Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern that the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan may never commence under the current arrangements for the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests; and calls on the Government to review its approach to open justice, in particular the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests.
As a rule, when someone dies in questionable circumstances an inquest is held in order to establish the cause of death and set out the events that led up to it. In a society that prides itself on being fair and just, it is inconceivable that the circumstances of such a death should leave questions unanswered. Moreover, establishing the events that lead to death at the hands of the state in particular is integral to maintaining a relationship between state and citizens. That has been the case in our country since 1194, when the precedent for coroners’ inquests began. Whereas an inquiry considers broader issues of public concern, the role of an inquest is to provide a detailed account of how an individual came to die in suspicious circumstances or at the hands of the state. An inquest is an invaluable tool in both answering questions and, importantly, learning lessons.
On its own, a public inquiry is insufficient in helping us piece together the circumstances in which an individual has died at the hands of the state. We witnessed that following the Hillsborough tragedy and I am afraid that we are witnessing it again, this time in my constituency of Tottenham, where the family of a man shot by police await a public inquest into his death. As the law stands, they cannot even be told why an inquest cannot take place.
The riots that followed the shooting of Mark Duggan on 6 August 2011 portrayed most vividly and, indeed, violently the frustration caused by questions left unanswered. Not everyone who rioted in the days following Mark Duggan’s death was motivated by a sense of injustice, but if we look back at those events we will see that it is clear that the shooting was a touch paper—a spark that began the rioting.
More than one year on, the denial of an inquest is an affront to the families of those who have lost a relative in circumstances that remain unexplained, confining them to a lifetime of uncertainty. This is not the first time that an inquest has been denied following a fatal shooting. I refer hon. Members to the case of Azelle Rodney, a young man shot by the police in 2005. It has been suggested that the inquest into Mr Rodney’s death was withdrawn from court as a direct consequence of section 17 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Crucial material detailing the events leading up to Azelle Rodney being shot was deemed inadmissible in court and key evidence was redacted into meaningless fragments. A public inquiry headed by a High Court judge began just last month. Mr Rodney’s mother has been excluded from hearings on more than one occasion and the inquiry chair has ruled that her legal team cannot be shown surveillance video footage. His family’s questions about his death remain unanswered to this day.
The denial of an inquest is an affront not just to the families concerned, but to everybody who lost relatives in last year’s riots; to everybody whose businesses and homes were destroyed and who remain without a home or a livelihood; and to every one of us who believes in the need for open justice—for justice to be done and for it to be seen to be done. This country has experience of difficult cases that require inquests, such as the 7/7 bombings, the Marchioness and, most recently, the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes. All of those cases required inquests not just to get to the truth of what happened, but to learn lessons on behalf of the state and those who act for it.
Just yesterday it was revealed that the trial of Kevin Hutchinson-Foster—the man charged with supplying Mark Duggan with a handgun 15 minutes before he was shot by police—has ended without verdict. Now more than ever we must ensure that there is an open, judge-led inquest into the death of Mark Duggan.
The denial of a public inquest not only damages the outcome of this case, but casts a shadow over our entire judicial system. Under RIPA, we cannot know whether it is the inadmissibility of intercept evidence that prevents an inquest from being held. Mark Duggan’s family will have to accept that an inquest may not take place, but they cannot be told why it has been denied. What sort of climate of suspicion—of cloaks and daggers—do we create when evidence of vital importance is presented not in an open court in front of a jury, coroner or judge, but behind closed doors? What message does that send, not just to the family of Mark Duggan, but to the riot victims who lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods in the wake of the riots? If an open inquiry cannot be held into the events leading up to Mark Duggan’s death, closed justice is not really justice at all.
I remind the House that, despite £2 million-worth of damage being caused by last year’s riots, not a single inquiry has or will be held. A paltry sum of less than £150,000 was spent on the Riots Communities and Victims Panel. That contrasts with the staggering £6 million and counting that has been spent on the Leveson inquiry. What hope is there of reaching an accurate and comprehensive account of the events that led to the riots, when it has been made clear that an inquiry, let alone an inquest, is simply not on the coalition Government’s list of priorities?
Securing justice is not always about finding an answer; it can be about asking the questions. When evidence is withheld from the public for no good reason, we cannot claim that justice has been sought. An honest, open and fair society seeks to overcome obstacles in the path of finding justice for its citizens. When justice is obstructed due to misguided legislation, as in this case, it falls to politicians to clear the way. No political party has a monopoly on justice. Finding out what caused an individual to die in suspicious circumstances is not a partisan issue. That is why I am grateful for the support of hon. Members and in particular the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is in his place. That this debate is taking place is testimony to the cross-party will to ensure that public inquests remain a pillar of the British judicial system.
There is a principle in our justice system known as the rule of admissibility. It means that any evidence deemed relevant to a trial should be presented in court. That eminently reasonable legal principle forms the basis not just of fully informed trials, but of the open, fair and impartial judicial system that we, as British citizens, are entitled to expect. We cannot claim that we operate such a judicial system when existing legislation means that crucial bits of evidence remain inadmissible in court.
We certainly cannot claim judicial superiority when we are the only country in the world that does not permit the use in court of material gathered by interception. In the United States, intercept evidence has secured the conviction of al-Qaeda plotters and the most slippery of New York Mafia dons. At an international level, intercept evidence has allowed the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to convict Yugoslav war criminals.
The ban on intercept material in British courts contradicts not just our notions of judicial fairness, but our common sense. We are repeatedly reminded of the importance of intercept evidence, most often in the context of terrorism and national security, but increasingly in tackling domestic crime. It is staggering that when hours and weeks of time and great resources are put into gathering this evidence, particularly by our intelligence services, resulting in the detection of crime and the arrest of a criminal, most of the incriminating evidence has to remain hidden. Cases that involve intercept material are invariably complex. How many terrorists, drug dealers, paedophiles and other criminals have eluded conviction not because of a lack of evidence but because that evidence could not be heard in a court?
That cases should fall at the last hurdle is an immense frustration to anyone who has a desire to see justice achieved, not least police forces themselves. It was with that sense of frustration that I wanted to bring the matter to the House. I am, however, far from the first individual to do so. Since as far back as 2005, MPs, Lords, lawyers and even Attorneys-General have bravely stepped up and asked for the ban to be lifted, yet the sword in the stone of section 17 of RIPA stands stuck fast.
Between 2005 and 2008, no fewer than seven reports on the issue were submitted to Ministers. It reared its head in 2008 in the counter-terrorism debate, and again in debates on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. In a display of remarkable consensus, the Metropolitan police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Crown Prosecution Service, Governments and Home Secretaries have expressed a desire to amend section 17. Indeed, the issue has united the most stubborn of bedfellows, as the coalition agreement commits to finding
“a practical way to allow the use of intercept evidence in court.”
I remind the House of the Privy Council review also known as the Chilcot report, commissioned in 2007 to review the use of intercept evidence. A welcome step, we might say, but unfortunately not a bold enough one. A series of reports have confirmed what any Member can tell us—that there is political consensus in favour of permitting the use of intercept evidence in court. On receiving the initial inquiry report in 2009, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), stated:
“The issues involved are complex and difficult, and addressing them commensurately challenging. But the importance of our interception capabilities to national security and public protection means that there can be no short cuts.”
With all due respect to him, after seven years in a three-year period, I think we can say that no short cuts had been taken at all.
Yet here we are again, debating in “Groundhog Day” fashion an issue that already has cross-party support. The Prime Minister himself has declared that he would prefer to use intercept evidence than not use it. On visiting New York following the conviction of John Gotti, the former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith hailed the use of intercept evidence as a “vital tool”. Eminent Law Lords such as Lord Lloyd of Berwick have challenged the ban as well. If the use of intercept material promotes national security, combats domestic crime and maintains faith in public expressions of justice, why does its use in court remain prohibited?
Although our attention today is focused on section 17 of RIPA, it was that Act’s predecessor, the Interception of Communications Act 1985, that implemented the statutory ban on the use of intercept material in court. In 1985, the UK found herself condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for permitting the tapping of phone calls. The use of intercept evidence to convict an antiques dealer selling goods of dubious origin led to the use of such evidence being deemed to fall short of the European convention on human rights. Without the cloak of a legal or administrative framework, the UK found herself exposed. Chastised by Strasbourg, the then Prime Minister, Thatcher, passed the 1985 Act, which contained the provision that evidence obtained by interception was inadmissible in court.
Section 17 of RIPA superseded the 1985 Act, ensuring that the exclusion of intercept material from legal proceedings was maintained. So strongly worded was that Act that it went even further, banning not just the use of intercept material but the disclosure that any sort of interception may have taken place. The passing of those successive Acts is the legislative equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: unwieldy in the hands of its users, undiscriminating in its target and wholly unsuited to the job. All I ask is for us to allow exceptions to section 17, but for them to be enshrined in legislation.
If we really want to secure and maintain open justice, the ability to use intercept material in court must become more than an exception that results from hours of detailed and all-too-painful legal wrangling. Unless the legislation changes, we will find ourselves in a similar situation in the Mark Duggan case, still waiting for a public inquest years after the shooting took place. We will be in a judicial environment in which a public inquiry is seen as nothing more than a sop or an exercise in appeasement. I need to underline the question of why an inquiry of that nature following such a death—it led to four days of rioting—cannot be appropriate. The creep into major domestic cases must be of great concern to our country. Unless we legislate to ensure the admissibility of intercept evidence in court, our instruments of justice will remain insufficiently sharp to penetrate to the core of the most challenging of cases.
Members of the intelligence service and section 17 defenders, such as Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale, herself a distinguished officer in the intelligence services, have expressed a fear that the use of intercept evidence could jeopardise interception techniques. It is claimed that by sharing intercept material with the public during an inquest we risk arming the jihadist, the drug smuggler and the people trafficker with the foreknowledge of how we intend to get them into court in the first place.
As has been noted, one does not exactly need high level disclosure to know that the police monitor phone lines as a surveillance method. Does that mean that potential criminals no longer communicate by phone, however? Of course not. The most rookie burglar knows of fingerprint detection, but does that mean that criminals are no longer caught in that way, even in the age of gloves? Of course it does not.
It is claimed that 21st century spookery is so developed that no one except a select few can fully grasp the complexity of interception techniques. That might be true and of course I do not doubt the advances made by or the skills of our intelligence services and I certainly do not want to compromise the hugely important work done by GCHQ in particular. I emphasise, however, that permitting the use of intercept material in court will in no way contradict the hard work done by those services. By making a distinction between domestic crimes and terrorism, we can ensure that the British judicial system can make use of intercept evidence without compromising national security. I refer to America, where different procedures determine how intercept evidence is used in court depending on whether the material was gathered by law enforcement agencies or intelligence agencies.
I am very interested in my right hon. Friend’s last point and he is making a powerful case for allowing intercept evidence to be used in court. However, he says that there might be exceptions for counter-terrorism. Might there be exceptions in serious and organised crime cases so that they can be exempt from automatic disclosure? There is a difference between evidence that should be allowable and used in court and cases when authorities need to prevent the source of their evidence from being disclosed to prevent the exposure of how it is obtained.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Of course, serious and organised crime is dealt with by a particular agency and it would be for a Home Secretary to determine whether it would fall within the scope of any provisions.
Let me move on to the other steps that can be taken to ensure that we do not compromise and that we separate the material from the means. Successive Home Secretaries have been concerned about the means, when there is really a need to separate the means from the material provided.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and for the particular problem that has led him to take this position. I hope, however, that he does not underestimate the complexity of the task—something I have also been engaged in—of finding a way to achieve what we all agree is desirable. A combination of the disclosure requirements that operate in English courts, and article 6 of the European convention on human rights, could lead to massive requirements for retention and transcribing, and that could impair the operating efficiency of our security and intelligence services.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who I know has huge experience in these matters. Inquests have been with us since shortly after the Domesday Book, and if other major jurisdictions can crack this complexity, surely we in our developed democracy should be able to do the same.
Surveillance evidence has long been admissible in court. The police can eavesdrop on a conversation in a pub, and use the evidence in court. Someone’s phone conversation can be recorded on a microphone hidden under a desk and played back in court. If something is recorded, it is fine. There is only a problem if the conversation is contemporaneous, which seems strange.
If someone’s call is intercepted in a foreign country where intercept evidence is admissible—that is the case in every country other than the United Kingdom—that material can come before the courts. That is absurd. If sensitive material gathered by any other means can be heard in court, from transcripts of telephone surveillance to the account of an informant—informants are obviously important in this context—why can we not find a way to make contemporaneous intercept evidence admissible, handling the sensitivity of that material with due care?
We must dispose of the notion that intercept evidence is categorically more sensitive than evidence gathered by other means such as surveillance or informants. Evidence of any other kind is handled based on the sensitivity of the material, but that is not so with intercept evidence, which is the only evidence that has a blanket, categorical ban. In practice, it means that evidence from a phone interception of a conversation detailing a planned robbery is categorically inadmissible in court. At the same time, detection of a human trafficking ring through highly sensitive material provided by an informant faces no such categorical ban.
Of course, no hon. Member would wish to compromise the gathering of intelligence, but I wish to put to one side the notion that because maintaining records of intercept evidence may require logistical consideration, it is not worth doing. If intercept evidence recorded in another country is good enough for the eyes and ears of the British public, how can we maintain the position that evidence intercepted on our soil is not? If America, Canada and Australia allow intercept material to be used in court, one might suppose that the logistical hurdles are not insurmountable.
It simply does not hold true that removing the ban imposed by section 17 of RIPA would hamper the secret services from developing interception technology without exposing their methods to the public. Admitting intercept evidence in court would not restrict the way such evidence is collected any more than existing legislation. The British justice system already has a system that allows prosecutors to disclose material without disclosing its source. Given the strong similarity between admissible surveillance evidence and inadmissible intercept evidence, surely a similar system of disclosure could be applied. Indeed, a framework for making intercept evidence permissible in court already exists in public interest immunity plus. Public interest immunity is already used in cases where admissible surveillance data are heard. I see no reason why a similar safeguard cannot be applied to intercept evidence that has been made admissible in court. As with all difficult tasks, implementing a comprehensive safeguard will not be straightforward, but we cannot afford to give up on challenging the ban.
Yes, the Government have received legal advice against public interest immunity plus in the light of European Court of Human Rights rulings on similar cases from Finland in 2008, and public interest immunity may need refining, but to take the ECHR rulings as a definitive rejection of the principle of a Home Secretary or senior judge assessing the material and deciding which bit is relevant would go too far.
The alternative in amending the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 would allow a coroner to fulfil their role in determining the cause of death in mysterious circumstances. Such amendments were proposed in the Lords to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. They proposed that the coroner nominated by the chief coroner should be able to see the intercept material and make a decision on its disclosure. Material would only be redacted when strictly necessary and in proportion to the public interest. If we wanted to go further, we could confine the role to the senior coroner in such cases.
I am not concerned with the question whether the state should intercept private communications between individuals. My concern lies with the ludicrous situation that there is a statutory ban on using material gathered through interception in court, despite a clear legal case for admitting it. That is a bizarre situation that leaves a family in my constituency without a full inquest into the death of their son more than a year since he was killed. That stubbornness might prevent there ever being an inquest into the death of Mark Duggan. That is unconscionable following the scenes of last August.
As it stands, section 17 represents legislation that obstructs, restricts and obfuscates—bad legislation. It is the House’s duty to return to the matter. Will the Minister say when Chilcot will end the reviewing period—it seems to have gone on for ever? The arrangements are small but necessary, and I hope we can make them. I do not want to compromise the important interception work that is done in cases throughout the country, but we should at least allow a senior coroner or judge, or the Home Secretary, through the use of public interest immunity, to look at the material and redact what is necessary to ensure that the means are not compromised.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who has done a sterling job of making the basic case, and, perhaps in some ways more importantly, of defending the interests and rights of his constituents, some of whom feel very aggrieved after the events of last year. I shall speak more briefly than he did and try to wrap around his argument, but hon. Members should forgive me if I repeat one or two things he has said.
The primary distinction between the great democracies of modern times and the totalitarian states is how they treat their citizens. We believe we treat our citizens in a civilised way compared with the totalitarian states—they will imprison, torture and, in the final analysis, kill without trail, whether they are Soviet or Nazi states, or any of the other species or flavours of totalitarian state that we have been unfortunate to see in past decades.
Emotionally, we might believe that we do not do those things because we are nicer people than they are, but the reason for the distinction—between totalitarian states and our state and similar ones such as America—is simply the rule of law. If colleagues want to test that, I suggest they consider the operations of the British state when it has operated outside the constraints of the rule of law, such as in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, when well brought up, well educated, and no doubt expensively educated, men—it is always men—acted with a brutality that would have done justice to some of the totalitarian states to which I have referred. The rule of law prevents that by exposing acts of the state to judicial challenge and questioning, and that process is never more important than when a citizen of the state dies at the hands of an agency of the state. Since the 1997 general election, 38 people have been killed in Britain by police forces. In most cases, the inquest gave a verdict of lawful killing. In one that I am aware of, the Jean Charles de Menezes case, there was an open verdict, and some, of course, are still outstanding.
Although I will be critical of agencies of the state, I want to make one point: I am not criticising police officers operating on the front line as parts of the armed response units. Their job is sometimes terrifying. I was critical of what happened in the Jean Charles de Menezes case, but the policemen involved went on to a tube train not knowing whether the man they were seeking to apprehend was carrying a bomb that would have killed everybody on the tube train, including themselves. In other circumstances, the armed response units are deployed when they do not know whether the people they are seeking to apprehend or stop will shoot them or use armed force against them. It is easy in the cold environment of the Chamber not to understand the terror, fear and pressure on people in those circumstances. What I am about to say, therefore, is not a criticism of them.
That is not an excuse, however, for not knowing the full facts after the event or for pulling our legal punches. It is an absolute requirement that the killing of a British citizen by an agency of the state be properly and publicly reviewed, with access to all key data. That is the case for all sorts of reasons, some of which the right hon. Gentleman listed: to ensure that it is never done improperly and that there is never a deliberate killing by the state; to ensure that errors and accidents are never repeated; and to ensure that systemic failures are not repeated—very much an issue in the Jean Charles de Menezes case, and possibly an issue in the two cases to which he referred, the Rodney and Duggan cases.
Also, not equally important but still massively important, it is necessary to ensure that the public, the families and the communities from which the people come have confidence in the system. The mother of a young man who has been shot should never feel that her son has been judicially—or, indeed, extra-judicially—executed. I am afraid that, in at least one case, that appears to be the situation. It is essential, therefore, that we have an open and fully informed inquest after every single fatal operation of the state against an individual, because that is what keeps us a civilised state. As the right hon. Gentleman said, in two cases that is either not possible or likely not to be possible: the Azelle Rodney case, which has already gone to a judicial inquiry, and potentially in the Mark Duggan case.
As outlined, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
“specifically bars any evidence in court, or any question, assertion or disclosure in legal proceedings, which results from warranted interception or would reveal that warranted interception had taken place.”
As the right hon. Gentleman said, that is an incredibly draconian restriction. That quotation came from the Chilcot committee’s summary. As a result, the Azelle Rodney case has gone to judicial inquiry, and, as I said, the Duggan case might well follow suit. This is a massive problem for the families and communities involved, but it is also a massive problem for open justice and a handicap for our national security.
Some years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and I went to the United States to talk to people about the whole question of the use of intercept. We talked to the National Security Agency, to the FBI—I think—to the Department of Justice and to the National Counterterrorism Centre. I have probably forgotten some of the other organisations, but every one of them said exactly the same thing: in summary, they could not do their jobs without the use of intercept in court. If I can quote him approximately correctly, the Department of Justice representative said, “If we go to a case”—either a major gang case, a major gangsterism or organised crime case, or a terrorism case—“and there is not intercept, the jury wonder what’s happened. They wonder why we have not got the intercept.” The idea that the criminals involved do not know that intercept technology is being used is therefore laughable—I use that word carefully. I will come back to that point.
Incidentally, the Department of Homeland Security is another place we went to. The homeland security gentleman we spoke to—I cannot remember whether he was the deputy director or the head, but he was one or the other—said he could not understand why the British took the stance they took. It was quite clear that, for the Americans, intercept was not just a marginal advantage; it was a massive advantage in the fight against organised crime and terror. Similarly, the Australian evidence—we did not go to Australia—is much the same. There are some categories of case that simply cannot proceed without intercept—in particular, cases involving the importation of drugs. Again, the Australians said that anybody who does not use intercept is not acting seriously—that was the phrase of, I think, the director of public prosecutions federally in Australia.
We are the only major democracy to have such a bar to the use of intercept evidence. The arguments are essentially twofold. First, if criminals knew they were being intercepted, they would cease to use the telephone or whatever medium was being intercepted, and that would lead to the loss of valuable intelligence. The right hon. Member for Tottenham made suitably short work of that viewpoint in his argument. Secondly, criminals might be able to work out the methods by which the intercept evidence had been obtained if it were used in court.
In a minute I shall quote at some length from Lord Lloyd of Berwick; I should remind the House that he was a senior Law Lord and head of the Security Commission for most of the ’90s. He was the man whom the last Conservative Government asked to review the entire sweep of terrorist legislation and to revise it for them, and the last Labour Government implemented everything he recommended. That is how authoritative this man is. He is the man who knows more about this subject than anybody else in Britain—full stop—and he has tabled a Bill in the Lords to try to bring forward the change in the restriction that we are debating.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick said the following about the legal position:
“In common with every other common-law country, we have developed a means of protecting sensitive information that is thought to be at risk in some way. The principle is called public interest immunity; there is nothing new about it. It is well understood in the courts. I do not say that it is used every day but it is used very frequently.”
He then set out where it came from and said:
“It is inconceivable that a judge would order documents to be disclosed, or information to be discovered, that would reveal methods used by GCHQ and other agencies. If the judge went off his head and did so order, the prosecution would at once appeal to the Court of Appeal, which would put the situation right.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 967.]
That is clear and it is clearly correct. In fact, throughout the entire period, over decades, when we faced the Soviet threat, which, I have to say to the House, was much bigger than the al-Qaeda threat—it was more sophisticated, more dangerous and more existential—never once was what Lord Lloyd of Berwick described broken. Never once did a judge release into the public domain the sorts of the things that we are concerning ourselves with in this debate.
Those who support the current ban then say, “But the European Court of Human Rights can overrule us and release this information to the criminals and the terrorists.” Actually, that is not the case. Using British criminal cases alone, we have clear direction and precedent. In Rowe and Davies v. United Kingdom 2000, the ECHR clearly stated that
“as the applicants recognised, the entitlement to disclosure of relevant evidence is not an absolute right. In any criminal proceedings there may be competing interests, such as national security or the need to protect witnesses at risk of reprisals or keep secret police methods of investigation of crime, which must be weighed against the rights of the accused. In some cases it may be necessary to withhold certain evidence from the defence so as to preserve the fundamental rights of another individual or to safeguard an important public interest.”
I have not seen that put any clearer in any British court—that was the Strasbourg Court’s view—and that was not the only case. Almost exactly the same words were repeated in a subsequent case, Botmeh and Alami v. United Kingdom 2007. As Lord Lloyd said,
“there is no absolute right to disclosure: disclosure is always subject to the overriding interest of national security.”
Before I go on to outline the other inconsistencies, I want to point out that I think it highly unlikely that the ECHR would ever instruct us to release information. I know of cases in which it has admonished Governments for the destruction of information, but I know of no case in which it has instructed them to release it. Even if it did so, we demonstrated pretty clearly in a Backbench Business Committee debate on prisoners’ votes some time ago that, if the House so decides, it can defy an ECHR judgment if it thinks that it is against the national interest. At the end of the day, that is our final recourse. I cannot imagine the House doing anything other than voting against disclosure, if we were instructed to release such information. There has been a tendency for the agencies, which are understandably nervous of exposure to the courts, to overstate the risk. That was the one weakness in the otherwise powerful Chilcot report.
It is an astonishing inconsistency, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham pointed out, that we can use foreign intercept evidence but not our own. A stark and, frankly, embarrassing example of that came to light after the Heathrow bomb plot, when the agencies had to obtain from Yahoo in California parallel intercept evidence to the evidence that I suspect they had in their own files. I cannot say that they had it, but I suspect that they did. I cannot think of a more laughable demonstration of the stupidity of the policy than our having to go to a foreign country to get evidence that we almost certainly already had.
A second inconsistency is that we can use bugging, as the right hon. Gentleman also pointed out. If my telephone call to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton were intercepted, that evidence could not be used, but if there were a bug in my phone, the evidence could be used. Is one more secret than the other, or more dangerous to disclose? I think not. We might want to withhold from criminals the knowledge that we were using a laser microphone and interferometry —a high-tech mechanism—but we could use that evidence in court, whereas we could not use intercept evidence. That strikes me as laughable.
There is a third aspect of the matter that is laughable. The right hon. Gentleman said that GCHQ was a competent and capable organisation, and I agree with him. However, in this type of work, which is complex but not incomprehensible, our sophistication, capability, skills, innovations and edge are all a function of the amount of money that is spent. That is why we spend more money on GCHQ than on the other two agencies put together, but that is as nothing—a drop in the ocean—compared with what the American agencies use. They have no problem at all with placing their information in the public domain.
Furthermore, we have the internet. Any terrorist or criminal operating in the UK can look on the internet and find examples of the things that we are supposed to be concealing. Let me provide a topical example. The other day we were told about a particular technique that one of the agencies wanted to protect. For obvious reasons, I cannot talk about it, but just out of curiosity I googled it. Guess what? There is an article about it on an American site, outlining exactly how it happens and how it is used. If our criminals and terrorists want to know about this technique, they need only reach for that fierce weapon of a Google search. This is simply ridiculous; we are hiding things that everywhere else in the world are in open sight, and I do not believe that we have skills so much greater than those of our allies and contemporaries to justify protecting ours above and beyond theirs.
In my opinion we can safely allow intercept evidence in court without jeopardising our intelligence-gathering techniques above and beyond where they are now. However, my opinion is as nothing in comparison with the learned judgments of the most eminent security commission in modern times, for a start, and of at least two previous Directors of Public Prosecution, not to mention past Attorneys-General—I was corrected on the language by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips)—previous heads of the Met, previous incumbents of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and a whole series of people who have been up close and personal with these issues. All of them want to use such information in court. I take their opinion with at least as much seriousness as I take the opinion of currently operating agencies which might be embarrassed about coming out into the public domain.
These experts, moreover, point to fact that every major country uses such evidence without risk. It allows serious terrorists and criminals to be apprehended and convicted and, as has been intimated, the head of every single one of five mafia families in New York is now in prison. That would not be true without intercept. There are terrorists in prison today who would not be in prison without intercept. That is true in every country from America to Australia.
The previous Government saw this problem as a serious handicap to our system—I give them that credit; I think they were open-minded about this—and set up the Chilcot Privy Council review of intercept evidence, which recommended careful reform of the law to allow the use of such evidence in court. I have some quibbles with it, but I think it is a pretty good report generally. That decision was then derailed by the Government’s and agencies’ over-interpretation of a case, Natunen v. Finland, in which the European Court on Human Rights rebuked the Finnish Government for destroying exculpatory intercept evidence.
The ECHR was right to rebuke the Finnish Government on that. Evidence was not forced into the public domain, because it had already been destroyed. The Finnish Government took it on the chin and changed the basis for treatment pretty much straight away by introducing a judge to decide the process. That is fine. That Government have continued to use intercept. Since then, nothing has happened in Britain. As a result, the inquest over Azelle Rodney has been disallowed, and we now have a judicial inquiry. To remind Members of what happened to Azelle Rodney, he was shot with an assault rifle from a range of only 15 metres about half a dozen times. He died. Guns were found in the car he was in, so there might well have been good reason for the action taken, but we will never know because of this foolish and unwise restriction. As a result, his family is in a permanent state of grief, which will never be allayed by a judicial inquiry. If we do not put this right, the family of Mark Duggan and his community will be in the same position.
It is time to put this matter right, and time we allowed these communities, families and people to know the truth, whatever the truth may be. It is also time that we gave the wider national community the enhanced security that would arise from a reform of the law, and the added protection that intercept evidence gives them—the ability to prosecute and convict serious criminals and terrorists. Finally, it is time we stopped asking our judicial authorities to act with one hand tied behind their back, and gave them the right to operate the law as it should be operated—with full knowledge of, and full insight into, the issues they have to resolve for us.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in such an important debate. We have already heard two extremely powerful speeches, from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy).
I want to concentrate on the specific issue of the use of intercept evidence in court and other judicial proceedings. Looking around the Chamber, I think that I am probably the only Member present who has had to sign warrants for the tapping of phones. I did it for three years as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and it was a very burdensome and awesome task. I knew, when I had to perform that task on every single day of the week, that I was depriving someone of his or liberty, and possibly doing something that was contrary to my better instincts, but I also knew that at the end of the day I was doing it to preserve life, to destroy terrorism, and to prevent criminals from doing the things that they did.
I believe that—certainly in Northern Ireland, although I also had to sign warrants for the Home Office—many hundreds, indeed thousands, of lives were saved by the use of intercept evidence, which enabled us to prevent the sort of outrages to which, unfortunately, we had become accustomed over a period of 30 years. I do not think that this is an easy matter, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman or my right hon. Friend gave the impression that it was an easy thing to do. What they were saying was that it was an issue that we ought to address.
The agencies and the police have made points that I think we ought to consider. The problem relating to disclosure in courts is huge, given our legal system. The revealing of technology and methodology has important implications, because criminals and terrorists are becoming more sophisticated by the day when it comes to the use of intercept and how to deal with it. As I have said, the issues are not easy.
Both the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend made the important point that every other country in the world uses intercept evidence. There is a different legal system in continental Europe. However, Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada, our most important allies in these matters, are not burdened—if that is the right word to use—by the European Court of Human Rights, and I think that we should take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the European Court very seriously.
The other occasion on which I had to deal with the issue was when, as chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee—wearing a very different hat—I had to oversee the use of intercept. Having done it myself, I had to oversee what Secretaries of State did, with, of course, the enormous help of the Interception of Communications Commissioner.
The Chilcot report made some important points. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has been a distinguished member of the Chilcot Privy Council committee considering intercept as evidence for some time now. The agencies have produced some powerful arguments in favour of safeguards; the Chilcot inquiry came up with a long list of protections which I think the Government should examine very carefully, and which should be implemented in every single instance.
However, looking at the intelligence that was given to me over a period of years and which we have used as a consequence of intercept—privately but not in courts—I have felt at times that terrorists and criminals could have been brought to justice and put behind bars had we used intercept evidence in court proceedings, in certain very special circumstances. I have thought very carefully about this, and I can see the arguments from both sides, but I have reached the conclusion that we must continue to think very hard about trying to ensure that we can use intercept evidence, however difficult that might be. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, when we go abroad and talk to people from other agencies similar to our own, we find that they are incredulous that we cannot use intercept evidence in our courts, given that every other country does. Difficult though this is, I urge the Minister and the Government to keep on trying. The danger in this debate is that we will give up and say, “It is not worth the bother. It is too difficult, so let’s not carry on any more.” There is now an onus on the Minister and his colleagues in government to ensure that we continue the debate and finally find a solution on this difficult issue.
I, too, pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for raising this issue and for the way he has done so, particularly in relation to his constituents, but also in respect of the wider issues of justice at stake. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I wish to discuss the big picture and then address specific issues relating to counter-terrorism and white collar crime.
The big picture is that in this country, particularly since 9/11, we have somehow started to view the justice system as an impediment to fighting crime and to law enforcement, rather than as something that is integral to and part of the solution. My view is that the justice system is a weapon, because without it and its integrity law enforcement will always be subject to flaws, be open to challenge and be fickle and fragile. Over the past 10 years, the prosecutorial edge that we have in this country has, if anything, started to become blunter, because of these prevailing attitudes.
In a cross-party debate that is being conducted in an admirable tone and spirit, I must make some criticism of the previous Government. Nobody doubts the pressures on government, given that the first duty is to protect the public, but since 9/11 and 7/7 we have seen a trend of excessive, hyperactive legislation, coupled with increasing surveillance, not just of terrorists and serious criminals but of the ordinary, average citizen. I am thinking of identity cards; the surveillance of not just terrorist suspects but people responsible for fly-tipping, dog pooping and so on; and the current proposals on the internet and e-mail, and text and BlackBerry messaging, which are really a rehash of earlier proposals under the previous Government.
While we have had this ever-expanding criminal legislative base and net of surveillance, it seems that the one set of characters we are getting worse at tackling and bringing to justice using that surveillance are the terrorists. Between 2006 and 2010 convictions for terrorism offences fell by close to three quarters—75% is a massive drop at a time when we supposedly have an ever-increasing threat, a massively expanding criminal base and ever more use of surveillance. Despite all that we cannot address the No. 1 priority, which all in this House would agree is counter-terrorism. Incredibly, the most serious seem to slip through the ever-expanding net of surveillance.
There are various aspects to what I regard as a serious and substantial prosecutorial deficit in this country. I understand the English Bar’s concerns about plea bargaining, but without going the whole hog and adopting the American approach we could make an incremental and stronger use of plea bargaining, particularly in cases of “joint criminal enterprise”, where concentric circles of active criminal participants are involved. We need to look at the issue of plea bargaining.
We also need to have a far more robust prosecutorial policy. We saw with the Abu Hamza case the tendency of the intelligence agencies to sit back and watch, whereas he should have been nailed the minute he did something that crossed the line—the Americans take the latter approach. We saw the same thing at the time of the protests in 2006 against the Danish cartoons: eventually there were four convictions for the clear and flagrant criminal activity of inciting violence and murder but, boy, were we slow to respond. What message does it send if it takes six weeks to arrest people who were advocating murder on the streets of this country? We need to be more robust in the use of prosecution, because it is a weapon.
The real missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle has been intercept evidence. I make no claim that it is the silver bullet or some kind of touchstone panacea, but its law enforcement value is beyond doubt. We are, as others have said, alone in the democratic world in not taking advantage of it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden discussed the visit that he and I made to Washington in 2007, taking in the White House, the FBI and all the relevant law enforcement agencies. The impact there of intercept evidence is clear in action against kingpin mafia dons and counter-terrorism. An excellent report by Justice in 2007 reviewed 10 US terrorism plots involving 50 suspects since 9/11. The US authorities secured charges and convictions in each case using a 48-hour maximum pre-charge detention limit—bear in mind the debate we had in this country—and in every single case, that was made possible by intercept evidence.
Former US Assistant Attorney General Ken Wainstein argues that intercept evidence is a vital part of the preventive strand of US counter-terrorism strategy—not just the prosecutorial, but the preventive strand—because of the disruption it causes in the concentric circles of terrorist actors. The way the US authorities use it in the joint criminal enterprise approach is to use plea bargaining to turn the minnows against the big fish and then work their way up the ladder, so to speak. Its disruptive impact is not only powerful in and of its own right, but it also has a strong deterrent effect.
The Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Damian Bugg QC, has highlighted the value of intercept evidence in drug trafficking cases, as well as terrorism cases. When asked about the analogous position in Britain, he says:
“The use of telephone intercepts in trials for terrorism offences and other serious crimes is now quite common in Australia and I cannot understand why England has not taken the step as well.”
Senior Canadian prosecutors make precisely the same point. We also have the evidence from our own law enforcement officials. The former DPP Sir Ken, now Lord, Macdonald told the Home Affairs Committee in 2009:
“If we had intercept available as an evidential tool and if we were directing intercept capability towards the gathering of evidence, I am absolutely confident that our experience would mirror the experience of other jurisdictions where it is used very frequently to great effect”.
The current DPP has drawn similar conclusions. He told the Committee:
“Evidence obtained by interception would be of benefit to prosecution in this country, particularly in respect of counter-terrorism and organised crime.”
That was not some abstract conclusion. He continued:
“I base that answer on an analysis of the cases where we have been able to use foreign intercept evidence. There have recently been 11 such cases involving organised crime. In eight of those cases, there were pleas of guilty based on foreign intercept evidence.”
We are missing a massive trick in this country. As others have mentioned, the assistant commissioner for counter-terrorism in the very difficult period between 2005 and 2007, Andy Hayman, said that while he began as a sceptic about the value of intercept evidence, he was turned around. Although I respect the Chilcot review and its conclusions, I have to say that in the light of the evidence made available both in this country and abroad by people who have taken a big picture, overarching and strategic view, I cannot accept that intercept is not of serious and substantial law enforcement value.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton—[Hon. Members: “That’s you.”] I am sorry; I meant my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. I was confused because he was referring to me.
And you made yourself a Privy Counsellor.
I think it is the only way I will get promotion these days.
It is an anomaly that we have so many other sources of sensitive information that can be used in UK courts. What is so special about intercept evidence? The objections to its use—certainly those from Chilcot and other reviews—cluster around three or four issues. We have heard about article 6, the threat of disclosure of sensitive sources and the inadequacy of public interest immunity, but the truth is that every other jurisdiction that uses intercept evidence has a killer back-stop: if they fear disclosure, they drop the charges. There is zero risk of disclosure because the option of dropping charges and dropping a prosecution is always available.
Another argument that has been made ad tedium is that a disproportionate part of the resources of the intelligence agencies, particularly GCHQ, would be absorbed, but that argument, which relates to transcription of the evidence, has been made almost totally redundant by modern information and communications technology and the ability to use it to store data and subsequently search it. That argument has therefore fallen by the wayside, but even so, the senior prosecutors I mentioned have made the point that the costs, to the extent that there are costs involved, are more than offset by the increasing number of people who plead guilty as a result of the use of intercept evidence.
I will refer briefly to the Natunen case, because there has been a huge amount of misreporting of its impact and what it really means for the use of intercept evidence. The 2009 Home Office report, and other GCHQ sources, point to the Natunen case and claim that it requires
“full retention of all intercepted material”
just in case it might include something that shows a suspect is innocent. That is simply an inaccurate reflection of the Strasbourg case law. In the Natunen case, which concerned a drug dealer who was convicted in Finland using intercept evidence, the Strasbourg Court emphasises that
“disclosure of relevant evidence is not an absolute right”,
“competing interests, such as national security or the need to protect witnesses”.
The Court stated that it was not its role
“to decide whether or not such non-disclosure was strictly necessary since, as a general rule, it is for the national courts to assess the evidence before them.”
Far from requiring “full retention”—this is the key point—the Strasbourg Court required that defence requests for disclosure of sensitive evidence be backed up by “specific and acceptable reasons”. The intelligence agencies would need to retain some relevant material. However, the Court made it clear that that necessitated neither defence access to that evidence nor the wholesale retention of all intercept material. In the Finnish case, it merely required that a judicial body approve the destruction by the intelligence agencies of relevant intercept material, collected over a limited three-week period. Frankly, I think that the Natunen case has been blown out of all proportion.
The real issue—I do not think that the agencies are making this up—is not the Aunt Sally or the false reasons that have been put up and are rebutted by the empirical evidence. The real reason is that GCHQ, which was originally an intercept organisation confined to the military zone, has had its functions broadened to include counter-terrorism and other serious crimes. Its role has increased exponentially. I can see why it worries about lack of focus and the huge competing obligations being placed on it with finite resources, notwithstanding the increases in its budget. I understand that, but that is a strategic issue of tasking intelligence, not a technical issue of viability.
Likewise, the fact is that we face a cultural shift with regard to law enforcement and the division between intelligence and prosecution. It is a shift that has taken place in other countries but that our authorities have not yet to bridge and overcome. There is a cultural aversion in this country to combining intelligence with prosecution, and I think that we have to overcome it.
I have long thought, partly as a result of the Northern Ireland experience, that our intelligence agencies are predisposed to go for disruption rather than prosecution. The whole nexus of the things my hon. Friend describes, their attitude to the use of intercept evidence and the problems addressing the exponential increase in GCHQ reinforce that. Does that not support the argument that a step change is needed from a disruptive approach to a prosecutorial approach, which is clearly what the Americans do, and with more success than us?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and agree entirely. The other point to make is that the disruption model that has previously been used was shown to fail because of the huge increase in the number of terrorism suspects that successive heads of MI5 made clear in the public annual reports.
I am conscious of the time and want to make two points in closing. First, I think that the use of intercept evidence is not just confined to inquests, as important as the points made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham are, and not even just to counter-terrorism. We have seen in relation to the LIBOR scandal an incredible situation in which rate rigging, according to the Government’s proposals, now requires a separate criminal legislative proposal. I find it astonishing that it is not an evidential issue, rather than the lack of a criminal base.
Again, if we probe a little further into the work of the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, we find a very sleepy prosecutorial approach. Conviction for fraud by company directors fell by 48% between 2004 and 2010. Convictions for fraudulent accounting, which seem to me to be exactly what the rate rigging scandal was all about, fell by 77%. We need to wake up and stop having this interminable debate, which feels like a legislative version of “Groundhog Day”, about intercept evidence, to get on with lifting the ban and to use that evidence. The justice system is a weapon for, not an impediment to, law enforcement, and intercept evidence in prosecution must lie at its heart.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this debate. I confess that I hesitated to contribute, given the authoritative speeches made so far, especially by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who speaks with great authority, and by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has a great track record on these matters.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and his right hon. ally the Member for Haltemprice and Howden have done a demolition job on the status quo. I have not considered these matters as closely as I should have over the years; I have had other responsibilities and trusted the judgment and advice of colleagues. However, having been on the initial police parliamentary scheme, I am now doing a graduate scheme and looking at these matters more closely. The opportunity to come to this debate and listen to people with great experience has been valuable and of great interest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made a powerful point. He said that we had not got the issue right so far. There have been reasons why we have not changed the rules. The Chilcot inquiry, and the role of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in that, have been well documented, but we must keep trying.
Both parties have been in power and both have decided that we are staying with the status quo; Home Secretaries of the left and right from both parties have stuck with the status quo. I only want to say that I am really looking forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the shadow Home Office Minister, and of the Minister; I have a high regard for both. Given how anomalous we are among western democracies in not allowing intercept evidence and that the security and law enforcement agencies have clearly strongly advised against changing our position, I shall be interested to see whether there is any new thinking.
All the speeches have clearly shown that the issue is a major one of human rights, citizenship, democracy and transparency. This has been a very authoritative debate, and I am pleased to have been here to listen to it.
Like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I hesitated to rise in this debate; I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on having secured it. His contribution and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) have been extraordinary and among the best that I have heard on this subject since I have been in the House.
The debate has been extraordinary not only in its quality but in the fact that the House is having it yet again. I entered the House only in May 2010, yet the issue has been rumbling on not only in this Chamber but among lawyers—including those, such as me, who sit a few weeks a year judging crime—for a considerable period.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is entirely right in saying that, as the position prevails at present, courts and prosecutorial authorities have one hand tied behind their backs. It is extraordinary that, as our colleagues from not only other democracies but other common law jurisdictions tell us, we are the only country that has never permitted the use of intercept evidence to secure the conviction of the guilty and—almost as importantly—the acquittal of the innocent.
Notwithstanding the powerful speeches from both sides of the House, I want to concentrate on one other point. While we continue to exclude such evidence from our prosecutions in this country, we run the risk of interfering with our civil liberties. It may be, of course, that, as the last Government said during the last Parliament, none of those on control orders could have been prosecuted even if intercept evidence had been capable of being used in the courts. However, that is the sort of thing that Governments always say because they have it on advice from their security advisers.
One of the things that has concerned me about the non-use of intercept evidence, which must compel us to move in the direction not only of looking at this question more closely but of coming to a resolution in favour of using such evidence, is that if we do permit it to be used we may end up with prosecutions in cases where hitherto we have had to use administrative measures that begin to interfere with people’s civil liberties. I hope that that is yet another reason why the Minister will be compelled to indicate to the House precisely when we will see the introduction of legislation in this context, in accordance with the recommendations not only of the whole House but of the Privy Counsellors who previously considered the matter.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on an excellent speech. He was, as usual, a very powerful advocate for his constituents and his constituency, and for open justice, which is very important. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), a near neighbour of mine, made his usual compelling case for open justice and cogently set out the key issues in this case.
The debate overall has been of an extremely high quality, with excellent contributions from across the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made a very good speech based on his own practical experience and knowledge in a number of roles. It was telling that he said that this is not an easy matter and that we need to keep on looking very hard at the use of intercept evidence. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) set out a strong case for the motion and drew on his experience in the US. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) asked exactly the right questions, drawn from his practical experience with the police, about why we are not doing this and how we can move it forward. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) spoke briefly about civil liberties and, in particular, control orders. I want to return to his comments later.
Over recent years, successive Governments, and particularly Home Secretaries, have grappled with the problems of trying to get intercept evidence into courts, and it has also been considered by the Privy Council review, so it is absolutely right that Parliament is debating the matter. We have heard at length about the benefits that might reasonably be expected to result from the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests as regards, for example, increases in the number of successful prosecutions in serious organised crime and terrorism cases. However, the debate must cover not only the benefits but the difficulties involved, including the risks, such as exposure of interception capabilities and techniques, the resource implications of any changes in the law, and the implications of new communications technology. While the United Kingdom continues to struggle to find a way of accommodating intercept evidence in court, other countries, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, allow such evidence, and it is important for us to see what we can learn from those jurisdictions.
This is a very unusual issue. Successive Governments, the Privy Council and leading lawyers have long supported the principle of allowing intercept evidence, but none has been able to come up with a satisfactory model for the admission of such evidence without compromising national security. Labour has long supported the principle of allowing intercept evidence into courts. Indeed, the current push to find a way of doing this was started by my former right hon. Friend and Home Secretary, John Reid, the then Member for Airdrie and Shotts, in 2007, and that commitment was reiterated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Home Secretary. In opposition, my right hon. Friends the Members for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) have reiterated Labour’s desire to see intercept evidence in court and to work with the Government in a constructive manner to achieve that. I restate that commitment.
It is clear that there would be significant benefits in allowing intercept evidence to be admissible in a wider range of courts than is the case at present. In particular, it would be desirable to allow the use of intercept evidence in criminal proceedings and inquests.
I am sure that we all sympathise with the Duggan family, who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has said, have unanswered questions. Understandably, they and the community in Tottenham want answers as to how Mr Duggan died, but without an inquest those answers cannot be provided. The Government have proposed secret inquests in which intercept evidence would be admissible, but that would not solve the problem—not only do we need justice to be done, but we need it to be seen to be done. I hope that the Minister will update us on the progress that he has made on this particular issue and I look forward to hearing his comments.
Allowing intercept evidence would seem to support two fundamental principles of British justice. The first is that courts should always have the best evidence available to them, and the second is that all crimes should be dealt with by the same legal system and guided by the same principles. We should, wherever possible, ensure that our legal system is able to protect national security and uphold standards of justice.
We would also like the use of intercept evidence to lead to practical outcomes, such as more prosecutions, particularly for serious crimes and terrorism. It is generally accepted that allowing intercept evidence would have a significant impact on some trials, facilitating some prosecutions and making others more likely. Indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service thinks that allowing intercept evidence would result in more prosecutions and more convictions, and it foresees time and money being saved as a result of more guilty pleas. We would particularly like to see the prosecution of cases that could not otherwise be tried, including those in which intercept evidence has led to a prosecution, but not necessarily for the most serious crime committed. It is often cited that allowing intercept evidence would reduce the need for other measures aimed at countering terrorism, namely pre-charge detention and terrorism prevention and investigation measures, or control orders as they were formerly known.
We should not, however, overstate the practical benefits of allowing intercept evidence. I now want to turn to the point that the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham made about control orders, or TPIMs as they are now known. The noble Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was unequivocal in saying that he felt that intercept evidence would not have made control orders obsolete. That was backed up by a report by an independent counsel commissioned by the Home Office. It concluded that allowing the use of intercept evidence would not be enough to facilitate trials in any of the cases of the nine people who were subject to control orders at the time. Indeed, the Privy Council concluded:
“We have not seen any evidence that the introduction of intercept as evidence would enable prosecutions in cases currently dealt with through Control Orders.”
I will put to one side one of the weaknesses of the Privy Council report, namely its assessment of the effectiveness of intercept in prosecutions, and take up the issue of control orders. When we eventually allowed the use of control orders, our presumption when in opposition was that they would allow the control of people who could not be prosecuted in the courts because the available evidence—in other words, intercept evidence—could not be used there. Now we are being told that such people are having their freedom removed on the basis of, in essence, suspicion, because there is nothing beyond intercept other than suspicion. Members on both Front Benches are in a Catch-22 situation: either intercept is effective in dealing with control orders, or control orders are being imposed on the basis of suspicion alone.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that could be debated for many hours. I think that his first point—that evidence was available—is the correct one. However, a review has taken place and the view of the independent counsel, who was commissioned by the Home Office, is that what the right hon. Gentleman has said is not correct. I have only limited time left, so I will move on. We will have to differ on that.
The number of criminal cases in which intercept evidence might be used is limited. An independent survey conducted in 2004 concluded that allowing intercept evidence would secure no more than 20 to 30 additional convictions a year.
Under the current arrangements, intercept evidence is of significant use for the protection of national security and the detection of serious crime. The Privy Council’s report into intercept evidence gives an excellent summary of the importance of wiretapping to UK law enforcement agencies. Under the current arrangements, the UK is able to benefit from intelligence gleaned from wiretapping, without compromising intelligence capabilities. Wiretapping often facilitates the collection of other admissible forms of evidence.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency has stated that
“interception, together with communications data, is the single most powerful tool for responding to serious and organised crime.”
It is because the current regime is so successful that the Metropolitan police currently secure a conviction in 88% of cases where they have employed intercept evidence. It estimates that that would rise only to 92% if intercept evidence were to become admissible. The more sophisticated criminals become, the greater the need for more advanced detection techniques and the greater the need to protect those intelligence techniques.
Of course, we cannot discuss individual cases or the evidence involved in them in Parliament, but it is clear from independent studies that law enforcement and Security Service agencies have provided numerous examples of intercept evidence having been used to apprehend wanted criminals, seize drugs or stolen property, or alert law enforcement agencies of planned criminal activities, enabling them to gather the admissible evidence that they require. We must recognise the important role that wiretapping already plays in the fight against crime and terrorism, and the importance of not jeopardising that success. The Privy Council stressed its belief that:
“The overriding objective should be to promote national security.”
That has been the position of successive Governments, and is the position of the Opposition.
If there was an easy solution to this problem, it would have been produced, but there is not. I will touch on a few of the issues that have prevented previous Governments from allowing wire-tap evidence in court. I hope that the Minister will update the House on what progress has been made on each issue. How can we allow the use of intercept evidence in courts, while protecting the most sensitive information which, if made public, would reveal a particular intelligence technique or source, and while upholding the principle of the equality of arms, under which the defence must have access to and be able to present all the relevant information?
The central desire is to protect the work of the security services and the techniques that they use. Proponents of the use of intercept evidence often counter that by saying that criminals are already aware of the intelligence services’ ability to intercept calls. However, the Privy Council rejected that point and said that criminals’ knowledge is currently conjecture based on rumour and that, while a few of their presumptions may be right, the evidence is that most of them are wrong.
Partnership is important. Earlier, I set out some of the successes of the current regime. Those are based on partnership between law enforcement agencies and the security services, between the UK and our international allies, and between state agencies and communication service providers. There is concern that any attempt to allow intercept evidence in court would jeopardise those successful partnerships. Indeed, some communication service providers have indicated that it would make them much less willing to co-operate. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.
Much has been said about other jurisdictions. I would appreciate it if the Minister again set out clearly the unique position of the United Kingdom’s legal system, which is very different from that of some of the other countries that have been cited, such as France and Spain.
In conclusion, we all want to have intercept evidence in court. We want answers for the families of those who have died in controversial circumstances, where an inquest cannot take place. However, we have to acknowledge that this is a complex process and that at stake is a system that has delivered a lot towards the protection of our national security and in tackling international crime. It is not clear that any other country uses intercept-gained evidence as effectively as the United Kingdom.
The Opposition will of course work with the Government to get intercept evidence into courts without compromising national security, and international examples, particularly from Canada and the US, give us some indication of how that might be achieved. I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on the progress that the Government have made towards that end, and particularly on what plans he has to allow inquests such as Mark Duggan’s to take place; what processes are currently under way to evaluate the practicalities involved in allowing intercept evidence; what processes are in place for the Government to take expert advice from lawyers, law enforcement agencies and the intelligence services to that end; and whether he has any plans to bring forward a Green Paper.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), as other Members have done, on securing the debate. As it is a Back-Bench debate, I am conscious of the need to allow him some time to respond at the end, so I will try to keep my comments to the point and respond as succinctly as I am able to a number of points that have been raised.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman also on the manner and tone that he has brought to this afternoon’s discourse. I certainly recognise his desire to represent his constituents and obtain answers on behalf of his community. I know from discussions that we had around the time of the riots that he has stood up for his community in doing so, and that has been reflected in the manner in which the debate has been conducted.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman understands that because of ongoing legal and other issues, I cannot really comment on the specifics of individual cases. I am aware that the pre-inquest hearing in the case that he mentioned is due to be held next Tuesday, and there is an ongoing IPCC investigation. I certainly recognise the sensitivity of the issues that he has brought before the House this afternoon.
I pay tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), whom I had the privilege to work alongside in opposition. I know how keenly he feels about these issues and the amount of work that he continues to put into answering the challenging question of how we can use intercept evidence.
We had an important contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab). I certainly do not see the justice system as an impediment to fighting crime, and justice and security need to go hand in hand. I do not see them as somehow mutually inconsistent. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), with his experience as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and in his role with the Intelligence and Security Committee, highlighted some of the genuine challenges that exist, which I shall discuss. We also heard contributions from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), and a balanced and helpful contribution from the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).
I underline that the Government are committed to maximising the amount of sensitive material, including intercept evidence, that can be handled in legal proceedings. That is why we set out in the coalition agreement our intention to
“seek to find a practical way to allow the use of intercept evidence in court.”
We have also proposed measures in the Justice and Security Bill to permit intercepted material to be adduced in closed material procedures and certain civil proceedings. In doing that, we remain acutely aware that lawful interception already plays a critical role in tackling serious crime and protecting the British public. It is used in almost all the highest priority counter-terrorist operations and many other serious crime investigations. It is no exaggeration to say that interception constitutes one of the most important and effective capabilities in tackling serious crime and threats to our national security, so it is crucial that we get it right.
We have heard about the Privy Council review and the differing legal and operational circumstances that apply in that regard and it is worth highlighting the considerable burdens on some of the intercepting agencies. Inter-agency co-operation, such as the sharing of sensitive techniques, is less well developed in other countries than it is in the UK, but the comparable examples in other jurisdictions suggest that fewer investigations could be supported and the value of intercept evidence as an intelligence tool might be reduced. It is right, however, that we should continue to examine the examples highlighted in a number of speeches and find our way through this important question.
I should make it clear that when there is relevant and sensitive material, the Government wish to find a mechanism that will enable it to be used in evidence. Finding a means of using intercept as evidence is challenging, however. There can be no clearer demonstration of that than the seven previous attempts that have been made to find a way forward. Any proposal to remove the prohibition on intercept evidence for inquests, for example, runs into a number of difficulties, and we and previous Governments have grappled with them as they relate to the general question of intercept evidence.
One option proposed by the right hon. Member for Tottenham is the disclosure of intercept product to a jury and properly interested persons, such as a family member. This Government considered that, as did our predecessor, and we do not believe that there is a practical way of preserving national security and the basic tenets of the make-up of juries. Crucially, intercept products shared with either a jury or properly interested party takes us back to the more general challenges presented by intercept as evidence, including preventing sensitive capabilities, techniques and approaches from becoming widely known. As things stand, we do not see that there is a viable way forward on that specific point.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether it would be possible for a coroner with the status of a judge to view sensitive material, including intercept evidence. We already have a mechanism through which a coroner may request the appointment of a serving judge as an assistant deputy. That enables the judge coroner to order the disclosure of intercept evidence to him or herself alone when a case’s exceptional circumstances make that disclosure essential in the interests of justice.
The judge coroner would have access to all sensitive material and could consequently be satisfied that the material provided in open court was all that was necessary to hold a proper thorough investigation. That independent assessment would give assurance to the jury and comfort to the family that all the relevant material had been placed before them. Of course, in a small number of cases that sensitive material would be centrally relevant and the article 2 investigative obligation would be engaged. In those circumstances, a statutory inquiry would be needed so that the inquiry panel, as the finders of facts, could see all relevant material. The independent examination of the material, however, together with the appointment of counsel to the inquiry, should ensure that proper account is taken of all the available material and that the interests of the family are properly protected, even if the material cannot be shared publicly.
I apologise that I was not in the Chamber to hear some of the earlier speeches. I have listened carefully to the Minister. Given what he has just said, will the Government think again about their decision not to provide for a closed material procedure for inquests—something they are prepared to provide in a small number of civil cases?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that matter was considered during discussions on the Justice and Security Bill currently in the other place, but the Government have determined that at this time it is not appropriate to bring those procedures forward. I hope, however, that the right hon. Gentleman heard me say that there is an existing mechanism to assess sensitive material, either through the appointment of a judge coroner to assess the relevancy and centrality of the evidence, or through the inquiry process I have highlighted.
The intercept as evidence review is obviously key to this discussion. It is an extensive and detailed review to assess the benefits, costs, and risks of introducing intercept as evidence in criminal proceedings, compared with the present intelligence-only approach under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It has a broader remit than previous reviews, thereby avoiding wasted effort on approaches that prove to be non-viable, or being artificially constrained by existing intercept practice. Instead, it will ensure a fair and comprehensive assessment of the pros and cons of intercept as evidence.
The issues are complex and difficult, and as we have heard, there have been seven previous attempts since 1993 to find a way forward. The work is being overseen by the independent cross-party Privy Council group, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, which was reappointed by the Government. As the review is still ongoing, I am not in a position to provide the House with an update on its likely findings, but we will consider issues raised in this debate carefully and return to the House on the matter in due course. We do not want some form of open-ended process, and we recognise the desire to find solutions and a way forward. This is a current review, and work is ongoing to consider whether there is a way to proceed in the face of the challenges we have heard about.
The current intercept as evidence review seeks to build on the findings of previous reviews and the potential impact of a need for terrorist prevention and investigation measures. One clear conclusion of that previous work is that intercept evidence is not a silver bullet that will negate the need for alternative ways to manage risk. We have heard some examples of that this afternoon, and I highlight recent evidence from David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who reiterated that intercept as evidence would not be
“a silver bullet that makes terrorism prevention and investigation measures unnecessary”.
A number of issues have been highlighted this afternoon, but I fear that time will not allow me to go through them all in the detail I would have wished. Many overseas countries, both EU and Commonwealth, operate effective intercept as evidence regimes within their legal context. Their experience indicates, however, that the burdens on the intercepting agencies are considerable. The issues of disclosure and how to secure a fair trial are obviously central, and that has been highlighted this afternoon in relation to article 6 provisions. Disclosure, and the practical impact of that on agencies and their overall capabilities, is relevant and something that is being examined closely in the cost-benefit, overarching analysis on capabilities.
I will conclude by reassuring you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Government are committed to finding ways for intercept evidence of sensitive material to be heard in legal proceedings. I am grateful to the House and all right hon. and hon. Members for helping to inform the debate this afternoon, and for assisting in this important work.
I am grateful for the support I have received from across the House. I do not think that an inquiry is the way forward in a case of this magnitude and given the nature of an inquest. However, I have heard the Minister’s remarks about the inquest powers of a judge alongside a coroner, and I will look into that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes with concern that the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan may never commence under the current arrangements for the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests; and calls on the Government to review its approach to open justice, in particular the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests.