Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Allen : I thank my hon. Friend for generously giving way so early in her speech. The point that she made about cross-party consensus can also be made about internal consensus within a party, and I think that such consensus can be found. An example would be when the Home Secretary, in his previous job, faced the very difficult issue of student fees. He took a great deal of time to talk to everyone, and used his ministerial team to do so, and a more consensual approach was arrived at, although it remained a difficult issue. Such balances can be struck, both inside and across the parties.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend is right. When dealing with difficult issues, dialogue usually helps. Being open to other considerations is also important.

As the hon. Member for Winchester suggested, we are under certain time constraints, and time is not always on our side. If we are to renew the part 4 powers, we shall have to do so by 13 March, which is why we have had to lay the order in that regard. We hope that our new proposals will mean that that will not be necessary, but we are constrained by the legislative process. We need to get on with this, but the time constraints do not mean that we should not have extensive discussions with people on these issues. I certainly give my commitment to do that.
 
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1416
 

I want to set this matter in context by saying a few words about the threat. The hon. Member for Winchester said that he did not doubt that the threat faced by this country was serious, and that it was of a different order since 9/11. That threat comes not only from foreign nationals, among whom it was concentrated immediately after 9/11. As a result of various operations that we have carried out, and because we are now uncovering more about the extent of the threat and know far more about the networks of terrorism, we understand that the threat comes not only from foreign nationals but, increasingly, from British citizens who are involved in this kind of activity. The threat remains serious, and it is the duty of the Home Secretary to protect the security of the nation. At the end of the day, that is probably his most important task, and he clearly takes it extremely seriously.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is perhaps worth making the point that 9/11 did not demonstrate a threat that had not existed previously. The threat had indeed existed. The events of 9/11 told the people of the United States of America that it was a very real threat against them—a fact that they had not appreciated—and demonstrated the extent to which the sources of the threat could be hidden in the country that was being threatened, as they were in the United States.

Ms Blears: The right hon. Gentleman is correct. Clearly, that threat was real and serious before 9/11. Incidents had taken place that revealed that. I am seeking to show that that threat is developing as we learn more about the activities that go on. The threat remains serious, but it is also becoming more complex and more textured as we learn more about the different individuals involved and approach the issue from different angles. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however. The threat was clearly there before 9/11.

The Home Secretary has regular, frequent discussions with the director general of the Security Service and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He also receives regular updates on the level of the threat from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. He is in no doubt—and neither am I—that the threat remains, and that nothing has happened to diminish it or to call into question the Government's assessment that a public emergency is threatening the life of the nation. The judgment in the House of Lords found by a majority of eight to one that that was the case. They certainly came to different conclusions on proportionality and discrimination, but they confirmed that a public emergency was threatening the life of the nation.

That is my starting point for this debate, because it sets out the context of the threat. That necessarily shapes the action that we need to take to meet the threat and to protect the security of this country and its people. We need to strike the right balance between security and liberty, but my personal starting point is that terrorism poses a real and serious threat to the structures and people of this country. We have to put in place a framework that addresses that threat as proportionately as we can, and without discriminating, if we are to meet the terms of the Law Lords' judgment. We are currently engaged in a process to try to find our way through this legal system—with regard not only to our own legal system but to the interaction with the European convention on human rights—to find the way forward.
 
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1417
 

The hon. Member for Winchester said that we had taken an awfully long time to come forward with our proposals, but I take issue with him on that point. The Law Lords' judgment was made on 16 December, and the Home Secretary made his statement in this House on 26 January. That was not a huge amount of time in which to deal with complex issues such as these. I entirely take the point that there were recommendations from the Newton committee, which sparked off the publication of our consultation paper and the wide-ranging debate about the balance between security and liberty. However, the Law Lords made their decision only in December, and the Home Secretary made his statement as soon as he could, on 26 January, to give some flavour to the proposals that we want to introduce.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he could not possibly support the proposals made by the Home Secretary. That is a little premature. We have had the ministerial statement, but we have not seen the legislation and he has not seen the detail. I appreciate his support for some ideas around control orders, but I ask him to hang fire on judging entirely the proposals that we hope to make in the next few weeks rather than months.

The 26 January statement set out our decision to respond to the Law Lords' ruling by including these proposals for control orders. The part 4 powers were designed to protect us against the particular threat identified from foreign nationals whom we could not deport because we were worried about the infringement of their rights under the European convention—the likelihood that they could be subject to torture and ill treatment should they be deported.

We tried at that time to get a tight-focused response to the threat that was there. We used the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, because it was already in existence and it provided a way to take closed evidence, as well as open. It was chaired by a High Court judge and it had a structure to enable us to deal with the problem. Although the part 4 powers have since been traduced and parodied in some quarters as the Home Secretary's huge, broad-brush attempt to lock people up and throw away the key, nothing could be further from the truth.

We really tried to target the threat, which was mainly from foreign nationals. We could not deport them, so we used some immigration powers that were already on the statute book. That is why we went for that model. Clearly, the House of Lords has decided that that is incompatible with the European convention on human rights, although it has not decided that it is unlawful. Therefore, it is a matter for Parliament to decide how we respond to that.

There were two main complaints: the House of Lords did not feel that the detention powers were proportionate to the public emergency that we face and thought them discriminatory as they applied only to foreign nationals, rather than to British citizens as well. In a way, part of that argument is circular, because the Law Lords also expressed the view that, if the proposals applied only to foreign nationals and there was a threat from British citizens, was it not the case that they were disproportionate if we were not applying them across
 
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1418
 
the board? Although they had concerns on those two separate limbs, there was also a connection between whether the powers were discriminatory and whether there was a similar threat from British citizens—were they therefore disproportionate because we had not exercised them against British citizens in such a way?

Mr. Boswell : Is not this the dilemma that the Minister faces? If the detention orders apply to only a handful of foreign nationals, for the reasons she has given, and if the terrorism threat to this country is much more extensive—for the purposes of the debate, we must accept that it is—it seems almost paradoxical to say that the existence of those powers, confined to foreign nationals, is in any way sufficient or appropriate to meet the threat that the country faces. It seems to be partial because it is discriminatory. If she argues that only a few people are involved, that in a way weakens the case that she has to make. I expose that as a dilemma, without necessarily resolving it.

Ms Blears: This whole area is full of dilemmas for us to try to resolve. They are not easy issues. We have said that the part 4 powers were exercised very sparingly indeed; we only ever certified 17 people. Equally, when we introduce control orders, we do not want to use this as a broad-brush measure. We want to target it on the threat. At the moment, all we have are powers of detention or no powers at all. That makes a good case for control orders, because we could have a spectrum of powers tailored individually to the threat that we face, which I hope will help us to meet the claim made by the House of Lords on proportion—this was a matter of all or nothing. The House of Lords did not feel that detention was proportionate in those terms.

Clearly, the case for control orders should be more reassuring to the country, as we shall be able to tailor the web of restrictions to meet the threat that we face, which inevitably will arise at different levels. As a general matter, as the Home Secretary said in his statement, we want control orders to be very tightly focused. We do not envisage using them in such a broad-brush way.


Next Section IndexHome Page