Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

4. Letter from Rt Hon David Blunkett, Home Secretary, to the Chairman


  I am writing about amendments I am tabling today to the Criminal Justice Bill to amend Schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act 2000 to extend the number of days a court can order that a suspected terrorist be detained without charge from the current maximum of seven to fourteen days. The need for these changes was identified as part of discussions with the police and the Security Service. The amendments are attached.

  Under Part III of Schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act 2000 a court can issue a warrant authorising the detention of a suspected terrorist for up to seven days without charge if detention is necessary to obtain evidence by questioning or otherwise, or to preserve relevant evidence. We propose amending Schedule 8 so that a court can authorise detention without charge for up to fourteen days, a measure that was requested by the police and the Security Service for very specific reasons. Detention related to non terrorist criminal offences does not need to be extensive or extended because, in general terms, it relates to a specific event that has occurred and is being investigated. With terrorism, it is not possible to risk the occurrence of a potentially devastating event in order to trigger the detention. This is why the Terrorism Act 2000 permits detention on the suspicion of terrorism to allow for more amorphous offences like conspiracy, intent or something such as membership of a proscribed terrorist organisation to be investigated. These investigations are often complex.

  There has been a marked development in the sophistication of terrorist technology overall since 9/11. Examples of the issues this has been highlighted include the fact that multiple arrests, are occurring more frequently; and when a "cell" is arrested, each member needs to be interviewed and each interview cross-referenced. Establishing the position in the group and the interplay between who the terrorists are and who their criminal associates are is more difficult. Some have been released on Police bail prior to their significance being fully explored, due to time constraints.

  A recent and significant change in driving the need for more extensive examination time over the terrorist spectrum are Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear issues. In a recent police operation, for Health and Safety reasons, forensic recovery of the dangerous substances took five days. The significance of this is that both the forensic retrieval and subsequent analysis of CBRN material takes much longer than conventional exhibits. This process delays the forensic results needed for interview/charge of suspects.

  Further, investigations increasingly involve the requisition of the hard drives of PCs subsequent to the search of premises after arrests have been made. It can therefore be a matter of days before any material from a hard drive can be used in the questioning of a suspect. This is further exacerbated when the hard drives of PCs obtained from a number of individuals have to be cross-referenced to establish patterns of communication and even movement.

  Delays can also arise from the use of false identities necessitating wide national and international enquiries; and, less frequently, from the use of interpreters which can lengthen the investigation time and the time required for consultation with solicitors and interview and becomes more complex as the range of languages and dialects spoken by a very specific but limited number of international suspects widens.

  There are a number of safeguards built into the current provisions set out in Schedule 8. Paragraph 32 specifies that in order to grant the request for extension of detention, the court must be satisfied that it is necessary for further and vital evidence gathering. Paragraph 37 provides effectively for continuous review of the grounds for detention making it clear that if any of those grounds cease to apply, the person detained must be released immediately. All of the conditions and safeguards in Schedule 8 will apply to the amended power. The only change we are making is to extend the maximum period of detention.

  Under our amendment the Court will only be able to extend the period in the warrant for more than seven days if the warrant already authorises detention for the maximum seven days currently permitted. For example, the clause will not allow the Police to ask for eleven more days' detention if the warrant only authorises detention for four days. At that stage the Court would only be able to extend the warrant for three more days. Rather, the clause will only permit an extension of detention for longer than seven days if the warrant already permits detention for the current maximum of seven days. Accordingly, it is not possible for the fourteen days to be granted in one block no matter how compelling the reason.

  Nevertheless, the clause does not prevent an application for an extension of the warrant for longer than seven days being made before the seven day period has expired so long as the warrant already authorises detention for seven days.

  The clause is being proposed in order to target complex often multi-layers and multiple person cases which require a depth and breadth of investigation that would not be possible within the current seven days period. Such cases are relatively infrequent and the power would therefore only be invoked where the compelling circumstances of the justify it.

  The power would be subject to review by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC as part of his independent annual review of the Terrorism Act 2000 as a whole. He has already been informed of the proposed amendment.

  I intend also during the passage of the Bill to bring forward additional amendments to address terrorism-related crimes. These amendments will raise the maximum penalty for making a fraudulent application for a driving licence to 2 years imprisonment (to align it with the maximum penalty for making a fraudulent application for a passport); and make both the driving licence and passport offences, arrestable offences.

  Identity theft and fraud is an area of increasing concern and costs the economy at least £1.3 billion p.a. It is rarely committed for its own sake, rather it is an enabler for other offences. It has a significant role in illegal immigration, organised crime and is a consistent theme identified during counter terrorist operations.

  The penalties currently associated with obtaining false passports and driving licences do not recognise the potential use of these documents as gateways to organised crime and terrorism, nor do they take sufficient account of the serious damage and harrowing experience of individuals who are victims of identity fraud. It is expensive to take a case to court, and it could be argued that it is not a worthwhile use of the police and CPS resources, in terms of the penalties imposed.

  One of the reasons for this is that fraudulently obtaining a passport is often prosecuted under the Theft Act 1968 as obtaining property or pecuniary advantage to the value of the application fee (£33), by deception. There is a current offence carrying higher penalties (Criminal Justice Act 1925 with a maximum penalty of 2 years) than the Theft Act. However, this is not an arrestable offence and this may be an important factor in making it a truly effective measure.

  Fraudulently obtaining a driving licence and also knowlingly countersigning a false application for a driving licence are dealt with under s174 Road Traffic Act 1988. The maximum penalty for each offence is a fine of £2,500. I would like to ensure that penalties associated with fraudulently obtaining passports or driving licences are comparable. I propose to amend Schedule 2 Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, increasing the maximum penalty to 2 years imprisonment. I also propose to make this an arrestable offence in line with the changes to the passport offence.

  I am writing in similar terms to Oliver Letwin, Simon Hughes and Chris Mullin for the Home Affairs Committee.12 May 2003

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