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No time for a knee-jerk reaction to the militants

IN politics there is sometimes a need to take action and sometimes a need to be seen to take action.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that changing the law so the passports of Islamist militants can be seized, as Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to do, falls into the latter category.

Mr Cameron admits that the current system of prosecuting returning extremists already works, but claims it is important to address any weaknesses in it. Yet he has barely managed to persuade his coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats that the latest proposal is a good idea, let alone the courts.

With Western governments still in reactive mode, apparently surprised by the rapid rise to prominence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Mr Cameron has been forced into a response by the shocking images of atrocities carried out by Islamist militants, and by the potential threat posed by radicalised Britons returning from Syria and Iraq.

But this is not the coalition government's finest hour. LibDem ministers are right to draw attention to civil liberties concerns. Attacks on cherished personal freedoms could even help feed radicalism, especially if it seems as if they are targeted on particular ethnic or faith groups.

However, the LibDems are also left red-faced by this. They argued for the abolition of Labour's control orders in 2012, which were replaced by so-called TPIMS - Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures.

With the UK Government's proposed reforms, TPIMS will now become to all intents and purposes identical to control orders.

This regular churn of new and revised measures is dispiriting. Few would doubt that this threat is real. However, a knee-jerk reaction, resulting in bad law signals weak leadership.

It is important to strike a balance between security and freedom.

A government's first duty is to protect its people. But former LibDem leader Lord Ashdown is right to warn that politicians should not simply be cheerleaders for every demand made by the intelligence and security services.

Legal questions already dog the Government's proposals. It is illegal under international law to render a person stateless, and that may apply to stripping passports from citizens, even temporarily.

It is also irresponsible. Refusing to accept returning UK citizens, could simply mean passing them - and any threat they pose - on to other European countries. Civil and human rights campaigners Liberty have claimed this amounts to external exile "with the dangerous and innocent alike dumped like toxic waste on the international community". They are right and as such the policy is potentially immoral.

Far better to take responsibility for a problem that is ours, and use existing powers to deal with it. When we have already had extensive anti-terror legislation, it is important that any new measures are properly scrutinised to ensure they are necessary and that they will work. It is not clear Mr Cameron's proposals pass that test.

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