The history of anti-terrorism legislation in the UK is expansive and dates back nearly a century. The UK’s anti-terrorism laws have typically been reactive and enacted as emergency temporary legislation that later essentially became permanent through constant renewal. The anti-terrorism laws have their genesis in the troubled relationship between Great Britain and Ireland over the partition of Northern Ireland in May 1921. However, the experience of attempting to legislate to prevent and prosecute acts of terrorism in these circumstances gave the UK considerable experience regarding how to legislate against acts of international terrorism.
It is impossible to go into every act of terrorism that has occurred on British soil and detail the legislative response to each of these in this blog. Instead, the post will look briefly at the legislative response after the London bombings on July 7, 2005 (commonly referred to as the 7/7 bombings). The 7/7 bombings were a series of coordinated attacks by four suicide bombers that occurred in central London, killing 52 people and leaving 770 injured.
In the wake of these bombings, then Prime Minister Tony Blair held a press conference in where he asserted that the “rules of the game” for terrorists were changing. Despite the existing anti-terrorism legislative regime, which was already substantive, Blair announced that he was introducing a multifaceted twelve point plan against terrorism. This plan aimed to take a tougher stance against individuals who encourage or advocate terrorism; to disrupt the recruitment and training of would-be terrorists; and make it more difficult for these individuals to remain in, or enter, the UK.
The controversial measures were proposed in an unusual way by Blair by way of a press statement issued the day before he left for a summer vacation. A number of newspapers reported that some members of his own cabinet, many of whom were also on vacation, were not fully aware of the measures he proposed until the release of the statement.
The measures proposed by Mr. Blair were a combination of legislative and administrative changes, supplementing the existing comprehensive anti-terror legislation with the aim of closing legal loopholes. The measures not requiring legislation had immediate effect, although the implementation of some were delayed until after a brief public consultation. Those requiring legislation were introduced during the 2005-6 Parliamentary session in the form of the Terrorism Bill. The issue of ‘home grown’ extremists was tackled in part in the plan. To prevent isolation and encourage a sense of ‘British pride’ amongst immigrants, Mr. Blair announced that the requirements to obtain British citizenship were to be reviewed with the intention of encouraging greater integration.
The Terrorism Bill faced considerable controversy and scrutiny in both the House of Commons and House of Lords and caused a rebellion from within Blair’s Labour Party. Many of the proposals were defeated, with a number of Members from Blair’s own party voting against them. Proposals that were defeated or dropped included those that would have enabled terrorist suspects to be detained for up to ninety days and those requiring the closure of extremist mosques. The Terrorism Bill was eventually passed and came into force in April 2006.
The use of these powers has been interesting. Initial arrests after the bombings for terrorism related offences increased considerably, but with the majority of suspects later being released without charge either due to lack of evidence, or evidence that could not be used in court.
This piece of legislation is only one act of many that the Labour government introduced to tackle terrorism during its time in power. The government has been criticised for introducing an overwhelming amount of legislation during its time, particularly on criminal offences. It has been reported one criminal offence was created for each day the Labour party was in office. The current coalition government is looking to review and potentially repeal some of these laws, considering among other things that the public consensus is that the laws need to be scaled back and have eroded civil liberties.