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Topical Questions

Volume 477: debated on Monday 9 June 2008

We face a serious and sustained threat from terrorism in the UK, and in the long term it is clear that this threat is countered by challenging the ideology that supports terrorism and by preventing people from turning to violent extremism in the first place. That is why last week, together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Children, Schools and Families, I published new proposals to support mainstream Muslim voices, to strengthen communities and to fund work in schools, colleges and prisons, and with young offenders. I am grateful to community leaders, the police, local authorities and others for all that they do to prevent the spread of violent extremism, and we have announced an additional £12.5 million of funding to assist them in that important work.

The threat to safety and the quality of life in rural areas of north Yorkshire exists in large measure because of the failure of this Government’s antisocial behaviour programme. Will the Home Secretary admit that failure, and do more to stop under-age drinking, which is on the increase? Will she also congratulate North Yorkshire police on their recent drugs bust in Thirsk? What chances are there of taking those who are peddling drugs on the streets in Thirsk off our streets for the foreseeable future?

We have invested in more police officers, as we heard earlier. We need to make sure that we have in place the tough measures to deal with alcohol use that I have already outlined. We need to support our police to work in neighbourhood teams and we must invest, as we have done, in helping every neighbourhood to use the tools that we have put in place for tackling antisocial behaviour. Those are all important. I see that the hon. Lady shakes her head; it is a shame that she was not willing to support the investment in all those measures.

T4. During the oral evidence sessions of the Committee considering the Counter-Terrorism Bill, I asked Sir Ian Blair what the consequences would be of not introducing the 42-day pre-charge detention period. He replied that“we would be returning to the House in an emergency.”He continued:“I am convinced that that is not the position to be in.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism Public Bill Committee, 22 April 2008; c. 20, Q22.]Would my right hon. Friend agree with that, and will she make a statement on the new powers? (208933)

I agree with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and with the most senior counter-terror police officers in this country when they say to me that it is better for us to consider now, in the calm of the current time, the potential need to give our investigators the time that they need to do the job that we ask them to do. That is why we are bringing forward our proposals to extend the period of pre-charge detention. They are exceptional powers to be used only when the need arises, but it is extremely important to have them in place now so, as the commissioner makes clear, we are not faced with a situation either in which the House has to respond in an emergency and is unable to give the matter as much consideration as it can now, or even worse, in which we let a suspected terrorist go free because we have not given investigators the tools to do the job.

Has the Home Secretary any idea why the Security Service—MI5—is so unenthusiastic about the Government’s proposal to extend detention without charge to 42 days?

I believe that, when one has a Security Service, it is important that it is politically neutral. The Security Service has rightly taken that position.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation that the figures that Liberty put out on detention periods in different countries are grossly misleading? Will she provide our colleagues with a fairer comparison of the effective detention periods in different countries? (208934)

Not only I, but many of those who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, also believed that the figures were misleading. First, our system was compared with some systems in Europe, such as in France, where holding people under the supervision of an investigating judge enables them to be held for up to four years before reaching an equivalent position to charging in this country. Even in common law countries such as the United States, there are clearly different circumstances—a much lower threshold for charging in the first place and much greater use of holding charges with the ability to continue to investigate. I am disappointed that, in presenting their arguments, people have made many false comparisons. In some cases, they have used examples of countries in which, compared with this country, people would certainly not want to be terrorist suspects. I will take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion of providing further information about how the rights of defendants in terrorist cases in this country compare at least equally if not favourably with those in the vast majority of other countries.

May I start by joining the Home Secretary in expressing condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of the police officer who tragically died in training? It is a salutary reminder of the risks that our police officers face every day in defence of public safety. I am sure that the House would like to express its gratitude for their courage and conviction in the face of those risks.

The Prime Minister wrote in The Times last week that a key reason for the police needing longer than 28 days’ detention is “layers of computer encryptions” that need to be “deciphered”. Why has nobody in the past seven years been convicted of the offence of withholding computer passwords or encryption keys?

The offence of withholding encryption keys has been in place for a maximum of two years. During that time, I think that eight people have been charged with providing encryption keys. In some cases, that was successful, but in others—for example, because people did not have access to the encryption keys—it was not. However, the suggestion, which the right hon. Gentleman made previously, that that is the whole solution to the complexity of technology that we now face is wrong. It is at least possible, if not probable, that those people held in custody, in circumstances in which a large amount of encrypted material had to be trawled through, would not even be in possession of the encryption keys. Although the creation in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 of an offence of not giving up an encryption key is important, it is not sufficient to cover the risk of the work that police officers do in trawling through the information.

Nobody has said that the offence is the be-all and end-all, but it is an important weapon in dealing with encrypted technology. As the Home Secretary said, the offence was created in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, but it entered into law only in 2007. Why the delay? Why wait six years after 9/11 and two years after 7/7 to bring into force that vital measure?

It was important to ensure that the offence was right, as I have said. Since it was introduced, it has been used where appropriate, and it clearly remains to be used in the future. But the question that the right hon. Gentleman does have to answer—

All of us, I am afraid, will have to take an important decision on Wednesday about this country’s security and whether we want to give our investigators the tools that they need. Is the right hon. Gentleman completely confident, notwithstanding the new tools that we have put in place for investigators, that no police investigation in serious terrorist circumstances would ever need to hold somebody for longer than 28 days? If he is completely confident, I think that he is misleading himself. If he is not, he is misleading his party in opposing our proposals on Wednesday.

T3. Given that the Home Secretary admitted on Andrew Marr’s programme yesterday that MI5 has not requested the 42-day detention period, which is significant, given that it is only too aware of the threats facing our country, can she tell the House whether the security services have made any assessment of the effect of increasing the pre-charge detention period on their ability to use intelligence-gathering techniques to penetrate those communities where those terrorists may be hiding out? (208932)

First, the hon. Gentleman is plain wrong about what I said yesterday on Marr. My position is as I made clear to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not repeat that suggestion. The security services will of course support us in gathering intelligence on, as he put it, the nature of the terrorist risk within communities. That is, after all, the security services’ job, and that is what they are getting on with doing.

Dubious as I am about the proposed 42-day detention limit for terror suspects, I find risible the assessment of the previous Conservative Prime Minister that the proposals go far beyond what the then Government contemplated in the early 1970s in the fight against the IRA. Is it not the case that many on the Opposition Benches privately back the Home Secretary’s proposals and that for them to oppose what they are itching to introduce, if and when they return to power in 2015 or beyond, would be nauseating and opportunistic hypocrisy?

May I add, on behalf of those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, our condolences to the family and friends of the police officer who tragically died today in Greater Manchester? The Home Secretary will know that the Equality and Human Rights Commission today published a legal opinion from two leading barristers, stating that the Government’s proposals for 42-day detention would be contrary to article 5(1) of the European convention on human rights and would breach articles 5(2), 5(3) and 5(4). The opinion also describes the right hon. Lady’s so-called concessions by saying that

“they do not cure the fundamental problems of incompatibility with basic human rights principles in the Counter-Terrorism Bill.”

Her proposals are ill thought out, illiberal and counter-productive. Will she now ditch them, before Strasbourg ditches them for her?

No, I will not. Not only are my proposals compatible with the ECHR, as I have spelt out in a letter to the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which I shall make available to every Member of the House, but they are right for the security of this country.

T6. Ten years after the Dunblane massacre, the Government have made such a hash of introducing the national firearms register that its computer software will not even talk to either the national ballistics intelligence database or the 43 police force databases sufficiently for all forces to use it. Not only is that causing many law-abiding owners of firearms licences who rely on them for their livelihoods to renew their licences, going back to last July, thereby putting their livelihoods at risk, but much more worryingly it is putting the public at risk. (208936)

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have fully established the national register for licences for firearms management. We have also established, and will have fully operational this summer, the national database for the illegal use of ammunition and firearms, which will be an important step forward in supporting the police in identifying from bullets—or guns if they can seize them—where those have been used. The police have been clear that it is not a requirement to link the two databases, which serve very different purposes. However, they are in place and are already helping the police to do their job.

T7. Can it be safe to return Tamils such as my constituent, Mr. Subramanian, to Sri Lanka or Zimbabweans to Zimbabwe given the climate of intimidation, fear and murder in both those countries at present? (208937)

The hon. Gentleman will know that a decision about anyone claiming asylum in this country will be made by the UK Border and Immigration Agency with all the facts taken into account and that such people of course have the right of appeal through an independent judicial process to ensure that absolutely everything is taken into account. We have a proud tradition of honouring not only the 1951 refugee convention, but our obligations under the European convention on human rights. That is a tradition that the Government plan to keep honouring in the years to come.