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Detention without Charge

Volume 461: debated on Monday 11 June 2007

3. What his policy is on the period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects; and if he will make a statement. (141125)

First, with your permission Mr. Speaker, I am deeply saddened to report to the House the death today of PC Jon Henry while on duty in Luton with Bedfordshire police. Tragic events such as his death highlight the dangers that police officers face day to day in their task of protecting the public. I have spoken with the chief constable of Bedfordshire police, Gillian Parker, and passed on my sympathies and those of the whole House to the friends, family and loved ones and colleagues in the police service of PC Jon Henry.

I believe that events in the past 12 months have strengthened the case for extending pre-charge detention. However, I believe that we ought to seek broad agreement, if possible, on the way forward and have therefore opened consultations on the matter to see if a consensus can be reached.

I associate myself with the Home Secretary’s very proper expressions of condolence with regard to Constable Henry and his family.

When the Home Secretary consults on detention without charge, will he bear in mind the need to consult police and prosecutors in all parts of the United Kingdom? He may recall that his predecessor did not feel it necessary to speak to the Lord Advocate about that, and given the widespread concern in Scotland about the Prime Minister’s dealings with Libya last week, will the Home Secretary promise me that this will not be another free gift to the Scottish National party?

Yes, I will try to ensure that all those proprieties are observed, in the spirit as well as in the letter. I do not accept that there is anything improper about the proceedings over the past week or two, which was the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I agree with those elements of the Scottish press that say that this was more spin than substance, however effective the spin side might have been from the point of view of the First Minister. Nevertheless, it is right to remember that with such important issues we should carry out the fullest and widest possible consultation.

In the Home Secretary’s consultations over the period of detention without trial for terror suspects, will he bear in mind the fact that many of us feel that 28 days is already rather too long for detention without trial, and that the idea of extending the period to as long as 90 days could be counter-productive in gaining the co-operation and support of many in the country who wish to be part of the community rather than alienated from it? Detention for 90 days will not bring about the peace and justice that the Home Secretary wants, but will probably drive some people into the arms of those whose arms he would rather they were not driven into.

It is always a difficult balance. I do not disguise my recognition that it is difficult for Members to balance the requirements to counter terrorism effectively, to fight it and to ensure national security with the need to ensure that when we strengthen powers we strengthen scrutiny appropriately, too. My hon. Friend says that people may have had misgivings last time we debated the matter, and that is true, but there was a majority view that given the new circumstances, a period of 28 days was justified. The events of the past 12 months have shown that to be correct. The consideration of one or two cases last August took 27 or 28 days—right up to the limit. There are about six examples of cases that took that long over the past 12 months. The case for the extension is strengthened. I remain persuaded of the case, but I recognise that others are not. That is why I am trying to consult as widely as possible to see whether we can reach a compromise and consensus.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to the counter-productiveness of extending detention without trial, especially in certain areas of the community, which could concern the ability to recruit sources. Has the Home Secretary received any representations from agencies involved in counter-terrorism that might be worried that it is already hard to recruit informers in the communities that pose a threat to us? If he has, does he recognise that that might be a result of the proposed legislation or the legislation that has already been implemented?

It is always difficult to recruit people in the midst of a sharp struggle. That was the case in fighting republican terrorism and I have no doubt that it is difficult at present. On the other hand, we receive a lot of support from across the community. That is essential, because I have continually expressed the view from the Dispatch Box and outside the House that ultimately we will not defeat terrorism through the security apparatus. It is a necessary but insufficient means. The way to defeat terrorism is by bringing the community of this country together. It is at the grass roots, in the communities, in the streets, in the mosques and outside them, and in our universities that we will fight out the battle for values and ideas. The security apparatus is one dimension—but only one.

Acts of terrorism and the threat of terrorist attacks affect everyone in this country, not only those who sadly suffer the immediate effects of terrorism. Some of my constituents have said that they are concerned about travelling to London and other cities because they are afraid of terrorist attacks. Such attacks are an attack on our freedom. What plans does the Secretary of State have to consult members of the public, organisations, and the victims of terror? Does he believe that the balance should lie with the safety of the public or the individual freedoms of the terrorists?

The ultimate right is the right to the preservation of one’s life, because if we cannot protect individuals’ lives, we cannot, by definition, extend to them the opportunity to exercise any other rights, given that they all depend on an individual’s existence. I would have thought that that was self-evident. That is why, when balancing the rights of the 60 million individuals who make up the community, we must have a degree of proportionality. However, that is not reflected in at least one of the judgments of the European Court, the so-called Chahal judgment, which is why we will continue to contest and appeal against it.

The key thing is to involve the whole community. Two groups of people on both extremes wish to divide the community. There are apologists for al-Qaeda who argue that this is essentially a war by everyone else on Islam, which is untrue. There are those on the extreme right of politics who argue that this is a war by Muslims on everyone else, which is equally untrue. Both those groups ought to be pushed to the fringes as we unite everyone in this country across communities and ethnic and religious backgrounds.

On behalf of the official Opposition, I join the Home Secretary in paying condolences to the family and friends of PC Jon Henry. I am afraid that today’s tragic events are a salutary reminder of the risks that policemen and women take on our behalf.

May I crave your indulgence for a second, Mr. Speaker? I think that this will be the last Home Office questions that the Home Secretary will face. May I take this opportunity to wish him well? We have had our differences a number of times over the years, but at every turn I have always accepted that he has done what was in the national interest, in his judgment.

The idea of allowing the police to interview terrorist suspects after they have been charged is put forward to allow a suspect to be charged earlier and to maximise the chance of conviction. That is less controversial than increasing the time of detention without charge and will represent a major increase in police effectiveness. Will the Home Secretary tell us why it has taken two years to implement the idea?

Ideas such as post-charge questioning, the pre-charge extension of detention facilities and the question of intercept have a political, social and legal dimension and often require a great deal of thought and consultation. As it happens, in this case, the right hon. Gentleman has supported the measure for a considerable time. I took the decision that it could be introduced a while back, but I wanted that to take place alongside the introduction of a package of measures. I thought that some of those measures might be more controversial, which is why there has been a delay in bringing this forward.

The right hon. Gentleman would be the first to urge me not to have knee-jerk reactions to events. When I came into my post, I did not want to bring in yet another series of new laws, because that would have been another ground for criticism. I hope that we will be given credit for delaying and thinking things through, after some scrutiny.

I agree with the Home Secretary about wanting to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Reference has already been made to the attitude of some senior policemen to the effectiveness of gathering intelligence. Let me quote one:

“the trust that exists between police and public is critical to all we do, and is absolutely vital in counter terrorism. It fundamentally affects the level of support, and of course intelligence that we receive from communities.”

As has already been said, the greatest risk of extending detention without charge is that it will act as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism and cause the flow of intelligence from the community to dry up. What has the Home Secretary done to assess the effect of the proposed increase in detention on the attitude of the minority communities?

I guessed that it was Peter Clarke. If I remember correctly, those words were part of his comments in the Colin Cramphorn memorial lecture. I agree that when we consider every single measure, we must balance its short and longer-term effects on countering terrorism and its effects on keeping the community on side. That is a difficult job. For instance, I have said continually that I believe that members of the Muslim community in this country are the victims of terrorism twice over, first because they suffer like the rest of us when bombs go off, and when there are explosions and terrorist attacks, and secondly because they are at the front line of counter-terrorist measures. Of course we must always consider that. What I have relied on is a degree of scrutiny and judgment—that has taken some time—and the view of the police, as expressed officially. That view is not that the extension is inevitable or an absolute requirement; it is that the police can envisage circumstances in which it may become necessary to go beyond 28 days, and they therefore believe that I should raise the matter for consideration, inside and outside Government. I am therefore weighing in the balance the immediate effects and the possible consequences, and I lay great stress on the view of the police.