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13 Oct 2008 : Column 624

Counter-Terrorism Bill

8.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I come to the House this evening to set out the Government’s position on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. The provisions in this Bill have always been about protecting the British people—protecting them from the serious threat that we face from terrorism. My approach has always been to strike the right balance between protecting national security and safeguarding the liberty of the individual. That balance is a precious and delicate one, and it has meant, quite rightly, that our proposals on pre-charge detention have been the subject of intense parliamentary scrutiny. But, for me, there is no greater individual liberty than the liberty of individuals not to be blown up on British streets or in British skies.

We face a terrorist threat that is at the “severe end of severe”, and we have proposed in this counter-terror Bill a way in which the police and prosecutors could apply to a judge to enable them to continue an investigation of a terrorist suspect in the most difficult, most complex and most challenging of circumstances. This House has voted in favour of a reserve power, which could be used only where there is a grave and exceptional terrorist threat— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Home Secretary speak.

Jacqui Smith: And which would be accompanied by high judicial and parliamentary safeguards. But despite the considered view of all leading counter-terrorism police professionals that these powers will be necessary and should be there, ready for use if needed; despite the opinion of the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, the noble and learned Lord Carlile; and despite the decision of right hon. and hon. Members of this House, the other place has tonight voted to remove from the Counter-Terrorism Bill the protections that the Government believe should be in place—not to amend, not to strengthen, simply to remove.

My priority remains the protection of the British people. I do not believe, as some hon. Members clearly do, that it is enough simply to cross our fingers and hope for the best. That is not good enough, because when it comes to national security, there are certain risks that I am not prepared to take. I am not prepared to risk leaving the British people without the protections that they need, and so instead of reintroducing the proposals for a reserve power in this House, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have taken action to ensure that we have those protections in place, ready to be used if necessary.

I have prepared a new Bill to enable the police and prosecutors to do their work—should the worst happen, and should a terrorist plot overtake us and threaten our current investigatory capabilities. Some may take the security of Britain lightly. I do not. The Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill now stands ready to be introduced if and when the need arises. It would enable the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the courts to detain and question a terrorist suspect for up to a maximum of 42 days. Individuals could be detained only when that was authorised by a judge. The
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Bill’s powers would sunset automatically after 60 days. I will place a copy of the new Bill in the Library of the House.

I will continue to press forward with the other important and necessary measures in the current Bill: tougher sentencing for terrorists, stronger powers to seize terrorists’ assets, stronger powers to allow the police to remove material that they think is terrorist-related during searches, the power to take DNA and fingerprints from people on control orders, and the ability to question terrorist suspects after charge. Those measures are right. They are necessary. I want to see them enter into force as soon as possible, and I will continue to make the case for them as the Bill progresses.

We cannot defeat terrorism through legislation alone, but where legislation can help to protect the innocent from those who would inflict atrocity upon us, I am steadfast in my determination to do the right thing for the British people. I deeply regret that some have been prepared to ignore the terrorist threat for fear of taking a tough but necessary decision.

Let no one kid themselves that this issue can be made to go away. These are hard questions and tough questions, but however much Opposition Members may wish to duck them, Britain still needs to be protected; Britain still needs to be prepared to deal with the worst. I hope that, when it becomes necessary to introduce this Bill—as I believe it may—we can count on their support.

I commend my statement to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Let me first thank the Home Secretary for her statement, and for giving me some very short prior sight of it. I hope that she will forgive me if I ask, in view of the very short time that I have had, when she first instructed parliamentary counsel to draft this alternative piece of legislation.

For all the way in which the Prime Minister’s spin doctors have prevented the right hon. Lady from saying in straightforward terms that she is abandoning 42 days’ pre-charge detention, may I say to her that many in this House, including many on her own Benches, will be delighted to learn of that decision? Can she confirm to the House what happened in the other place this evening? Will she confirm that the Government lost by 191 votes, that 24 Labour peers taking the Labour Whip voted against the Government—including Lord Irvine of Lairg, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Dubs—and that there were massive abstentions by Labour peers, so that the Government were able to muster only 118 votes from a total of well in excess of 200 peers taking the Labour Whip? Will she— [Interruption.]

Is not the reason why the right hon. Lady has had to make this statement that, as the debate on this matter progressed over a considerable period, the arguments in favour of the Government’s measure became weaker and weaker, that the Director of Public Prosecutions, a past head of the Security Service, and many senior police officers and ex-police officers all said that they could not support the measure because it lacked any necessity, and indeed that when the measure came to this House on the other occasion, it was effectively rendered unworkable by the Government’s and the Prime Minister’s desperate attempts to salvage it? Is it not in
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fact the case that the Bill was introduced by the Prime Minister for reasons that still appear highly opaque and that certainly raise the taint of party political advantage, and that he then micro-managed it into oblivion by his own endeavours?

The right hon. Lady has presented to us this alternative piece of legislation. I find it one of the most bizarre things that I have ever read. Can she please explain why this measure is of any usefulness when, as she knows, at the start of the process, we said to her that we would be only too happy to co-operate with the Government on an amendment of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to provide for almost identical powers to be exercised in the case of an emergency? Can she please explain here this evening how the measure that she is putting forward is in any way advantageous over that proposal, which we put to her and to the Prime Minister in complete good faith? If it is so advantageous, why is she not taking the opportunity of amending the Bill to put the measures in it when it returns to the House of Commons, or is it that she knows very well that, when it was submitted to scrutiny, she and the Prime Minister would be exposed yet again for putting forward hollow and unsustainable arguments?

I am afraid that the right hon. Lady somewhat demeans herself when she yet again returns to the argument that those who oppose the Government’s measures are weak on terrorism. I have to say to her how profoundly I object to that. We on the Conservative Benches are perfectly prepared to be firm on terrorism, to take resolute measures and, if necessary, to pass difficult Bills, but they have to be credible and based on evidence, and they must not be put forward in a way that smacks of mere political posturing and gimmicks. I think that she knows in her heart, having inherited this mess, that that is exactly what this part of the Bill amounted to, and that that is why it has all come so badly unstuck. The fact that this poorly thought-out measure has gone is greatly to the credit of both Houses, but unfortunately it is not to the credit of the Government at all.

Jacqui Smith: I believe, although it has never been completely clear as we have gone through the process, that the hon. and learned Gentleman has just accepted the premise that, in order for the police and prosecutors to be able to do their job, there may come circumstances, given the complexity of the situation that we face, the danger of the terrorist threat that we face and the international nature of terrorism, where someone may need to be investigated for longer than 28 days before they can be charged. That, of course, is the basis of the Opposition’s fig leaf of proposing the use of the Civil Contingencies Act, but if there is one thing that has been completely clear throughout the whole process, it is that every expert who has looked at that Act as a way of dealing with the issue—the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and others—has concluded that it would be wholly inadequate to cover off that risk.

Therefore, we have to come back to whether the Opposition have been serious from the beginning in trying to find a way through this process. Frankly, I set out to try to build a consensus from the beginning to cover off a serious risk. The hon. and learned Gentleman and his predecessor have made no efforts to engage in that consensus building, which suggests to me that, in
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fact, they were the people who were not taking the issue seriously and who were not willing to look at how we deal with it.

Those who have voted against these measures, both in this House and in the other House, are predominantly, in the vast majority, from the two Opposition parties. They are the people who should take responsibility for the defeat of these sensible and proportionate measures, and in the end, the hon. and learned Gentleman has to ask himself what he would do to protect Britain from the risk of terrorism that undoubtedly exists, and to give the police and prosecutors the powers they will need. I am clear that the interests of Britain’s security must come first, which is why I have rightly produced an alternative way of safeguarding those interests. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman and his friends will support those measures if we have to introduce them.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Whatever the Home Secretary says, this was a crushing defeat for the Government, because they not only lost the vote in the Lords, but comprehensively lost the argument, and now they are in humiliating retreat. I believe it is an old naval command to say, “Make smoke, beat the retreat”, and this Bill is precisely making smoke.

These excessive powers were a dagger-thrust at our hard-won liberties. Does the Home Secretary now recognise that the longest period of detention without charge in any comparable democracy is 12 days in Australia, which is less than half the current period in Britain, let alone what she was proposing? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Members must allow the hon. Gentleman to be heard. It is unfair when Members, particularly on the Front Benches, shout across the Chamber.

Chris Huhne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Far from making us safer, which is the Home Secretary’s principal contention, will she now admit that her changes, repeated in this new Bill, would have alienated minority communities in the same way that internment alienated the Catholic community in Ulster? Democracies put a torch to their own traditions at their peril, because they abandon the high ground and get down in the dirt where the terrorists want us. Does the Home Secretary now recognise, in failing to threaten the Parliament Act and in putting forward this fig leaf of temporary provisions, that her majority in the Commons was press-ganged by her Whips, and that she had no mandate from her manifesto and no moral authority to press ahead, since her majority is based on just 35 per cent. of the popular vote?

Jacqui Smith: At least the hon. Gentleman has taken a consistent position throughout this debate. He has never recognised what those who are actually engaged in countering terrorism have recognised is the case: that there may well come a time when somebody needs to be held for longer than 28 days. He has continued to use frankly fallacious arguments about comparisons. In having clear judicial oversight of detention, all our proposals and current provisions in this country are in line with our international responsibilities. We have been through all the approaches in other countries, such
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as in France with its investigating magistrates, which enable them, in serious cases of terrorism, effectively to hold people for longer than 28 days before they reach the equivalent of a charge.

Frankly, when we are trying to engage in a serious debate about terrorism and the hon. Gentleman reverts, as he has done on previous occasions, to the charge that this is internment when it is fundamentally different, we know that he has run out of arguments and that he is not willing to face up to his responsibilities. I am afraid that that has been the approach that the Liberal Democrats have taken throughout this whole process.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Home Secretary is absolutely right: these are very serious and complex issues, and she has taken the right approach tonight in deciding not to proceed with the 42 days. In respect of the new Bill, will she give the House an undertaking that she will adopt the same approach that she adopted for the previous proposed legislation and that her door will be open to ensure that all Opposition parties will be able to proceed with the Government on the basis of consensus? The best way to approach this issue, above all issues, is for the parties to work together, in order to work as one to defeat terrorism.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend. The cross-party consideration of his Committee, which of course recognised that there may well come a time when somebody needs to be held for longer than 28 days, has certainly informed the process and much of the content of the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I am disappointed that the serious and considered approach taken by my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee was not reflected in engagement in discussion by Opposition parties in particular.

The Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill, which I will place in the Library tomorrow, is based fairly and squarely on the approach taken in the Terrorism Act 2006. They are well considered and understood provisions. I will, of course, want to hear any recommendations that hon. Members have, but it is important to say that the provisions have already been fully considered by the House in previous counter-terror legislation and build on the approach to pre-charge detention that has certainly been successful up to now.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I in no way question my right hon. Friend’s sincerity, but does she accept that those of us on the Labour Benches, be it in the Commons or the Lords, who have opposed 42 days in no way underestimate the terrorist threat of those people who wish to bring terror and destruction to our country? We know, and they have to be defeated. Does she recognise that the reason why we have opposed 42 days is the lack of any compelling evidence to justify going beyond 28 days? Indeed, two former heads of MI5 have stated that they, too, are opposed to any such extension.

Jacqui Smith: I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s sincerity in wanting to fight terrorism— [Interruption.] But when those whom we ask to carry out the difficult job of keeping us safe from terrorism in this country, the most senior police officers engaged in the investigations, suggest—

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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Andy Hayman did not.

Jacqui Smith: Actually, Andy Hayman did make it clear in his recent article that he believes that there may well be a time when longer than 28 days will need to be used. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can pontificate all he likes, but that is the case. When other senior police officers whom we task with the job say that it is necessary, and serious commentators such as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation think that it is necessary, I believe that it is right that we as a Government should respond. That is what we have tried to do in both the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the Bill that I have announced to the House this evening.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): If this is to be a serious discussion, does the Home Secretary really want to stand by the view that the former Lord Chancellor, the former Attorney-General and former heads of the Security Service have been prepared to ignore the terrorist threat for fear of taking a tough but necessary decision? Surely they actually believe that the measures are not necessary in their present form and could be damaging. She must engage seriously with that argument and not produce that kind of statement.

Jacqui Smith: The people to whom the right hon. Gentleman refers have been willing to engage in the debate. It is not them that I am criticising; it is his party and the Opposition, who have been unwilling to engage in that discussion.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend share my puzzlement as to why the number of days has become such a symbolic issue? Is not the real issue the balance between protecting the public and ensuring that power is not abused in respect of the innocent, whether the number of days for which somebody is detained is seven, 14, 42 or any other number? Is that not the advice that we on the Labour Benches have been listening to?

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend makes a very strong point. Of course, any period of detention beyond 48 hours quite rightly requires the authorisation of the judiciary, as would any period beyond seven or 14 days or that in our proposals. He makes an important point; people in this House have to be very confident that there will be no case in the near future in which somebody needs to be held for 29, 30 or 31 days in order to complete an investigation and bring them in front of the court. I do not believe that people in this House are confident of that, and the fact that they have not been willing to engage in how we solve that problem is at the very least disappointing, and in many cases downright irresponsible.

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