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Belmarsh Judgment

3.31 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the legislative consequences of the House of Lords judgment that the detention without trial of aliens held in HMP Belmarsh under the anti-terrorism laws is unlawful.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement that I made last Thursday, 16 December 2004. Let me reaffirm that the case is about the compatibility of our domestic legislation with the European convention on human rights. As the Human Rights Act 1998 makes clear, Parliament remains sovereign and it is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether and what changes should be made to the law.

Mr. Heath: I think I welcome the Home Secretary's rather brief and complacent reply. The judgment of the Law Lords was in terms of unprecedented condemnation and could not have been more unequivocal. Lord Hoffmann said that the case called into question

That has now been reinforced by the resignation of Mr. Ian MacDonald as special advocate, in response to what he termed an "odious" law. He is not alone in that opinion.

Will the Home Secretary accept that the Liberal Democrats fully understand the difficult balance between ensuring the safety of the public and the security of the nation on the one hand, and rights under law on the other? We did not expect the Home Secretary precipitately to set aside the judgment of his predecessor as to the national interest, but can it really be the case that his Department has made no contingency plans for the present circumstances? What work, if any, has been done to explore the eminently sensible suggestions of the Newton committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights? Specifically, when will he introduce legislation on the use of intercept evidence, and why are the Bills currently before the House not suitable for that purpose?

Those detainees should be prosecuted and tried. Clearly there are difficulties, but should we not now seek consensus in this House on a proper solution? Certainly we would be happy to work with the Home Secretary and with others to develop an appropriate solution to the problem. However, simply renewing the present deeply unsatisfactory legislation is not an option.

Mr. Clarke: My answer was brief, but not complacent. The fact is that a committee of nine Law Lords has spent the last 11 weeks considering the issues raised by this case in great detail. It would have been discourteous and wrong to respond instantaneously to such consideration. It was and is my duty to examine very carefully the judgments of those Law Lords and to come to conclusions. In making my assessment, my duty
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is to look first to the security of this country, and in that context I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remarks about working on a basis of consensus. I hope that his party will be prepared to do that, but in so doing that it will consider carefully the precise legal measures.

We have of course considered the questions raised by the Newton committee and a number of other representations, including from the Joint Committee, but we shall look carefully at the Law Lords' judgment. I shall not be rushed into coming to a conclusion on the right course to take simply to meet some conception of brevity that the hon. Gentleman has to offer. We shall look at the issue properly. We shall come to proper conclusions and bring them to the House. The most important point, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), now the Foreign Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)—the previous Home Secretary—made clear on several occasions, is that it is Parliament that must decide how best we deal with this country's security interests. I shall report to Parliament and Parliament will come to its conclusions, but my report will be based on a detailed and full understanding of the decisions and views of the Law Lords in their consideration.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): The House will welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to careful consideration of these issues. When the House is invited—presumably early next year—to consider how, or whether, we want to change the law as it relates to the group of foreign nationals in Belmarsh, it will be enormously helpful if we have the clearest idea of what further anti-terrorism measures the Government propose to cover British citizens, as flagged up in the Queen's Speech. Can my right hon. Friend give us any hope that when we look at those issues, we shall have a better idea of what will be in the draft Bill referred to in the Queen's Speech?

Mr. Clarke: First, I appreciate the work of my right hon. Friend and his Committee in considering this matter with due care. The best way that I can respond to his question is by saying that it would be better if we looked at such situations in the round, as he suggests, so that we have a comprehensive view of them. That is not to say that particular difficult questions are not raised, but he is right to say that consideration will be best effected if we are clear on how we are pursuing the issues.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The Opposition do not underestimate the difficulty that the judgment presents for the Home Secretary in balancing his duties, but it is impossible to overstate its importance. It is only the second time since the second world war that a panel of nine, rather than five, Law Lords has sat. The Government cannot claim to be surprised by the judgment. When the Act was moved, we warned that the longer the detention went on, the more difficult it would be to justify. The powers taken by the Government at the time were viewed as temporary; presumably that is why the previous Home Secretary commissioned the Newton report.

The report was published exactly a year ago this week and in that time exactly nothing has happened. I remind the Home Secretary of some of the recommendations
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and reiterate the points made by the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who was quite right on this matter. The committee suggested that the power of freezing order be repealed, as it has not been used. Will the Government accept that? The committee recommended that it should be possible to use intercepts in court, as the Liberal spokesman said, and as we, too, have argued. We intend to table an amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to try to get the Government to accept changes to the law. Will the Home Secretary accept that, or undertake changes himself?

The committee also recommended proposals on plea bargaining. There are some changes to Queen's evidence in proposed legislation currently going through the House. Will the Home Secretary ensure that the changes meet those requirements on plea bargaining? Newton recommended that the Home Office carry out research into alternatives to the use of powers granted under part 4. What research has been carried out? What progress has been made?

Even after evidential changes that we recommend, there may still be cases of grave concern to the security services that cannot be tried. I am conscious that there is at least one case of an alleged terrorist released under licence, case G. A three-member panel ordered his release after he was diagnosed as psychotic. G is electronically tagged and has to report to the police five times a day. He is not allowed to use telephones, mobile phones or computers, and visitors are restricted. Does that give us a model for similar cases in the future if the courts cannot deal with them?

I reiterate that I do not recommend the release of those prisoners immediately, but in the interests of natural justice I recommend that the Government move as fast as competently possible to sort the problem out legislatively. If the Home Secretary does that, we shall give him every support.

Mr. Clarke: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's concluding point; it is important to reach a conclusion of these matters as soon as possible so the House can decide clearly how it wants to proceed. I was not particularly surprised at the Law Lords' judgment. In fact, it would be a surprise if there were not deep controversy about the ethnical, philosophical and moral issues that are involved. These are difficult questions, and it is not surprising that people will come to difficult and complicated judgments on them. I reiterate that I have the particular responsibility of looking at the national security of this country—I appreciate the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman on that question—but I simply will not be rushed into taking a view on this in the first few days of my stewardship of my office, without looking at the situation in the round. The assurance that I can give to the House is that, early in the new year, I will come with proposals for the House to consider and we can then look at them in the round, which is as it should be.

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