Plans for new laws against extremism will face a rough ride from the independent watchdog on terrorism laws, the government was warned today. 'We do not, and should not criminalise thought without action or preparation for action,' said Max Hill QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, throwing down a gauntlet on proposals to create a 'commission for countering extremism'.
'Thought with steps towards action can be terrorism. Thought without action or preparation for action may be extremism, but it is not terrorism,' Hill said, delivering the Tom Sargant memorial lecture for campaign group Justice.
The criminal bar veteran was calling attention to a reference in the last Queen's speech to the creation of a ‘commission for countering extremism’. While emphasising that legislation on non-violent offences lay outside his remit, Hill warned that 'legislating in the name of terrorism when the targeted activity is not actually terrorism would be quite wrong'.
As an example, he cited the home secretary's proposal to strengthen Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to make people who repeatedly view terrorism content online liable to 15 years in prison.
Hill said: 'We are told that "The updated offence will ensure that only those found to repeatedly view online terrorist material will be captured by the offence, to safeguard those who click on a link by mistake or who could argue that they did so out of curiosity rather than with criminal intent". I welcome this, but we must wait to see what the words ‘repeatedly view’ actually mean. Are two clicks on a link one too many, or will three clicks be required? Can an internet user be innocently curious twice, but not three times?
'These are matters for parliamentary draftsmen to consider, and I await the outcome with interest,' he said.
Hill's lecture also had hard-hitting criticism of the French government, which has maintained a state of national emergency since the Paris attacks in November 2015. Such a lengthy imposition, with derogations from articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, poses the problem 'How does one get out?' he said. The answer being considered is apparently to incorporate 'state of emergency' measures into non-emergency statutes. 'This is alarming,' Hill said.