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21 Feb 2008 : Column 561

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of Session 2007-08, Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights (Ninth Repor t) : Annual Renewal of Control Orders Legislation 2008, HC 356.]

1.52 pm

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,

The purpose of the order is to renew the control order elements of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which automatically lapses after one year unless renewed by order subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. The effect of the order is to maintain the powers set out under the Act until the end of 10 March 2009. That will allow us to continue to use control orders to tackle the threat posed to national security by suspected terrorists whom we can neither prosecute nor deport.

I am conscious of the limited time, and I will try to be as quick as I can, but it is important to put the threat that we face in context. As hon. Members know, in the past few years, we have witnessed several appalling attacks on our country. As the director general of the Security Service stated in November last year:

The threat is clearly genuine, serious and unparalleled in our country’s history. It is unparalleled because of the suicide dimension, which is new.

Faced with a threat of that magnitude, it would be irresponsible to say that there was a simple solution. We need a range of responses to reduce the risk of further terrorist attacks. The order should be viewed in that context.

I freely admit that the balance between human rights and security is paramount and that no party in the House has the monopoly on supporting security or human rights. All hon. Members accept that we all seek that balance. We must ensure that we protect all our fundamental values and civil liberties while defending the most of important—the right to life.

Let me make it clear that prosecution is—first, second and third—the Government’s preferred approach when dealing with suspected terrorists. Somehow in the past, a view has been put abroad that we cannot be bothered to prosecute so we invented control orders to avoid that route. In 2007 alone, 37 people were convicted of terrorism-related offences in 15 cases.

However, we are constantly seeking to improve our ability to prosecute suspected terrorists. First, as hon. Members know, we introduced new offences in the Terrorism Act 2006, which have already been used successfully to prosecute those involved in terrorism. Secondly, we propose measures in the Counter-Terrorism Bill to extend post-charge questioning of suspected terrorists. Thirdly, we have accepted the
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Chilcot recommendation that we should introduce intercept as evidence, provided that the conditions outlined can be met. However, as the Chilcot report states:

Two other proposals made in last year’s renewal debates—about the use of the threshold test and turning Queen’s evidence—are already in place.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): On prosecution, does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be much satisfaction that Parviz Khan was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment? The charge against him, to which he pleaded guilty, was intention to kidnap a Muslim British soldier and have him beheaded. Others were also prosecuted and convicted on related offences. Is not that excellent news? It is likely that Mr. Khan will never be released unless the authorities are satisfied that he is no longer a danger to people in this country.

Mr. McNulty: I hope that my hon. Friend is right on the latter point. I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments. It is interesting that roughly half the people who were convicted at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 pleaded guilty. That is testimony to the resolve and expertise of our police and security services.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I should like to add my congratulations to the police and the security services on a brilliant operation to protect that brave Muslim soldier whose life was so despicably threatened. However, is not there a lesson to be drawn from that case? Until the matter went to court and the people involved found that they had no option but to plead guilty, there was widespread concern in the Muslim community that they had been wrongly arrested and that Muslims were being unfairly targeted. Does not the case show the importance of getting as many cases as possible into court and keeping as few people as possible under alternative arrangements such as control orders?

Mr. McNulty: I agree 100 per cent. That has been the Government’s position throughout. I am currently carrying out a little analysis of the broad press coverage in the wake of Operation Gamble, which involved Khan among others, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. If I feel so inclined, I may play back their words to some of the people to whom the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) refers. It is right and proper that due process takes place. However, there is a difference between those who freely assert their view of reality, largely from a position of ignorance, and the prosecution and police authorities who rightly do not do that to afford the defendants due process.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Minister knows that the terms of reference of control order review groups require them to keep the prospect of prosecution under review, including for breach of the order. Will he answer a more specific question, which was raised in a letter from the Joint
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Committee on Human Rights? At control order review groups—CORGs—meetings, does the Home Office inquire whether there is active investigation of the individual by the law enforcement agencies with a view to prosecution, rather than asking the vaguer question of whether there is scope for prosecution?

Mr. McNulty: I would not be so dismissive of the vaguer question. If there is the prospect of prosecution as part of the review, it must be as a result of some activity that has changed since the previous review. I therefore do not accept that point, save to say that CORGs review—and rightly so, as the hon. Gentleman suggests—not only the prospect for prosecution, but exit strategies and revocations, should those prosecutions not be forthcoming, an issue to which the Joint Committee also referred.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Minister began by saying that there is a threat from about 2,000 individuals. They are clearly linked with Islamic extremism, so will the Minister outline, first, how mosques have provided a safe haven for some of those people and, secondly, how they have helped to expose such individuals and how they can help in future?

Mr. McNulty: I should very much like to go into such detail—most of it positive, rather than negative—but I fear that if I do so, I may stray beyond the bounds of the renewable order before us. Perhaps this is a hostage to fortune, in the general sense, but a fuller debate on the Government’s prevent and contest strategy—in particular the prevent part, which goes to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions—might be long overdue, so I will happily take that back to the appropriate business channels.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I want to bring the Minister back to the narrower issues of the motion. He mentioned the control order review groups and he will be aware that Lord Carlile has talked about his increasing concern that there should be a finite limit on the period to which control orders should apply. He gave a figure of two years. Can the Minister help the House by saying in how many cases we are already beyond that two-year point and how the Government are responding to the issue?

Dr. Evan Harris: Seven.

Mr. McNulty: It is seven, but I shall develop the point about our response, in respect not just of exit strategies, but light touch orders—the lower end of control orders, as it were—in the body of my speech.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: In a moment. I said what I did at the beginning, before delaying and allowing my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North to intervene, because an hour-and-a-half long debate can go one of two ways: either I can try, vainly, to get through my speech and, being a generous soul, take as many interventions as I can, because this is an important and serious debate; or I can put my head down and plough through the speech, and then allow hon. Members to have their say. We are in a hybrid mode at the moment, which I am perfectly happy with. I will give way to the
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hon. Gentleman, then address some of the questions that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised.

Mr. Ellwood: I should be grateful if the Minister continued to take interventions, which would allow us to tease out the Government’s strategy on countering terrorism, because I understand that we have not had a proper debate. If this is it, I am afraid that one and a half hours does not do the issue justice. To bring him back to my question, he says that he does not have time to talk about what the threat in Britain is, but surely that is the starting point. The House should understand and debate what that threat is before renewing any more orders.

Mr. McNulty: I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s tail-end point, but this is most profoundly not the occasion on which to have that wider debate. I said—if I may be rather modest and generous to myself—that I thought that the suggestion that we should have that broad debate about the Government’s wider strategy, of which the order is but a very small part, is one that I would certainly take up with the relevant business channels. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are constantly discussing such matters in one form or other— [ Interruption. ] No, here, too. However, a broad debate about all aspects of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, not least the preventive dimension, is one that we should have, with time set aside, and I shall take that suggestion back. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s introductory point in part, which is why I have tried to reiterate what I think everyone in the House knows anyway, which is the serious nature of the threat. However, in respect of his broad comments about how we should have that wider debate with regularity, I am happy that that should be the case.

Notwithstanding my brief introduction to the nature of the threat and some of the other things that we are doing, I need to continue. Control orders remain an important part of what we seek to do in that broad strategy. Notwithstanding all the improvements that I have outlined—in terms of legislation, how we do what we do and what the Chilcot implementation group might come up with—as Lord Chilcot has said, we believe that there remains a small number of suspected terrorists whom, for now, we can neither prosecute nor deport. Control orders remain the best available means of dealing with such individuals, but absolutely not the most satisfactory way, as I and many members of the Government have said in the past.

In the past three years, control orders have been an important part of the fight against terrorism. Through a tailored set of obligations, they have helped to prevent individuals from engaging in terrorism-related activities, as well as restricting and disrupting them. Control orders are not imposed arbitrarily, which is a view that is sometimes abroad. A judge must agree that a control order is necessary and proportionate, and they are subject to regular and rigorous control. There are currently 14 control orders in force, and only 31 individuals have ever been subject to one over those three years.

We think that control orders are an important tool and they continue to enjoy support from outside the Government. First, in the landmark House of Lords
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judgment in October 2007, the Lords crucially upheld the control order system, although not in all terms, so we were disappointed that they did not agree with the Government on every issue. On article 5 of the European convention on human rights—the right to liberty—the Lords judged that no control order then in effect needed to be weakened. Indeed, the judgment put the Government in a stronger position than before, as the Lords effectively indicated that a 16-hour curfew would not breach article 5.

On article 6—the right to a fair trial—the judgment was complex and has therefore been widely misreported. The Lords did not say that any case before them had breached the right to a fair trial; rather, they said that in some, possibly exceptional cases, the current provisions in the 2005 Act might breach article 6. The Lords therefore read down the Act, to ensure that the procedure adopted under it would be compatible with article 6 in every case and concluded that the High Court should consider the point case by case. That forms part of the mandatory review of each individual control order by the High Court, which is one of the many safeguards in place to secure the rights of the individual. Therefore, we remain firmly of the view that the legislation and the order before us are fully compliant with the ECHR.

Secondly, the independent reviewer of the operation of the 2005 Act, the noble Lord Carlile, continues to view control orders as necessary. He said that

The other two statutory consultees—the intelligence services commissioner and the director general of the Security Service—share that view. I should like to place on record the Government’s thanks to Lord Carlile for another thorough report, which I am sure will add a great deal to today’s debate. We will, of course, reply in due course.

Dr. Harris: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: Probably not, because I am mindful that others want to speak, but if I have time towards the end of my speech I shall do so.

Of course, control orders are not perfect. However, we have worked hard over the past year to improve them. [ Interruption. ] It is not in my nature to refuse people, and as the hon. Gentleman is on his toes, I will let him intervene.

Dr. Harris: The Minister said that he felt that the Carlile report was useful to aid debate, but does he accept that it would have been more useful had there been more time to consider it? As with last year, it was published only days before this debate, which does not give enough time either to Select Committees to give it due consideration or even the Government to consider it and respond to the specific inquiries that people may have. That has happened previously and the Joint Committee has expressed its concern previously. Will the Minister give an undertaking, in line with what the Prime Minister has said, that there will be more opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, including of the independent reviewer’s report, in future years?

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Mr. McNulty: I would hope so. I certainly cannot give that undertaking, other than to say that I will try my best. To be entirely fair to Lord Carlile, the delay last year, such as it was, was entirely the Government’s fault, as I said at the time, and not his. To be perfectly fair, this time round we got the report on the Sunday or Monday of the half-term week and published it at the very first opportunity, on the Monday just gone. I understand the point about that being less than satisfactory, in respect of this debate three days later, except that the report is effectively the fourth quarterly report, which sums up the other three, too, so that people should at least be clear about the background numbers and actions taken under the Act. But I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that a bit more time would have been useful for everyone concerned.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has referred to some of the criticisms of the orders. I accept that they are not perfect, but I think it is fair to say that we have worked hard over the past year to improve them. For instance, last year there was much talk of exit strategies for those on control orders. I am unconvinced by the idea that there should be an arbitrary end date for individual control orders, in part because each order addresses an individual risk, but I am firmly of the view that control orders should be imposed for as short a time as possible, commensurate with the risk posed.

Consideration of appropriate exit strategies is an integral part of the formal quarterly review for every control order. An order can be renewed only if it is necessary to do so. Indeed, over the last year we have seen two control orders revoked and another two orders not renewed. In fact, the control orders of 17 of the 31 individuals who have been subject to an order are no longer in force. So I do not entirely agree with Lord Carlile about a two-year limit, although I agree that, if we can put more rigorous review mechanisms in place as a control order remains in place for longer, we should do so. As I have said, however, we should start from the premise that they should be imposed for as short a time as possible, bearing in mind the degree of risk involved.

As I mentioned last year, we take very seriously the prospect of prosecuting individuals subject to control orders. These matters are considered on an ongoing basis and reviewed formally each quarter. Over the past year, we have put new procedures in place, and the police and CPS provide more detail on the prospects for prosecution to the court.

As well as greater use of exit strategies, Lord Carlile also notes the difficulties in enforcing so-called light touch control orders. I agree that this is problematic but I am not convinced by his suggested alternatives. Over the past year, we have reviewed all current control orders, and the monitoring procedures to which they are subject, in order to ensure that they are as effective as possible. In a number of cases, where it was necessary and proportionate to do so, the control orders were strengthened. That does not mean that my mind is closed to the notion of dealing differently with the so-called light touch end of the control order regime. I just mean that I am not entirely sure that the antisocial behaviour order and other routes suggested by Lord Carlile are appropriate.

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We have also been working on legislative improvements to control orders. The Counter-Terrorism Bill, which was introduced on 24 January, includes measures to improve the policing of control orders. The Bill will also give hon. Members a further opportunity to debate the control order system more generally, including points raised in the JCHR report published yesterday. I look forward to seeing those suggested amendments.

In summary, we are confronted by a threat from terrorism which is determined, indiscriminate and brutal. We must protect the public while ensuring that our fundamental rights and values are protected, and we must do that overwhelmingly within the body of the rule of law, our statutes and the terrorism legislation framework. There are and will be very small matters of exception in that regard, of which control orders are a part. I say freely that they are part of the delicate balancing act between security and human rights. They are also a significant part of the Government’s, um, ability to protect the public from the risk of terrorism. I hesitated because my speaking notes use the word “toolkit”, which is a rather pathetic word in this regard. It belongs in the dustbin, along with “roll-out”, “stakeholder” and all those sorts of things.

In all seriousness, not renewing the 2005 Act would increase the risk to the public. That is a prospect that we cannot allow. I take on board many of the issues that hon. Members, Lord Carlile and the Joint Committee have raised in order to try to improve the system, but, as Sir John Chilcot has said, the system needs to remain to fill a vital gap in regard to risk. I commend the order to the House.

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