Proposed new powers for the government to seize travel documents of people suspected of terrorism abroad need more judicial scrutiny, an influential parliamentary committee reports today.

In its legislative scrutiny of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill the joint human rights committee also says that people subjected to secret hearings under the new powers should be guaranteed representation. 

The government intends the ‘fast track’ bill, introduced in the commons at the end of November, to receive royal assent before the next recess, which begins on 13 February. However the committee, chaired by Labour MP Hywel Francis (pictured), calls for amendments to introduce safeguards.

While accepting that the government has demonstrated that it needs a new power to seize travel documents including passports, it says ‘such a significant power... must be carefully targeted to fill the gap in powers that has been shown to exist, and it is therefore also necessary to scrutinise carefully the proportionality of the proposed measure’.

It proposes amendments to ensure more judicial oversight, including cutting the length of time for which the police can retain a seized passport without a hearing. 

In another criticism, the report says the bill provides for a ‘closed material procedure’ at hearings to extend seizures but makes no provision for special advocates to represent the interests of the excluded party. It recommends that the bill should be amended to ensure that this happens, and that there is right to legal aid at such hearings. 

According to the report, ministers have confirmed that the government is ‘considering making express provision for legal aid to be available at extension hearings’.

The Law Society supported the committee’s concerns, calling attention to what it called ‘limitations on access to courts, and the apparent lack of independence from government’. Provisions allowing challenges to the new powers are absent, it said.

‘This raises serious issues with regard to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and may also conflict with European legislation. 

The Law Society recommends that there needs to be proper oversight and judicial safeguards to make sure that powers, including the home secretary’s ability to impose temporary exclusion orders, are not abused.’

Society President Andrew Caplen said: ‘While it is appreciated that there is a balance to be struck between the threats to national security posed by terrorism and avoiding diminishing civil and human rights, our fundamental liberties must not be forgotten.’

The bill is due for its second reading the House of Lords tomorrow.