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Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given the seriousness of the urgent question this morning, do you agree that it would have been appropriate for the Home Secretary, rather than the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, to have been here to answer?
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The Minister had obviously not been afforded the information with which to answer properly to the House. Mr. Speaker is committed to ensuring that the House can hold the Executive to account. The Home Secretary is in this country at an event that could easily have been rescheduled, and he—not the Minister—should have been here this morning.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Obviously the Home Secretary would ideally be here to answer such an urgent question. However, it is extremely difficult—particularly on a Thursday and when the urgent question is granted at the last minute—for the Government to rearrange all their business. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is firmly on the record. In some circumstances, however, what has happened is quite understandable.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the responses to the urgent question earlier today, the Minister said that there probably would not be a statement on the matter later today. May we have some indication of when a statement is likely to be made, given that the Metropolitan police are likely to say something about the issue later today? Is there any reason the House cannot be informed about when that ministerial statement is likely to be made—on Monday, for example? If the House cannot be so informed, what is the problem?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not for the Chair to answer today. The situation is developing and more information about it will become clear as time goes by. If the Government decide to make a statement, I am sure that they will make it at the appropriate time.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Last Thursday, Mr. Speaker made a statement to the House and a number of Members were disappointed that they were not able to ask him questions about it as they ask Ministers questions about their statements. Mr. Speaker himself canvassed the idea of a Speaker’s question time when he was seeking election to his post.

I wonder whether—through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we could raise with Mr. Speaker the idea that when the Speaker makes a statement to the House, he will accept questions about it from right hon. and hon. Members. I am sorry that Mr. Speaker is not in the Chair at the moment and so cannot respond directly. However, I hope that, having put my point on the record, I can obtain a response from him in due course.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot respond directly to him. I suggest that he write in detail to Mr. Speaker, setting out his suggestions. I am sure that he will get a response to them.

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Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

[Relevant documents: The Eighteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights (Fifteenth Report): Annual Renewal of 28 Days 2009, HC 726.]

12.48 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

May I start, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by saying that the urgent question was granted today at 10 o’clock? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in Manchester and the transport system is not yet effective enough to have him back here for half past 11. In response to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), I should say that I indicated that I would update the House at an appropriate time when further information came to light.

In our debates on what became the Terrorism Act 2006, the Government agreed that there should be a requirement for the annual renewal, by order debated in Parliament, of the extension of the maximum period of detention of terrorist suspects from 14 to 28 days. As the House will know, two such orders have been made since the commencement of the 2006 Act and the order today renews the maximum period of 28 days for a further period of one year, beginning 25 July 2009.

Over the past 18 months, pre-charge detention has been the subject of considerable debate—that is an understatement—in the House, including during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill last year. The issue has been discussed by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It would not be appropriate for me to go over those discussions today, because they have been, and will continue to be, an important contribution to the debate.

It is worth reminding ourselves of and reflecting on why Parliament agreed the exceptional 28-day limit. As Members will know, terrorist investigations are hugely time consuming. The increase from 14 to 28 days was necessary primarily as a result of major investigations into the use of encrypted computers and mobile phones, complex terrorist networks, the international nature of networks, and the use of more, and different, languages. From my perspective and that of the Government, public safety is paramount; it is our main responsibility.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend going to announce to the House how many individuals have been put on pre-charge detention because there is concern about their activities?

Mr. Hanson: I can give my hon. Friend those statistics. She will know that to date 11 individuals have been held for more than 14 days on pre-charge detention. As a result of what happened in that 14-day period, six of those 11 were held for the maximum of 27 to 28 days, of whom three were charged and three were released without charge. She will also know that in the past two years nobody has been held beyond 14 days.

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Sadly, terrorism is with us. The situation is very fluid. We are still at a level of severe threat to the United Kingdom. The issues of encrypted computers, mobile phones, terrorist networks, international languages and the need to gather evidence abroad may well require us, in response to further terrorist activity, to take actions— I hope they will be uncalled for—whereby the use of 28 days may be appropriate.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I have heard all this before. In Northern Ireland, we had this debate year after year, and it was pretty much unequivocally proved that detention without trial was a recruiting sergeant for terrorism, rather than something that helped to reduce it. Why does the Minister think that the lessons of history can be ignored today?

Mr. Hanson: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s interest in and affinity with Northern Ireland. He will know that I served as a Northern Ireland Minister for two years. He will also know, as will the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), that in Northern Ireland there have been, and will continue to be, considerable terrorist threats to the security of the population. I believe that it is important that we retain these powers. We have had, over some years, debates on extensions beyond 28 days, but now, I hope, we have a settled will that 28 days provides the opportunity for detailed investigation—where appropriate, with the appropriate legal safeguards—to ensure that we protect the public, which, for me, is key.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): An issue that has been raised in every one of these debates, in all parts of the House, has been the impact on communities. A whole section of the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights is devoted to the need for the Government to place an impact assessment before the House. Has that assessment been done, and is it available for Members to read?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for his comments, through the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on the impact on suspects and communities. I have looked at that issue this very week, and I will commission an impact assessment shortly. If the House will allow me, I will report back to it when the final commissioning has taken place to ensure that we deal with those matters.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Why is the Minister so intent on ignoring the evidence against long pre-charge detention periods? Having served in Northern Ireland, I know that it was a recruiting sergeant for the IRA in turning communities against us. However, that question has already been asked, so let me refer him to the international evidence, which suggests that in the vast majority of countries across the world, and in most western democracies—in places such as Turkey, for example—pre-charge detention periods are less than a week. The evidence simply does not stack up.

Mr. Hanson: There are, self-evidently, different legal systems with different nuances throughout the European Community. The Government judge that 28 days is a mechanism that we need, with the appropriate legal
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safeguards, to ensure that we protect the public—that is our first priority. The fact that the power has not been used for two years does not mean that in difficult, trying circumstances where terrorist activity could have been commissioned or undertaken, we would not need it again. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I gave details of 11 individuals who have been through that maximum period since the legislation was enacted, three of whom were charged as a result, and who may well not have been charged had we not had that extra 14 days, with the appropriate legal safeguards.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Minister mentions the number of individuals who were released during the 27-day period. We have discussed this extension ad nauseam in this House and in Committee. Can he indicate any level of dissatisfaction among the security services, the police and so on about having to release these individuals, because none has come my attention?

Mr. Hanson: One of my responsibilities as Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism is to look at what the police are saying about these issues. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the former assistant commissioner, Bob Quick, who said in giving evidence on the Counter-Terrorism Bill:

attack planning activity

That view has been supported by the current post holder, Assistant Commissioner John Yates. Only in the past few months, Jonathan Evans, the new director general of the Security Service, has stated:

We need to be aware of that and able to take action.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Minister, but he has not answered my question. As he knows, I head up the counter-terrorism sub-committee, and I am not aware of any great tensions or worries among the police or security services about the individuals who had to be released at the last moment. Am I wrong, or has he, or the Home Secretary, been under pressure about the individuals who have gone to the wire and had to be released?

Mr. Hanson: It is difficult for me to comment on individual cases, but the key point is that we have used the power in respect of 11 individuals, for 28 days. Three individuals were charged in that 14-to-28 day period, and the fact that three were released because there may not have been sufficient evidence, with the allegations being dropped, does not hide the fact that without those extra 14 days there would have been no possibility of charges being made.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): This is not just a question of reducing the debate to numbers and to how tough one is measured by how long the period of pre-charge detention is. There is a clear change to the threshold test, which persuaded some of the Minister’s
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former colleagues to change their views. Why would not the flexibility that the Crown Prosecution Service now has on the threshold test substitute for this measure? Why should we not reduce the period to 14 days? What proportion of terrorist cases, on the latest available figures, have resulted in a conviction, and how does that compare with other cases brought by the CPS? The figures I have seen show that terrorist cases continue to have a higher conviction rate than non-terrorist cases.

Mr. Hanson: I do not carry the number of convictions in my head. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am trying to answer to the House in an appropriate way. I will consider those issues. If the figures materialise before the end of the debate, I will give them to him when I wind up.

We judge that 28 days is a necessary opportunity, in difficult circumstances, in the event of such activity.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): On the lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland, there is a difference between indefinite detention without trial—a measure that our party opposed—as it applied in Northern Ireland and the measure before the House, which retains 28 days with all the safeguards and so on. Whatever other points may be made, it is a bit invidious to make that comparison, because the two things are not the same at all.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. He will know that internment without trial, which was used for public safety reasons in Northern Ireland at a certain time in history, is not the same as a 14-day extension to 28 days with judicial oversight. A judge has to examine the case, and I am accountable to this House and to the noble Lord Carlile, who reviews these matters. The situation is entirely different, although, if I may say so, we are dealing with some of the same problems. There might well be complex, difficult cases involving detailed trails of evidence that require a level of investigation for which 14 days will simply not suffice.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hanson: I should like to make some progress, but I shall give way finally to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). I have been quite generous.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has indeed been generous. Will he acknowledge from the Dispatch Box that the Home Office is not communicating effectively? In the Yorkshire bomb factory episode, it was 14 days before officers could get into the factory to start the investigation. It is critical for all of us to feel that we have a sense of what is going on, so that we can confidently support pre-charge detention of up to 28 days. I ask him to accept that the Home Office is failing to acknowledge its responsibility in that regard.

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend makes a passionate case for the use of the power that we currently have. She will know that I have been in post for, I believe, six weeks and four days. I will attempt to examine that issue, because there is a genuine argument, in the interests of public safety, for ensuring that we make that case. What has happened over the past two years has not required
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the use of the power, but with the threat to the UK still at severe level we need to be sure that in the event of a plot either being thwarted or happening, those who are trying to damage our constituents and disrupt their daily lives are brought to justice within a legal framework and within the time that we have.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD) rose—

Mr. Hanson: I give way for the last time. This is a short debate, and I want Members to be able to have their say.

Paul Holmes: I thank the Minister. Other democratic countries do not have anything like 28 days’ detention without charge. Typically, they have two to seven days. The USA and Canada have two days and New Zealand has one day. The Minister pointed out that they have different legal systems, and one difference is that they make extensive use of post-charge questioning to overcome the difficulties of getting into encrypted databases and so forth. The Government have given themselves limited powers to do that. What use has been made of them, and why cannot the Government adopt the practice of other countries by making extensive use of post-charge questioning?

Mr. Hanson: We could have adopted, for example, the model used in France, where pre-trial detention can last four years and it is theoretically possible for someone to be held for that full period. We could have taken the approach of our good colleagues from Spain, who can hold people for five days before handing them over to judicial authorities, after which they can be held in preventive judicial custody for up to four years. We have not taken that approach. We have made a judgment, which will be tested again in the House this afternoon, that 14 to 28 days is a reasonable period, with reasonable judicial safeguards, to ensure that individuals can be charged. Let us not forget what this is about. It is about real threats to our community, and we need to have discussions about that.

As I have mentioned, there are not just general safeguards but specific ones in the judicial system. A Crown Prosecution Service lawyer has to make an application for an extension beyond 14 days, with the senior investigating officer present. Defence solicitors are provided with a written document in advance of each application. Applications are usually strenuously opposed, and the hearings last for several hours. The investigating officer may be questioned vigorously about all aspects of the case.

There is judicial oversight of extensions. A judge can grant an extension of less than seven full days, but he can also grant up to 14 days. That remains subject to judicial oversight. In my view, there is no contradiction between pursuing counter-terrorism objectives and providing a legal framework to defend individuals’ liberties and ensure that they are represented and have the opportunity to state their case. Pre-charge detention of 14 days remains the norm, and 28 days is for exceptional circumstances such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, described.

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