There is nothing quite like working on a counter-terrorism case in real time. When I was director of public prosecutions, from 2008 to 2013, I had a first-rate counter-terrorism team, who worked closely with the police and the security and intelligence services to defeat and disrupt terrorism.
I saw for myself the sheer dedication and expertise of all involved in the cause of keeping the public safe. As a result, many plots have thankfully been thwarted (including at least 13 since 2013) and many lives saved.
But as we have seen with tragic consequences in the past three months, three terrible attacks have got through, with horrific results in London and Manchester. The threat posed by terrorism is growing and evolving.
In light of this, whoever wins the general election will have to review Britain’s current security arrangements and look at what further support we can give to our security and intelligence services and to the police. We have to do so with raw honesty about the problems we are facing – and without reaching kneejerk conclusions.
Theresa May’s comments that human rights laws may need to be changed to counter the terrorist threat simply do not address the real problems we are facing. Instead, they are a dangerous distraction, designed to deflect attention from the serious questions that have been asked about the cuts she has made to police numbers (20,000 officers, including 1,300 armed officers) and resources in her seven years as home secretary and prime minister. As the mayor of London has said, cuts to police budgets in the capital have become “unsustainable” and must be addressed. These concerns are mirrored in police forces across the country.
In my five years as DPP I saw many cases involving serious terrorist plots. Not once did human rights laws prevent the Crown Prosecution Service from pursuing a prosecution, or our dedicated counter-terrorist teams from monitoring and apprehending suspects.
From my experience both as DPP and previously as a human rights lawyer, I know that human rights and effective protection from terrorism are not incompatible. On the contrary, they go hand in hand.
So when I decided in 2009 that three men subsequently convicted of plotting to bring down planes in the mid-Atlantic should be retried a second time (an exceptional course), no human rights challenge could get off the ground. In many other cases, including the trial of those responsible for the attempted bombings in London on 21 July 2005, the fact that suspects’ pre-trial rights had been observed (including in one case in Italy), knocked out any possibility of a challenge to the prosecution as “unfair”. Rights compliance helps effective outcomes, it does not hinder them.
That should come as no surprise because the “human rights” in the Human Rights Act are the rights adopted in the aftermath of the horrors of the second world war, and are designed to protect all of us from oppression
They were drafted by British lawyers and define the values we have held dear for decades, rooted as they are in the principles of human dignity, democracy and the rule of law. To cast them aside now would be to give up the very values that those who carried out the recent terrorist atrocities want to attack. The prime minister is now threatening to do just that without any supporting evidence; and without indicating how changing human rights laws would have prevented the recent attacks in London and Manchester.
Instead, at this early stage of the investigations it is clear there are two critical challenges that need a considered and concerted response. First, increasing the information flow to the police and the security and intelligence services so that suspects come on to the radar much more quickly. That calls into question once again whether the cuts to policing – particularly neighbourhood and community policing – that May has overseen have made it harder to detect and monitor threats at an early stage. It also calls into question how effective the current Prevent strategy is. I don’t doubt that we need a “prevent” strand to our overall counter-terrorism strategy, but I recognise that unless and until it engages all communities, its effect will be limited