a document or record containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. The text of the proposed offence has since been changed to omit the words ‘on three or more occasions’. Thus it will now be an offence to view just one such piece of information. In a recent blog post on the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation website, Max Hill wrote:
a one click offence will further expose to investigation and prosecution many categories of internet users who access material for multiple purposes, none of which relate to terrorism.
This includes students, academics, researchers, and journalists.
There is, however, an even greater concern, one that was raised by the Independent Reviewer both in evidence to the Public Bill Committee examining the new Bill, and at an event on Wednesday night, organised by the Young Lawyers Committee of the Human Rights Lawyers Association. This is that the proposed new offence risks criminalising thought and opens up an entry point to enable non-violent extremism to be prosecuted alongside acts or attempts of terrorist violence.
The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation plays an important role in the review of counter-terrorism in the UK, including by giving evidence to parliamentary committees undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, writing blog posts on topical issues, and engaging in public debate by speaking at events. However, the main purpose of the role of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation is to provide annual reports on the UK’s counter-terrorism legislation, and Max Hill’s final report was tabled in Parliament just this week. Until a new person is appointed, there will be no more reports, and no one to hold the government to account over the ever increasing number of counter-terrorism laws in the UK. This will create a significant gap in the UK’s system of counter-terrorism review, and one that is not likely to be filled for some time. This is because the person appointed will require the highest and most intense form of security vetting in order to be able to access the classified material necessary to effectively review the laws.
The government has known that Max Hill would be stepping down from the role of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation since the summer, however it has yet to advertise the position. When it does, it will be advertised here.