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Detainee Inquiry

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

This Government stand firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf. In July 2010, the Prime Minister announced a package of measures to this House designed to deal with allegations about British involvement in the mistreatment of detainees held by other states overseas. As he told the House then, those allegations are not proven, but their consequences are serious. In his words:

“Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law—indeed, much of what the services exist to protect—risks being tarnished. Public confidence is being eroded, with people doubting the ability of our services to protect us and questioning the rules under which they operate.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 175.]

No one should be in any doubt about the vital nature of the work that our security and intelligence agencies perform on our behalf or the debt that they are owed by all of us. Without public recognition, the men and women of the services take the gravest personal risks to protect the security of our country. So in his statement 18 months ago the Prime Minister set out a package of measures designed to ensure not just that we can get to the bottom of allegations of mistreatment, but that we learn any lessons, improve the framework for litigation where sensitive material is involved, and enable our security and intelligence services to get on with their vital job.

Since July 2010 the Government have taken a number of steps to fulfil this commitment. We have published for the first time the consolidated guidance for intelligence officers and service personnel on dealing with foreign liaison services regarding detainees held in their custody, to make clear the basis on which our security and intelligence services operate. We have also secured a mediated settlement of the Guantanamo Bay civil damages cases, about which I made a statement to this House on 16 November 2010. I also made a statement to this House on 19 October 2011 on the publication of the Government’s Green Paper on justice and security, which aims to improve our courts’ ability to handle intelligence and other sensitive material and to strengthen the parliamentary and independent bodies that oversee the security and intelligence services. We will set out our response to the consultation on the Green Paper in due course.

We also established an inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson to examine whether, and if so to what extent, the British Government and their intelligence agencies were involved in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries in counter-terrorism operations overseas, or were aware of improper treatment of detainees in operations in which the United Kingdom was involved. Since then, the Gibson inquiry has been in a preparatory phase, with the panel focusing on a review of key underlying material. The inquiry has had the full co-operation of Departments and agencies during its preparations and has received a large volume of material in response to its requests for information, which it is in the process of considering. We have always been clear, however, that the detainee inquiry would not be able to start formally until all related police investigations had been concluded.

Last week, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Metropolitan Police Service made a joint statement that they would not charge any named individuals in the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service in relation to the investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden. However, they also announced that allegations made in two specific cases concerning the alleged rendition of named individuals to Libya and their alleged ill-treatment there were so serious that it was in the public interest for them to be investigated now rather than at the conclusion of the Gibson detainee inquiry. I made a written ministerial statement on Monday this week explaining that the Government were considering the implications for the detainee inquiry of these new police investigations.

The Government will continue to co-operate fully with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in their investigations, and we remain committed to drawing a line under these issues. As part of this process, the agencies will continue to review their records, and we will ensure that this process is thorough and comprehensive. We and the agencies are absolutely clear that where there are any questions about knowledge of improper treatment of detainees, they must be fully examined and, where necessary, investigated. Looking to the future, we will carefully review the responses to the Green Paper about the oversight of the agencies.

However, these further police investigations into the Libyan allegations may take some considerable time to conclude. The Government fully intend to hold a judge-led inquiry into these issues, once it is possible to do so and all related police investigations have been concluded. But there now appears no prospect of the Gibson inquiry being able to start in the foreseeable future. So, following consultation with Sir Peter Gibson, the chair of the inquiry, we have decided to bring the work of his inquiry to a conclusion. We have agreed with Sir Peter that the inquiry should provide the Government with a report on its preparatory work to date, highlighting particular themes or issues which might be the subject of further examination. The Government are clear that as much of this report as possible will be made public. We will continue to keep Parliament fully informed of progress. The Government fully intend to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry, once all police investigations have concluded, to establish the full facts and draw a line under these issues. Meanwhile, however, the police inquiries that have now commenced must obviously continue. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The whole House unequivocally condemns torture, and inhumane, cruel and degrading forms of punishment. We must not condone it or ask others to do so on our behalf. One of the marks of a civilised society is that we will do everything in our power to champion human rights, both at home and abroad, and that we will properly investigate, prosecute and punish those alleged to have committed such crimes in this country or on behalf of this country elsewhere across the globe. So, allegations that members of our security and intelligence services may be involved in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries, with acts that contravene these basic levels of human decency that we hold so dear as a nation, need proper and full investigation.

The investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden relate to serious and highly sensitive matters involving, as they do, allegations about members of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service. Operation Hinton followed a referral from the former Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend Baroness Scotland, in November 2008 and Operation Iden followed a referral, also by the former Attorney-General, in June 2009. These independent investigations concluded on 12 January this year, as has been said, with a decision not to charge any named individuals in relation to the investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden.

Our security and intelligence agencies perform vital work on our behalf and we owe them a debt. Without public recognition, the men and women of these services take the gravest personal risks to protect the security of our country. But it is clearly right that, in the light of the further, specific allegations of ill-treatment made recently, the Metropolitan Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service investigate these thoroughly. Although it was also right that the inquiry led by Sir Peter Gibson was put on hold while investigations into criminal proceedings were ongoing, I would ask the Justice Secretary why he has decided not to have a further hold in Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry while these further investigations are carried out. It is also important that the pause is used as an opportunity to ensure that the former detainees and the human rights and campaign groups who chose not to engage in the Sir Peter Gibson inquiry are brought back into the fold.

May I ask the Justice Secretary what his views are on the representations made by those acting on behalf of the detainees, non-governmental organisations and others that an inquiry conducted with the current terms of reference and protocol does not comply with articles 3 and 6 of the European convention on human rights? It is clearly important that any inquiry has legitimacy, and I invite the Justice Secretary to use the period while the allegations are being investigated by the police to work with ourselves, NGOs and other experts to ensure that the new inquiry has as much legitimacy as is possible. I also ask the Secretary of State when and how he intends the work of Sir Peter Gibson, or as much as is realistically possible, to be published.

The key point is that we must get to the bottom of what happened. We are firmly of the view that there must be an independent inquiry as the quicker these questions are answered, the quicker we will be able to draw a line under these issues.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his broad support for the aims we are pursuing. I agree with everything he said about the security services and I think we owe it to them, as well as to the reputation of this country, to draw a line under these matters as quickly as possible, which involves investigating them all properly and making the position clear as well as considering matters such as the supervision of the services in future.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why we did not have just another pause in the Gibson inquiry, as we were previously just waiting for the outcome of the police inquiries into the Guantanamo Bay cases. With great respect, it is not even fair to the team to keep things going on in that way. I had hoped to be able to come to the House and say, if anyone asked me, that the Gibson inquiry was now under way, that it was starting its proceedings and that all was going smoothly. We now have to wait for an as yet unknown period of time while the Libyan investigations are carried out and while we see where they go. The Metropolitan police took three years to look into the Guantanamo Bay cases and I think everybody is anxious that we should be quicker than that as we look at the Libyan cases, but we have no idea how long it will take.

Sir Peter and his colleagues have done some work and the sensible thing is to publish the outcome of their preparatory work now, wait to see what happens to the investigations and to set up an independent judge-led inquiry as soon as it is feasible, which might require a fresh team of people to carry it out. We have the terms of reference for Gibson because we think the Gibson inquiry itself should not take too long and I have discussed the terms of reference with NGOs, representatives of former detainees and so on. I will quite happily continue those conversations and I have been trying to persuade them that the Gibson inquiry meets their needs and that they should actively participate and engage in the process. I will continue that and I will listen to their views, too, about the nature of the inquiry. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and those outside the House who have an interest that the Government will hold an independent judge-led inquiry. We are where we are, and the Gibson proposals are our proposals.

As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, may I endorse the observations made by my right hon. and learned Friend and by the shadow Justice Secretary about the contribution that the security services make to the security of the nation? When the Gibson inquiry was first conceived, the hope was expressed that it might complete its work within one year. As events have subsequently proved, that prognosis was rather optimistic. May I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I think that he has inevitably had to bow to the changed circumstances and that his announcement today is entirely sensible and will preserve all the issues that would otherwise have been dealt with by the Gibson inquiry?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The point that lies behind the debate I have been having with NGOs and detainee representatives about the terms of reference is that our aim would be that the judge-led inquiry might conclude within a year. We do not want an inquiry that takes years and years and becomes too legalistic. We are still open to discussions about that, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman obviously shares my view that it would be much better if we were able to get things under way and hold this inquiry. I am grateful for his support for the inevitability of holding fire and getting Sir Peter to produce what he has done so far.

Sir Peter Gibson is a retired senior judge of the highest integrity and skill and I am personally quite certain that had he had the opportunity to continue this inquiry, he and his colleagues on the panel would have been able to do a most thorough job and would have gained the confidence of the NGOs and others in the course of that inquiry in exactly the same way as Sir William Macpherson, who was faced with a high degree of scepticism when he first began the Lawrence inquiry, was able to assuage the concerns of many of those involved in the course of the proceedings. May I also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I believe that he is absolutely right to do what he has and that in practice he has had no alternative?

I am grateful for that view and for the right hon. Gentleman’s support because I keep trying to assure people that there is no conspiracy here. The Government actually want these things to be properly investigated and want the full facts to be shared with the general public so far as they sensibly can be, consistent with the interests of national security.

It was widely held that the Gibson inquiry’s approach to the investigation set out in the protocol and in the interpretation of the terms of reference was defective in a number of important respects. I have brought those to the attention of the Government already and have discussed them in correspondence with the Prime Minister, as my right hon. and learned Friend will know. In particular, there was no intention to cover detainee transfer in theatre and no intention to appoint an investigator or even to try to investigate all the cases of credible allegations brought forward. Will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to review fully all these aspects of the Gibson inquiry’s proposed work so that we can rectify these defects when an inquiry reconvenes?

I will continue the conversations I have been having with my hon. Friend and others about the basis on which the Gibson inquiry is proceeding. I have been trying to persuade people to be more co-operative with the Gibson inquiry, but I am also quite happy to listen to points that people make to me about why they have reservations. The Government wanted to proceed with the Gibson inquiry on the present terms of reference and would have done so if we had not had this final delay. We have more time to consider the matter, although we did not want more time, and I am happy to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend and others again.

Our intelligence agencies do a hugely important job for this country, but it is essential that they operate and are seen to operate within the highest standards of human rights ethics and a proper legal framework. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential in the current circumstances to take forward his proposals in the Green Paper on justice and security to strengthen the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee so that we can have the legal powers and the necessary resources to be able to scrutinise fully the work of our intelligence agencies?

I assure the right hon. Lady that there is no delay to that aspect of our policy. We will shortly be responding to the consultations on our Green Paper, the first of which concerned the basis on which courts and other proceedings can handle intelligence material in a way that improves their ability to try cases without jeopardising national security. The second concerned the important matter that she raises of the supervision by this House and elsewhere of the security services.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s approach to this matter. Does it remain his hope that at the end of this process we can avoid the situation that arose in the previous Parliament when my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and others were reassured over and again on the Floor of the House that there was no United Kingdom involvement in any respect with any extraordinary rendition, which subsequently turned out not to be the case?

Like my hon. Friend, I was a member of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), so I was as anxious to see the outcome of the police and other inquiries as everybody else. The whole point is to dispel all this because we must have an effective national security system and effective agencies. People who work in those agencies do very brave work that is essential to this country. We must draw a line under all this and investigate fully this legacy of allegations in order to find out exactly what happened and work out how to proceed and how to scrutinise the services in future.

The Justice Secretary clearly has the support of both sides of the House in the decision he has taken today. Could he clarify whether this was his decision or whether Sir Peter came to him and asked to be relinquished of his responsibilities in view of the fresh investigations? I know that the Justice Secretary cannot give us a timetable, but does he envisage this lasting for months or years?

It was discussed with Sir Peter Gibson and he agrees that this is the way to proceed. I did not personally have the conversation, but in the light of last week’s inquiry it was decided that it was sensible to discuss this with Sir Peter and he agrees with the decision we have taken to proceed in this way. I wish I knew how long the Metropolitan police investigations will take. I hope that they will not take as long as the Guantanamo Bay cases, but there is absolutely no basis on which I can properly intervene with the police. We want these matters to be investigated thoroughly so we will wait and see.

It looks increasingly clear that this is going to take years rather than months. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that in the intervening time he will take particular care in defining the terms of reference on the Libyan dimension, which in my opinion is much wider than just rendition? What about, for example, the training of Libyan forces at the defence academy at Shrivenham? We need to narrow down the issues when it comes to Libya so that we can avoid the pitfalls that have beset the Gibson process thus far.

The intention was that the Gibson inquiry would cover that aspect of the Libyan allegations, particularly the two allegations of rendition, that fitted with the terms of reference the inquiry already had for the Guantanamo Bay cases, but a lot of issues have been thrown up by the Libyan allegations and we will consider how best to handle them. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan police are bound to take months at least, I should have thought, so we have time to consider how best to handle these matters.

I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that the Justice Secretary has made today, but how can we ensure that the security and intelligence agents who do such sterling work on our behalf are protected against false allegations against them?

I have never been able to protect anybody against false allegations but the easiest way of handling such allegations is to investigate them quickly and dismiss them. I have no doubt that allegations that turn out to be false will be quickly dismissed by Sir Peter Gibson and I hope that any future inquiry will get rid of malicious or politically motivated allegations, to which people who work in this field are bound to be exposed. However, that is not a description of the things now being looked at. The questions being raised here are serious and this issue calls for some explanation. We want the Libyan cases to be investigated very thoroughly and we look forward to the police conclusion and the results of a judge-led inquiry on the whole matter.

Last July, my right hon. and learned Friend confirmed to me at the time of his statement on the Gibson inquiry that he wanted Shaker Aamer, the last British resident detained in Guantanamo Bay, to be available to give evidence to it. Does not this pause give a fresh opportunity to press the case that he should be released and be available to give evidence to any new inquiry?

My hon. Friend is probably right. That is another good reason why we would like Shaker Aamer to be released and I will bring her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We keep making representations and trying to get him released and brought back.

When some of us were calling for a public inquiry led by a judge into phone hacking at the News of the World, we cited the Gibson inquiry as one that had been set up even while criminal investigations were ongoing, and the Secretary of State said that it was important that Gibson was able to secure whatever evidence there was that might in other cases be destroyed. I hope that he can still make that assertion today.

The agencies are reviewing their accessing of the necessary records, because these Libyan allegations emerged as a surprise. We are making sure, as far as one can, that this matter is reviewed and that we access such records as are available.

We must get to the bottom of the allegations of mistreatment as soon as possible. The credibility of the intelligence services depends on it. To that end, how soon after police investigations are concluded does the Secretary of State expect a successor detainee inquiry to be established? In the interim, is there an enhanced role for the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation that might require him to have a salary and an office outside the Home Office to review these matters independently and effectively?

We have not taken any decisions yet about the exact point at which we will start constituting a new judge-led inquiry or approaching a judge and people who might wish to serve on the inquiry. What we did this time was to set up the Gibson inquiry in the belief that we were about to start imminently—going into the full formal stage after a few months of preparation. Presumably, we will try to repeat that, but at this stage it is impossible to know when we will be in a position to do that. At the moment, we want to review the facts of these cases so I do not feel the need to create a new appointment to review the legislation in this area; indeed, I would argue, subject to what emerges, that the law in this area is reasonably clear. It is the facts that we hope to investigate, and then the application of the law to those facts.

Is not the real lesson of Gibson that important inquiries such as this cannot proceed properly without the full confidence of all interests and participants? What is the Justice Secretary doing to ensure that any future inquiries will have the full confidence of all human rights groups and all lawyers involved in such cases?

I have met a very wide range NGOs, human rights groups and those with an interest, and I have been trying to persuade them that the Gibson inquiry is something that they should get engaged with. I very much hope still to see them doing that. I am still having meetings about the Green Paper on security and justice and of course on the supervision of the security services. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was here earlier; we will continue to engage. I agree that it would be very much better if we could get the NGOs and others to accept that this is the way to proceed. We will continue to listen to their arguments about why they feel that they cannot, and we will do our best.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Does he agree that under procedure there is no other way than to allow the Crown Prosecution Service to make those investigations before carrying on with the inquiry?

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend believes that. I think that is right. The problem of letting the inquiry go ahead while the police are carrying out the investigations is obviously that one could hopelessly compromise the other. We cannot have witnesses giving evidence about events when the police are in the middle of inquiries into the self-same events. [Interruption.] Well, that was the basis upon which we started, and everybody accepted that Gibson could not start until the police investigations had finished. There are sensible reasons, as my hon. Friend says, why we are in that situation.

Our country has a reputation around the world as one which protects human rights. When allegations of extraordinary rendition were made, it tarnished that image. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s inquiry into the whole issue and the support given by the shadow Secretary of State for Justice. I ask the Lord Chancellor to take on board the points that the shadow Secretary of State for Justice mentioned.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It is extremely important that we maintain this essentially cross-party approach to these matters and that the House gives its full support to our attempts to get to the bottom of these matters. As she says, it is in the interests of this country and of the Security Service that we do so.

For quite a long time, together with the security services and the police, I was responsible for detainees and for interviewing them. In all that time we took huge care to comply with instructions, particularly about human rights, when interviewing detainees. It is very difficult and sometimes dangerous work for the officers concerned. I hope—I know—the Secretary of State will agree that instances of poor practice are few and far between and are very sad indeed.

My hon. Friend speaks with much greater authority than I on the subject and puts forward an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree. That is why it is in the interests of the vast majority of those brave men and women who serve in those services, often in very dangerous situations, that we tackle these allegations of malpractice. I am sure the allegations are against a tiny number of officers and it may be that they will turn out to be unfounded. The sooner we can clear this up and draw a line under it, the better.

Will the Justice Secretary accept that the allegation that British security officials handed over suspects to places abroad where they were tortured is a matter of great concern for Britain’s reputation? I said “allegation”, but in the case last week of the two Libyans, the letter which was found from the MI6 officer confirms that that was not merely an allegation. The two were sent over to Libya and were tortured. As we know, one of them, who holds a high position now in post-Gaddafi Libya, is accordingly bringing legal action against the UK Government.

Those are the serious allegations which need to be investigated and are being investigated by the police. On the principle of the matter, which the hon. Gentleman underlines, this Government are absolutely clear that we do not engage in torture, we do not condone torture, we do not get engaged in torture in any way, and we are not remotely going to get involved in the cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees in any way. The sooner we investigate the serious allegations that have emerged from Tripoli, the better.

The Secretary of State said that in pursuit of the Libyan allegations “the agencies”, which I presume are the security agencies, “will continue to review their records”, and that the Government will ensure that the process is “thorough and comprehensive.” Is there any room for independent oversight of that review by the agencies of their records and of any lack of records that might be identified? How exactly can he assure the House that that process will be thorough and comprehensive, as it seems that the subsequent police investigation will be entirely dependent upon it?

One must adopt a sensible approach to this. We did not expect the Libyan revelations to appear until they emerged from that office in Tripoli. For that reason a most thorough review of records is being undertaken and will continue. To bring in fresh people to review the review—one gets carried away. I have no reason to doubt that at present the most thorough review is taking place to make sure that we know where we are and we can put an end to the matter by having it properly and independently investigated, eventually by a judge-led inquiry.