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7 Jun 2007 : Column 421


12.33 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on counter-terrorism. The House will know that we face an unprecedented threat from terrorism. It is the duty of the Home Secretary to ensure that our response provides the best possible protection against that threat, on a personal, local and national level. That is why we have already increased spending on counter-terrorism to £2.25 billion in 2007-08. It is why our security services have never been better resourced. Since 2001, MI5 has doubled the number of people it employs. We have given greater powers to the police, such as increasing the length of time they can detain terrorist suspects from 14 to 28 days.

Furthermore, in April we refocused the Home Office to concentrate on more effectively protecting the public and securing our future. The new Home Office brings together responsibility for managing the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, including the new Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. In pursuit of the same objectives, we have now completed a comprehensive review of potential counter-terrorist legislation. Legislation forms a relatively small but vital part of our response to the terrorism threat. It sends a signal to those who wish to plot terror and turn people towards violent extremism that their actions will not be tolerated, as well as offering substantial protection. This threat is continuously evolving. It is crucial that our responses evolve with it, to include legislation that is effective and proportionate, to provide the maximum possible security and liberty for the law-abiding majority.

In approaching this, I have tried to incorporate three elements. First, I want to strengthen our capability to counter terrorism and protect this country from acts of terrorism. Secondly, I want to try to ensure that as we increase these powers we also, where appropriate, increase the parliamentary, judicial and sometimes public scrutiny to ensure a counterbalance against any arbitrary use of these strengthened powers. That is essential in a democratic society. Thirdly, it is my intention, wherever possible, to proceed to build national consensus on national security—in other words, to build, wherever possible, cross-party and cross-Parliament support for the measures being introduced. That is why I shall spend some time today explaining the process that I envisage as well as the measures. It is in that context and spirit that we will bring forward new counter-terrorism proposals in a new counter-terrorism Bill later this year. Today, I want to outline our approach and the main areas of the law that it might strengthen.

I start from the position that it is desirable to reach a consensus on national security wherever possible, so I want to ensure that there is extensive consultation before any legislation is introduced. Today’s announcement is only the start of that process. For good reasons, previous counter-terrorism legislation has been fast-tracked through Parliament. We have an opportunity here to do things differently. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister,
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my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police and I have already met members of the Opposition.

Today, following these meetings we will outline the main areas and direction of measures that we wish to pursue. We will then conduct further discussions and consultation, after which we will produce further detail, including a full Bill content paper, which will inform further discussion. It has been said to me, and I accept, that the devil is often in the detail of proposals, so we will then share draft clauses before introduction and seek the scrutiny not only of Opposition parties but of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights on key areas of the legislation.

I have also today asked Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, to undertake a report on what is proposed. In addition to discussions that we will have in Parliament, with colleagues on my own Back Benches and in the Opposition, I am also committing the Government to discussing fully with those organisations that have an interest in the proposed legislation—the police, representatives of the judiciary, civil liberties groups and communities. I hope that the House will accept that this is a more comprehensively consensual approach than we have ever taken before. It is the best way to approach establishing national security measures. To begin the consultation, I have today produced a short document; copies will be placed in the Vote Office and it will be available on the Home Office website.

I now turn to a number of specific areas, of which the first is pre-charge detention. The decision to increase pre-charge detention limits from 14 to 28 days has, I believe, been justified by subsequent events and means that we have been able to bring forward prosecutions that otherwise might not have been possible. For our part, we have made it clear that the Government’s position is that we believe it is right for terrorist cases—I stress terrorist cases—to go beyond 28 days, where necessary; but I want wherever possible to build broad agreement on the way forward. I would, therefore, like to begin discussions now on how we might do that. I am not being definitive, but one way might be to legislate now to extend the current limit while making it clear that there would be extra further judicial and parliamentary oversight if such measures were ever implemented. That would obviously continue to include judicial approval every seven days for any request to hold suspects. It might also, for instance, include further detailed annual reports to Parliament on the pattern of use of such events, with an accompanying parliamentary debate. That is one example, but we will discuss it further with all interested parties, including the Opposition.

Beyond that, there are other measures—for instance, on post-charge questioning. We are planning to legislate so that in terrorist cases suspects can be questioned after charge on any aspect of the offence with which they have been charged. With regard to adverse inferences drawn from that, we would apply the same rules for post-charge questioning as those that currently apply to pre-charge questioning. In addition,
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we are considering notification requirements, similar to those already in place for sex offenders, for convicted terrorists who leave prison.

Where terrorists are charged with general offences, we believe the sentences should be enhanced to reflect the additional seriousness that terrorist involvement represents.

The House will know that I do not consider control orders to be our best or most effective option in countering terrorism. However, having said that, we need to make what we can of them, so we are proposing a number of changes to control orders, including measures relating to fingerprinting, DNA and powers of entry that do not exist at present, but need to exist to enhance the effectiveness of not entirely satisfactory measures that would benefit from strengthening. However, we do not want to propose any amendments at this stage that might pre-empt forthcoming judgments from the House of Lords.

I accept that measures on data sharing and DNA are always difficult and controversial for the House, but we would also like to legislate to place data sharing powers for the intelligence and security agencies on a statutory basis, and put the police’s counter-terrorist DNA database on a similar statutory footing to the national DNA database. I stress that neither of those measures will alter the powers of the police and agencies to collect material.

On the subject of intercept as evidence, the Government’s position has consistently been that we would change the law to permit intercept evidence only if the necessary safeguards could be put in place to protect sensitive techniques and to ensure that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. I have not personally been persuaded that this is the case, but I accept that the right approach is to address the issue carefully and fully before deciding whether to use intercept as evidence. That is what we are, and have been, doing. However, we believe that we now need to reach a conclusion on the issue. Therefore, subject to further discussions to agree the structure and time scale, I am today confirming and announcing to the House that we will commission a review of intercept as evidence on Privy Council terms.

There has been some discussion of stop and question outside in the press. Consideration of powers to stop and question, currently available to police in Northern Ireland and suggested for introduction across the UK by the Northern Ireland Office, is at a very early stage and is currently subject to a process of internal Government consultation, and we will report the outcome of that in due course.

I believe that terrorism remains the greatest threat to the life and liberty of this nation and the many individuals who make up this country. It is the greatest challenge we face and it is important that our legislation continues to evolve to meet that threat, just as the terrorists will continue to evolve and advance their means of constituting it; but I firmly believe that any legislation to deal with that threat to national security should be taken forward with the full support of the House, where possible. I hope that the process I have outlined today will enable us to do that to the greatest effect.

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David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for sight of his statement. The Leader of the Opposition and I have been in consultation with him and the Prime Minister on these matters before today. We made a number of proposals to them and we can support a number of the Home Secretary’s proposals today.

On issues of security, I agree with the Home Secretary that the national interest is best served when we can proceed on the basis of consensus, so it is very regrettable that during the consultation process the incoming Prime Minister pre-emptively made announcements through the media about matters that should be above party politics. On our side, we will continue to try to achieve consensus where possible.

We can support, in principle, several of the current proposals. First, we can support the proposals on sentencing, subject to proper judicial process. Secondly, I see no objection in principle to a number of the other measures, including one that the Home Secretary did not mention today, but which was in today’s press, and has been called the “terrorist offender register”—the travel notification arrangements.

I have to tell the House that there have been serious failures in the equivalent operation of both the sex offenders register and the control order regimes, to which the Home Secretary referred, with large numbers of escapes from control in both cases. We should remember that no legislation will work if the Government do not implement it properly—a key issue in this area.

Thirdly, we strongly welcome the intervention to lift the ban on post-charge interview of terrorist suspects. We first proposed that two years ago.

Fourthly, we have been calling for some time for the Government to lift the ban on using intercept evidence in terrorism cases. The Leader of the Opposition recommended to the Prime Minister that a Privy Council Committee should come up with a proposal for the use of intercept evidence, although the Home Secretary referred to it in slightly different terms. For that to work, the Committee has to produce its recommendations in time for the Government to incorporate them in the terrorism Bill in November, so I urge the Home Secretary to make those last two measures his first priority. They would have the greatest impact, by enhancing our ability to prosecute terrorists, which is at the end of the day the only sure way to protect the public.

When the Government previously tried to insist that 90-day detention without trial was essential to the security of the nation, the House did not believe them, and rejected the idea. Since then, the evidence is that the House of Commons was right. We are told, for example, that the 28-day limit did not handicap the complex investigation into the alleged Heathrow terror plot last August, which is presumably why the Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police told the shadow Attorney-General yesterday that there was no pressure from the police for an increase beyond 28 days. Many counter-terrorism experts fear the reverse: that such a move will cause resentment in the Muslim community and damage our ability to gather intelligence—the critical weapon in our battle against terrorism.

At 28 days’ detention, we are already the most draconian of the common law democracies. America,
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with all its sensitivities on the subject, allows only 10 days’ detention before indictment. In December, the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor said that there was no evidence for extending the 28-day limit. Will the Home Secretary tell the House what has changed since then?

I have set out several proposals that we can support. Our priority must be to prosecute and convict terrorists—nothing less. That is the only way in which a liberal democracy can ensure that terrorists remain locked up until they no longer pose a threat to public safety. It does not require the House to undermine the ancient rights that millions died defending. We do not defend our way of life by sacrificing our way of life; we cannot protect our liberties by sacrificing our liberties.

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for a number of the proposals and for his general approach and the manner in which we have been able to conduct our discussions, which augurs well. I extend those comments to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I will not deal with all the points the right hon. Gentleman raised, but I will deal with two big ones.

On intercept, I can confirm that the idea of looking at the matter in Privy Council terms arose from a suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition in discussions with the Prime Minister. I was happy to accept that and I announced today that, in principle, we will do that. I am also aware, as the right hon. Gentleman will be, that the Leader of the Opposition has written to the Prime Minister in the past 24 hours to carry forward those discussions. The sooner that can take a concrete form, through the usual channels, the better. We can leave that to them, but we have the basis for proceeding and seeing whether we can examine the matter again. In the last instance, Governments cannot abrogate the responsibility to make decisions when they believe that that is in the national interest. That is why I used the words “wherever possible”. But I also believe that there is an obligation on us to try to find some way of resolving apparent impasses.

Let me deal with the issue of 28 days. The right hon. Gentleman raised two questions: the first was about what has happened in the past year and the state of the evidence, and the second was about the view of the police. On the evidence, I have said that I do not think that there is an open-and-shut case for going beyond 28 days. I do not believe that we are talking about something that is self-evident. However, the experience in the course of the last year—particularly in relation to the events of last August and the charges that followed—suggests that the evidence for going beyond 28 days has strengthened. For instance, in one or perhaps even two cases, charges were laid at the 28-day limit. Combined with the statement from the police that they can envisage circumstances in which it might be necessary to go beyond 28 days, that means that we ought to reconsider that possibility—I have not said how far beyond 28 days we should go.

On the police view, the police have not put pressure on us in the sense of saying, “This must be done, or there will be a crisis.” However, it would be untrue to infer that they have not asked me to consider the matter and to raise that consideration inside and outside Government, because they have. They have said two
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things: first, they can envisage circumstances in which they might have to go beyond 28 days and, secondly, that they would like me to raise the matter for discussion again, which is precisely what I am doing. I hope that that is a balanced way of presenting the issue. I personally believe, as do the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—the next Prime Minister—that it is necessary to go beyond 28 days. However, we accept that others have reservations and we therefore want to see whether we can achieve any consensus on the matter.

Finally, it is one thing to say that we should prosecute and convict. That is our earnest desire and our key priority. It is what our whole legal system is geared towards. We all agree on that, but that is not the question. The unavoidable question that confronts us all is: what should we do when there is sufficient information to suggest that there might be the possibility of murder on a massive scale through an act of terrorism, but the evidence does not reach the threshold required to allow us to bring charges? Whatever we do on intercept or post-charge questioning, it will not be a magic solution. We will still face the question of what we, as a responsible Government, should do if there is sufficient information to convince us that there is a chance that there will be murderous mass slaughter in a terrorist attack, but we cannot get the level of evidence that would enable us to bring a charge within 28 days. That question will not go away, whatever we do on the other issues.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I believe that this will be the first ever terrorism Bill that has been approached so openly and consultatively and I welcome that. The debate on a 90-day limit was dogged by the lack of a robust and open police analysis of the issue. It was clear that 28 days was justified, but that 90 days would not have been. In this consultative process, may we have at least three pieces of robust police analysis of the current situation? The first should be on the issue of the 28-day limit on detention. The second should be on stop-and-search powers. It is not yet clear that the existing legislation—sections 43, 44 and 60—is not sufficient, if properly used by the police. The third should be on the current state of play on control orders, as an operational issue for the police and security agencies, so that we can consider whether there are any further measures—other than those that my right hon. Friend suggests—that would improve the control order regime.

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I have found him enormously helpful as a constructive critic of the Government’s approach to these matters, as well as of specific measures. We regard the Home Affairs Committee as an essential element of the process.

I will try to make sure that we give a balanced view—including the view of the police—of where we think the case has strengthened, or indeed moved in the other direction, in relation to going beyond 28 days. I would merely point out that I have not mentioned any figure today. I have not referred to 50 days or 90 days. I have said that I can envisage the need to go beyond 28 days, but that was said in the spirit of opening a discussion.

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I want to make it absolutely plain that discussion on the stop-and-question powers is going on inside Government. I did not raise the matter, and neither did the police in mainland Britain. It derived from one source. However, it is also evident that at least one source has major misgivings about it. The problem is that the source is the same in both cases. [ Laughter. ] We will carry on with the consultation on these matters.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I warmly thank the Home Secretary for his statement and the cross-party spirit in which it was delivered. If his successor and the incoming Prime Minister are able to maintain that approach, and if we are all able to ensure the right balance between the defence of our customary British liberties and the new security measures, we as an Opposition party will seek to play a full and constructive role in the process. Will he confirm that there is scope for us to introduce other proposals and ideas that are not in his statement? For instance, we could explore the use of plea-bargaining procedures to encourage informants on the periphery of terror plots to provide more information, and we could look at the threshold test used by the Crown Prosecution Service when bringing charges in terror cases. Will he confirm that we will be able to introduce such things over the next few months in time for the debate on the Bill in the autumn?

The Home Secretary has said that control orders are full of holes. Will he confirm that far from just operational tinkering of the existing control order regime, there will be scope for its wholesale review? Does he agree that if we are able to build on the apparent cross-party view that there is a real case for expanding the possibility of questioning post charge, it will significantly diminish the case of those who believe that we need once again to reopen the vexatious and time-consuming debate on the period of detention without charge that can take place?

John Reid: On the first point, people will be able to put forward other proposals—I hope that they will. I do not think that we have a monopoly of wisdom on this. This is a national question of national security, so a national effort that includes contributions from everyone is to be welcomed. I will pass no comment on the individual measures that the hon. Gentleman suggests, except to say that they are interesting proposals that we should look at.

The hon. Gentleman asks the question of whether doing x will lessen the case for doing y. I do not see this as a zero-sum game. Whether or not we have intercept evidence and post-charge questioning, I genuinely believe that we are confronted with a difficult question. I understand why those who are committed to the present legal traditions find the question so difficult. However, there are times when there is a disjunction between inherited legal conventions and frameworks and the present reality, because things arise that have never been imagined or anticipated.

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