Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has warned David Cameron his plans to prevent British jihadis from returning to the UK could be “illegal”.
The Prime Minister was set to make a Commons statement today on measures to tackle the danger from Islamic State (IS) extremists, with his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg insisting the changes will need careful consideration and must be based on evidence.
Mr Cameron has said action is needed to close “gaps in our armoury”, including new legislation to make it easier to take people’s passports away to prevent them from travelling to Iraq and Syria.
The proposals come in response to the raising of the terror threat level in the UK, with experts warning that an attack was “highly likely”.
However Sir Menzies, who is a member of the Commons intelligence and security committee, said: “I think it’s rather difficult and it might well constitute illegality. To render a citizen stateless is regarded as illegal in international law.
“To render them stateless temporarily, which seems to be the purpose of what’s been proposed, can also, I think, be described as illegal.
“At the very least it’s the kind of question which will be tested here in our own courts and perhaps also in the European Court of Human Rights.”
He added: “I’m not party to the discussions between Nick Clegg and the Prime Minister, nor would I expect to be.
“But any legislation, any fresh legislation, would have to be subject to the scrutiny of parliament. And there will be people on all sides of the House, including some of the Prime Minister’s own back-benchers, who will want to examine in very careful detail any question of extension.”
Among the British jihadis believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria are Aberdeen-raised Abdul Raqib Amin and Londoner Jihadi John – a suspect in the execution of American photojournalist James Foley.
Another former Lib Dem leader, Lord Ashdown, was also critical of the Prime Minister and said politicians should not act as “cheerleaders” for the demands of the intelligence and security services, describing their reaction as “knee-jerk”.
And he warned that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about the struggle against Islamist extremism risked alienating moderate Muslims.
He said Tory ministers had used the decision to raise the terror threat level “to tell us how frightened we should be and why this required a range of new powers for them to exercise”.
Lord Ashdown said: “Of course, in these circumstances, the police and the security services will lead the clamour for more powers. They are charged by us to maintain our safety. That’s their job. But it is the job of politicians to act, not as cheerleaders for those demands, but as jealous protectors of our liberties who measure any demand for their reduction against necessity, supported by evidence.”
He said the threat of terrorism had been faced before “effectively, without panic and without a whole new range of executive powers that could endanger our liberties”.
Mr Cameron has said measures were needed to stop people from travelling in the first place, to prevent them from returning if they do go to Syria or Iraq and to “deal decisively” with those already in the UK.
New legislation will make it easier to take people’s passports away, and there have been suggestions the UK government could bow to pressure for terrorism prevention and investigation measures to be beefed up.
Lord Ashdown added: “I have no objection to what Nick Clegg has called specific, proportionate responses to strengthen our hand in tackling this threat.
“But these must be evidence based, careful of our liberties and sensitive to the need to keep moderate Islam on our side.” The peer insisted that international diplomacy was needed.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the country faced “very real threats” and denied the government’s plans to prevent would-be jihadis from travelling to Iraq and Syria and keep out returning Britons considered a risk were a “knee-jerk response”.
He said: “We have had Tube trains blown up, London buses, Glasgow airport attacked, a soldier murdered in broad daylight. These are very real threats we are dealing with. This isn’t any kind of knee-jerk response.
“But when we look at our current instruments, our armoury of things or how we deal with these threats, there are some gaps.
“We’ve had a number of young men going off to fight in Syria, a number of them slipping back home again.
“We need to make sure that, where we can, we plug those existing gaps and the Prime Minister is going to go into more details about that to parliament.”
Several hundred British nationals are estimated to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the IS uprising, and other western European countries have also been a source of fighters.
He said. “This is now a threat to western Europe generally. We are all involved in this. We have the Nato summit in Wales later this week and we have to do this collectively, it’s not just for one country on its own.”