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4 Mar 2010 : Column 1032

Ms Harman: I know that the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is wider than just housing-he has mentioned schools, transport, health services and the economy-but there will be an opportunity to raise the question of housing at Communities and Local Government questions next week. One thing that has been important for the rural economy is the minimum wage, which his party opposed, and one thing that is important for the rural economy is the opportunity for people to have affordable housing, and it is often Conservative councils that oppose planning applications for affordable housing by housing associations.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the request for an early debate on the role of the Electoral Commission? If the public are to retain faith in the probity of our electoral system, we need the Electoral Commission to come under pressure to answer the questions about whether filtering central American money into political parties in this country is legitimate, both legally and morally.

Ms Harman: It is urgent that all these points are answered, and there will be an opportunity to raise the matter in questions on the Electoral Commission next Thursday.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Before asking my question, I must point out that the Electoral Commission has just stated that Lord Ashcroft's donations were legal and permissible.

May we have a debate on the subject of the strategic importance of oil refineries to the United Kingdom? I have just raised that matter at Business, Innovation and Skills questions without having a substantive answer. The renewable heat incentive could destroy the narrow profit margins of all oil refineries in this country. This is a non-partisan request. We all support the principle of the incentive, but we do not wish to see oil refining in this country destroyed.

Ms Harman: Well, we have just had an Energy Bill, and that looks across a wide range of those issues. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to introduce amendments or to make that point during the Bill's proceedings, but he could look out for the next opportunity to do so in Energy and Climate Change questions.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the rights of people to work after the age of retirement, at 65 years old, if they are fit and wish to do so? My right hon. and learned Friend will agree that it is wrong for employers, including the House authorities, to force people to retire. Supervisors have been telling employees in this House that they cannot work beyond 65, but who has the authority to give the supervisors the right to tell people that they cannot work beyond that age?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and no employer needs to fire people aged 60 or 65; employers can, if they want, employ people after those ages if they are fit and able to do their work. A number of private sector companies do exactly that, and he will know that we are looking into whether we should change the default retirement age, so that people
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are protected from unfair dismissal beyond the ages of 60 and 65. There will be questions to the House of Commons Commission next Thursday, but in the meantime I shall inquire into the matter with the House authorities. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to my attention.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): On Monday this week, 170 families in the London borough of Sutton learned that their children will not be obtaining a high school place in the borough. At the same time they learned that 986 children from outside the borough will be taking up places in high schools in the borough. May we have a debate about early-day motion 686, on the Greenwich judgment and school admission policies?

[ That this House n otes that successive Government' s have rejected calls for a change in the law to reverse the effect of the Greenwich judgment on the operation of local school admission policy; is concerned that as a result of the court judgment admission authorities are not allowed to take into account administrative boundaries when allocating school places; believes that parents and children living in a local authority area should be able to expect to obtain a place at a local school in that area; and calls on the Government either to bring forward its own legislation to grant local admission authorities the discretion to give priority to the school preferences of parents resident within the local authority area or to support provisions of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam's Fair Access to School (Admissions) Bill. ]

Then we can finally ensure that the matter is sorted out. It is unfair to children in my constituency, who cannot go to schools just down the road from where they live.

Ms Harman: There are Children, Schools and Families questions next Monday, when I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to obtain a specific answer on that.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the steel industry faces very difficult times. On Teesside, it is believed that the owner of Corus, Tata, has threatened to close our slab steel mill, which is currently mothballed. Is not it time that the House discussed the steel industry, acknowledging that it is an essential industry that has been the backbone of our manufacturing sector for more than 200 years?

Ms Harman: I acknowledge all the points that my hon. Friend makes. She is absolutely right in how she characterises the importance of the steel industry, and I shall look for a further opportunity to debate those issues.

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Points of Order

12.33 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At Business, Innovation and Skills questions earlier this morning, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) asked a question that was rather wide of the question on the Order Paper, and Mr. Speaker ruled that the Minister should not answer it. It was about the future of our aircraft carriers. Is there any way in which I can point out, within the rules of order, that the suggestion that there was a difference between the Conservative party's position and that of the Government on the future of the aircraft carriers was, in fact, unsound, and that both parties believe that the project should go forward, subject to the findings of the strategic defence review? I should be grateful if there were a way of correcting the record.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The hon. Member will not be surprised if I say to him that his point was not a point of order for the Chair, but his comments will have been heard and will be on the record.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Speaker is rightly committed to openness and transparency, so will you confirm that no one in the Speaker's Office was in discussions with the Leader of the House about ensuring that we do not have an opportunity to vote on the re-election by secret ballot of the Speaker? Will you use your good offices to persuade the Leader of the House to hold that vote, which so many people want?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not, strictly speaking, a point of order for the Chair. It is for the Government to decide what will happen on that matter, and the hon. Gentleman's comments will have been heard. The Leader of the House is still in the Chamber.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, Mr. Speaker said that any substantive criticisms of a Member of the other place should be made by way of a substantive motion, rather than by oral references. Yet you will know that throughout Prime Minister's questions yesterday and, again, today, smears and innuendos have been levelled against a noble Lord-a Member of the other place. Surely there should be some consistency, and if that is a rule it should apply from the outset, instead of rather late in the day.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I remind him that Mr. Speaker has certainly made the position quite clear and quite plain from the Chair today.

We now come to announce the results of the Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to social security, the Ayes were 404 and the Noes were 53, so the Ayes have it. On the question relating to licences and licensing, the Ayes were 245 and the Noes were 162, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

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Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

12.36 pm

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

First, I thank the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which he chairs, for agreeing to consider the order today.

The terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and its interests abroad remains severe and sustained. This week we have already debated the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Sections 1 to 9) Order 2010, and I know that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) shares my assessment of the situation. We as a Government are determined to do all that we can to minimise that threat, and the proscription of terrorist organisations is an important part of the Government's strategy to tackle terrorist activities at home and abroad.

With this order we would therefore like to add the group, al-Shabaab, to the 45 international terrorist organisations that are listed under schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the eighth proscription under the 2000 Act. Section 3 of the Act provides a power for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to proscribe an organisation if he believes that it is concerned with terrorism. The Act specifies that an organisation is concerned with terrorism if it commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism-including the unlawful glorification of terrorism-or is otherwise concerned with terrorist activity.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for setting out those criteria. Have the Government received evidence that that particular organisation, al-Shabaab, has been involved in any of those activities? Has he seen that evidence? Is that, therefore, why he has come before the House with this order?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I was going to come to this point later in my speech, but I shall happily cover it now. He will know that the organisation, al-Shabaab, is currently and actively concerned with terrorist activity. I cannot go into the details of every aspect, because we are aware of matters that we cannot disclose to the House for a range of reasons, but the group has waged a violent campaign against the Somali Transitional Federal Government, and against the African Union peacekeeping troops in Somalia since the beginning of 2007. It has undertaken a range of terrorist tactics, such as suicide operations and roadside bombings, and mounted a range of operations since 2007, including in June 2009 in Beledweyne, one of the largest cities in Somalia, a suicide car bomb attack that killed the transitional Government's Security Minister and, as a random act of terrorism, about 30 other people in the process.

The organisation has launched terrorist attacks outside areas under its control, most notably in October 2008, when five co-ordinated suicide attacks were mounted
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against targets in Somaliland and Puntland, including the Ethiopian embassy, the presidential palace and the United Nations Development Programme compound. In September last year, al-Shabaab released a video statement in which it pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden. As recently as 2 February 2010, it announced its intention to combine the jihad in the horn of Africa with the global jihad led by al-Qaeda. I hope that that helps to give my right hon. Friend a flavour of some of our concerns in relation to the international operation of al-Shabaab.

Keith Vaz: It certainly does. However, Ministers came to the Dispatch Box and said very similar things to the House about the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, and the Government lost that case under the proscribed organisation legislation. We have to be very careful about this. Clearly, al-Shabaab has been involved in these activities abroad, but does the Minister have any evidence that it is operating in the United Kingdom-where he is a Minister and we are the Parliament-and engaged in any of the activities that he has described? I have not seen that evidence, and other Members of this House have not seen it-has he seen it?

Mr. Hanson: I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that, as I said, we are aware of a range of issues in relation to that evidence about which we are unable to give details to the House. I can say, however, that we remain concerned that the activities of the organisation and its potential influence on individuals in the United Kingdom meet the legal test that we have to meet to ensure that proscription takes place. Proscription is a tough and necessary power, but it involves specific tests that need to be met. At the beginning of my speech, I outlined the details of the particular activities that we need to consider.

I say to my right hon. Friend, and to the House as a whole, that in the event of the organisation or its agents wishing to make representations about the proscription order, they can do so following the consideration of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. If he upholds the order, the applicant can appeal to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which is a special tribunal that will review whether my right hon. Friend has properly exercised his powers in refusing to de-proscribe the organisation. The commission is able to consider the sensitive material to which we have had access, which underpins proscription decisions, and a special advocate can be appointed to represent the interests of the applicant in closed sessions of the commission. We believe that the international evidence shows that there is a real need to take action against al-Shabaab. We are convinced, having looked at the evidence internally, that there is evidence which would be upheld by that legal test and which we, as a nation, could defend if the appeal came forward in due course.

I would also say to my right hon. Friend that, having considered all the evidence, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary firmly believes that al-Shabaab is currently concerned with terrorism and is involved in the activities that I have described to the House. Indeed, there is not only a concern in the United Kingdom but an international consensus of condemnation of the organisation's activities. For example-I hope that this further reassures my right hon. Friend-the organisation is already proscribed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Our
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actions today, if approved by this House and in another place later on, will help to protect the United Kingdom against terrorist activity.

We are actively examining the situation. As my right hon. Friend will know, we cannot comment directly on intelligence matters, but I have made an assessment, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that there is a small but genuine risk that British nationals and British interests may be harmed as a result of al-Shabaab's activities in Somalia and, indeed, in the wider region.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The Minister prayed in aid the fact-I am sure that he is correct-that the United States of America and Australia have proscribed this organisation. May I respectfully remind him that the United States Congress and the federal Parliament of Australia both have a security and intelligence committee that is a committee of the Parliament, but we do not? Unless and until the Prime Minister and this Minister understand that there is a serious flaw-a deficiency-in our procedures here, in that there is no parliamentary oversight, there will always be some doubt as to the efficacy of some of these decisions. It is a serious, fundamental flaw.

Mr. Hanson: I respect my hon. Friend, who always takes a keen interest in these matters. He will know that there is an Intelligence and Security and Committee comprising senior Members of Parliament-of this place and another place-who can call to account my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, and the head of the security services, to consider these issues. As I explained to the House, there is a procedure whereby organisations that are, under the legal test of proscription, brought before the Home Secretary for proscription purposes, can ask the Home Secretary to reconsider that decision. There is an independent process for looking at the evidence and assessing whether he has acted accordingly and in an appropriate manner.

Andrew Mackinlay: I do not know why this Prime Minister, like the previous one, and Ministers are so cussed about this. As sure as night turns into day, one day a Prime Minister will create a parliamentary Committee. The committee to which the Minister refers is not a parliamentary Committee-it is clerked by a spook. That is the reality of the situation. In the Congress of the United States, which he prayed in aid, and in Australia, these are parliamentary committees. They meet in private, because these matters are secret, and everyone has confidence in them. Why cannot the Minister get his head around the issue that there should be such a committee here? It does not matter how distinguished our colleagues are: they are hand-picked by the Prime Minister with the rubber stamp of Mr. Evans and his people-spooks.

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend has made his point in his usual forceful manner. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will pay attention to this debate and note the comments that he has made. I simply say to the House that there is a procedure and that it is tested. There is a genuine legal test for proscription, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has to ensure that that test is met. It is open to challenge and open to defence.

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We are bringing this order forward not only in response to the litany of issues that I have mentioned in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) but because it is important that proscription will allow the police in the United Kingdom more effectively to carry out disruptive action against supporters of this organisation in the United Kingdom. It also sends a very strong message from the United Kingdom that we are not willing to tolerate terrorism here or anywhere else in the world.

Keith Vaz: It is essential that the Government keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. The Minister knows, because I have raised it with him before, the situation regarding the proscription of the LTTE-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. As far as everyone is concerned, the LTTE is finished. The war is over and the leader of the LTTE is dead, and the Sri Lankan Government are confident about all that. Why does that organisation remain on the list when it no longer exists?

Mr. Hanson: I know that my right hon. Friend knows the procedure, but it is worth outlining it to the House as a whole. We keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. When I was Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, several proscribed organisations in Northern Ireland went in and out of proscription as their status changed to reflect their activities in relation to the peace process. The position of the organisation that my right hon. Friend mentions will be reviewed on a regular basis by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It can, as can the organisation that we are discussing, apply to my right hon. Friend for de-proscription, and he will consider that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will have noticed that we are in the House of Commons Chamber having a debate about the order. Later on, in another place, my noble Friend Lord West will introduce the same order, and there will be a debate there. Neither House needs to approve the order today. There could be a vote after one and a half hours, and if I, or my noble Friend, have not made the case, the proscription order will not be passed. There is parliamentary oversight of this matter.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): While we are on the subject of the LTTE, I notice that the policy background notes say:

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