Government definition of terrorism applies to firefighters

Out-Law News | 24 Oct 2002 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

The threat of industrial action has turned the UK's firefighters into terrorists, as defined in the Government's Terrorism Act. Furthermore, all the firefighters' phone calls and other communications can be intercepted and accessed by Tony Blair's Cobra committee under provisions of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, better known as RIPA.

The Terrorism Act of 2000 defines terrorism as including the use or threat of action designed to influence the government and made for the purpose of advancing a political cause. "Action" falls within this definition if it involves "serious damage to property" or if it "endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action," or "creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public."

Dr Chris Pounder of Masons, the international law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said: "We were so concerned that we approached Leolin Price CBE QC for advice on one question: "is the firefighters dispute a terrorist action?". The answer was an unambiguous 'yes'."

Dr Pounder, who is editor of Masons' publication Data Protection and Privacy Practice, continued:

"It would never occur to most people that the firefighters could possibly be defined as terrorists - but this is what the legislation says they are. It's another example of hastily-drafted legal definitions being rushed through Parliament and resulting in bad law.

"Mr Price also states that there is probably scope for proceedings in court to force the firefighters' Union, or those in charge of it, to call off the strike. The advice of Mr Price is that 'The proposition that the strike is 'terrorist' will be one of the grounds for relief' and reasons that, in theory, a local authority could bring a case, as could an individual who, for example, travels to work by the Underground and faces increased danger at King's Cross because fire services will not be available. Perhaps more likely, an employer faced with staff who refuse to turn up on a strike day could bring a case; as could the owner of a business which manufactures dangerous chemicals or other particularly hazardous products who cannot keep the factory open on strike days due to inadequate cover in case of fire."

RIPA and Cobra

Under RIPA, interception of communications, such as letters, e-mail and phone calls, can be carried out in the interests of "national security" - which covers terrorism as defined - and access to the intercepted data can be justified in the interest of public safety or to protect public health - again, these interests are jeopardised by the current action.

Dr Pounder commented:

"Whether it is on terrorist grounds or on public safety grounds, the Government has the ability to intercept communications lawfully in this industrial dispute."

He concluded:

"Most people support the fight against terrorism - but to enact legislation which brands firefighters as terrorists and which could subject them to the weight of state interference which is normally reserved for the mafia or Al-Qaeda will only serve to undermine public trust in the draconian powers which the Government has assumed in the fight against terrorism."

The Terrorism Act 2000 is available at:
www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/20000011.htm

RIPA is available at:
www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/20000023.htm

Global Term