What role will Parliament play in Britain’s response to terrorist threat?

The terrorist attacks in Paris will raise understandable concerns about the threat of further attacks, including in the UK. Although Paris has suffered two serious attacks this year the government will be keen to ensure that the British public are not complacent about the threat of attacks in the UK. The system of publishing threat levels within the UK was introduced following the Bali bombings in 2002. The current threat level of ‘severe’ has been in place since August 2014 when it was raised in response to the conflict in Syria. The government has not chosen to raise that to the highest level, ‘critical’, which means that it does not at this time have specific intelligence of an imminent threat of attack within the UK, but does mean that an attack remains highly likely.

In the longer term these attacks will certainly change the context in which Britain develops its own response to terrorist threats. The government is currently seeking to introduce controversial new surveillance powers for the British intelligence and security agencies, which were included in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill published a little over a week ago. While supporters of the Bill will wish to stress that attacks such as these reinforce the need for additional powers. Opponents of these proposals, including many within the Prime Minister’s own party, will argue that what is needed is better intelligence about what are often known threats, rather than additional powers to facilitate mass surveillance.

The attacks will also, once again, raise the possibility of another Parliamentary vote on British participation in military action in Syria. The Prime Minister will not want to risk losing another vote on this issue and is therefore only likely to seek one if he is confident of winning. However, this has also raised the question of whether the Prime Minister should have to seek parliamentary approval for sending British forces into action. The convention that the Prime Minister must seek the approval of Parliament before embarking on military action is a relatively new development, established by Tony Blair in relation to Iraq in 2003 and applied by the current Prime Minister in relation to the conflicts in Libya and Syria. However, most previous Prime Ministers have not been bound in this way and there are certainly some who would argue that when serious issues of national security are at stake the Prime Minster should be able to lead without seeking the approval of Parliament.

Either way, the Paris attacks will certainly strengthen the arguments in favour of intervention. One factor which may influence opinion here is the response of Britain’s NATO allies. President Hollande’s declaration that the attacks amount to an act of war raises the possibility of an invocation of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an armed attack against one member state constitutes an armed attack against them all. The only previous occasion on which article 5 has been invoked was following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In order for article 5 to be invoked it would need the approval of all 28 NATO member states. Crucially, however, article 5 does not specify how member states should respond. Nevertheless, such a move would be a significant development and there would be considerable pressure for Britain to step up its involvement in Syria.

This is a slightly longer version of a piece which was posted on The Lincolnshire Echo’s website last week.

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