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4 Mar 2010 : Column 1045

Finally, on Somalia, the Government have identified al-Shabaab as an organisation against which we need to take action. Although the Minister is a Home Office Minister, it might have been useful-perhaps he can do this when he responds-to set out what we are doing as a nation to support the Somali Government and the legitimate political players there, so that we can see not only that we are taking action here against organisations that might want to pursue a terrorist agenda, but that as a country we are supporting legitimate Somali authorities.

As I stated at the beginning of my speech, we shall support the order today. However, it is legitimate to ask questions about the unintended consequences of the ban and whether the general principle of applying bans to such organisations is particularly effective in tackling terrorism.

1.17 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I, too, will be relatively brief, but I want to note my concerns to the House.

On these counter-terrorism measures, Ministers come to the Dispatch Box at short notice to present their cases, on which they have had evidence and information; and Members, because they trust the Government, accept everything that Ministers tell them about such organisations. I have no reason to distrust this Minister: I rate him highly, and in all the posts that he has held he has been straight, honourable and transparent with this House. Therefore, when he comes before us today and says, "This is a wicked, nasty organisation that has been involved in gross acts of violence in the horn of Africa and in Somalia. It seeks to destabilise the Somali Government, and it fits the Government's criteria for proscribed organisations," we accept what he says, because neither I nor the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) nor any other Member has had the benefit of seeing the information that he has seen. However, there are problems with the scrutiny of such measures and with just accepting absolutely everything that is said without probing and prodding, which is the role of Parliament.

As the Minister knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is a distinguished member, produced a report about the need to bring together the various agencies and organisations that deal with counter-terrorism. We suggested establishing a national security council, with advisers to the Prime Minister who would then be able to come before the House and answer questions on issues such as that which we are debating today. Sadly, the Government were dismissive of our report-that is politics: we are dismissive of certain aspects of what the Government do-but our proposal bears scrutiny, because we were suggesting a more effective way of putting such information before the House.

If the Minister says that al-Shabaab meets the criteria and the Home Secretary has decided to proscribe the group, we will go along with that and there will be no vote in the House today on this matter. I cannot see any Member or political party doubting the sincerity of the Government in this respect.

However, the Minister needs to look very carefully at the effect of the proscription on the wider Somalian community. I accept his statement that he cannot micro-
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manage the way in which these orders operate, but I can tell him-and call on other Members who are not present today to give him examples-of the effects of proscription of organisations such as the LTTE. As far as I am concerned, that organisation no longer exists. It was defeated in Sri Lanka a few months ago, and its leader has been executed. It does not function in Sri Lanka at all now. I do not believe it ever functioned in the United Kingdom, and I did not therefore see the need to proscribe it here.

The Government need to pay heed to the effect of that proscription on the wider Tamil community, and to the effect that the proscription of al-Shabaab will have on the 45,000 Somalis who live in the United Kingdom. When members of the Somalian community wish to hold meetings to discuss the terrible situation in Somalia, they will face a lot of pressure from the police and from the Government of Somalia. They will be told that their meeting is actually in support of al-Shabaab. They might have absolutely no connections or dealings with al-Shabaab; they might, as the Minister has said, have come to this country to escape its activities, but the fact that they are holding a meeting to discuss the situation in Somalia will result in police activity and almost certainly in the embassy of Somalia writing to the organisations from which the people wish to book accommodation for their meeting, to prevent those meetings from taking place. How do I know this? I know it because that is precisely what happened to the British Tamils Forum and members of the Tamil community over the past few years, since the Government decided to proscribe the LTTE.

The Minister says that there is a simple answer to all this: if people do not like proscription, they can appeal to the independent commission that the Government have set up. That is precisely what the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran has done in respect of its proscription, in relation to its activities in Iran. Did the Government accept the wishes of the independent commission that they set up when the People's Mujahedeen appealed to it and asked it to raise the proscription? Absolutely not! The Government fought their own commission-their own creation, which was supposed to act independently-tooth and nail, all the way to the Supreme Court, which in those days was in the House of Lords, until they lost and had to give in. Then, a Minister-not this one-had to come before the House and eat humble pie at the Dispatch Box because the Government had to recognise that they could not defy the highest court in the land.

That is why I say to the Minister that, although we will not vote against the motion to proscribe al-Shabaab, I do not think he has given sufficient consideration to the consequences of his action. I know he is a good Minister; he is also a busy Minister, and Home Office Ministers have to accept the advice presented to them by their civil servants. I hope that, as the Minister responsible for counter-terrorism, he will ask the large number of civil servants who have advised him on this issue whether the Government should go back and look at the consequences for communities of the proscription of these organisations. I hope he will also ask whether they have looked at the list to ensure that it is absolutely current and that the organisations still exist. Who looks at the list? When do the submissions come up to Ministers? How many meetings has he had with his civil servants to discuss the number of organisations on that list? Is
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there a monthly meeting, or does it take place every three or four months? When does he probe and push his civil servants into giving him this information? That is what we expect of the Government when we go along with a motion such as this, because, although we do not have the information that he has, we accept everything that he says and believe the case that he makes.

When I asked the Minister whether the criteria had been met, he reeled off a list of all the terrible atrocities that al-Shabaab had been involved in. I am not sure, however, whether he told the House that those activities had found their way to the UK mainland. I accept his assertion that it might well be involved in terrorist activities in the horn of Africa, but is it involved in these activities in the United Kingdom? Are al-Shabaab cells operating in the UK at the moment? This is not private information that the Minister needs to keep secret; it is the kind of information that the House needs to be made aware of. Can he satisfy the House that he has seen a file on the activities of al-Shabaab in the United Kingdom? It would bolster his case if he could say that he had, and that he has seen the evidence.

As the Minister knows, he had me from the moment he stood up at the Dispatch Box and put this proposal before the House. We give the Government a huge amount of leeway on counter-terrorism matters, as do the Opposition: the hon. Member for Reigate has spoken very eloquently in support of the Government today. In order to continue to give our support, however, we need to know that these processes of scrutiny are ongoing in the Home Office. That would help us to explain to our constituents why this is happening. There is still confusion among the 300,000 members of the British Tamil community, and there has been confusion among those who support the People's Mujahedeen.

There will now be confusion among the Somalian community in Leicester. I have a thriving British Somalian community in my constituency. There was a time when I wondered why so many Somalis were ending up in Leicester. I was told that they were making their way from the horn of Africa to Holland, where they settled in Rotterdam. Then, having become EU residents, they were deciding to exercise their right to come to the United Kingdom. They were choosing to come here and settle in places such as Leicester, London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester because they felt very safe here. From time immemorial, millions of people have come to settle in those places because Britain is the safest country for them. This is the most tolerant country in the world. It is a mirror of the world, and that is why people choose to come here when they are fleeing persecution.

I ask the Minister please to look at the consequences of what he is doing, in respect of the wider Somalian community. I have no problem with proscribing al-Shabaab, but he must realise that what he does today will have a profound effect on the Somalian community in the United Kingdom. Will he please ensure that that effect is carefully assessed, monitored and reviewed?

1.28 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has referred to cross-border activity, and I would like to invite the Minister to respond to one point. In the television programme that I saw a couple of days ago-which I
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can only take at face value-an organisation that I think was called the Islamic federation of Europe appeared to have a number of cells in Tower Hamlets and other parts of the country. It also appeared to be pretty endemic throughout Europe as a whole. In the context of considering whether to proscribe an organisation, and the prevention of terrorism, we need to look at the objectives of any organisation or umbrella organisation that sympathises with-and/or has similar objectives to those of-the organisation being proscribed.

It is not simply a question of proscribing, but of preventing. I simply ask whether the Minister knows of any evidence that this federation, which was given one and a half hours on Channel 4 a couple of days ago, is in fact engaged in activities that are in any way inimical to the stability of the UK. I also ask whether and to what extent it is infiltrating the political system. The Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), was also on the programme. Is there any evidence of infiltration on the basis of what one might describe as a masquerade?

We would all utterly defend freedom of speech and freedom of election, but the question that lies at the heart of the issue is whether there was any attempt to delude the electorate into believing that they were taking part in a political choice, when the people standing or organising actually represented a different objective of a fundamentalist nature.

Keith Vaz rose-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Member intervenes, may I remind the House that we are looking closely at a particular order, whose main reference is to al-Shabaab? The general point is accepted, but that is the particular organisation named in the order referred to in the motion on today's Order Paper.

Keith Vaz: I will not widen the debate because you have made your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. A number of people who were in the programme deny any involvement in this organisation, however, so to be fair to them-the hon. Gentleman has put one side of the story-it is important to note that a number of elected councillors have categorically denied any involvement at all in this organisation.

Mr. Cash: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has pointed that out. What I am stating here is more in the nature of a question-asking the Minister, in the context of this particular order, whether he is aware of a connection of any description between the kind of activities described in the programme, which I am sure he knows about, and this organisation; and, indeed, whether any general lessons need to be drawn, as it would be completely unacceptable if any proscribed organisation, or anybody working with such an organisation under an umbrella, were engaged in activities that could undermine our electoral system.

1.32 pm

Mr. Hanson: Let me commence by answering the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who asked about recent television programmes and activities in Tower Hamlets. I cannot really comment on whether any consideration
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has been given to proscribing groups that are not on the proscribed list. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, there is a statutory test under the 2000 Act, which indicates whether or not an organisation should be proscribed. In response to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), we continue to keep under review not just organisations on the proscribed list, but organisations about which we have potential concerns, and which we may wish to bring forward at a future date to join the proscribed list. What I can say is that we keep all matters under review and we are active-not just in the borough of Tower Hamlets, but throughout east London and in many other parts of the UK-in helping to prevent terrorism through a range of activities and programmes to ensure that we do not allow radicalisation to occur.

That brings me to the initial point raised by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), echoed somewhat by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), which was about the evidence base. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also touched on this. The decision to proscribe an organisation is not taken lightly. It entails building a case that meets the legal test under the 2000 Act, and which is examined by officials in the Home Office and other Government Departments. That case is assembled over many weeks and months as the evidence is brought forward and collated. Ultimately, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has to take a decision on that case.

To answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has seen evidence put to him, which we cannot discuss in detail here, indicating not only that suicide attacks, bombings and murders involving explosive devices might have been carried out by this organisation abroad, but general concerns about its operation. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East that British interests are sometimes affected by British interests abroad, and that solidarity with other organisations fighting terrorism abroad sometimes requires that we take particular steps. We have assessed the situation carefully and come to this conclusion, based on the evidence that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has examined.

Keith Vaz: I am very grateful for that clarification and I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Is he saying that there is al-Shabaab activity in the UK at this moment?

Mr. Hanson: My right hon. Friend will have to accept that I cannot go into detail about the activities we wish to examine or about decisions taken on them. I have indicated to him clear evidence of activity abroad that we are concerned about. I hope that he will accept that, as we bring this measure forward. As I explained earlier, if an organisation does not accept proscription, it can make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and if he upholds his decision, supported by both Houses of Parliament, the organisation can then take its case elsewhere and ask for the evidence to be looked at further. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and, indeed, the hon. Member for Reigate will accordingly accept that.

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The hon. Members for Reigate and for Carshalton and Wallington effectively asked me, "Why now?" We keep these matters constantly under ongoing review. The hon. Member for Reigate asked about our relationship with Kenya. We have strong relationships with that country; we keep the situation under review and we will take action against any organisation when we believe we can meet the statutory test. I was also asked whether an organisation might morph into another organisation by changing its name. We keep that, too, under constant review. The same charge was made regarding our proscription of Islam4UK some four to five weeks ago. Other organisations have changed their name, and we have had to bring back orders to meet our obligations. As I say, we have to keep such matters under review.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked how many prosecutions we have taken. Between 2001 and 2009, 31 people have been charged with breaches of their proscription, and accordingly there have been 15 convictions in various forms across the UK.

We are very concerned not to label the Somali community as a whole-this issue was raised in the debate-in connection with our concerns about this particular organisation. The Somali community-in Leicester, as in other great cities of the UK-plays a very positive role. As accepted by hon. Members, members of the Somali community are often here because they have escaped from intimidation and terrorist activity elsewhere-concerns that we are trying to tackle. Britain has a great tradition of welcoming the Somali community and other refugees into the country. Concern has been expressed about whether the order will label the Somali community. I hope that it will not, and I believe-if I reflect on these matters carefully, as I have done-that the UK Somali community will welcome this action because it shows that we are concerned to tackle terrorism in their home country and the impact of such terrorism on the interests of citizens in their adopted country. That is why I hope the Somali community will welcome this measure-I am sure they will.

I was asked what else the Government were doing to help to defuse the cauldron that leads to terrorist organisations developing in the first place. The Government are greatly concerned to support the nation of Somalia and to tackle some of the wider issues to date. In 2009, the UK Government contributed £15.7 million to the African Union Mission in Somalia. I remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this mission was attacked by the organisation being proscribed today.

For the financial year 2009-10, the Department for International Development's programme budget for Somalia is £25 million, and the Africa conflict prevention pool allocation to Somalia is £5.7 million. We are also spending a further £1.4 million on counter-terrorism projects, and we spent £750,000 on a three-year migration project that ended in December last year. We are extremely concerned to ensure that we support our European Community colleagues in the humanitarian office and the United Nations central emergency relief fund. Let me remind the House that the United Nations mission was also attacked by five suicide bombers, and by al-Shabaab organisation members, in October 2008. Sometimes, to secure support and improve the situation in Somalia, which is under attack from forces trying to destabilise it, we must invest British Government money.

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I hope I have assured the House that the order is valuable, and that we are committed to Somalia as a whole. We will do nothing to label citizens of Somalia who live and make their homes in the United Kingdom as fellow travellers of the organisation concerned-they are not. They support the order, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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Business of the House

1.41 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

Today we return to our debates on the report of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, with a further two hours of debate, following more than eight hours of debate on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, including five and half hours of debate last Monday. I hope that we will agree the motion without further debate; we do not want to debate the process, but to bring our debates on the substance to a conclusion, and to vote on the motions and amendments before the House. I commend the motion to the House.

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