The House of Lords has passed a crucial amendment to the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which would have severely restricted NGOs’ ability to operate in some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The amendment to the bill now exempts aid workers, and others with a legitimate reason to travel to areas where extremist groups operate, from prosecution.
The bill, which is entering its final stages of approval, gives the government powers to designate all or part of a country, making it illegal for UK nationals and residents to enter or remain in that area. Under the original proposals, if an individual is unable to show they had “a reasonable excuse for entering or remaining in the designated area”, they could have received a sentence of up to 10 years in prison,.
Although the government had said the humanitarian aid delivery would count as a “reasonable excuse”, an individual would have only been able to invoke this defence after being charged with a criminal offence.
Last week, the chief executives of 22 leading humanitarian, peacebuilding and development agencies called on peers to introduce an exemption for aid workers and others who have a legitimate reason to travel to designated areas, such as journalists. Coordinated by Bond, the joint statement stated that “unless urgently amended, the bill will fail to provide sufficient protection for people who already risk their lives to help others”.
Lord Rosser, who tabled the successful amendment, said that it would minimise “potential difficulties and unintended consequences by stating that individuals undertaking the activities listed in the amendment…would not be committing an offence of being in a designated area without legitimate cause, and would not have to provide a defence after the fact”.
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The amendment was supported by former independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, as well as the former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Paddick, and NGO worker, Lord Sandwich. The amendment was passed by 220 votes to 191.
“It is hard enough for charitable trustees to manage the physical risks to their staff of this kind of work, and it would be wrong to add to those risks the possibility of being convicted or imprisoned in the UK for doing it. Surely no one engaged in such work would really be prosecuted for it, so why not acknowledge that in the law?” said Lord Anderson.
Without the amendment, Lord Sandwich said the bill would “potentially subjects aid workers and journalists to every sort of interference, which can only mean that aid will inevitably be held up and that people living in distressed conditions will suffer more”.
Peers will consider the bill one more time before it goes back to the House of Commons for final approval. Both Houses of Parliament must agree to the amendment before it becomes law.
We now appeal to MPs and peers to uphold this important amendment when the bill enters its third reading in the House of Lords and when it returns to the Commons. At Bond, we’re keeping a close eye on the bill’s progress. We will continue to mobilise the sector to help protect aid workers and the vital support they provide to people living in crisis.