In the wake of the Boston bombings, the long standing legal battles over Abu Qatada, and recent court proceedings over three alleged UK terrorist conspirators, the Home Secretary has announced that under new rules it will be easier for the Home Secretary to strip UK citizens of their passports if they are involved with terrorism or terrorism related activities.
Under previous rules, the Home Secretary has the right to take away passports only in extreme circumstances, relating to national security. This has happened only 17 times since 1947, with the last confiscation taking place in 2005 (which itself resulting in legal actions against the government). The ability to remove passports is one of the actions granted to the Home Secretary under Royal Prerogative powers. As such, the rules can come into effect both immediately, with neither Parliamentary approval nor an act of Parliament required; however, the rules of ministerial responsibility and judicial review mean that the Home Secretary is still fully accountable for any such actions carried out whilst exercising any such Royal Prerogative powers.
Not only does the introduction of such new rules strengthen the Home Secretary’s powers in this area, but it is a powerful message and action to take against terrorism. Many would be terrorists travel abroad to training camps; with no passport, this ensures that they cannot make such a journey. In her statement outlining the new rules, Ms May said that the new rules would be invoked only against people who gave intelligence and security services concern by their “actual or suspected” activities, or if they planned to travel to attend training camps or to carry out or support terrorist activities.
In her speech, Ms May stated that “passport facilities may be… withdrawn from British nationals who may seek to harm the UK… by travelling on a British passport to, for example, engage in terrorism-related activity or other serious or organised criminal activity… This may include individuals who seek to engage in fighting, extremist activity or terrorist training outside the UK, for example, and then return to the UK with enhanced capabilities that they then use to conduct an attack on UK soil… The need to disrupt people who travel for these purposes has become increasingly apparent with developments in various parts of the world.”
In the aftermath of several terrorist incidents globally over the last few weeks, Ms May is returning to very old powers of Royal Prerogative to counter a very modern threat. Whilst the morality of such rules may be questionable, the legal and constitutional basis for the introduction of new and stronger rules is without question. In an age of increased global awareness and travel, such powers over passports will be very practical in countering domestic terrorists.