Overview of terrorism legislation

There are over five Acts of Parliament and numerous regulations, rules and Orders which provide for special counter-terrorism powers and offences.

This is in addition to ordinary criminal offences and police and the security services' powers of surveillance and investigation.

While some of these new laws and specific terrorism offences may be necessary, many others are not. Much recent counter-terrorism legislation is dangerously over-broad and has affected vast numbers of people - in particular peaceful protesters and ethnic minority groups - undermining civil liberties and fundamental human rights.

The worst excesses of counter-terror law passed since 2000 include:

  • Indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals if suspected of involvement in terrorism;
  • Unsafe and unfair control orders imposing severe and intrusive prohibitions, including indefinite house arrest for up to 16 hours a day without charge, let alone conviction;
  • Pre-charge detention in terrorism cases, currently allowing for 14-day detention without charge - the longest period of any comparable democracy;
  • Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allowing stop and search without suspicion, which was disproportionately used against peaceful protesters and ethnic minority groups.

Other counter-terrorism laws that raise grave concerns include:

  • The dangerously broad definition of 'terrorism', which applies to action taken to advance any 'political, religious, racial or ideological' cause designed to influence the government of any country or international organisation or to intimidate any member of the public anywhere in the world. Many offences are linked to this definition of terrorism, which means that large numbers are potentially criminalised. The definition stretches to action which is designed to seriously disrupt an electronic system;
  • Broad new speech offences, including the 'encouragement of terrorism' which encompasses making statements that glorify terrorist acts. It is an offence even if the person or group making the statement doesn’t intend to encourage terrorism. As the definition of terrorism is so wide, this could criminalise people speaking out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world. These offences have the potential to seriously infringe free speech rights, criminalising careless talk and having a chilling effect on free speech surrounding, for example, foreign policy;
  • the offence of photographing anything that might be useful to someone committing or preparing an act of terrorism. This measure has seen many tourists and professional photographers stopped from taking photos of police officers or landmark buildings;
  • The banning of non-violent political organisations, amounting effectively to state censorship of political views, which has the potential to drive debate underground;
  • The power given to a constable, immigration officer or customs officer at a port or border to question, detain and (for the police) to take the DNA of anyone entering or leaving the UK to determine whether they are involved in some way in acts of terrorism - a power that can be exercised without any reasonable suspicion of such involvement;
  • The extraordinarily broad powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which allow a Minister, whenever there is the threat of terrorism, to make emergency regulations that could temporarily override almost all other legislation.


In July 2010, the Government announced a wide-ranging review into counter-terrorism measures. Read Liberty's consultation response (PDF) and our press release responding to the proposals announced after the review.

Many of these proposals were brought into effect by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.