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24 May 2007 : Column 1428

Control Orders (Absconders)

11.33 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the three individuals subject to control orders who have disappeared and whose whereabouts are unknown.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): On Monday night, three British citizens absconded from their control orders. The control orders were imposed on them because it was believed that they wanted to travel abroad for terrorism-related purposes. Their control orders included obligations requiring them to surrender any travel documents and report each day to a local police station, and two of the individuals were required to phone a monitoring company each night. These two individuals failed to call the monitoring company on Monday evening. All three of them failed to report to the police station on Tuesday morning, as required by their control orders.

Public safety is my top priority. Therefore I am not at all complacent about the risk that those individuals pose: they are dangerous and we can take nothing for granted, even though the Security Service’s assessment is that they are not considered at this time to represent a direct threat to the public in the United Kingdom.

Locating those individuals is obviously an operational matter for the police, and a significant investigation is under way. On police operational advice yesterday morning, and to assist the investigation, I approached the High Court to lift the anonymity orders for the three individuals. That was agreed by the High Court late yesterday afternoon. As a result, the police were able to make a public appeal as part of their ongoing investigation.

I have never hidden from the House the fact that there are limitations and problems associated with the legal framework in which we must operate. As hon. Members know, I have consistently made it clear that control orders are far from being the best option. In my view, they are not even the second best option for tackling terrorist suspects. However, the Government operate under the constraints imposed upon us by Parliament, the courts and the law.

Under our existing laws, control orders are as far as we can go. That is especially the case for British citizens who want to travel abroad. Before the control order legislation in 2005, with all its inadequacies, the Government had no counter-terrorist power to attempt to prevent even that.

Unfortunately, within the limits of the existing legal framework, it is very difficult to prevent determined individuals from absconding. Nevertheless, I intend to do several things. First, I am already appealing to the House of Lords in several other control order cases about the interpretation of article 5 of the European convention on human rights on deprivation of liberty. We will consider other options—including derogation—if we have exhausted ways of overturning previous judgments on the issue.

In the next few weeks, I will outline further measures to combat terrorism, which we propose to include in a new counter-terrorist Bill. I have always believed that the security of the nation and the protection of our
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people is not only the first obligation of Government, it is, and should be, the highest priority of every party in Parliament. I therefore hope that when we introduce the proposals, we can achieve a national consensus which places national security above party politics.

Mr. Grieve: May I first apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who is away attending the Prison Officers Association annual conference?

The Home Secretary conveys the impression that the failure is the result of limitations and problems not of the Government’s making. But is it not the case that many problems are entirely of the Government’s making? The Home Secretary pointed out that these individuals are British nationals. On that basis, will he explain why it was being suggested yesterday that part of the blame lay with the House of Lords decision in the Belmarsh case, which was irrelevant because it applied only to foreign nationals? Was that not simply a piece of propaganda?

If those individuals have left the country unchecked to fight abroad, as appears to be suspected, is it not the case that they have been helped by the lack of adequate border controls, especially embarkation controls—a subject that has consistently been raised in the House, and about which the Government have taken no adequate action?

The control order powers that the Government obtained from Parliament in 2005 were extensive. May I remind the Home Secretary, in the light of his comments, that the House, including the Opposition, supported the powers, but fell out over whether there should be a sunset clause in the measure, not over the principle of control orders?

If those individuals are deemed so dangerous that their photographs are circulated, why were they not subject to greater restrictions, some of which, including tagging, could have been imposed without having to derogate from article 5? What lessons have the Government learned from the previous case in which three individuals absconded when placed under control orders?

The Home Secretary has hinted that draconian new powers are needed, yet the existing powers extend to house arrest, if the Government decide that there is such an emergency that that is justified. It is for the Government to determine whether there is a state of emergency. Is the Home Secretary saying that he will come to the House and say that there is an emergency in which the state is threatened? If so, when will he do that? Is it not the case that unless he does that, there is no possibility whatever of imposing derogating control orders, as they would simply be in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights?

It was suggested this morning that the Government might seek an extension to the 28-day pre-charge detention period. Will the Home Secretary confirm that that is completely irrelevant, because pre-charge detention can take place only when it is thought that there is an arrestable offence with which a person can be charged? The fact that the people in question are
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subject to control orders is a sign that they could not be arrested. Also, is it not a key failure that the Government have done absolutely nothing to bring forward measures that might facilitate bringing such individuals to justice? We have heard nothing whatever about allowing the use of intercept evidence, which might be a way forward. The fact that the Government now believe that the individuals may have committed criminal offences for which they ought to be tried is a clear indication of the Government’s failure to take action on that point.

John Reid: I have rarely heard an Opposition spokesman wriggle so obviously. There was not one suggestion on how we might counter terrorism; every point was aimed at excusing the Opposition’s record on this issue. Let me be straight with the hon. Gentleman on the point that he mentioned about the limitations placed on us, and the fact that we were limited in what we tried to do. His party voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, and against new control orders to tackle suspected terrorists who cannot be prosecuted or removed from the country. It voted against measures to make it an offence to glorify terrorism. The hon. Gentleman voted against the extension to 90 days of detention without charge for terror suspects. I could give a list of the measures that we brought before the House to strengthen our attack on terrorism and his party voted against. So high is the Opposition’s emphasis on homeland security that 77 days after they sacked their shadow homeland security Minister, they still have not appointed a replacement. That is a measure of what is happening here.

We will continue to bring before the House measures that we regard as necessary for the safety and security of the nation. I will continue to attempt to persuade the Opposition parties to move towards a national consensus on national security. I spent yesterday trying to do that with the Opposition Home Affairs spokesman, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), and the Liberal Home Affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I identified areas where I hope that we can carry the matter forward, but one thing is certain: when the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) cast doubt on the fact that the threat to the life and liberties of the people of this country is higher than ever before, and is at the level of a national emergency— [Interruption.] He does nothing to help the fight against terrorism. Rather than scoring little party political points, perhaps he should join the fight.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the House that this is a question session. I think that hon. Members should calm down and try to get to the facts; that is the important thing.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): When we consider the new counter-terrorism Bill, will my right hon. Friend reflect on two lessons from our experience so far? First, when we passed the control order legislation we left too much scope for interpretation by the courts, and that disappointed many of us who supported that legislation. Secondly, any new measures need to be the subject of the widest possible discussion across the country. Not many
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people understand the criteria according to which 17 out of the hundreds of people about whom we are concerned have been selected for control orders, while others have not. The maintenance of confidence in the measures that we need to take must be a matter for full discussion in the country as a whole.

John Reid: I have some sympathy with the first point made by my right hon. Friend, who I know has followed these matters with great interest. I also have sympathy with the argument that we should allow maximum time and room for discussion in an attempt to build a consensus. That is why I have promised that elements of the new counter-terrorism Bill will be brought forward to be discussed by the Home Affairs Committee, which he so ably chairs. It is also why I spent yesterday outlining some of those measures to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who speaks on these matters for the Conservative party, and to the Liberal spokesman. I truly hope that we can maximise the effort that we make in that direction.

In addition, I have some sympathy with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) had to say about judicial interpretation of these matters. When I arrived at the Home Office, I found myself questioning how a control order could be placed on a suspected terrorist for only 18 hours, because that left six hours in which that suspect was free to go about his work. I was overruled by the courts, and told that the problem was that under our existing legal conventions, 18 hours was too long. As a result, I had to reduce the period to 14 hours.

Let me be quite straight with the House, and say that these problems cannot be solved by charging more people, as some Opposition Members claim. Where there is sufficient evidence to charge people, we always do charge them. That is not the problem —[ Interruption. ] Just to mutter on about it is to avoid the question. The problem arises when we have information that is short of the threshold level that would allow people to be charged, but which suggests that they might be prepared to commit crimes that could result in the wholesale destruction of human life. We face a new form of conflict and threat: unless we are prepared to look at it in new ways, rather than just apply the old adages, we will never counter it adequately.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I apologise, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), who is attending the same conference as the Conservative shadow Home Secretary.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The shadow Home Secretary!

Mr. Jeremy Browne: All parties in this House are committed to protecting our national security—and today’s revelation is further worrying evidence of the limitations and ineffectiveness of control orders. Initially, the Government said that they would be a temporary measure, so will they now commit to implementing a more effective alternative? Will their forthcoming review of terrorism laws include a proper
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examination of the use of control orders, and of the role of the private monitoring companies that the Home Secretary mentioned a moment ago? Will he respond to concerns that the limited application of control orders is a result of restricted police resources rather than the product of any legal considerations?

Finally, will the Government now consider seriously proposals made by the Liberal Democrats and others to allow intercept evidence in court, so that more terrorist suspects can be properly brought to trial?

John Reid: Let me deal first with the question of intercept evidence in court. We have been looking at that for a considerable time, and both Opposition Front-Bench teams know that the disadvantages so far outweigh the advantages that what they are suggesting meets with complete opposition from our security and intelligence services. They are the front line, charged with the national security of this country. Consistently, time after time, they have made it clear to both Opposition Front-Bench teams that they are opposed to that approach. When those who speak for the Opposition parties make that proposal, they should admit that they are disagreeing with those who are primarily charged with the nation’s security.

Secondly, even those of us who have been around long enough to become hardened to pieces of cynical political opportunism find it very difficult when the Liberal Democrats tell us that we are not being hard enough on terrorism. I merely remind the hon. Gentleman that he voted against the control orders that he now complains are not sufficiently strong, because he thought they were too strong in the fight against terrorism. The Liberal Democrats opposed control orders. They voted against the new offence of acts preparatory to terrorism, and against a panoply of other measures.

Let us be straight, and let us be honest. Let us try to build a consensus, not in terms of what we argued about last year but in terms of an appreciation of a threat to the people of this country that is greater than anyone here can imagine. That description was given not to me but to the outgoing director general of M15, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was charged above all with countering terrorism in this country.

There is a very serious threat—and I am the first to admit that the means we have of fighting it are so inadequate that I spoke this morning of our fighting with one arm tied behind our backs. The answer is not to tie another arm behind our backs but, through national consensus, to find a way of freeing all our abilities to fight terrorism. I have already embarked on an attempt to build a national consensus. As I said earlier, if we can do that, no one will be happier than me and no one will be better protected than the people of this country.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend, because the control order regime is clearly a very imperfect way of trying to deal with the problem, but I hope that he will not adopt the route of derogation. He said that he saw control orders as not even the second-best option. Perhaps he will tell us what he thinks is the best option. Does he agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, that the best option is
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prosecution? We are concerned about the fact that the existing control order detainees are not subject to continual review to establish whether there is enough evidence to prosecute them. Last summer we recommended a series of ways of making prosecution easier, one of which was the conversion of intelligence into evidence through the use of intercept. I heard what my right hon. Friend had to say about that, but the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General have said that they consider it an important weapon that would significantly strengthen their ability to prosecute. I hope that before my right hon. Friend presents his proposals he will give serious consideration to the Committee’s recommendations, including that one.

John Reid: I repeat that we always want to prosecute when there is a level of evidence that is sufficient to reach the threshold for prosecution. That is self-evident, but it is not the question. The question is: how do we tackle terrorist suspects when we do not have a sufficient threshold of evidence to charge, but have sufficient information to be alerted, through the intelligence and other services, to the fact that they may be preparing to commit an act of wholesale human destruction? No Government and no party in this House can ignore that.

My hon. Friend asked me what we would like to do. I do not need to pluck measures out of the air; I can point to measures that we have already presented to the House, which the House has rejected although the Government wanted them. We wanted to deport foreign terrorist suspects, but were prevented from doing so by the courts’ interpretation of article 3 of the ECHR and particularly by the Chahal judgment, an outrageously disproportionate judgment stating that we cannot deport a terrorist suspect if there would be any threat to him if he were sent abroad. We must have regard to that, but we are prohibited from having regard to the threat that will be posed to the other 60 million people in the country if he remains here. That is outrageous.

We sought to detain foreign terrorist suspects pending their deportation under part 4 of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, but the House of Lords ruled against us in 2004. We then introduced the control order regime in 2005. The Tories voted against it, and court judgments have subsequently weakened it. There is no need to tell me that we have an inadequate apparatus with which to fight terrorists. I know that. We have been asking for more, and the people who are the first to complain publicly that measures are too weak to tackle terrorism are the very people who are first in the queue to weaken every measure that we introduce.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I think that we all acknowledge that the Government are in a very difficult position. It is ridiculous that we cannot either deport foreigners or detain them. I understand that one of those decisions, the one about deportation, results from the Chahal case—which, incidentally, concerned India, not Algeria or Libya—and that the decision about detention results from the Human Rights Act 1998. Is it not within the collective power of the Government and the House of Commons to remedy those problems, by amending the Human
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Rights Act and/or—because the Chahal case flows directly from the European convention—by seeking either a derogation from or an amendment to the convention? It is within our power to do those things, rather than blaming the courts for their interpretation of the law. We can change the law.

John Reid: The Chahal judgment took place under the Conservative Government. That is worth noting— [Interruption.] It is worth noting because those who claim that our problems stem from the Human Rights Act— [Interruption.] If Conservative Members listen a little, they may learn. Those who claim that our problems stem from the Human Rights Act miss the important point that the crucial Chahal judgment not only preceded the Human Rights Act, but preceded the Labour Government.

Many of the problems with which we are grappling are due to a disjunction between the inherited legal conventions that were formulated, with great sincerity and admirable morality, in the middle of the last century, and the realities of today’s conflict. That difficulty cannot be solved merely by lawyers legally interpreting the inherited legislation. It must be solved by politicians—as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) pointed out—addressing the disjunction; otherwise we will not overcome it.

I have said that we will consider a range of measures, but let me also say to the hon. Gentleman—who made a substantial point—that when we try to change and strengthen the law in the House, it would help if his party supported us, because that too is part of the struggle against terrorism. I am trying to build consensus not only on the particulars of each case that we bring here, but on the generality of addressing the disjunction between the inherited legal conventions and the reality that we face.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I ask my right hon. Friend to think again about intercept evidence, which is used in other countries. I also ask him to consider the interviewing of suspects after they are charged, which is currently not allowed, to increase the possibility of a successful prosecution. I must say that I am disappointed in the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). He is usually very constructive, but on this occasion he did not really propose anything, except the possibility of our using intercept evidence. The difficulty we face is that it is very difficult to balance the rights of the few against the rights of the many, and I salute my right hon. Friend for what he is trying to do to build consensus in this place. May I also suggest that, if he has not done so already, he should talk to retired members of the judiciary about proposed legislation to establish whether we can “get a heads up” in advance on what might be acceptable to the serving judiciary? Of course, he can only do that by talking to members of the retired judiciary, some of whom are down the Corridor.

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