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1 Mar 2010 : Column 740

Since the introduction of the control order regime in March 2005, my Committee has expressed serious reservations about renewal on all previous occasions-unless the Government were prepared to make the necessary changes to the system to render it compatible with human rights. We warned that without those changes, the use of control orders would continue to give rise to unnecessary breaches of individuals' rights to liberty and due process. Those warnings have been echoed internationally.

Those many warnings have not been heeded, and as a result, the continued operation of the unreformed system has, as we feared, led to more unfairness in practice, more unjustifiable interference with people's liberty, more harm to people's mental health and to the lives of their families, even longer periods of indefinite restrictions for some individuals, more resentment in the communities affected by, or in fear of, control orders, more protracted litigation to which no end is in sight, more claims for compensation, ever-mounting costs to the public purse and untold damage to the United Kingdom's international reputation as a nation that prizes the value of fairness.

For all those reasons, together with the serious reservations about the practical value of control orders in disrupting terrorism compared with other means of achieving the same end, my Committee has reached the clear view that the system of control orders is no longer sustainable. We believe that a heavy onus rests on the Government to explain to Parliament why alternatives, such as surveillance of the very small number of suspects currently subject to control orders and a more vigorous pursuit of the possibility of prosecution, are not now to be preferred. The system is unsustainable.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that this debate is due to finish at 8.45, and that the Minister has a right to reply? I hope to be able to call all hon. Members who want to speak in the debate.

8.20 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will attempt to be brief.

I am always pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), with whom I am in great agreement. I thought that the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights was very informative and thorough, as one has come to expect. I was disappointed by the speech made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who rather reminded me that when the Conservative party says that it is in favour of change, it is perhaps time to be a little sceptical. The historical record of the Conservative party's commitment to change suggests that it is usually in favour of change only when everyone else has already made it happen.

The Liberal party's position on control orders is well known, and it has not changed over the past year. They are a violation of fundamental rights and an expensive failure to boot. What has changed is the Government's legal problem. The control order regime has been dealt a major blow by the House of Lords judgment in the case of the Secretary of State for the Home Department v. AF, in which nine Law Lords were unanimous in their
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view that failure to disclose adequate details of the case against people subject to control orders breached their right to a fair trial under article 6 of the European convention on human rights.

Control orders are one of the worst examples of the Government's determination to use any excuse to sacrifice hard-won and traditional safeguards for our freedoms. They are hugely illiberal, involving Ministers making decisions on whom to hold, they fly in the face of the assumption that all people are innocent until proven guilty, and they are imposed on people without any reason or evidence for justification being given.

Just some of the punitive measures include electronic tagging, a curfew, bans on foreign travel, and as we quite correctly heard from the hon. Member for Hendon, a requirement to move, as well as reporting daily to a police station, a ban on access to the internet or mobile phones, the vetting of all visitors and the monitoring of all movements. The average length of a curfew is now 12 hours, and the maximum length is 16 hours. That is quite a catalogue.

Those sanctions do not just have a dramatic effect on the controlee, but often on whole families, including young children. We must not underestimate the damage being done in ethnic minority communities to the good standing of the authorities in attempting to tackle terrorism. That is the human face of control orders, and it is unacceptable. The Home Secretary can comfortably sit in his Whitehall office, dishing them out, yet this example, along with many others, shows how control orders affect the lives of hundreds of people. The consequences are symbolic of the real menace of control orders: the cost to our hard-won civil liberties and our human rights.

Control orders violate the right to a fair trial. The people under them do not know what they have been accused of, let alone what evidence there may be to support an accusation. That is the essence of Kafkaism. It is the bad dream, the nightmare: "We are arresting you. We cannot tell you why. We cannot tell you how good the evidence is against you. But you will be subject to these conditions until we change our minds."

Secret evidence is so convenient. Clearly, the evidence is not good enough to give those subject to control orders a traditional fair trial, in an open court, with an appropriate sentence if convicted. The standard of evidentiary proof required for the Home Secretary to have reasonable suspicion is much lower than that of being beyond reasonable doubt needed by a jury to convict. Perhaps I am old-fashioned. If there is not enough evidence to prove criminality beyond reasonable doubt, we cannot just lock up someone indefinitely anyway. But the Government get around that by simply withholding what evidence they have from the accused, so no challenge can be made to its authenticity or legitimacy and no appeal against the evidence can be made.

There are no time limits. Control orders have lasted for very long periods. Some cases have gone on for more than three years, despite Lord Carlile stating in his report in 2009 that he does not believe that they should be used for more than two years. That amounts to indefinite detention. I ask again, as I did, sadly, last
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year-this is groundhog day-is that really acceptable as part of a supposedly democratic criminal justice system?

It is not just the Liberal Democrats who have repeatedly pointed out the failings of control orders. There have been many high-profile court cases, not least over the past year, that inform and support our position. Seven orders in total have been quashed by the courts. As I mentioned, in June 2009 the House of Lords ruled unanimously that sufficient detail of allegations must be disclosed to suspects to enable them to give effective instructions to the special advocates representing them.

Less than two months ago the High Court then quashed those orders and ruled that the controlees in question-AE and AF-could seek compensation against the Home Secretary. As Amnesty has pointed out, the Home Secretary's decision to prioritise the secrecy of the evidence over the security threat posed by those two men calls into question the very necessity and utility of the orders in the first place. Yet, despite the sounding of that death knell, the Home Secretary and the Minister still blindly press on, wasting taxpayers money on legal action after legal action, when they should be considering whether control orders have any future at all.

According to a parliamentary answer provided in February, the total cost of legal proceedings relating to control orders stands at more than £10.5 million. As well as the money spent on defending legal challenges to the regime, the cost of policing control orders is extremely high, yet the efficacy of the orders is questionable. We have already heard from other hon. Members that seven controlees have absconded-a worryingly high proportion. Lord Carlile's report states that some controlees still manage to maintain contact with terrorist associates. Given those facts, how can control orders be described as anything other than a shambolic expensive failure?

The only other common-law nation that has tried a similar system is Australia, and it now has no one under a control order. Surely, the moral is that we should dispense with this affront to our justice system entirely and spend those extraordinary amounts of money on surveillance-if, indeed, intelligence suggests that a person represents an ongoing threat to the security of this country.

Let me turn again to Conservative Members, whose position so far as been, extraordinarily, positively Augustinian. Whereas St. Augustine asked the Lord to make him virtuous but not yet, the Conservatives want to become liberal and stand for the rule of law, but not yet. Every year a Conservative spokesman comes to the House, criticises the Government and control orders, and then goes away wringing his or her hands. That is not protest; it is impotence. Having heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Reigate, I have no confidence that the Conservatives in government would do anything differently. Certainly, their voting record does not suggest so.

The Government may argue that control orders fill a gap in the criminal justice system, dealing with suspects who cannot be tried in a traditional court, or locked up indefinitely. None of that is true. There are many alternatives, and as I said in my intervention on the Minister, the conviction rate for terrorist offences is already high. The threshold text has been relaxed and gives substantial extra flexibility for intervention. We also support greater use of plea bargaining to encourage
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those on the periphery of terrorist plots to testify against ringleaders-and, as has been mentioned by other hon. Members, there is the option of introducing intercept evidence. Our colleagues fighting terrorism in the United States and Australia find it extraordinary that we are making such a meal of allowing intercept evidence to be admitted in court.

To conclude, we believe that control orders are at odds with the fundamental principles of a liberal and democratic society-the right to freedom and a fair trial, and the presumption of innocence over guilt. As in previous years, we will not support their renewal this year, and we urge Members in all parts of the House to vote with us today to end these illiberal and ineffective orders. We must remember that we are fighting terrorism to defend the values that the House holds dear, and for which it has fought over many generations. What we must never do in fighting terrorism is to become what we are fighting-and that is the risk if we again vote in favour of what the Government want.

8.30 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): This is a very serious debate dealing with an important aspect of policy. I would have hoped that more time would have been made available to the House to discuss these matters.

The debate goes to the heart of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy. That is why we have control orders-to ensure that the public are protected. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said, this is a groundhog day debate. I have noted all the speeches. Not one has been in support of the Government. The Government will probably get their order, but not a single Member will say equivocally in the House that they support what the Government are doing.

The problem is that much has happened over the past year. There has been widespread concern. I would have hoped for a better response to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to the Minister about the need for Governments to take cognisance of what Members say when the House speaks on such a serious matter-not necessarily in the vote of the House, but when the House speaks in such debates. The Government should not respond with the usual reply-"We always assess everything all the time." I should have thought that that was the function of Government anyway.

I hoped to have heard more about what has happened in the courts, rather than Lord Carlile being trotted out on every occasion, as if he is the master of the universe and therefore if he decrees that something is all right, the House should go along with what he says. Lord Carlile is a great and noble man and a person of great integrity, but he cannot be followed on every aspect of policy just because he agrees with the Government. We need something more than Lord Carlile if we are to be convinced otherwise.

What an excellent speech we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), he said it all for us. There is no point in repeating statements. He rightly praised the report by his Committee. It is worthy of praise. Much of what I had intended to say was in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said.

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The Select Committee report was quoted by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), our concerns echoing the concerns expressed by Sir Ken Macdonald. It is a pity that when they are in office, some high officials do not say the kind of things they say immediately after they leave office. It would be very helpful for Members of the House if they were able to say that when they were in a position to do something about it, instead of merely agreeing that something needs to be done.

The Opposition are in an odd place as well. They have promised a review as soon as they get into office. I should have thought that as they have been in opposition for such a long time, there would be a ready-made policy that could be put into effect almost immediately. However, I will not criticise the hon. Gentleman too much because he was very nice about my speech last year and quoted it in defence of his remarks.

I know that the hon. Gentleman regards himself as Mr. 60 Per Cent. because of the 60 per cent. chance of holding his job. I was in exactly the same position as he is as a shadow Minister, not knowing whether I was going to get a job. I did not-that is not a good precedent for him, I know-and was probably psychologically damaged as a result, having watched Ceefax on the day after the general election to see if my name would pop up. I suggest that he switches off the television and waits for the call.

Mr. Blunt: It is a double improbability-60 per cent. times the probability of the Conservatives winning the general election. On a substantive point, the right hon. Gentleman should judge our proposals in the context that we will review all the counter-terrorism measures together. That is how it ought to be done, in a considered, thoughtful, reflective way, instead of trying to legislate in piecemeal fashion.

Keith Vaz: I shall conclude, because my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is anxious to speak, and we have known each other for a long time, so we can share the minutes that are available.

These are fundamental principles of justice, and people ought to know why they are the subject of control orders. That policy is central to the Government's counter-terrorism strategy, but why have it when the very people whom one has under surveillance abscond? It shows that there is a real problem with the policy.

Mr. Hanson: There have been no absconds since June 2007, and I assure my right hon. Friend that we take extremely seriously those absconds that have taken place.

Keith Vaz: There were some absconds before June 2007, however, and the point is that if one's policy involves an order from which people abscond, one must think carefully about whether that policy should be pursued. Anyway, I shall give my right hon. Friend that point, because we are approaching the end of the debate.

We need to look again at the issue-very carefully and very quickly. My right hon. Friend told my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North that he will keep all the issues under constant review. If my right hon. Friend is right about that, and he is able to return to the House with an alternative measure, I, like my hon. Friend, hope that he will do so.

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8.36 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate and put on the record my opposition to control orders. There have been many excellent speeches, and I cannot add to them, but I should say that, when the Government rammed through control orders in the face of the fiercest resistance from both Houses, they seemed to think that, by making them a temporary order for renewal, they could convince the unworldly and innocent that we would have a chance to review the whole measure. However, they were talking about what is happening tonight: a debate that is far too short, coupled with their earnest hope that the measure will just be nodded through. Unfortunately for them, some of us are not prepared to nod it through; we thought that it was wrong then, and we think that it is wrong now.

Ministers talk piously and at length about all the evidence that some of us have not seen, and the evidence that they cannot take to court. However, they are really talking about intercept evidence, as other Members have said, and over and over again people have presented practical solutions whereby Ministers could use such evidence and prosecute people. I repeat that nobody is saying that people on whom the Government have evidence should not go before the courts; we object to keeping people in an indeterminate limbo.

Ministers also make over and over again the point about judicial supervision, but let me remind them that judicial supervision rests on ensuring that a process has been followed. The judges do not examine the basis of the original control order, so judicial supervision is about process, not content, and it is misleading to try to mollify the House by talking about the involvement of judges. I shall not even discuss Lord Carlile.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made the case effectively about the extraordinary internal exile that people who are subject to control orders face. I have spoken to people-lawyers and volunteers-who work with people under such orders, and one of the most shattering effects on the people who are subject to them is internal exile, precisely because such people tend to come from the same sections of the community. It is particularly harrowing for them to be sent perhaps hundreds of miles from their family or relatives into internal exile. Other Members have said that many authoritarian regimes have tried it, and it has not worked in any case.

Mr. Winnick: I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister wants five minutes to reply, but in order to concentrate his mind and make him take seriously how unhappy many of us are about control orders, I must tell my hon. Friend that having voted for such orders previously I shall vote against them tonight. I hope that others will also reflect on the issue to make the Government consider much more seriously an alternative to the current system.

Ms Abbott: Control orders, secret evidence, the whole debate about extraordinary rendition-all these add up to the emergence, post-9/11, of a secret state that does not meet the test of the freedoms that this country has taken for granted for so many centuries; that is not effective; and that is undermining some of the good work of our security services by spreading disaffection in the communities thus affected.

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I would say more than that. If the emergence of a secret state is allowed to happen in this way-by that I mean not just control orders, secret evidence and what happens in and around the process of extraordinary rendition-it is not just the particular communities that some of us have in mind that are affected: in the end, that abrogation of liberty will affect us all. In recent weeks, the Government have found themselves in the deeply embarrassing position of having fought to keep judicial findings about the extradition of Binyam Mohamed secret and then being forced by the courts to reveal every last paragraph. Yet Ministers still do not see where the post-9/11 atmosphere has led them in terms of going clean contrary to what has, for centuries, been accepted as the due process of law in this country.

Control orders were wrong when the Government initially proposed them, they have been proven to be even more inadequate than some of us thought, and they are still wrong now. I will not be supporting the Government on this matter tonight.

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