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'Gap in oversight' of UK terrorism laws as watchdog role falls vacant

Home Office fails to appoint new Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation even as Max Hill steps down from the role
23 people were killed and 139 were wounded during the May 2017 Manchester Arena attack (Reuters)

The British government is facing criticism over its failure to appoint a new Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation as Max Hill stepped down from the role on Friday.

Hill, who is set to become the new Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, told a security conference in London on Tuesday that there would be a "gap in oversight" until his successor was appointed.

"I regret that there will be a gap in oversight until the next Reviewer is appointed, but I am confident that the Home Office will make that appointment as soon as possible," Hill told an audience at the National Security Summit.

Hill's tenure in the role saw him scrutinise police operations in response to last year's deadly Manchester and London Bridge attacks which were both claimed by the Islamic State group.

In his latest report into the use of the terrorism laws, Hill described how he had visited the police operations room during Operation Manteline, the investigation into the Manchester Arena bombing, within weeks of the May 2017 attack.

There is an urgent need to appoint a successor to Max Hill QC to provide independent scrutiny to guard against the risk that terror laws could undermine essential freedoms and rights of British citizens

Jordan Morgan, UK Programmes Manager for Forward Thinking

The Home Office's failure to appoint a new Independent reviewer comes with the government's Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill continuing to face intense scrutiny in parliament.

In a report published on Friday, parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights called on the government to make 27 amendments to the bill to satisfy concerns that proposed extensions to counter-terrorism laws could breach human rights, and cited expert evidence provided to the committee by Hill.

"Despite our previous warnings, this Bill still crosses the line on human rights. We've put forward a range of amendments designed to bring it in line with human rights, taking into account the wide-ranging and expert evidence we took, including from Max Hill QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism," Harriet Harman, chair of the committee and a member of parliament for the opposition Labour Party, said.

Nick Thomas Symonds, Labour's shadow security minister, said in a statement that the Home Office's failure to appoint Hill's successor was "completely unacceptable".

"The Home Office has known since July at least that they need to appoint a successor for this vitally important role, and yet they appear to have done nothing since," said Symonds.

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"Now we are faced with a worrying gap in oversight of the operation of terrorism legislation. This is completely unacceptable especially as the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill is currently going through Parliament.

"The Home Office must provide assurances that a new Independent Reviewer will be appointed urgently."

Impact on communities

In his remarks on Tuesday, Hill highlighted the urgent need for the police to consider the effect large-scale terror investigations can have on specific communities in the wake of the Manchester investigation.

"The police should always consider and reflect upon the community impact of a large-scale investigation, particularly in the context of Manteline, centring as it did on particular areas of Manchester with a large Muslim population," Hill told the National Security Summit.

Jordan Morgan, a programme manager for Forward Thinking, a mediating organisation that helped facilitate meetings between Hill and affected Muslim communities, also raised concerns about the role falling vacant.

"There is an urgent need to appoint a successor to Max Hill to provide independent scrutiny to guard against the risk that terror laws could undermine essential freedoms and rights of British citizens," Morgan told Middle East Eye.

The number of terrorism-related arrests reached unprecedented levels last year, as did the number of those who were subsequently released without charge. Out of 412 people arrested for terrorism-related offences in 2017, 135 were charged and 228 released without charge.

Hill noted that during the police operation into the Manchester attacks, the police had arrested 23 people and released them all without charge.

A Home Office spokesperson told MEE that a new reviewer would be appointed in due course.