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22 Feb 2010 : Column 22

British Passports (Dubai)

3.31 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the use of fake British passports by persons implicated in the murder of Mr. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh; the timing of the Government's knowledge of the incident; the process of establishing the facts related to the issue; and the implications for British passport holders.

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Although new facts continue to emerge, let me set out the facts as we know them.

On 19 January, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in Dubai. The first press reports about the death appeared on 28 January. On 31 January, the Emirati authorities confirmed to our officials press reports that European-I repeat, European-passports had been used, and undertook to provide us and others with further details as their investigation proceeded. That was followed up by embassy officials in Dubai and Abu Dhabi on several occasions. On 12 February, the Emirati authorities informed UK officials in London that UK passports might-repeat, might-have been involved. On 15 February, they confirmed that and provided the details of six British passports involved. Soon after, on the same day, they provided a full briefing to the media.

On 17 February, the Prime Minister announced a full investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. On 21 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Abdullah bin Zayed, the Emirati Foreign Minister, who confirmed that they would be sending us details of at least a further two British passports that might have been involved. That information was received by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today. It would be wrong of me to prejudge the SOCA investigation, but let me make it crystal clear that no part of the British Government, either Minister or official, had any foreknowledge of Mr. al-Mabhouh's killing, the use of British passports in it or any clandestine operation being planned. To suggest otherwise is to make an irresponsible allegation without any basis in fact.

I know that there is considerable concern among hon. Members about the possible role of the Israeli authorities, so I should set out our exchanges with them. On 18 February, the Israeli ambassador came to the Foreign Office for a meeting with the permanent under-secretary, and earlier this afternoon my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Lieberman, in Brussels. My right hon. Friend underlined the deep discontent felt in this country, in this Government and in this House over this issue. He made it clear that we were concerned about the implications of the killing of Mr. al-Mabhouh for stability in the region. He stressed that we require full co-operation from the Israeli authorities with the SOCA investigation. He said that we stand ready to work with Israel on bringing stability and peace to the middle east, but that we can do so only on the basis of trust and mutual transparency.

Hon. Members are rightly also concerned about the incident's impact on the British nationals involved. I can confirm that our embassy in Tel Aviv has been in
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touch with all six whose passports have already been reported as having been misused. We will do all that we can to ensure that they get the consular support that they need.

Mr. Hague: I am grateful to the Minister. Across the House, we are agreed that the misuse of British passports is a grave matter that must be prevented. I have three quick sets of questions.

On the timing, can the Minister clear up the discrepancy between the Dubai police saying on 30 January,


and the Government's insisting that they knew nothing of the forged identities until 16 days later? Was it simply that the police did not pass on those identities, what efforts were made to secure them, and why does the Minister think that the information was not supplied for so long? Yesterday, the Dubai authorities indicated that diplomatic passports may have been used by other suspects, without naming any other country. Is that the matter to which the Minister referred in relation to the information obtained from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed yesterday?

On the wider implications, is the Minister concerned that relations with the United Arab Emirates have been damaged by these events? Our ambassador was summoned to its Foreign Ministry yesterday; can the Minister say what message was delivered? It has been reported that the cloned passports contained irregularities which could have marked them out as suspect. What plans are there to guard against the future fraudulent use of British passports?

Finally, looking to the future, have the Government sought, or has the Foreign Secretary sought in his meeting with Mr. Lieberman today, assurances from Israel, as a friendly nation, that it will not sanction, for whatever reason, including in any intelligence operations, the misuse of British passports?

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I should apologise on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, who would obviously have been giving this reply were it not for the fact that he is in Brussels for the Foreign Affairs Council and the meeting with Mr. Lieberman.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the discrepancy, as he called it, between what has been said about what information was provided on 31 January and on 15 February. Let me repeat that what had been said in the press, namely that some European-I repeat, European, and not specifically UK-passports might have been used, was confirmed to us on 31 January. It was not until 15 February that the Emirati authorities confirmed what they had said on 12 February only might be the case, namely that UK passports might have been used.

To answer directly the right hon. Gentleman's question about whether the two passports to which I have been referring and the added information that we have provided today relate to the question of whether diplomatic passports might have been involved: no, that is not the point at issue.

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The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter of relations with the United Arab Emirates-an ally with which we want to work as closely as possible. We have sought to give full assurances that we had absolutely no foreknowledge of this situation. Any suggestions in the media that we might have had any foreknowledge are completely untrue and unjust. I think that our colleagues in the United Arab Emirates have taken our assurances in the spirit in which they were intended.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the future use of passports and what work needs to be done. I am very keen not to prejudge the SOCA investigation and, for that matter, the Emirati investigation, both of which need to be allowed to pursue their courses fully so that they can get to the bottom of all the matters involved.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): There is widespread concern at the misuse of British passports, or cloned passports, in this matter, and I thank the Minister for his assurance that the authorities will continue to investigate it with the utmost thoroughness. However, there is even wider concern about the unlawful killing itself. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has communicated disquiet to the Israelis about this matter. I urge the Government to continue to do that, but not to lose sight of the wider picture: blockade of Gaza and the illegal settlements on the west bank, despite the best efforts of President Obama to dissuade Israel, are the greater issues. In putting pressure on the Israelis as best we are able, we must keep open a productive dialogue so that those wider issues can be pursued with the utmost diligence.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is absolutely right: we consider ourselves to be a critical friend to Israel, and the emphasis is fully on both those words. That means that we have expressed very fully and regularly our unhappiness about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and what we believe to be unfair treatment of the Palestinians. We have also made it clear that we wholeheartedly disagree with the illegal settlements on the west bank and with the annexation of East Jerusalem. I should also say that the European Union made clear today its views on the killing, and we wholeheartedly supported its statements.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend tell me when the international community will take action to deal with the crimes committed by this rogue state of Israel, which sends out assassination squads; which, as I have seen for myself, imprisons and blockades 1.5 million people in Gaza in violation of the Geneva convention; and which persistently violates international law by building settlements in Jerusalem and on the west bank? If it were any other country, would we not by now have imposed sanctions and an arms ban?

Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend speaks very forcefully on this issue, knows well the situation in Israel and has visited on many occasions, but I do not want to speculate about what may or may not be the precise facts of the situation. We need to ensure that the investigations conducted by SOCA and the Emirati authorities are pursued with diligence, and that the Israeli authorities co-operate fully with those investigations. As I said to
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the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), we make clear on a regular basis our opposition to some of the policies advocated by the Israeli Government that do not promote security for Israel or stability, as we see it, in the region.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Does the Minister not share the concern of many about the comments of senior members of Hamas that there could well be an escalation of violence between Hamas and the Israelis anywhere in the world? What can the Government, and specifically the Foreign Secretary in his discussions with Mr. Lieberman this afternoon, do to try to prevent such a happening?

Chris Bryant: Of course we oppose the militant position adopted by Hamas. We have said regularly that we would be only too happy to speak to Hamas if it were possible to do so once it had adopted the four conditions laid down by the Quartet. That is why we believe that situations such as this do not contribute to the middle east peace process. Nor, for that matter, do the attacks that have been undertaken by Hamas.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that he has had a conversation with the Home Secretary or Ministers in the Home Office about the forging of passports? Last Friday, one of my constituents came to see me. He had received his new British passport, which had a picture of somebody 30 years younger than him-a completely different person. I am not suggesting that it was a forgery, because it was clearly a mistake, but the issue of passport forgery in this country is also very important.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 26

Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The integrity of the British passport system is absolutely vital to our security, and we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that we are ahead of the game in knowing what terrorists may try to do to undermine it. I have not spoken to the Home Secretary, but I have spoken to officials in the Home Office today, and one of the major points that the SOCA inquiry will need to investigate is how we can ensure that such a situation could not be repeated.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I cannot resist the temptation to say that if there are any passports in the Home Office with photographs of someone 30 years younger than myself, I should be very happy to receive one.

More seriously, what undertakings have the Israeli Government given about providing the co-operation that the British Government seek from them? Will Her Majesty's Government make public either the results of any such co-operation or a failure to provide it?

Chris Bryant: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is doubtless about to produce his election literature, and I hope that he will not use photographs that are 30 years old, although that is common practice among some of his colleagues.

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, we need to ensure that we have full co-operation with the SOCA report from the Israeli authorities. When speaking to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary this afternoon, the Israeli Minister was left in absolutely no doubt about that, as was the ambassador when he came to see the permanent under-secretary last week.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 27

Prisons (Early Release)

3.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the release of prisoners under the early release scheme, which is known as the end-of-custody licence. The scheme will be brought to an end on 12 March this year. All prisoners who are eligible for release on ECL on or before 12 March will be so released. Prisoners who have, as of today, been formally notified, under form ECL3, of release dates under the scheme up to and including 9 April, will also be released. No prisoners will be released on ECL from and including 10 April.

In the past 13 years, the prison population has increased dramatically. When I became Home Secretary in May 1997, the population stood at 60,300; the most recently published figure-that of 19 February-was 83,800. Predicting the prison population and matching places to meet demand has always been difficult and inevitably imprecise. I can certainly recall, during my first 18 years in the House, early release schemes on three separate occasions-in 1984, 1987 and 1991-when the Government of the day faced what amounted to crises in handling pressures on the prison population.

In June 2007, my predecessor as Justice Secretary, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Falconer, introduced ECL to manage temporary pressure on the prison estate and to guarantee that prison places were available for all those sentenced to custody. ECL enabled prison governors, under existing prison rules, to release on licence up to 18 days before the end of their sentence offenders who had been given a determinate prison sentence of between four weeks and four years. The scheme specifically excluded offenders convicted of serious violent crimes or sexual offences subject to registration requirements; those who had broken the terms of temporary release in the past; and foreign national prisoners who would be subject to deportation at the end of their sentence. The scheme was later amended to exclude anyone convicted of terrorism-related offences.

ECL was explicitly introduced as a temporary measure. I have always said that we would end the scheme as soon as we could and recognised that, although necessary as a temporary measure, it was inherently unsatisfactory and potentially damaging to public confidence in justice-public confidence that is otherwise reasonably high and rising, particularly in the light of falling crime levels. I have told the House on a number of occasions that I would bring ECL to an end as soon as I judged that it was safe to do so. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has underlined that, for example on 7 May 2008, when he said at Prime Minister's questions:


We are now at that point, and we are there because we have worked hard to increase the capacity of the prison estate.

In consequence of the measures that we have taken, prisoners have not been held under Operation Safeguard in police cells since September 2008, or been held in court cells since February 2008. The House might wish
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to compare the situation with that in 1991 when, as I recall, a total of nearly 376,000 nights were spent by prisoners in police or court cells.

Twenty-seven thousand additional prison places have been provided since 1997, including 6,700 since April 2007. We now have well over 86,000 places by way of operational capacity, with headroom of around 2,500. We anticipate that withdrawing the ECL scheme will increase the prison population by between 1,000 and 1,200 prisoners. My assessment is that on the basis of our plans further to increase the capacity of the prison estate, we can safely manage the forecast prison population this year, in 2011-12 and beyond, and we are on track to provide a total of 96,000 places by 2014 through our capacity building programmes.

Given the headroom available in the estate, we are therefore in a position to end the scheme, but that does not mean that there is no longer pressure on prison places. The system continues to operate at levels that are close to capacity. I pay tribute to all those who work so hard to protect public safety and help offenders to turn their lives around.

Protecting the public is the first priority of this Government. We have acted decisively to tackle crime, and the use of prison has been central to that. Prison will always be the right place for the most serious, persistent and violent offenders, and it is vital if we are to protect the public properly. There are 75 per cent. more serious and violent offenders in prison now than in 1997, and people who commit serious offences are going to prison for longer. I recently announced that, as a result of decisions by the judiciary, the minimum tariff for murderers had been increased by three years, or 18 per cent. Indeterminate sentences have been introduced for the most dangerous offenders-more than 5,000 have been imposed by the courts in the first three years of the scheme-and we will continue to ensure that there are places for them.

At the same time, we have introduced tougher, more visible and more effective community sentences, and we are giving communities a say in the types of projects that offenders carry out. In the case of less serious offenders, such non-custodial sentences are often a better alternative to prison, in turning offenders away from crime and further cutting reoffending rates. However, whether a particular offender is to be given a non-custodial or a custodial sentence is, of course, always a matter for the judges or magistrates concerned, and not for Ministers.

We are also working hard to implement the findings of the Corston and Bradley reviews on women and mentally ill offenders. I am certain that in such cases diversion from prison is often the best approach for both the offender and the wider community. We will continue to examine the number of women and mentally ill people in prison.

As a result of the Government's strategy, there has been an overall fall in crime of 36 per cent. since 1997. That is the most substantial and sustained reduction since the war. Violent crime is down by 41 per cent. according to the British crime survey, the most reliable measure, and the chances of being a victim are at their lowest for a generation. We have transformed the justice system into a public service that is focused on the needs of victims and the law-abiding majority, and we will continue to do so. I commend my statement to the House.

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