Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)


4 JULY 2006

  Q320  Mr Beith: But it was not the lack of legislation that stopped them even considering over 1,000 cases of prisoners leaving prison.

  Mr Blair: I totally agree if you take the foreign prisoners case, that is a different issue, and certainly in most cases because it was not the legal inhibition there. However, foreign prisoners on any basis are actually not the whole of the problem. If you look across the piece in asylum and immigration, for example, before we introduced the non-suspense of appeals in the asylum legislation, it was very hard for us. We were having a struggle even to return people to countries that are now part of the European Union on the basis of asylum claims, so what I am saying to you is not that legislation is the whole of the answer, but I really do disagree with people who say that it is not a significant part of it. That is why I think it is important that we go back over legislation again and look at it and I think, whatever Government is in power at the moment, this debate about the laws will be important. There is another reason it is important, that it also does send a signal, and signals matter in this area. For example, on anti-social behaviour legislation, it has mattered that those signals of the strength of feeling and intent are there.

  Q321  Mr Beith: Signals are no use if the administration does not back them up.

  Mr Blair: Of course, that is absolutely right, but that is why I say you need both, you do not need one.

  Mr Beith: Mr Willis has a point on this.

  Q322  Mr Willis: Prime Minister, you must admit just in these four walls without anybody listening that you make exaggerated claims for legislation which have never been borne out in reality. If you take the 2001 Queen's Speech, you said you were going to transform secondary education and you introduced the 2002 Education Bill, to create earned autonomy for schools, there are going to be powers to innovate, and at the end of the first year three schools had applied to change the length of the school day. That was the total commitment and four years later you are actually introducing a new piece of legislation with exactly the same claims. Is it not that sort of keeping your ministers busy which worries us rather than actually moving forward in terms of a clear agenda?

  Mr Blair: No, because again I do not agree that we have not introduced greater autonomy for schools. We have in relation to—

  Q323  Mr Willis: But that Bill did not, Prime Minister. Nobody wanted it.

  Mr Blair: Well, you say that, but if you take the legislation we have just been discussing, in my view, that will make a significant difference to the way secondary education is run in this country.

  Q324  Mr Willis: But the Bill failed in 2002. That is the point.

  Mr Blair: I do not accept that it failed obviously because I think that the whole specialist school system which we are now building on with trust schools and city academies is a move to where schools specialise more and they have greater power over their own assets and the way that they run their school. I am not sitting here saying that legislation is the answer to everything. All I am saying is that legislation plays an important part and I think in relation to the Home Office, as education, I think, is somewhat different, but in relation to the Home Office I think it plays a very, very important part in enabling those at the front line to do their job properly.

  Q325  Mr Beith: I am quite disappointed there because I thought you started trying to change the balance; I was hoping so. You wrote letters to all of these new ministers you appointed and you published them, telling them exactly what they were to do. There was more emphasis in these letters on actually running their departments, and this was a novelty. I do not think Clement Attlee ever found it necessary to send out letters to all his ministers, telling them what they were going to and publish them, but you did. Was that the beginnings of a recognition that it is no use passing legislation unless you actually run the country efficiently?

  Mr Blair: Well, of course, in any department you have got to deliver the things you are supposed to deliver and departments sometimes do it well and sometimes do it badly, but I do not accept that legislation has not got a role to play. I think it is a somewhat false argument because we are suggesting you either go down this route or you go down that route. Now, I think, as I said to you a moment or two ago, that most of this discussion takes place around the context of the Home Office, most of it does, and all I am saying to you is that when I go through those 50-odd bits of legislation, I cannot think of one of those where I, as it were, say now, "I wish we hadn't bothered with that. It was no use", because I think in all these areas they have been important in enabling those people at the front line, the law-enforcement people, to do their job better. Is that a substitute for also having the right delivery mechanisms in the Department? Of course not, and one of the things that is changing the whole time in the Civil Service is a far greater focus on project management. Again if you take the Immigration Department, for the first time that Department is now removing more people than the unfounded asylum claims coming in. Now, that has been done by project management and by delivery systems being put in place by the Department.

  Mr Beith: After nine years. It took nine years to get round to putting the emphasis where it needed to be placed.

  Q326  Mr Doran: Back to criminal justice policy—it is quite clear that that policy is driven by you and that was underlined by the speech you made in Bristol a couple of weeks ago. That was a thoughtful speech and almost philosophical, I would say, but there is also a lot of exasperation in there. Are you frustrated at the response of particularly the legal profession and the judges to your policies?

  Mr Blair: I think there is a culture in politics and in the legal profession that is totally understandable that fails to take account of the way the world has changed. I think you can see this very clearly in the circumstances where we discussed cases, for example, of the deportation of people we think are a threat to the well-being of this country. We take the view that basically the risk should remain with us in this country rather than with them if they come from outside our country and cause trouble. I think that is a system that needs rebalancing and I think you can go across the criminal justice system at the moment, and I have said this over many, many years which is one of the reasons for the legislation we have introduced, and at critical points of the system it does not come down on the side of the victim in the way that, in my view, it should do. I also think incidentally, which is why it is interesting to go back over the period of time before we came to Government, this is an argument that has been building in post-war society for about the last 20 or 30 years because community and social life has fragmented, crime has risen, you have got mass migration across frontiers, you have got organised crime that is of a different nature from anything 30 or 40 years ago, and the systems are struggling to keep up with it. The systems were born out of a period when there was rank injustice inside the criminal justice system, when people who were poor and oppressed were often the victims of the criminal justice system as defendants or as the accused, and I think the world has just changed and I think we have got to change with it. That is why I sometimes say that this is not an issue of liberty simply, it is also an issue of modernity. It is about the nature of the change and I still think that our political and our legal culture is behind the times in this.

  Q327  Mr Doran: That sounds like your Bristol speech again.

  Mr Blair: It is what I believe and I think it is an important debate to have in the country. I also think it is important that we, as law-makers, do not use one language when we are out talking to the media and another language when we are actually legislating in here.

  Q328  Mr Doran: But what you are talking about now is cultural change and there was an important passage in your speech, or certainly which I think is important, where you said, "I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered, intellectual and political debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world, in other words, crime, immigration, et cetera". If that is your view, why did we not have that debate nine years ago and it would have been possible perhaps then to get much more acceptance for the change that you want and we would have been able to legislate in a much more coherent, co-ordinated and strategic way?

  Mr Blair: Well, it is not for the want of trying. The views I expressed in the speech in Bristol, it has not been a sort of cathartic process whereby I have suddenly come to a different view from the view I held previously, I have always held this view, but if you look back on the legislation that we have introduced over the past nine years, at each stage that legislation has effectively been diluted and watered down. That has happened and it has happened for perfectly understandable reasons, because people have said, "Well, this is a step too far". If you take, for example, the issue, which is a very controversial issue, but the issue to do with trial by jury in respect of serious fraud cases, there has been report after report done showing that, as a result of those trials taking place by jury, the cases take months and months and months, they cost millions of pounds and it is very hard for people to get prosecutions.

  Q329  Mr Beith: But that is not what the report on the most recent case said. In fact the most recent case which you will be aware of, the Jubilee Line case, the report said that that conclusion could not be drawn.

  Mr Blair: What the Jubilee Line case said was that, because of the very narrow way we had to put the potential piece of legislation, we could not put it before the House because of the controversy there has been, particularly in the House of Lords, about it. Because of the very narrow way we had to draw the rules, then that Jubilee Line case probably would not have qualified for trial without a jury, but the point I am making is this: that these are very, very difficult questions, but if we do not understand that we have to answer those questions in a very clear way, then we are not, in my view, going to make a difference to this law and order problem. You can see this, for example, on the Proceeds of Crime Act. The Proceeds of Crime Act allowed the police to seize cash that is on somebody who they suspect may, for example, be a drug-dealer, but they are able to take the money. It was £10,000 of cash he had to have, but we have now reduced it, I think it was announced yesterday, to £1,000, so they are able to take that money from the person and the person then has to go to court to prove they came by that money lawfully. Now, there is no doubt at all that that is a reversal of the normal burden of proof and, therefore, at one level it is something contrary to the normal principles of the law and the judicial system. My view is that, unless you are prepared to give those types of powers, you are not going to make a difference in the hard reality of life in the street on the community. What I am saying is that we need to have the debate about the balance of liberty in modern society and some people may say, "Look, that's a step too far", and that is why we have had a lot of these cases challenged in the courts, but my view is that, unless you are prepared to take those methods, and I would actually take them further, then we are not going to make a difference to law and order on the ground. The only way we got any action on anti-social behaviour was after the legislation was passed. Before then there was nothing for these communities to do, no ASBOs, no dispersal orders, no ability to shut down crack houses, nothing. Each of these orders in a sense changed the normal legal processes. I would like to go further in those things, but we have got to have the debate about whether it is right or wrong to do that, and I think the debate needs to happen actually away from the headlines of the individual case which is why in the speech I did in Bristol I actually did not get into the controversial cases that have happened recently. I did not want to do that. I wanted to have the debate about the philosophy that underlies our criminal justice system.

  Mr Beith: I think Mr Dismore wants to question where you really do want to go.

  Q330  Mr Dismore: Looking at the Human Rights Act, what exactly do you see the problems with the Human Rights Act as being? Are they substantive or is it just how the courts have been interpreting it?

  Mr Blair: The important thing about the Human Rights Act is to recognise that it is merely the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights. Actually Parliament has the right expressly, and it has to do it expressly, to override the Human Rights Act, so actually your issues are with the European Convention on Human Rights. The truth is that it is possible within the Convention for the courts to take a different view of the balance between, say, liberty and security, but for various reasons they have chosen not to. The most outstanding case was the Chahal judgment in 1996 before we came to power where the courts said that the right of the accused or the convicted to be protected from potential abuse when they returned to their own country is paramount and supersedes any right that the collective in society has to be protected against their activities. Now, it would have been possible frankly for the court to have taken a different view, but they did not, so I actually think sometimes the issue is not so much human rights legislation, it is where you strike the balance between the human rights of the individual, the person who is accused or convicted, and the human rights of wider society

  Q331  Mr Dismore: If we take the Chahal case and the Government's attempt to overturn it, intervening in the case presently before the court, it is not just a question of the Human Rights Act of course, but it is our international obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture.

  Mr Blair: Correct.

  Q332  Mr Dismore: In our own domestic legislation as well there is an absolute prohibition on torture. Would you be prepared to send somebody back, knowing there was a real risk that they would be tortured if they were returned to their country?

  Mr Blair: No, but I think you can deal with this. This is where, as I say, the balance of the risk is really important. My point would be this: that we should be able to get an assurance from the particular government that they will not abuse or torture the individual. Up to now, what the courts have been saying both at a European and a national level is, "Unless you can guarantee this", possibly by having an NGO actually going in and investigating their judicial system, "we are not accepting that". In my view, the risk in the end, our obligation, is to try and get that assurance from the government, but our obligation does not extend to saying in all sets of circumstances, "We have got an absolute obligation to protect you when you are causing trouble or committing criminal offences in our country". Do you see what I mean? I think for most members of the public, they would say, "Look, if you come to our country, you should behave properly. If you misbehave or commit a criminal act, then the risk that something is going to happen to you falls with you". I think that is not an unreasonable position. Yes, we should go as far as we can go to get assurances from other governments, but it is absurd, I think, that I cannot return someone to a country that they may have a problem in respect of when this particular individual I have got to keep in our country is inciting terrorism or even committing acts of terrorism. That is where, as I say, I think we have got the system completely out of kilter with common sense. Now, I am prepared to go to that government and get an assurance in respect of this individual, but the idea that if I cannot prove absolutely that they are not going to come to any harm when we have got to keep them here, why? Surely the rights of the wider society as a whole to be protected from the activities of that person are of greater force than the risk that, I am afraid, they have taken upon themselves by breaking the rules of our society.

  Q333  Mr Dismore: Is not one of the real problems with the Human Rights Act and the criticisms that have been advanced recently based on cases like the Afghan hijackers or the Anthony Rice case, not really part of the Human Rights Act itself or anything to do with it, but actually really they are examples of operational failures or bad decision-making and what has happened is that the Human Rights Act has become a kind of scapegoat for the shortcomings of the decisions in those particular cases?

  Mr Blair: I think there is something in that in the sense that, particularly with the Human Rights Act, as I keep saying, in the end Parliament can expressly override it, so the Human Rights Act per se you can always get round if you really want to as Parliament by saying, "Well, we'll legislate despite it". The real issue is to do, I agree, with the European Convention on Human Rights. My point is that the reason we have joined this case, which is before the European Court of Human Rights at the moment, it is a case brought by Holland which is exactly the same problem that we have, but actually all European countries are beginning to have the same problem because all of us are subject to the same global threats of terrorism, the same mass migration, the same problems of organised crime, and if it is being said, "Here is this range of countries and you can't return people to them, no matter what they're doing in your country", you end up in a situation where obviously it is not merely the individual case that is a problem, but you are sending a signal in a market that is highly organised that if you can claim to come from one of these countries and get here, you cannot be removed.

  Q334  Mr Dismore: If we take the Afghan hijacker case, which is one of the ones which has been criticised, there it was expressly accepted by the Government before the immigration adjudicators that the hijackers were not a threat to our national security, and the reason they were not returned was a finding of fact, that they were being targeted by the Taliban and would probably be assassinated if they were returned. The Government decided not in the end to use its legal powers, for example, to get judicial review and challenge that decision, so the reason the Afghan hijackers are here is nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, but to do with the failure of the Government to challenge that decision.

  Mr Blair: The problem with the Afghan case, and I agree with you in this sense, the Afghan case was a very specific case, but the problem we had there is that if someone comes and hijacks a plane in order to get asylum in this country, it seems to me quite important that you send out a signal that you are not going to gain anything by hijacking an aircraft. Therefore, the worry was not necessarily that these people wanted to come here and specifically commit acts of terrorism here, but unless you were to send a signal to the outside world, "Hijack a plane and come here, you'll go back to where you come from, no matter what your problem is in that country" because we cannot allow any sense that people can gain by a hijack, that was the problem that we faced there, that it was a very particular case, but it is very frustrating for us that the people who hijacked an aircraft, we have now got to let them stay in this country.

  Q335  Mr Dismore: Is not the real issue around the Human Rights Act the failure of the Government to explain the benefits of the Act in terms of court cases where the little person has beaten the Government, for example, where there has been a lot of sympathy for the case or generally how it can be seen to influence and improve public services? If you take some examples, like the Zahid Mubarek case, the forcing of the inquiry there which has led to some really important recommendations, or the Beryl Driscoll case where she took on social services and was allowed to remain with her husband in the same care home after sixty years of marriage when they were going to be separated, or the Diane Blood case and the celebrated fertility issue, those are all very positive abuses of the Human Rights Act, but all we ever hear from the Government at the most have been criticisms of, and attacks on, the Human Rights Act rather than actually favouring the positive things that it has achieved.

  Mr Blair: We do talk about the positive things, but I do not think it is completely the fault of the Government that these cases gain a high profile. I think the way it is, these cases do, but the basic point which is the reason I made the Bristol speech and why I am very happy to discuss it here, but I think we really need to have a proper debate about it, is, irrespective of the Human Rights Act, irrespective of individual cases that catch the headlines from time to time, there is a very, very deep-rooted, philosophical debate about the balance between liberty and security that I think we need to have, as policy-makers, because if we do not have that, then every time we legislate, to go back to the issue of legislation again, it is unclear the philosophical framework within which we have decided to do that. Now, as I say, my view of this is that you have got to tilt the system and rebalance it significantly, but that is a view that is obviously strongly open to challenge and I think it is good if we have the debate, but the reason why I get frustrated by this sometimes, and it goes back to the original point that Alan was making to me, I do not think that the systems within the Home Office are the total answer. As I said in my Bristol speech, they are part of the answer, but if you have not got the legal framework right within which these systems are operating, they face an uphill struggle, is the reality of it.

  Mr Beith: Can we turn to another aspect of the way you do things, and Mr Yeo.

  Q336  Mr Yeo: A rather important aspect of current policy is the nuclear review. It is right, is it not, that you see a new generation of nuclear power stations as an important part of your political legacy?

  Mr Blair: I do not know if it is an important part of the legacy or not. I think it is difficult for me to see, on the basis of the evidence now, that we can have secure energy supplies or tackle climate change effectively without replacing our nuclear power stations.

  Q337  Mr Yeo: That actually was a view that you formed before you embarked on the review, was it not? You and the Chief Scientist, David King, were determined that we should have a new generation of nuclear power stations and the review has been a device so you can try and deflect some of the opposition within your own Party.

  Mr Blair: When you decide to have a review into a particular aspect of policy, a fortiori it is an area that you have decided requires rethinking, otherwise you would not be reviewing it. Now, I will not hide from you that my thought was, "Look, things are changing so fast in relation to climate change and energy security, I think it is time to rethink this", but obviously if the review had come out with evidence which showed this was a bad idea, and we have not published the review yet, but the first cuts of it I have already talked about, then of course my mind would be differently made up. I think when you look at the evidence, it is very hard to see how you are going to get to where collectively, as a country, we have decided we want to be, namely with more secure energy supplies and tackling greenhouse gas emissions without replacing nuclear power, but if the review came out with evidence that showed that was a bad idea and that was not the way to go, then it would not be what we would do.

  Q338  Mr Yeo: Though what you have just said of course is completely counter to what was said in the 2003 Energy White Paper.

  Mr Blair: Well, it is not completely counter to it, but you are absolutely right in saying that, whereas we left the question open and we were very sceptical at that point, certainly I will be absolutely open with you, I have changed my mind. I think that the fact of what I see happening in energy supply today and my appreciation of the science of climate change, and I think that the intensity and urgency of that challenge mean for me that unless someone can show to me through energy efficiency and renewables that you are going to be able to cure the whole of this problem, then I think that nuclear power goes back on the agenda, yes, I do think that.

  Q339  Mr Yeo: I think what you have said this morning though will reinforce the fear in people's minds that this is essentially a decision about nuclear. You did not challenge my description of what actually was announced as the energy review when I described it as the "nuclear review". There are actually very considerable concerns outside that, by focusing so much on nuclear, the Government will not recognise its failure to follow up the 2003 White Paper, which did put an emphasis on energy efficiency, which has not been followed through in policy, and the danger now is that, having said, "Okay, we're going to have some more nuclear", that has ticked that box and you can ignore the other very important aspects that the review should be dealing with.

  Mr Blair: Well, I do not agree with that at all. First of all, let me just make it absolutely clear that the review will deal with, and I think people will be quite surprised at some of its conclusions on, energy efficiency and renewables and we will deal with them every bit as radically as anything to do with nuclear. Secondly, I do not actually accept that we have done nothing on energy efficiency since then. I think we have done a significant amount, but I agree one of the reasons for the review was not just about nuclear, but it was to do with the whole issue to do with energy, as I say. There are two things that are making energy policy at the top of the agenda of every single major Western country. One is the fact that energy prices have something like doubled or trebled in the past few years and if you see what is happening, for example, with China and the Chinese economy, this is going to become an even bigger issue in the years to come, and the second thing is climate change. Four years ago, though I do not know that we had these discussions four years ago, probably not, but anyway if we had been talking about this four years ago in a meeting like this, I doubt energy policy would have featured, but I can tell you I cannot remember a European Council a few years ago when we were discussing energy policy. It is now on the agenda of every single European Council, it will dominate the G8 that we are going to have in a few days' time and here we are discussing it, and the reason for that is that things have changed.

  Mr Yeo: All of which makes it disappointing that we have not had more—

  Chairman: I am sorry, but we have to move on.

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