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UK 'terror watchdog' Max Hill named director of public prosecutions

Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation is still to file report on impact of terrorism laws in 2017 when UK was hit by multiple attacks
Max Hill has been the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation since March 2017 (Home Office)

The UK's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Max Hill, will step down later this year after being appointed as the director of public prosecutions, the British government said on Tuesday.

Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox said that Hill would take up his new role as the chief prosecutor for England and Wales from 1 November.

"Mr Hill is a distinguished and extremely experienced Queen’s Counsel who has demonstrated a profound commitment both to the criminal justice system and to public service. I am very grateful to him for taking on these onerous responsibilities," Cox said.

In a post on the independent reviewer's website, Hill said he would submit his final annual report, examining the application of counter-terrorism powers during 2017, to the Home Office in July.

The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation compiles annual reports on the impact, effectiveness and appropriateness of terrorism laws for the government and for parliament and has access to intelligence and security agency material which is unavailable to the public.

Hill only took up the post in March last year, but his tenure coincided with a series of attacks in London and Manchester which left 36 people dead and scores injured, and an unprecedented increase in the number of terrorism arrests - and the number of people released without charge.

He came into the role with a reputation as a prosecutor in high-profile terrorism trials who had also represented the government in proceedings relating to the cases of British nationals detained in the US detention centre, Guantanamo, in Cuba.

Policing the internet 'counter-productive'

But he raised concerns about the government's efforts to crack down on extremism in his first report in January, suggesting that efforts to police the internet and control social media could be counter-productive.

"We must recognise that policing the internet, and controlling social media comes at a very high price if it interferes with the freedom of communication which every citizen enjoys," Hill wrote.

"This is uncertain territory. Driving material, however offensive, from open availability into underground spaces online would be counter-productive, if would-be terrorists could still access it."

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Hill also raised concerns about the use of Schedule 7 stop-and-search powers at airports, which allow police and border officers to question anyone passing through an airport or port without any reason for suspicion.

And he questioned whether further legislation to extend the scope of terrorism laws was necessary.

"We should review them and ensure they ensure remain fit for purpose, but we should have faith in our legal structures, rather than trying to create some kind of new situation where the ordinary rules are thrown out,” he said in an interview last year.

Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee scrutinising the government's proposed counter-terrorism and security bill last month, Hill said he had "serious concerns" about proposed extensions to existing offences.

The committee's subsequent report noted that Hill had suggested that the government was "legislating close to the line on [human] rights compliance by taking the criminal law into the private realm".

Some on social media wondered whether Hill's appointment as chief prosecutor meant that he would soon find himself prosecuting individuals for breaking laws that he had suggested were unnecessary.

Rizwaan Sabir, a criminologist specialising in the study of British counter-terrorism policy, said on Twitter that Hill's appointment as prosecutor was a "masterstroke by the UK government".

Hill's comments in another interview with the BBC in October, in which he said that not all returnees from Syria to the UK should be prosecuted, were also widely reported in the British media.

"Really we should be looking at reintegration and moving away from any notion that we are going to lose a generation from this," Hill said.

"It’s not a decision that MI5 and others will have taken lightly. They, I am sure, will have looked intensely at each individual on return.

“But they have left space, and I think they are right to do so, for those who travelled, but who travelled out of a sense of naivety, possibly with some brainwashing along the way, possibly in their mid-teens and who return in a sense of utter disillusionment.

“We have to leave space for those individuals to be diverted away from the criminal courts.”

Hill also toured the UK, meeting representatives of Muslim organisations including some such as the Muslim Council of Britain and MEND, an advocacy group campaigning against Islamophobia, shunned by the British government.

Schoolboy errors and birthday cakes

Most controversially, he met representatives of Cage, a human rights group campaigning on behalf of individuals and communities affected by counter-terrorism legislation, which has been accused of extremism by the government.

Cage accuses the government and its supporters of smearing its work, which it says is based on defending principles in accordance with the rule of law. 

Responding to media criticism, based around a Sunday Times story in which an anonymous intelligence source had accused him of making a "schoolboy error" by meeting Cage, Hill wrote that he had "cross-examined more individuals who have been convicted of serious terrorism offences than the Sunday Times’ confidential source has had birthday cakes".

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"To me, offering to hold such a meeting is nothing more than considering the issues within our terrorism legislation from all sides. To me, I am doing nothing more than what every barrister does on a daily basis, which is to consider the evidence and sort out the bad from the good."

In the same post, Hill said that his work was "far from done" and also referred to the warm reception that he had received in Muslim communities he had visited, including among the Libyan exile community in Manchester, which found itself in the media spotlight following the Manchester Arena bombing in May last year in which the British-Libyan suicide bomber and 22 other people were killed.

"I have been extremely fortunate to have been permitted (no, it is more than that, I have been warmly welcomed, to my surprise and gratitude) to spend time with communities directly affected by the atrocities of 2017, including the UK citizens of Libyan heritage who live in Manchester and worship in the mosque formerly attended by the terrorist murderer who caused his own ignoble death at Manchester Arena," he wrote.