Skip to main content


Volume 521: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011

The Home Secretary is in Budapest at an informal meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, so I will be responding on her behalf. As the Home Secretary, Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have made clear, the first duty of any Government is to protect the British public and we will not do anything that risks our security. The arrests of individuals for terrorism-related offences before Christmas, the cargo bomb plot in October and the bombings in Stockholm in December have all demonstrated that the threat from international terrorism remains a serious one.

On 13 July last year, the Home Secretary announced that she was renewing the current order for 28-day pre-charge detention for six months, while the powers were considered as part of a wider review of counter-terrorism powers. As the Home Secretary will be giving a full statement to the House on Wednesday on the outcome of that review, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt her statement by giving details of the review today.

This Government are clear that the power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 28 days’ detention before they were charged or released was meant to be an exceptional power—that was always Parliament’s intention. But under the last Government, it became the norm, with the renewal of 28 days repeatedly brought before the House, despite the power rarely being used. Since July 2007, no one has been held for longer than 14 days, despite the many terrorists arrested since then. That is a testament to the efforts of our prosecutors, our police and our intelligence agencies.

As I said, the Home Secretary will, next Wednesday, announce to the House the findings from the wider review of counter-terrorism and security powers. She will set out the detailed considerations of the Government in determining whether the current regime of 28 days should be renewed and, if not, what should be put in its place. In the interim, I can announce that the Government will not be seeking to extend the order allowing the maximum 28-day limit and, accordingly, the current order will lapse on 25 January and the maximum limit of pre-charge detention will, from that time, revert to 14 days. We are clear that 14 days should be the norm and that the law should reflect that. However, we will place draft emergency legislation in the House Library to extend the maximum period to 28 days to prepare for the very exceptional circumstances when a longer period may be required. If Parliament approved, the maximum period of pre-charge detention could be extended by that method.

In the Government’s announcement on the wider review, the Home Secretary will set out what contingency measures should be introduced in order to ensure that our ability to bring terrorists to justice is as effective as possible. This country continues to face a real and serious threat from terrorism. That threat is unlikely to diminish any time soon. The Government are clear that we need appropriate powers to deal with that threat but that those powers must not interfere with the hard-won civil liberties of the British people. There is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting our security and defending our civil liberties. The outcome of our counter-terrorism powers review will strike that balance, and it is this Government’s sincere hope that it will form the basis of a lasting political consensus across the House on this fundamentally important issue.

We are in the unusual constitutional position of having the Government make an announcement in response to an urgent question on a vital matter of national security. I shall return to that issue at the end of my comments.

First, I agree with the Minister that keeping the public safe and striking the right balance between security and the protection of liberties is a vital task facing any Government. That is why when I became Home Secretary—[Interruption.] When I became shadow Home Secretary, I told the Home Secretary that it was our intention, as a responsible Opposition, to support the Government on issues of national security and on the review of counter-terrorism powers. That was on the basis that decisions were made on the basis of evidence and were in the national interest, and that there was an orderly process.

That is still our intention, but this process has not been orderly—it has been a complete shambles. I am not referring only to the way in which this review has been delayed and delayed—it was first promised, last July, to be completed by the end of last summer. Nor am I referring only to the countless and very detailed leaks and briefings to the BBC on the outcome of the review. Such leaks have continued over the weekend—following my point of order of eight days ago—including to The Sun on the funding of surveillance. I have to say that this is no way to make announcements on vital issues of national security.

There is a third reason, which is the reason for this urgent question today. When the Home Secretary announced her review in July, she extended 28 days pre-charge detention for a further six months until 24 January and she said to the House:

“After that, it will be up to me as Home Secretary to come back to the House to ask for a further extension, to let the limit fall to 14 days, or to present new proposals that reduce the limit but introduce contingency arrangements in extreme circumstances.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 1007.]

The Home Secretary has not come back to the House. I said that we would support a change on the basis of the evidence. There has been no evidence. There are no details of contingency arrangements. We are told that there will be a statement on Wednesday, but the policy on 28 days collapses by default on Monday.

In the absence of the Home Secretary, will the Minister tell the House what will happen on Monday if a terror suspect is detained? What will be the period of detention? Do the police and security services agree that this power is now not needed? Is that in the evidence in the as yet unpublished review? Do the Government really intend to let this happen by default, with no statement, no announcement and no evidence presented to the House? I must say that this is a deeply arrogant way for the Government to treat this House. It is a shambolic way to make policy on vital issues of national security.

Should not the Minister go away, come back this afternoon to make a proper statement, publish the evidence and allow right hon. and hon. Members to ask the questions that should be asked, rather than allowing the Government to treat them with such contempt?

I am sorry that I shot the shadow Home Secretary’s fox before he stood up with what was clearly a pre-written statement that did not bother with anything I actually announced—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked a question; I gave a substantive answer. He seems to object to that. I have come to the House of Commons to give a substantive answer to a question. I can understand why the noisy and excited Opposition Front Benchers are confused by this process, because under their Government there was never any substantive answer to an urgent question. It clearly came as a huge shock to the shadow Home Secretary that he actually had an answer, because it was clear from the rest of what he said that he had not listened to any of it.

The right hon. Gentleman’s substantive point was that he wanted the counter-terrorism powers review earlier. I think that in his more serious moments he might recognise that, rather than rush a review of something as important as counter-terrorism powers, it is important to get it right. In this area of vital national interest and the security of our country, the Government will not be driven, as his Government too often were, by the media agenda. We will take the right amount of time and get it right.

The right hon. Gentleman’s other point was about process. He had the cheek to talk about process in relation to counter-terrorism powers. I shall not take any lectures on process from the party that tried to use pre-charge detention as a political tool, that tried to impose 90 days detention, then 60 days, then 42 days—a party that, when that proposal was turned down by the House of Lords, finally and grudgingly settled for 28 days. The shambles of counter-terrorism powers was precisely illustrated by the disasters of the previous Government.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timing of when he will get the evidence. If he ever paid any attention to the proceedings of this House, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announce last week that the Home Secretary would make the statement that I have just talked about next week. I announced earlier that the statement would be made on Wednesday, but there is an underlying serious point that the House needs to address, which is the importance of balancing the security of the British people with the need to maintain our civil liberties. We need no lectures on that from the right hon. Gentleman. One of the most damaging failures of the Government in which he was a leading figure was an inability to strike that balance between security and civil liberties. At every turn, the Labour Government trampled on civil liberties, not just with their attempt to impose 90 days detention but with their databases on children and their ID card scheme. No amount of sanctimonious bluster from the Labour party can disguise their shocking record on civil liberties and security. This Government will repair their mistakes in that area.

My final thought for the right hon. Gentleman is that he said in his blog last week:

“I want to support the Home Secretary in reaching a new consensus about counter-terrorism policy”,

I am afraid that nothing he has said today has illustrated that what he claimed to think last week is what he actually thinks this week. He should go away and think hard about the serious nature of his job.

Order. There is understandably intense interest in this subject, but there is also pressure on time with the business statement to follow and thereafter two important and well-subscribed debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Brevity from those on the Back Bench and Front alike is, on this occasion, not just desirable but essential.

Does the Minister agree that the coalition’s approach to counter-terrorism judiciously balances the country’s security needs with the defence of our precious civil liberties in contrast with the Opposition’s approach, which relied on draconian and counter-productive counter-terrorism measures that were highly damaging to fundamental British rights and were ineffective from a security perspective?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. We need to strike a new and better balance, not just in the interests of civil liberties but in the interests of security. The wider the co-operation we have with the police and security services, the more secure we will all be. The better balance we are now striking is a significant step forward in achieving that.

I was the Home Secretary who increased the time from seven days to 14, not 28, and I think there is good reason for a balanced and sensible approach. But why are we able to have just one announcement on one part of the review without evidence today instead of the total review being announced? Do we have to wait until next Wednesday simply because the Home Secretary happens to be at an informal meeting in Budapest as part of her duties within the European Union? What is the difference between today and next Wednesday?

The right hon. Gentleman rather makes my point. I repeat that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said last week that the Home Secretary would make a statement next week, and I am now able to reveal that it will be next Wednesday, so he asks the correct question: why are we doing this now? We are doing it now because the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) asked an urgent question and I have shocked him by giving a substantive answer. I make no apology for that.

Can my hon. Friend explain why this welcome announcement appeared prematurely in so many media outlets at the same time? We always criticised that when we were in opposition and I would have hoped we would take firm action against leaks now that we are in government.

I have no idea where that information came from. I can only say that nothing to do with any of this has ever come out from me or my office.

It is unfortunate if the House of Commons is not told the position before the media and I fully endorse what the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) just said. Will the Minister accept that it is a welcome step that the 28 days is being reduced to 14 days, because 28-day detention was never meant to be permanent? As for party polemics, the 90-day limit was defeated as a result of Labour Members. One thing I should like to know is why, if we are to reduce the length to 14 days, the Home Secretary will have reserve powers? It should be 14 days without any particular powers being given to the Home Secretary that would not have the authority of the House of Commons.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and for his long and distinguished history on the Home Affairs Committee of fighting for civil liberties. As he knows, he and I have often agreed on these matters, and I am glad to make an announcement of this sort today. He makes a perfectly reasonable point about the reserve powers. I should emphasise that it will be a draft Bill, only to be used in emergency circumstances, which the House would have to approve at the time. It is not a question of in any way leaving 28 days on the statute book. On the issue of leaks, I will certainly take lectures from the hon. Gentleman. I do find it just a tad hypocritical to hear those on the Labour Front Bench and new Labour apparatchiks—[Interruption.]

Order. I can deal with these matters. First of all, the reply was a bit on the long side. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the word “hypocritical”, please.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has been able to give information to the House today, perfectly properly provoked by an urgent question from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. May we all reflect on the fact that the timing of these matters has reflected the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of dealing with these matters, and one might take the criticisms from the Opposition Front Bench a bit more seriously if they had less of a party political flavour about them?

My hon. Friend makes a very wise point. I am still not entirely clear whether those on the Opposition Front Bench support this, because the shadow Home Secretary neglected to say that.

There may be support for the substance of what the Minister has said today, but what concerns the House is the fact that we have had to wait for an urgent question to be asked before being given this information. It is unsatisfactory. The Minister for Security was clear to the Select Committee when she appeared before us last December that Parliament would be told first about these matters and that it would not appear in the newspapers. Is not the best course of action to move the statement from Wednesday to Monday, when the order lapses, so that Parliament can question the Home Secretary on these matters? That is a way to resolve this rather unfortunate state of affairs.

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard me say several times that the statement has long been planned for next week, and it was announced to the House that it would be made then. With regard to the deadline being Monday, it is entirely reasonable that the law should revert to what it was. It was a temporary emergency arrangement for six months, which would lapse on Monday anyway. To try to equate that with the wider counter-terrorism review is not quite right. As I have said repeatedly, the Home Secretary has always planned to come to the House to talk about the very important wider counter-terrorism review. Indeed, the House was given unusually long notice of when she would appear, so it has been kept entirely in the loop on this.

I thank the Minister for his helpful statement on the end of 28-day detention without charge. Can he assure me that the statement will have a focus on surveillance with an aim to prosecution, rather than punishment without trial?

The statement will have as its root the security of the British people. As I have said, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the Home Secretary’s statement on Wednesday, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government, unlike the previous Government, take very seriously the civil liberties part of the balance.

When I moved the motion for 28-day detention as the Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism in the last Parliament, the Conservative party did not oppose it. After the election, it proposed a six-month period for a review, pending evidence. In order for Ministers to be able to account to the House, when will that evidence be presented, so that we can be assured that 28 days will not put the people of Britain at risk?

As I have said on many occasions, the Home Secretary will make a statement on Wednesday. The right hon. Gentleman can ask her questions about it then.

I welcome the news that we will have the results of the review on Wednesday. Will it also include results of the review into extradition powers, and in particular the European arrest warrant?

As my hon. Friend knows, there are reviews on a number of matters. She tempts me down the path of pre-empting what the Home Secretary will say on Wednesday, but it would be sensible for me to continue to resist that temptation.

Will the Minister promise me that he will take absolutely no lessons from 90-day Labour when it comes to detention; a Labour Government who perhaps had the worst possible record of any modern European Government when it comes to civil liberties? I, too, welcome what he says about 28 days, but will he say a little more today about what he means by these reserve powers?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Not only is it surprising that Labour Members are so worried about leaks; it is equally surprising that they can bring themselves to talk about civil liberties given their shambolic and dreadful record on that issue. That is precisely why the reserve powers that we propose will be in the form of a draft Bill, so that nothing can be done without the full consent of Parliament—even in the most dire emergency, which we can all imagine happening—if it is thought that we need to revert to a longer period of pre-charge detention. It will be for Parliament to decide, and that is absolutely the right way to proceed.

I welcome the statement and the fact that the trajectory of pre-charge detention under this Government is going down, not up, as it did under the last Government. We will have to wait and see what the legislation says and look at the detail, but can my hon. Friend confirm one point in relation to evidence? A lot of evidence is already in the public domain in the form of the Home Office statistical bulletins, which show that in more than four years we have never needed 28-day pre-charge detention. Will he confirm that, and also that he has not seen any countervailing evidence that contradicts that?

My hon. Friend, who is a considerable expert on these matters, is of course right. No one has been detained for more than 14 days since July 2007, despite the many terrorist outrages that we have regrettably seen since then. To put the House fully in the picture, to date, 11 individuals have been held for more than 14 days pre-charge, six of whom were held for the maximum 28 days, three of whom were charged and three were released without charge. Again, for the those on the Opposition Front Bench to talk about evidence when they tried to foist 90 days on the House without any evidence at all was completely disrespectful.

The Minister’s claims would have more credibility if it were not for the whoops and tweets coming from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Can he not accept that this will be seen in the country as a shabby political deal to make up for their failure in the Oldham by-election and a desperate attempt to hold the coalition together rather than doing what is best for national security?

That is a new low. It will be seen in the country as a significant step forward to achieving a proper balance between security and civil liberties, which is the responsibility of any sensible Government.

All the pressure on this comes from the civil liberties lobby. May I urge my hon. Friend to put the safety of the British people first? I suspect that most people in London, if it were a choice between their daughters being blown up on a London tube or a terrorist who hates everything we stand for spending 28 days in relative comfort before being charged, would choose the latter. So act on the evidence and put the safety of the people first.

As I said in my statement, the first duty of any Government is the security of the people, but that has to be balanced against the wider civil liberties that my hon. Friend and I both hold dear. What we are achieving is the proper balance. What was in place before was unbalanced and, as I just said in answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), it was not contributing to extra safety against terrorism, but was potentially a power in the hands of the state that could have been abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) will not want the state to have powers that it could potentially abuse.

I have a hunch that both sides of the House could have united on a position around the reduction of pre-trial detention. But given that the Minister has just said that the security threat is such that the House should retain some form of emergency powers, is it not reasonable to ask that the Home Secretary should have come and put the evidence for that to the House? Can the Minister confirm that it was the intention of his Department to make this announcement by written ministerial statement on Monday, which would not have allowed any debate?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the reserve powers. The significant change is that instead of having something on the statute book to be used without any parliamentary scrutiny, we propose that Parliament should be able to act quickly, because we can imagine circumstances in which quick action is needed, while not leaving these onerous and draconian powers on the statute book. That seems to be a significant step forward towards proper balance and to giving Parliament more power over the process, which I am sure that he would welcome.

Is not proper border control an essential part of a review to deal with terrorism? It is no good building a police state at home if we allow pretty much anyone, be they friend or foe, to wander into the country. Will the Minister consider stronger measures?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly, having strong and secure borders is one of the essential elements in our fight against international terrorism, and that, as he knows, is why one of the Government’s priorities is to make our borders more secure. We have been making significant progress on that over the past nine months.

Perhaps the Minister should ask the Secretary of State for Education to include the history of civil liberties in his new national curriculum so that people can be reminded that it was a Conservative Cabinet that introduced internment without trial for UK citizens.

As the Minister knows, there were arrests and charges in Cardiff before Christmas relating to terrorist activities. Does he understand that my constituents would welcome the retention, which I think he has announced, of the possibility to extend detention to 28 days, albeit by a different method? Had that been necessary for public protection in the case to which I have referred, that would have been the right thing to do. Can he confirm that he is retaining 28-day detention as a possibility, albeit after a parliamentary procedure?

As I have explained, a draft Bill will be available so that Parliament can act if it needs to in a particular emergency. With regard to the arrests made before Christmas, it is important to look at what has happened. Since July 2007, no one has had to be held for more than 14 days, despite the many terrorist actions and the planned actions that, happily, have been stopped by the good actions of the police and security forces. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, as someone who considers these matters carefully, will welcome the change we are making today and that the shadow Home Secretary can do likewise at some stage.

Will the outcome of the review ensure that we go back to first principles: namely, that the task of security and intelligence should not be confused with the role of the criminal justice system, and that to conflate the two and warp the principles of criminal justice would be to fall into the sort of error that the previous Government fell into?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is precisely because we live in dangerous times and need to consider carefully what powers we have to fight terrorism that we should be all the more careful not to erode the principles of criminal justice and civil liberties for which this House has always stood.

I strongly support the reduction of detention without charge from 28 days to 14 days. Would the Minister confirm that there is no one currently in custody who will have to be released by Wednesday because their detention period has gone beyond 14 days?

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any individual cases on the Floor of the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that this is not a venue where one should discuss individual police activity.

Although I support the reduction to 14 days, Her Majesty’s Government are not treating Parliament properly on this issue. The Home Secretary will be in the House on Monday to take Home Office questions, so presumably it would be perfectly possible for her to make a statement then. The Order Paper does not list any statement on the issue for Wednesday.

The Order Paper for Wednesday is yet to be produced, so I am not entirely sure about the force of my hon. Friend’s statement. As he says, those who are eager to question the Home Secretary will have the chance to do so on Monday anyway, so I am sure that we can return to the issue.

Recently, the Leader of the Opposition defended many of the decisions made by the previous Government, of which he was a member, and now we hear from the shadow Home Secretary that he questions the decision about 28-day detention. Does the Minister agree that there are some worrying splits in Her Majesty’s official Opposition on the vital issues of civil liberties and national security?

That may well be true, but I genuinely hope that the Opposition can bring themselves to a position in which they can balance security and civil liberties appropriately. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Home Secretary have admitted that Labour got the balance between security and civil liberties wrong. I look forward to the day when they can turn those fine words into some sort of concrete action and support the Government when we take measured and sensible steps, such as those we are taking today.