(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the deportation of Abu Qatada.
Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights informed the Government that, late on Tuesday evening, Abu Qatada applied for a referral of the judgment in his case to the Court’s Grand Chamber. He did so on the grounds that he would be at risk of torture if he returned to Jordan. The British courts and the European Court have found that, because of the assurances we have received from the Jordanian Government, there is no such risk.
The Government are clear that Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday. Article 43 of the European convention on human rights explains that a request for referral to the Grand Chamber must be made:
“Within a period of three months from the date of the judgement of the Chamber”.
The letter that communicated the European Court’s judgement, dated 17 January, confirmed that, saying that
“any request for the referral of this judgement to the Grand Chamber must be duly reasoned and reach the Registry within three months of today’s date.”
Therefore, the deadline was midnight, Monday 16 April.
Because the European Court has no automatic mechanism to rule out an application for a referral based on the deadline, Qatada’s application will be considered by a panel of five judges from the Grand Chamber. They will take into account the deadline, as set out in article 43 of the convention, as part of their consideration. The Government have written to the European Court to make clear our case that the application should be rejected because it is out of time.
The Government believe that the case should be heard instead in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission court, as I outlined in the House of Commons on Tuesday. However, until the panel of the Grand Chamber makes its decision, a Rule 39 injunction preventing the deportation of Abu Qatada remains in place. That means that the deportation process and any potential SIAC appeal is put on hold, but we will resume the process as soon as the injunction is lifted. In the meantime, we will continue to build our case, based on the assurances and information we have received from the Jordanian Government. Abu Qatada remains in detention, and the Government will resist vigorously any application he might make to be released on bail.
As I said in the House of Commons on Tuesday, despite the progress we have made, the process of deporting Qatada is likely to take many months. The fact that he is trying to delay that process by applying for a referral to the Grand Chamber after the deadline has passed, and after he has heard our case in SIAC, is evidence of the strength of our arguments, the weakness of his, and the likelihood of our eventual success in removing him from Britain for good.
On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us that the deportation of Abu Qatada was under way; on Wednesday, it stopped. On Tuesday, she told us there would be no appeal to the Grand Chamber; on Wednesday, an appeal was under way. Yesterday, the Home Office said the appeal deadline was Monday night, but European Court officials said it was Tuesday night. So on the Tuesday night deadline, while Abu Qatada was appealing to European Court judges, the Home Secretary, who thought the deadline was Monday night, was partying with “X Factor” judges. [Interruption.] When the Home Secretary is accused of not knowing what day of the week it is, confusion and chaos have turned into farce. [Interruption.]
This farce has serious consequences: additional delays, a greater risk that Abu Qatada will be put out on bail and a risk he will sue the Government. Did the Home Office get specific assurances from the European Court that the deadline was Monday night? If so, will it publish them? If not, why not? Why did it not pick up the phone to sort it out? The Home Office was told by journalists on Monday, nearly 24 hours before Abu Qatada was arrested, that European Court officials were saying that the deadline was Tuesday. Did it do anything about it?
I hope that the Home Secretary’s interpretation is right, but at best there is uncertainty, and several eminent lawyers now say that they agree with the European Court. So why take the risk? What was the harm in waiting until Wednesday? Why create a legal loophole for Abu Qatada’s lawyers to exploit? We all want Abu Qatada deported as soon as possible, under the rule of law, and kept off the streets in the meantime, but both those things are now less likely because of her actions. On Tuesday, I warned that there was a troubling level of confusion around this case, but even I did not imagine that the confusion was this great. When will she sort this out?
Order. Let us lower the temperature. I said that the shadow Home Secretary must be heard, and precisely the same principle applies to the Home Secretary. Let us hear what she has to say. [Interruption.] Order. Then I will allow a full opportunity, if necessary, for questions to follow.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me repeat what I said in my first answer. We have always been clear that despite the progress we have made, the process of deporting Abu Qatada is likely to take many months. It should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that he intended to apply delaying tactics—[Interruption.] I repeat that it should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that Abu Qatada has chosen to use delaying tactics. After all, he has been doing this since 2001. The fact that he applied to the Grand Chamber for referral after the deadline had passed and after he had heard our case in SIAC shows the strength of our arguments and of our work in putting together assurances from the Grand Chamber.
I answered the question about dates in my first answer, but I will return to the matter because the right hon. Lady referred to it again. Article 43 of the convention makes it clear that a request for referral to the Grand Chamber must be made
“Within a period of three months from the date of the judgment of the Chamber”.
I shall read out the European Court’s own guidance:
“the period of three months within which referral may be requested starts to run on the date of the delivery of the judgment, irrespective of whether the party concerned may have learned about it at a later stage. It expires three calendar months later and is not interrupted by bank holidays or periods of judicial recess. The request for referral should reach the Registry of the Court before the expiry of the above-mentioned period.”
We are talking about a simple mathematical question. The European Court’s judgment was on 17 January. The period of three months within which we were allowed to refer ended at midnight on 16 April. The right hon. Lady asked why we did not just call the European Court and check. Of course, the Government have been in contact with the Court throughout this period, and it was always clear that we were working to the Monday deadline.
The shadow Home Secretary quoted a source in the European Court, but if she had listened to what I said in my first answer, she would know that the only people at the European Court who can adjudicate on this matter are the judges on the panel of the Grand Chamber. Article 43 is very clear. She may want to listen to unofficial sources, but I suggest that she reads the text of the convention.
The shadow Home Secretary also chose to attack me today for acting too quickly in this matter. On Tuesday she attacked me for acting too slowly in this matter. She is all over the place. The truth is that because of the work that we have done, we have the assurances and information that we need from the Jordanian Government to comply with the January ruling of the European Court. Once we can get the case back to the British courts, we will resume that process, so that we can put Abu Qatada on a plane and get him out of our country for good. That is something that the shadow Home Secretary should support.
Finally, perhaps the shadow Home Secretary can answer the question that was not answered on Tuesday. While we are talking about deportation and extradition, why is the Labour party campaigning to stop the extradition of a known terror suspect to the United States?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the conclusion of the great majority of people in this country who have been listening to this argument over the months is that Britain should withdraw its legal processes from the jurisdiction of the European Court?
What I agree with is that we should make every effort to reform the European Court, which is precisely what is being done today at the Brighton conference, and what will be done over the next two days, by my right hon. and learned Friends the Attorney-General and the shadow Justice Secretary.
I am having a greater struggle today to be magnanimous than I had on Tuesday. Although the Home Secretary might accept that it is no surprise that Abu Qatada will take any measure to make a monkey out of the Home Secretary and the Home Office, was it a surprise to her to learn that a question of ambiguity about the date was raised with the Home Office on Monday? Specifically, was she told and what did she do about it?
I have made it clear that the deadline was on Monday 16 April. That is the view that we have put to the European Court. As I have also said in my earlier responses, of course the Government were talking to the European Court throughout the three months, and we were doing so on the basis that the deadline was 16 April.
Does the Home Secretary agree not only that the most recent development in the Abu Qatada case underlines the absolute necessity of securing reforms at Brighton to curtail the number of minor cases going to the Court and to improve its efficiency, but that the Court’s position as the defender of fundamental human rights for 800 million people must stand?
The Government have been absolutely clear in our view of the importance of maintaining human rights and, obviously, of having appropriate mechanisms to ensure that that is done. My right hon. Friend is right that we need to reform the European Court. One of the key issues that we have taken up as a Government is the efficiency of the Court. Another issue that we are taking up is subsidiarity and the relationship between decisions taken by national courts and the work of the European Court.
In my experience as Home Secretary, the louder the cheers from behind, the deeper the mire the Home Secretary was in. [Laughter.] In my view, any ambiguity about the date should have meant that the announcement was made on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. If the Home Secretary is right about her dates, I will be very pleased about that. If she is wrong, will she accept that she must take responsibility, not one of her officials?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for sharing with us his experience of when he was Home Secretary. The Government are clear about when the deadline was, but as I also made clear earlier, this is a judgment that will be made by the panel of the Grand Chamber, which is the final arbiter of what the deadline was. Indeed, it is open to the judges on the Grand Chamber to decide that even if the deadline has been passed, they will accept a referral under their discretion. They will decide whether they accept that.
The right hon. Gentleman’s final point is absolutely valid. I of course take responsibility for decisions that I have taken. This is not a question of what officials have done; I take full responsibility.
Should we not put this into some sort of context? Mr Abu Qatada was first arrested in 2002, and was then released and re-arrested on two separate occasions over an eight-year period. His case has been the subject of multiple appeals to courts in this country under the European convention on human rights, which the previous Government incorporated into British law in 1998, amidst great fanfare, and which is very much at the root of these problems.
My hon. Friend is right to bring us back to the core issue at stake. The fact is that, for the past 11 years, this country has been trying to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. As far as I, the Government, the British public and, I hope, the whole House are concerned, that is what should happen to him. On Tuesday, when the Government had their first opportunity to take action to resume that deportation, that is exactly what we did.
Nobody doubts the efforts that the Home Secretary has made on this issue. I think that, if she had half a chance, she would like to be handcuffed to Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan in order to deposit him in Amman. What concerns me, however, is the fact that a north London firm of legal aid solicitors has been able to outwit the very expensive silks of the Home Office. She mentioned article 43. If she looks at the cases of Praha v. the Czech Republic and Otto v. Germany, she will see that the time limit begins the next day. I am also worried about the 15 other cases that she referred to on Tuesday. Will she look at those cases and ensure that proper legal advice has been taken and that deadlines have been met? When she comes before the Select Committee next Tuesday, it would be good if she could give us the answers to those questions.
I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said in response to an earlier question. The arbiters of whether a request for a referral put in by Abu Qatada should be accepted—whether in response to a deadline or, as we believe, outside the deadline—or whether discretion should be applied to accept it outside the deadline are not a north London firm of lawyers but the five judges who will be sitting on the panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court.
The Home Secretary is trying her best—there is no question about that—but unfortunately it is not working. The root causes of this problem are the questions of what the rule of law is, whose rule of law is applicable and who interprets it. Those questions should be decided in this House. We should withdraw from the European convention, repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and get the matter straight because the people of this country demand it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I think is fairly similar to previous questions that he has asked me on this issue. Let me assure him that I take this issue extremely seriously and I am absolutely clear that we want to deport Abu Qatada. However, I also made it absolutely clear in the House earlier this week that the Government must operate within the rule of law, and that a number of legal avenues would be available to Abu Qatada. It is no surprise that he is using delaying tactics to try to delay his deportation from this country. It is right to say that we need to reform the European Court of Human Rights, and that is exactly the work that is being undertaken by my right hon. and learned Friends the Justice Secretary—I think I inadvertently referred to him earlier as the shadow Justice Secretary; I beg his pardon—and the Attorney-General.
I am beginning to think that the Home Secretary has form here. She has previously accused the European Court of Human Rights of rejecting a deportation because someone had a cat, and she is giving assurances today despite the cases of Otto and Praha, which make it quite clear that she has wrongly interpreted the deadline. My suspicion is that she is playing with this very serious case in order to whip up hostility to the European Court of Human Rights, which is an important protector of human rights in Britain.
I think that the hon. Lady will be able to tell from some of the comments that have been made today that there is no need to whip up feeling about the European Court of Human Rights. May I correct her on two points that she made in her question? First, she said that I had made a claim about the European Court of Human Rights in a deportation case relating to a cat; I did not. That concerned a case in the UK courts. She also referred to the cases of Praha and Otto, to which the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred earlier. Those two cases are not about a referral to the Grand Chamber. Perhaps she should look at them more closely.
Would the Home Secretary like to challenge Opposition Members who are now shouting their criticism to say whether they would support the abolition of the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdraw from the European convention, which has led to this mess in the first place? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend tempts me down a road that I suspect it would not be wise to go down, but he had one or two sedentary responses from the Opposition. I repeat that it is the Government’s view that we should reform the European Court, and that is precisely what we are working to do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the British Government’s case is strong, that Abu Qatada’s case is weak and a delaying tactic, and that the British people will be appalled by the delay while the European Court investigates the case again, because they think that action should be taken now? If it is not taken, we want reform of the Court.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I fully appreciate that the public will be concerned by the delaying tactic that is being employed. I warned the House earlier this week—and, indeed, warned people more generally—that the process of deportation could take many months and that legal avenues were open to Abu Qatada to pursue, and that is of course what has happened. In response to my hon. Friend’s first point, the Government’s case is strong. It is educational to look at what happened on Tuesday. At the beginning of the SIAC hearing, Abu Qatada’s lawyers indicated that they were going to take the matter through the UK courts. It was only after they heard our case and the judgment that was brought down on Abu Qatada by Justice Mitting that they decided to attempt this referral.
Journalists are reporting today that they have checked with the European Court, and that it was the Court’s opinion that the three-month period started to be measured from the day after the domestic decision, which was the 17th. That was reported to the Home Office. Was it brought to the attention of the Secretary of State? Did her officials ever put before her the decision whether to go forward on 17 April or 18 April? This is an important question: did her officials ever give her the option of delaying for 24 hours in order to be safe according to the European Court’s position?
The position of the Government has always been absolutely clear—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] The position that we have been working on is that the deadline was Monday 16 April. The hon. Gentleman’s question is based on an incorrect premise, and if he had listened to the answers that I gave earlier, he would realise that. His claim is that, had the action been delayed by a day, no referral could have been made by Abu Qatada. I have made it clear, however, that it is a matter for the discretion of the panel of judges of the Grand Chamber whether to accept a referral within the deadline or outside it.
I offer the Home Secretary my support, but is it not the case that the reform of the European Court of Human Rights could take many years? Is it not time that we had a Supreme Court that really was supreme, and should we not introduce a British Bill of Rights sooner rather than later?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have set up a commission to look at a British Bill of Rights, which will report in due course. The Government will look at the commission’s recommendations. As I said earlier in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the reforms to the European Court that we are considering include the question of subsidiarity. It is greatly to the credit of my fellow Ministers who have been working on this that we have been able to get as far as we have, and I have every expectation of positive decisions coming out of the conference that is taking place in Brighton.
Adding incompetent and dangerous advice on petrol and jerry cans a couple of weeks ago to this episode, our constituents are beginning to wonder whether this Government could organise a convivial social evening in the nearest brewery. Will the Home Secretary now publish the advice—not just on the question of three months, but on when exactly the clock starts ticking to calculate those three months, which lies at the heart of this latest episode? Will she also clarify the control regime under which Abu Qatada will be kept in the meantime? Will it be tighter than her proposed terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and if it is a tighter regime, why is it appropriate for him and not for the other terrorist suspects to whom she is planning to grant the freedom of the capital city?
I have answered questions about the European Court, the treaty and the advice and guidance given by the European Court on the dates. On the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, Abu Qatada is in detention at the moment. If he and his lawyers apply for him to be let him out on bail, we will vigorously oppose it. It is the case, of course, that he had been on bail prior to his arrest on Tuesday. The bail conditions on which he was held were among the most stringent ever applied to anybody here in the United Kingdom. Those bail conditions were tighter than the control order regime that I know the right hon. Gentleman supported.
Further to the Home Secretary’s answer to the Father of the House, the fact is that the Brighton conference process is designed to weed out trivial cases. It would not affect a serious case like this one. If one believes in the European Court of Human Rights, that Court should deal with this case. I think we all have to be honest and the Home Secretary has to be honest about it. Is she personally prepared to argue for the supremacy of this Parliament, which would mean that we must repeal the human rights legislation and create a British Bill of Rights?
My hon. Friend will recall that I have made my own views on the Human Rights Act absolutely clear. The Conservative party, of course, went into the last election saying that we would bring in a Bill of Rights. The Government have established a commission to look at the whole issue of a British Bill of Rights. I suggest that my hon. Friend waits for that commission to report.
I have made it clear that the Government’s view is that the deadline finished on 16 April. I repeat that Opposition Members who think that we would somehow be in a different position if Abu Qatada’s arrest had been delayed for 24 hours need to be careful, as the European Court is able to exercise discretion about the deadline and it could accept a referral outside that deadline.
As I have already made clear, this case has been going on for 11 years. At the first opportunity this Government had to take action to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada, we took that action, and when the processes of the European Court are complete, we will take that action again and resume his deportation because, with the assurances we have received from the Jordanian Government, we have a strong case. Our aim, like everybody else’s, is to deport Abu Qatada.
Does not this whole situation clearly demonstrate why, following the Brighton conference and given our chairmanship of the European Council, we must see significant reform? If significant reform is not achieved for any reason, should we not move far more quickly to adopt a UK Bill of Rights instead of the convention?
As I said earlier, I believe that there is every prospect of us being able to move forward on reform of the European Court of Human Rights as a result of the work being done by the Justice Secretary and the Attorney-General. On that basis, I look forward to the outcome of the Brighton conference.
Let me say to all hon. Members who are intending to repeat this question that I have already answered it. [Hon. Members: “No you have not.”] The Government’s position is absolutely clear—the deadline was on Monday 16 April. The only arbiters, however, and the only people who can decide on the deadline and on whether to accept a referral are the judges sitting on the panel of the Grand Chamber. They will give us their determination in due course.
Does the Home Secretary agree that Abu Qatada and his lawyers are doing nothing more or less than attempting to belittle and thwart the British judicial system—an attempt to terrorise just as surely as is laying a bomb or firing a bullet? If so, how will this be reflected at the Brighton conference?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an attempt by Abu Qatada and his lawyers to delay the action we have taken. It is, as I said, educational— and, I believe, very significant—that Abu Qatada’s lawyers did not make a referral or attempt to make a referral until they had seen the strength of our case in SIAC on Tuesday after we had arrested him and taken him before the courts. It is, of course, essential to ensure that we continue with the deportation, and we will do so as soon as this process in the European Court is completed.
It is a simple matter because the deadline was Monday 16 April and the decision will be taken by the judges in the Grand Chamber of the European Court. What is also a simple matter is the fact that it is this Government who got the assurances from Jordan that will enable us to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada. That is what we want to see and what the British public want to see.
I wonder whether the Home Secretary would agree that the European Court of Human Rights is putting this nation in a position in which we could be perceived as a safe haven for foreign criminals who want to avoid justice from outside the EU, and that the only way to avoid that is to establish a Bill of Rights for the UK.
I made the Government’s position clear when I mentioned the commission on the Bill of Rights. I said here on Tuesday, and will repeat it today, that there has been concern about the ability of other European countries to deport people more quickly than we can. I have thus already initiated work to look at the processes— and the legal structures and systems—that happen in France and Italy, for example, to see whether we could learn anything from them and whether legislative changes could be made to give us the ability more quickly to deport people who are a threat to our national security.
I listened carefully to the Home Secretary on Tuesday and I have listened to her answers today, and it is absolutely clear from her evasive answers that she did receive advice about the ambiguity of the 24 hours—yet she went ahead with the media circus of this arrest. Does she accept that people will be extremely angry if Abu Qatada now gets bail?
The Government will vigorously oppose any application that Abu Qatada makes for bail. We have been clear throughout that we believe he should be in detention. That is where he is today. I have been clear, and am happy to repeat, that the deadline was Monday 16 April, but that the decision as to whether his application for a referral will be accepted is for the panel of the Grand Chamber. That has been made clear by me here and by the European Court.
Would my right hon. Friend invite the Grand Chamber to consider the human rights of my constituents to live out their lives free of the sort of activities that might be carried out by Abu Qatada and the 15 other individuals awaiting deportation on similar grounds?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are very clear about wanting to ensure that we can deport people who are a threat to our national security, as in the case of Abu Qatada. That is why we have worked so hard with the Jordanian Government to obtain the assurances that we need, which have given us the strong case that we have: the strong case that was presented at the SIAC hearing on Tuesday and was, I believe, recognised as a strong case from the UK Government. When we have completed the process with the European Court, we will resume the deportation process. I assure my hon. Friend that I am very clear about the need to take account of the rights of British citizens, and that the duty of the Home Office, which is all about keeping people safe, is always foremost in our thoughts.
In response to a question from the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Home Secretary said that the cases that he had cited in connection with the definition of the time limit were not relevant to this case. Will she tell us whether she relied on any case precedent in making her decision on the definition of the deadline, and, if she did not, why she did not opt for a precautionary response?
Of course we have looked at the definition of the deadline as used by the European Court. We have looked at the treaty definition of the deadline as used by the European Court, which I have quoted to the House, and I think that that treaty definition makes the position absolutely clear.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disbelief that there is no administrative mechanism at the ECHR to establish the simple question of whether an application is out of time, which means that we and the taxpayer will have to wait up to two months for the ECHR to establish that simple point before we can proceed with the deportation of Abu Qatada? Will the Government raise the matter at Brighton, and get on with this aspect of reform of the ECHR as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend has made an extremely valuable point. I have found that many people here in the UK consider it astonishing that there is no simple mechanism for setting a clear deadline and then striking out any applications that fall outside that deadline. What is absolutely clear is that the panel of the Grand Chamber has discretion to accept applications made outside the deadline, and to determine what that deadline was.
In view of the xenophobia and hysteria on the Tory Benches, why does the Home Secretary not have the courage to say that it is a lie that the European Court of Human Rights is in the business of trying to protect terrorists—last week’s decision contradicts that—and is it not a great advance for Europe that there is such a court in the first place?
We have made it clear that we are abiding by the rule of law. We have abided by the decisions made by the European Court. We now believe that we have the assurances that we need in order to be able to challenge the Court’s decision in relation to article 6, which was the ground on which it prevented the deportation of Abu Qatada. We believe that the right way of dealing with the issue of his deportation was to gain those assurances from the Jordanian Government. Obviously we will await the European Court’s decision on whether to accept the application for a referral.
Given that Abu Qatada would almost certainly have appealed against any decision by the British courts and taken that appeal all the way back to the European Court of Human Rights, does his present appeal not give Government lawyers an opportunity to seek the Court’s determination that the assurances obtained from the Jordanian Government mean that he should now be deported immediately?
My hon. Friend has made a valid point about the legal avenues that would be available to Abu Qatada in any case in the UK courts. The first decision that the European Court will make is a decision on whether to accept the referral—the appeal, effectively—from Abu Qatada, and it is that decision that we will expect in the coming weeks. If the Court chooses to accept the referral, it will—as I made clear to the House on Tuesday—examine the whole case that was put before it initially. The UK Government will, of course, present their arguments, as they have done previously.
The Home Secretary’s judgment has now been called into question on two important issues: first the shambles over checks at our borders, and now this. It is therefore a question of her competence. Will she resolve that question by publishing all the advice that she received on this matter, including any advice about the ambiguity of the deadline?
This country has been trying to deport Abu Qatada since 2001. The Government acted on the first opportunity that they had to take the action necessary to resume the deportation, and we will resume that deportation when the processes in the European Court have been completed. Our view is very clear: we want to deport Abu Qatada.
The good folk of Brigg and Goole are not xenophobes for believing that judges in this country should decide who is innocent and who is guilty. The Home Secretary mentioned the Brighton conference in her statement. Can she assure me that she and the Lord Chancellor will listen to the people of Brigg and Goole today and not to the comments of Lord McNally, who, apparently, is a Liberal Democrat and a Minister who described the debate on this matter as “unreasonable”?
My hon. Friend is always assiduous in bringing the views of his constituents to the House, and comments that I have heard from some other Members suggest that their own constituents share those views.
The Brighton conference is considering reform of the European Court, and I think that that is important. I also think it important to remember that it is this Government who took the action that was necessary to bring about reform of the Court, something that was never done by the Labour party.
If we are worried about the possibility that this apparent debacle offers some propaganda value to Abu Qatada’s supporters, should we not also be wary of offering a parliamentary spectacle which compounds that propaganda value through some of the dangerous messages that are being sent here?
I think it absolutely right for Parliament to have the opportunity to ask questions, and to raise the issues that Members wish to raise, in response to this case. As I said on Tuesday and have said again today, it was always going to be the case that various legal avenues would be open to Abu Qatada and his lawyers which they could pursue in an attempt to delay his deportation, and that is exactly what they are trying to do. The fact that they are using those delaying tactics comes as no surprise to anyone. The Government are clear about the deadline, and clear about our case and the strength of the assurances that we have received.
Given some of the opportunistic nonsense that we have heard from Opposition Members, may I assure my right hon. Friend that she has the full support of Government Members? She will know—[Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend will know that the European Court of Human Rights’ own practice direction on rule 39 indicates that rule 39 measures should be granted only in exceptional circumstances. Will she discuss with the Attorney-General whether it is now open to the Government to apply for removal of the rule 39 injunction, and indeed whether it is still in place, given the expiry of the time limit, which is so obvious to every Member on the Government Benches?
My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point. I can tell him that in indicating that it has received an application for referral that will be put before the panel of the Grand Chamber for consideration, the European Court has made it clear to the UK Government that the rule 39 injunction still applies.
It is very disappointing that we are not going to receive a clear answer from the Home Secretary about what advice she received from her officials. We do know, however, that the BBC informed the Home Office on Monday that there was some uncertainty about the deadline. On that basis, why did the Home Secretary not wait for an extra 24 hours before making her announcement?
I will repeat it again. I could not be clearer. [Interruption.] The deadline was on Monday 16 April. The Government took the first opportunity that arose to take action to resume the deportation, and we will do so again when the process through the European Court is finished.
As has been made clear to the House, the BBC was making claims about the deadline at that time. The Government have been absolutely clear that the deadline was 16 April. As I have tried to explain to the House today, the Government have also been absolutely clear that the decision as to what the deadline was and whether an application for referral can be accepted—and whether it is within the deadline or whether it can be accepted outside the deadline at the discretion of the European Court—is a matter only for the panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court. It is the arbiter of this—nobody else.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s support for a Bill of Rights, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend recognises that the British people are quickly losing patience with the European Court of Human Rights. Will she therefore urge the Cabinet to ensure that a Bill of Rights is included in the Queen’s Speech, so that the British people can be reassured on this matter very quickly indeed?
I thought that, in response to various answers, I had explained what I think is the right approach for the Government to take, which is for us to reform the European Court of Human Rights to deal with the concerns that have been raised about the way the European Court operates, and that is exactly the work the Government are undertaking.
Does the Home Secretary agree that we have been seeing raw and naked opportunism from the Labour Benches today? Is it not the case that the operative words of article 43 are that the reasons for the judgment being appealed must
“reach the Registry within three months”
of the date, which was 17 January, so Monday 16 April was within three months, whereas Tuesday 17 April would have been three months, not within three months? Therefore, the Home Secretary is right, and Opposition Members who have suggested otherwise have been siding with Abu Qatada’s lawyers and supporting their arguments.
My hon. Friend helpfully clarifies again the definition of the deadline; it was, indeed, Monday 16 April. This is a very simple matter: this Government want to deport Abu Qatada. We have taken action to do that, and we will resume it when it is once again possible, but I was clear that it may take many months to do that, and there are various legal avenues available to Abu Qatada.
It seems to me that the raw and naked opportunism came from the Home Secretary seeking good headlines from announcing this prematurely. She has admitted that she knew of the BBC advice. Will she confirm whether she had advice from her officials that there was doubt about the deadline—yes or no?
That is interesting, as we have now learned that the Opposition’s view is that the best advice to Government should always come from the BBC. I can only assume that that is what they did when in government. What this Government did on Tuesday was take, at the first opportunity, the action to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada. After 11 years, we want to take the action that will see Abu Qatada deported. That is what we started to do on Tuesday, and it is what we will do again when it is open to us.
I would hope that the whole House agrees that it is utterly unacceptable that it has taken 11 years and counting to remove this man from the United Kingdom. What will the Government do to ensure that future cases are dealt with much more speedily, and that the rights of millions of our constituents to live in peace are not trumped by the rights of men like Abu Qatada?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. There are two things the Government can do: first, the work we are doing to reform the European Court, to which I have referred on a number of occasions today; secondly, the work I have initiated to look at why it appears that other countries can sometimes deport individuals more quickly than we can. That work has started, and we will be looking to see whether any sensible legislative changes are open to us in order to enable the UK to deport such people more quickly.
This is not a simple question of mathematics, as the Home Secretary has suggested. It looks increasingly possible that her Department got it wrong. We understand what the Government’s view is on the advice she has received, but in coming to that view, did she receive any advice from any officials—albeit, perhaps, a minority opinion—that there was some ambiguity in respect of this date?
I dealt with this issue in answer to questions raised with me on Tuesday. Of course, I believe that the Government should operate within the rule of law. A rule 39 injunction has, indeed, been placed on the deportation of Abu Qatada, as it was during the period following the judgment of 17 January. As I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, if the Government were to take action to break that injunction, not only would that be contrary to that legal judgment made by the European Court, but the first step would be to ask for an injunction here in the UK courts. If the Government were to act against that injunction, not only Ministers, but anybody involved, would be acting illegally, and I do not think that is right.
May I suggest that if the Home Secretary wants to avoid being asked the same question again and again, she might answer it at the first time of asking? She has repeatedly said she is clear that the deadline was 16 April. She has not said, however, whether she was made aware that there could be uncertainty about that in the European Court. Was she made aware of that?
Exactly. The point is that, as I said earlier, this comes as no surprise, as I think everybody would expect Abu Qatada and his lawyers to use whatever delaying tactics they can. As I have made absolutely clear, it is within the discretion of the panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court to decide to accept a referral that is outside the deadline, so it is little wonder that Abu Qatada and his lawyers have made this attempt at a referral.
For the avoidance of doubt, will the Home Secretary confirm what is becoming increasingly clear: that she did receive advice from officials that there was ambiguity about the deadline? Also, as we are discussing important legal matters, why is the Attorney-General not present?
There is palpable frustration among all Members about the length of time this case has taken, but we have repeatedly seen such cases ever since the European Court of Human Rights was incorporated into British law. Is it not time that the Government acknowledged the frustration of the British people, who want a Bill of Rights, and want it now?
As I have said, the Government have set up a process in relation to the Bill of Rights. I also gently remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that people in the United Kingdom had access to the European Court of Human Rights before the Human Rights Act; the situation is simply that the relationship has changed.
Given that the Qatada case goes back through almost a decade under the previous Government, is my right hon. Friend more surprised by the Labour party’s audacity earlier in the week in complaining about delay or by its audacity today in complaining that she has acted too quickly?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Opposition really do need to get their act straight on whether they think we have acted too quickly or too slowly. They are trying to give two different messages this week. What is important is that the Government took the first opportunity to act to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada, and will indeed do so again.
We know that the Home Secretary was warned about the uncertainty surrounding the deadline. We also know—or expect, at least—that she would have received advice from the Attorney-General. So can she explain why she did not simply wait 24 hours before rushing to the Dispatch Box to make her announcement?
The Home Secretary may have seen today’s press reports saying that the appeal was launched only after a reminder was sent by officials of the Court to Abu Qatada’s lawyers. If that is the case, does it not bring into question the independence of the officials and of the Court itself?
What I do know is that the application for a referral by Abu Qatada’s lawyers was made only a matter of hours after they had heard the strength of our case in SIAC. At the beginning of that case in SIAC, they had clearly been intending to take the case through the UK courts. It was only when they heard the strength of our case—it shows the strength of our case—that they went away to see whether there was any other delaying tactic they could use, and they have used the delaying tactic.
As the hon. Gentleman might have noticed on Tuesday, were he in the Chamber then, I have not made any estimate of when the gentleman concerned will be sent back to Jordan. I am absolutely clear—I made it clear on Tuesday and have repeated it today—that this could take many months, because various legal avenues are available to Abu Qatada and it would be no surprise if he chose to try to use them.
I commend the Home Secretary’s efforts in this case, but does she agree that it is intolerable to my constituents that a perception has been created that she is unable to act in what they perceive to be their national interest?
I am well aware of the concern that people have in the UK, across the board, in relation to their desire to see Abu Qatada deported, which of course the Government share. That is why the Government will be ensuring that, at the first opportunity, we resume deportation.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that the Government will continue to do everything they can to get rid of this known terrorist? Will she remind the European Court and the panel of judges that they have a duty to defend my constituents’ human right to live in safety in their own country?
No one will be surprised that Abu Qatada is, once again, attempting to delay his deportation to face justice in Jordan. What estimate has my right hon. Friend been given of the time it will take before the European Court of Human Rights determines whether this case is to be heard? How long will it take before this case is taken, if the Court accepts it?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that greatly delayed justice is no justice at all, and that until the European Court stops wanting to interfere in matters that should be dealt with in a national court and until the great backlog of cases is reduced, the calls for withdrawal from the Court altogether will increase?
My hon. Friend expresses concerns that I know have been expressed not only by Government Members in this House, but elsewhere, by members of the public. That is why it is so important that the Government have taken up the work being done to reform the European Court of Human Rights, particularly on its efficiency, but also on the issue of subsidiarity. Indeed, as I say, it is what my right hon. and learned Friends are pursuing, as we speak, at the Brighton conference.
I suggest to the Home Secretary that, after many, many years, we can take comfort from the fact that the Labour party has finally recognised the seriousness of the need to kick this terrorist out of the country. Does she agree that if Labour had applied the same urgency and enthusiasm when in government, this country would be a safer place today?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Abu Qatada’s lawyers have made this reference to the European Court only after hearing the exceptionally strong Government case showing that he has a very weak case against deportation? Does she agree that instead of hurling cheap shots, those in this House should be united in their determination that Abu Qatada should be deported from this country as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This House should indeed be united in its determination to see Abu Qatada deported. I hope that it will also be united in welcoming the work that has been done by this Government to achieve the assurances that mean that we have got such a strong case for deporting him.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a major flaw in the European Court is that a significant number of the judges come from countries with very questionable human rights records? Does she also agree that it is time for the European Court not to be a charter for criminals, but to be a convention for human rights?
The role of the Court is obviously in upholding the European convention on human rights. It is important that we seek to ensure that the cases that the Court is taking are indeed appropriate to be heard by that Court, and of course that is part of the work that my right hon. and learned Friends are undertaking.