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30 Oct 2002 : Column 878—continued

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us take the view that such action as has been taken, as well as that being taken today, has been long overdue? He may recall that I asked him and his predecessor in the Select Committee on Home Affairs about allegations made over the years by countries such as Egypt that Britain has been a safe haven for terrorism. I know that successive Home Secretaries have denied that that is the case. Our country should not be a safe haven of any kind for those who aim to engage in terrorism and destroy lives, as has happened so recently in Indonesia.

Mr. Blunkett: I agree with my hon. Friend. Whenever evidence is presented, my colleagues and I will act. That is why we are taking action this afternoon; it is also why, after passing the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, we need to be not only vigilant but prepared to act whenever necessary. I respect the points that hon. Members have made.

As I said previously, we need evidence. It would therefore be helpful if, when countries or their agencies make allegations, instead of doing so through newspapers, they presented us with evidence. It would also be helpful if newspapers checked the credibility of the allegations. Their publication creates an atmosphere of fear and undermines the confidence and morale of those who are at the cutting edge of our actions to combat terrorism. I repeat that I have every confidence

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in this country's security and intelligence services, which do a first-class job. Long may that continue. Like us, they are learning all the time.

On the speed in making decisions about specific groups, I stress to the shadow Home Secretary that there is no special wisdom in government. We take the evidence that is presented, and respond at speed when people are prepared to provide verifiable evidence. If hon. Members from any party have evidence, I am happy to consider it. Some hon. Members present evidence constantly, and we check the difference between the loud-mouthed extremists who endeavour to provide diversion but, although undoubted irritants, require evidence to show that they are a threat, and those who do not clearly spell out their views or identity precisely because they constitute a greater threat and need to be taken more seriously.

In our democracy, a right of appeal exists. An appeal is made first to the Home Secretary. If he confirms the banning order, a further appeal can be made to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission. I do not imagine that many people outside the House have heard of it, but it exists.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the Home Secretary accept that the commission approaches the matter on the basis of the principles that apply to judicial review and therefore does not review the merits of the original decision?

Mr. Blunkett: The commission has to review whether the criteria and the definitions that were debated in 2000, and when the first batch of proscriptions were made in February 2001 apply, and whether the Government and the Home Secretary properly exercised their power. That is fair, given the nature of the threat. We take time to ensure that we accumulate evidence. That is why we did not jump to proscribe only one organisation in the immediate aftermath of Bali. We wanted to have some coherence about the network of links with al-Qaeda, the evidence that could be adduced and the international position.

We want to secure the confidence of the community and the backing of the House, and ensure that we use intelligence to tackle such groups and all their aspects, including support, fundraising, links abroad, thus making it more difficult for al-Qaeda to wreak terrorism across the globe. We take action irrespective of the creed or nationality of those involved. As hon. Members will realise, a variety of groups, which are based in different parts of the world, are linked in a loose federation to those who are determined to take away our freedom and well-being. I am glad that we appear to have the House's wholehearted support in tackling those cells and that network.

4.4 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): The Opposition welcome and support the measures that the Home Secretary has taken today. I hope that nothing that I ask will be perceived as detracting from that support. I am also aware that the Home Secretary, and any occupant of that office, bears a heavy burden, and that it is difficult to discern reality from phantoms, or to know how best to proceed even when reality appears to have a certain

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shape. I am conscious that it is difficult—indeed, impossible, in some cases—to disclose the basis for some of the decisions that are made. That is a natural feature of this area of our national life.

Within the limits of those constraints, I have given the Home Secretary notice that I want to probe the question of the timetable that led to the proscription of Jemaah Islamiyah today rather than at an earlier date. I wish to do so not because that has any practical import today—after all, the Home Secretary has now proscribed it, and we welcome that—but because it will help to illuminate whether the system as a whole and the legislative framework that backs it are working as well as we would mutually hope.

I am extremely conscious that it is of great importance—as I hope the Home Secretary and the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats will agree—that we continue to have a framework within which there is a system of appeal, to which the Home Secretary rightly referred. Of course, if there is such a system, it will be necessary for the Home Office to accumulate reasonably robust evidence—albeit disclosable only in camera—before making a decision to proscribe, because otherwise the commission would overturn the proscription. I utterly accept, therefore, that there will inevitably be delays that would not occur if we were operating a system of proscription by fiat without appeal. I would be the last person in the House to suggest such a system. Indeed, the Home Secretary and I have had debates in the past on other matters in which I have been keen to strengthen the system of appeal, so I recognise the obligation on us to accept that there will be delays as a result of the appeals system.

Nevertheless, the question arises as to why this has taken so long, and I want to ask five particular questions about that. First, how long has it been known, or guessed, by the security services that there was a link between Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda? Secondly, was it known that JI was active in Thailand at the beginning of the year, as has been reported? I do not know whether those reports are accurate; I am merely asking whether that was known. Thirdly, how long has it been known that the Indonesian authorities believed that JI was connected with the terrible events that took place there at Christmas 2000? Fourthly, what liaison was there between our agencies and the Singaporean authorities when or after the Singaporean authorities detained a considerable number of suspected JI agents—13, I think—in December 2001? Finally, when the Government of the Philippines detained nine people—in May 2002, I think—alleged to be connected to JI, did that Government inform our security apparatus of the basis on which they were proceeding? If so, why did that not lead to proscription at that stage?

I re-emphasise that none of this had an unhappy result for Britain. There is no reason to suppose, for example, that the bombings in Bali would have been less likely to occur had proscription occurred earlier. I do not believe that any adverse practical consequences have flowed from the delay, and the Home Secretary has now taken the step that needed to be taken. No blame attaches either to him, to the Home Office or to the security services. I am grateful to him for making the offer to explain this matter in further detail on other terms. It is important, however, for the House—and perhaps, in due course, the Intelligence Committee—to

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understand whether the system is capable of responding as fast as the quite proper legal restraints enable it to do. If the Home Secretary can reassure us, now and later, on that point, he will have our backing not only today but, as we move forward, for the continued operation of a system that is certainly much better than no such system.

4.9 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I shall not detain the House, because a number of hon. Members want to speak in this brief debate. I want to pick up on and amplify the matter that I raised in an intervention on the Secretary of State, and to raise a further issue.

I am deeply concerned about these and other terrorist groups, the growing menace of human trafficking and the likelihood of terrorist materials coming in through our sea ports. The Home Office—I am not referring to the Home Secretary himself—and other agencies do not sufficiently appreciate the nature of our sea ports. I represent the port of Tilbury, which is a secure port with it own dedicated police force, and very professional it is too. Incidentally, it celebrated its bicentenary this weekend. I am proud of the force, which is part of a much wider Port of London police force, which has now gone into decline.

In decades past, some ports were policed by the British Transport police, but only a few ports—Tilbury, Felixstowe, Tees and Hartlepool, one on Merseyside, Larne, Belfast, Dover and perhaps a few others—have a dedicated police force. Those forces are very professional, but in many other sea ports and wharfs, including some in my constituency outside the port of Tilbury, boats come in every day. I am convinced that, day after day, people get off those boats and come into the United Kingdom unchallenged, because the immigration authorities and Customs and Excise are not present and there is no dedicated police force.

I note what the Home Secretary said in response to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the concept of a wider border authority for the European Union, and I am with the hon. Gentleman on that. That issue has wider implications and should be raised in a summit. I urge the Home Secretary to discuss with colleagues in his Department and across Departments the need for a dedicated national police force along the lines of the Ports Canada police and the coastguard in the United States of America. Such a force should operate in the United Kingdom. How would it be paid for? That is always the grubby problem. A small charge on each container going into our ports and a small nominal charge on each passenger passing through them could sustain an effective ports police.

Such a force would not be instead of Customs and Excise, the immigration service and other agencies, but would buttress them. It would provide a safety net and could develop skills and expertise, and use the technology to which the Home Secretary referred. That technology is being introduced at good ports, because the port managements are investing in it. The port of Tilbury has done a great deal, and is using some wonderful technology, which I do not understand, that can see inside containers. It can prevent human

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trafficking, terrorism and the other crimes that take place in our ports. That is not happening in some of its competitor ports. There is an issue of fairness and competition. All ports in the United Kingdom should have the same standards of integrity when combating crime and terrorism. I hope that the Home Secretary will think about that—I could amplify those ideas further in a meeting if that would be useful.

The Home Secretary referred to this technology in the summer. I would have tabled some parliamentary questions had we been sitting, but we do not yet sit in the summer. There was a report of radioactive material coming through the port of Felixstowe. Funnily enough, it was eventually stopped in Tilbury, although it was nothing to do with the port of Tilbury. The technology worked, but the human response failed.

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