Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Sir Ian, Mr Clarke, can I declare this session open and thank you very much for coming to give evidence to this Committee. Sir Ian, last year the Committee concluded that none of the evidence we have reviewed of current and recent investigations would have justified a maximum detention period. What specific evidence do you have to put before this Committee and to persuade Parliament that we should have a longer period?

  Sir Ian Blair: I think, first, the Metropolitan Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers has retained the same position for quite some time now. We do not have a case that has required us to go beyond 28 days. Our position remains that the number of the conspiracies, the number of conspirators within those conspiracies and the magnitude of the ambition in terms of destruction and loss of life is mounting, has continued to mount, is increasing year by year and a pragmatic inference can be drawn that at some stage 28 days is not going to be sufficient. The worst time to debate whether an extension should be granted would be in the aftermath of an atrocity and, therefore, we still maintain the position that, subject to cross-party consensus, if Parliament can find a way in which that period can be extended that would be a very good position to be in. That is our position and has remained so for some time.

  Q2  Chairman: Have you asked the Government for an extension?

  Sir Ian Blair: No.

  Q3  Chairman: Is this something which comes from ministers?

  Sir Ian Blair: No. We have outlined that exact position again and again. It is the same position: there is no case that we have so far had but we believe that cases will emerge and when that happens we should be in a position that Parliament has discussed this and made its own conclusions before we face an atrocity. Had the bombs gone off in Haymarket then we could have been facing loss of life in the hundreds and that would have been a difficult time to discuss an extension of this particular power.

  Q4  Chairman: I am going to put to you two quotes, one from the former Prime Minister and one from a serving minister, and I want to ask you which is nearest to your current views. This is what the former Prime Minister said on 25 August 2005: "What I am trying to do here, and this will be followed up with action in the next few weeks, as I think you will see, is to send a clear signal out that the rules of the game have changed". The Minister for Security, speaking only two weeks ago, said "With the best will in the world where we are now as a Government means that we are coming round to the view that says actually the rules of the game have not changed and to suggest the rules have changed is actually to help the other side more than our own side." Which of those two views is now closest to your position at the moment?

  Sir Ian Blair: I am afraid I am going to give a yes and a no to that. I do not think the rules have changed or should change in the sense of the balance of the rule of law but I think the circumstances have changed. Peter, who has long experience in this field, will know that when we were fighting or opposing the IRA—and I do not want to glamorise the IRA in any way -they, with very few exceptions, did not want to die, they did not want to cause mass casualties and they gave warnings. None of the three apply to the group of people with whom we are now in opposition. The circumstances have changed. The quality and quantity of the threat has changed. What you have to find is the balance between human rights, civil liberties and the protection of the public from atrocity and that remains very difficult.

  Q5  Chairman: It would not be right to raise the limit just on a precautionary basis, would it? You really have to have hard evidence before you start going for an extension.

  Sir Ian Blair: I am afraid that is not a position that we take. Obviously it is a matter for legislation. If I take a completely different analogy and we look at something in the nature of an epidemic, if you can see the epidemic moving towards you then you start to take precautions before it arrives and that is the position that we are in, I think. It is very interesting to look at other countries' experience. The way other countries deal with this is by prolonged periods of detention under judicial oversight and in a way we are not far off that because once it gets past 14 days this is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to present to a High Court judge as to the length of time and the rationale for detention. Of course, if you look at other countries, if you look at France you are looking at years; the same with Germany, you are looking at 12 months; we are doing it in a very different process and I just think we all need to think very hard about what the consequences would be of a catastrophic incident on public opinion and public safety.

  Q6  Martin Salter: This may be a more appropriate for Peter Clarke. As someone who has supported extending the period and endorses the precautionary principle which means we can legislate better outside a period of crisis, can you explain to the Committee the trend in terms of your investigations? In our briefings we have been told quite clearly that although you have not had to go over 28 days there have been some very, very serious suspects who have eventually been charged on the 28th day. What is the general trend in terms of the level of investigation and the need for more and more time? It was not that long ago when you only had seven days and then 14. Can you give us a flavour of how the investigation has proceeded and what time you need?

  Mr Clarke: Thank you. The trend which we outlined in the autumn of 2005, which we were picking up from the investigations which we had been conducting, if you like, since 9/11, and in particular since 2002, was towards an ever growing scale and complexity. This was scale and complexity in terms, as the Commissioner has said, of the number of people involved in these conspiracies but also of the way in which they were being conducted, the use of computers and encrypted data, international connections in every single case. What we were seeing was that each case seemed to get bigger and bigger. It was in the wake of the case which the last time I gave evidence to this Committee I could not go into too much detail about because it was sub judice, this was the so-called Operation Rhyme which is Dhiren Barot and his associates, that we began to think actually we are into territory here which is new and long haul and we might need to think about different ways of investigating in a way which best serves public safety. That was what drove us to put forward the suggestion that there needs to be some sort of facility for us to investigate while people were held in detention beyond what was then acceptable. Although Parliament took the decision that there was insufficient evidence of the type that it was looking for to justify an extension to the 90 days that was suggested, nevertheless those trends have continued. Without going too deeply into statistics, what we can say is that taking the totality of the cases we have had fewer cases actually under investigation in the last year, marginally, but the number of documents, exhibits, computers, telephones and the rest has increased. So the scale of each case is getting larger.

  Q7  Mr Winnick: How many of those held under existing limits, previously 14 days and for the last year or so 28 days, having been released were later charged with terrorist offences?

  Mr Clarke: Of those that have been released I cannot recall one who has been recalled to be charged with terrorism, although I could check that. What I can tell you, if it helps, in terms of statistics is that since the permissible time for detention was increased to 28 days in July 2006 some 204 people have been arrested under provisions of the Terrorism Act. Of those, 11 have been detained for between 14 and 28 days and, of those 11, eight were subsequently charged or were charged with terrorism offences.

  Q8  Mr Winnick: It does not really answer my question. My question is: of those who were released, how many of those were later charged with terrorist offences? I put it to you that as far as I understand the position, and you will correct me if that is not so, no-one.

  Mr Clarke: That is my understanding. If I do find that is not right I will submit it in writing to the Committee.

  Q9  Patrick Mercer: The police have now had over a year's experience of operating the new 28 day power. What lessons would you draw from that experience and would you have any objection to the Metropolitan Policy Authority carrying out a review of how you have exercised your new powers, as recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights?

  Sir Ian Blair: I think the lessons that we draw are actually in similar statistics that we gave to Mr Winnick which are that actually we exercise these powers immensely sparingly. We do not wish to detain people for long periods of time and when we do we carry out the most searching investigations possible so that the likelihood is that when somebody is released we are unlikely to find any more evidence. In terms of the MPA we have noted, as have the MPA, the JCHR's recommendation. The issue will be whether the MPA itself is a proper body because this really is about looking, as I said earlier, not so much at police procedures but about judicial procedures because we are here looking at what is the evidence or information presented to a High Court judge beyond 14 days and how does that work rather than an investigative process. Obviously the MPA will consider it in due course.

  Mr Clarke: I think another lesson to be drawn from it is that there is no suggestion whatsoever that the power is used to hold people who are suspected of the most serious offences for longer simply because they are suspected of those most serious offences. I have to be slightly careful because the case I am thinking of is sub judice but the alleged plot to bring down airliners from August 2006, some of those who were charged with the most serious elements of that alleged conspiracy were actually charged within the 14 day period. As soon as the evidence became available—we are working very closely with the Crown Prosecution Service—those charges were brought forward. Those who remained longer were those against whom we were seeking to find out whether or not they were involved and to what extent. Quite simply, there is no interest for us in holding people for any longer than we need to because, in a sense, once they are charged and then into the judicial system we can focus then on those remaining suspects. It is in our interests very often to charge people as soon as we possibly can.

  Q10  Patrick Mercer: Do you agree that irrespective of whether the 28 day limit is extended the Metropolitan Police should submit an annual report to Parliament on the operation of terrorist detention powers, containing full statistics and analysis of each case in which an individual has been detained for more than 14 days?

  Sir Ian Blair: If that is the wish of Parliament then we can, yes.

  Q11  Mr Winnick: Sir Ian, Mr Clarke, in order that there should be absolutely no misunderstanding, no-one in this room, for one moment, under-estimates the acute terrorist danger. Even if the atrocities had not occurred in 2005 we know there are murderers, psychopaths, out there who want to inflict slaughter indiscriminately and in the process take their own lives. We have no illusions on that score whatsoever and we pay tribute to the police—all of us—regardless of political affiliation—for what is done day in and day out to safeguard our community from mass murder as indeed, to a lesser extent, as you have already said, during the 30 year campaign of terror by the IRA who wanted to and did carry out mass murder here and in Northern Ireland itself. What I want to put to you first of all, Sir Ian, is what do you believe would be the likely impact on relations with the Muslim community if, indeed, the 28 day limit was extended, if people were held, say for 56 days or longer, and then released without any charge? Do you feel it would worsen relations between the police and the Muslim community?

  Sir Ian Blair: Can I start by making clear to the Committee one particular thing which really relates to what you said at the beginning which is, of course, Peter Clarke retires in January and I would like to pay tribute to his five years in probably one of the most difficult posts possible to undertake in policing so, Peter, thank you very much. In terms of the impact on the Muslim community, it certainly will not ease it; it will not ease the feelings of the Muslim communities but I think the most important aspect is how is this explained, what are we trying to do here. What we are trying to do, as you so well put it, Mr Winnick, is to protect people from atrocity. Again, many Muslims have talked to me about how they felt after the events of this summer and a recognition from them that had the bombs gone off how much more difficult things would have become for them in their community. It is not the relationship with the police but with other communities in Britain. I think all this is is about a balance, what is the right balance here. Are we protecting those communities properly by keeping the limit where it stands or would it be better for the limit to be further extended so that police work could possibly be more effective?

  Q12  Mr Winnick: Do you accept rather like with the Irish the overwhelming majority of Irish people in Britain, whatever views they may have had over the political issue of a united Ireland, were totally opposed to terrorism? Would you accept that the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in the United Kingdom are opposed to terrorism in this country?

  Sir Ian Blair: Absolutely.

  Q13  Mr Winnick: Arising from what I said about the possibility of antagonising such people whose loathing of terrorism is no less than ours, if you take Forest Gate, for example, would you accept, Sir Ian, that antagonism was caused when it was totally unnecessary and it could have been dealt with differently?

  Sir Ian Blair: I accept that difficulties arose out of that operation. I do not think it was in any sense unnecessary. As you will be aware, the Independent Police Complaints Commission examined the Forest Gate operation and found that the police action on the intelligence the police had at that stage was inevitable.

  Q14  Mr Winnick: On my question, do you know of any representative body of Muslims, be it the Muslim Council of Britain, who are in favour of extending the limit or any other representative body, they may not be representative but insofar as Christians, Jews and Hindus have such bodies so have Muslims? Has any such organisation representing Muslims said to you that they are in favour of having an extension beyond 28 days?

  Sir Ian Blair: No, I have not come across that but then nor does it surprise me.

  Q15  Mr Winnick: ACPO has put forward a view, together with our next witness who is coming before us at 11.15, that in fact there should not be a particular limit on pre-charge detention that in fact it should be left to the judges to decide. In other words, putting it as crudely as possible, Parliament should say "We abdicate our powers, we have total confidence in the judges and the judges will solely decide whether X, Y or Z, A, B or C should be held." Is that a close view with yours?

  Sir Ian Blair: Far be it from me to suggest that we do not have total confidence in judges. I think this is just too difficult a matter to leave wide open because if you leave it wide open in terms of the length of time you do produce a situation, which I know is not what Lord Carlile is suggesting or the President of ACPO is suggesting, which can be represented as detention in perpetuity and that cannot be right. This is where I differ from the Liberty proposal, for instance. I believe this is not a matter that should just be left open, it has got to be decided by Parliament. That is where the Joint Committee on Human Rights is. I think it is very difficult because you are selecting something entirely arbitrary but I think I have enough faith in the officers of the Metropolitan Police and other services that there will be a time by which we have extracted all the evidence that is available. Somewhere out there between 50 and 90 days is a limit which would seem very sensible.

  Q16  Mr Winnick: That is a very frank answer to my question. Would it not be the case—I do not want to put words into your mouth obviously—if that view of ACPO, which you have disagreed with, was put into effect, leaving it to the judges and no fixed time of proper detention laid down by Parliament, would that not be seen as internment?

  Sir Ian Blair: Again, that was why I did not use that term. We can use any number of terms if you leave the space just empty and that is why I think we have to have a point of closure.

  Q17  Chairman: Following on from Mr Winnick's question, if you get the extension you want of 28 days, you accept it will have a disproportionate effect and impact on the Muslim community?

  Sir Ian Blair: I think it will be a matter which will have to be explained very carefully to the Muslim communities and couched in a protective mode. If we can recast this language to be the language of safety rather than the language of criminal investigation then I think we help. I do think it is unfortunate that we have become fixed on a number of days as a limit but that is where we are.

  Q18  Chairman: What percentage of those detained under the current limits are of the Muslim faith?

  Sir Ian Blair: I am going to ask Peter but it is a significant proportion.

  Q19  Chairman: Over 50%?

  Mr Clarke: Well over 50%. I do not have the exact figure.

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