With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the abscond of an individual subject to a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, or TPIM. The Metropolitan police believe that on Friday 1 November, TPIM subject Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed absconded from his controls. He was last seen at 3.15 pm inside a mosque in Acton. The police counter-terrorism command immediately launched an intensive covert operation to trace Mohamed, and inquiries continue. Ports and borders were notified with his photograph, and details were circulated nationally and internationally.
Acting on police advice, on Saturday I applied to the High Court for an order protecting Mohamed’s anonymity to be lifted, in order to assist the police with their investigation. Last night, the police appealed for the public’s help in tracing him. The police have urged anyone who sees Mohamed or knows of his whereabouts not to approach him but to call 999 or contact the anti-terrorist hotline.
The police and Security Service have confirmed that they do not believe Mohamed poses a direct threat to the public in the UK. The reason he was put on a TPIM in the first place was to prevent his travelling to support terrorism overseas.
I have spoken several times over the weekend to the director general of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, and to the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner for specialist operations, Cressida Dick. I received another briefing earlier today. They have told me that they believe they have all the resources and support they need to carry out the manhunt. However, I will not hesitate to provide them with any additional assistance they require.
The whole House will join me in thanking the police and the Security Service for their continued efforts to keep our country safe. Their focus is to locate and arrest Mr Mohamed. They are doing everything in their power to apprehend him as quickly as possible. The Government will provide them with all the support they need. I commend this statement to the House.
Parliament will be deeply concerned about the Home Secretary’s statement. Obviously, all hon. Members want the police and the Security Service to have all possible help to apprehend Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed as soon as possible. The Home Secretary says that Mr Mohamed poses no direct threat, even though he is widely reported in the media to have attended terror training camps, procured weapons and planned attacks. He has walked away from a terror suspect order in a very simple disguise, and the Home Secretary has no idea where he is. He is the second man in 10 months who has absconded while subject to a TPIM. There were only 10 such men to begin with, and two have now gone: one in a black cab and one in a disguise. The Opposition called for controls to be tightened, for the legislation to be revisited and for lessons to be learned. None of that has happened. The Home Secretary has done nothing.
Since control orders were strengthened some years ago, no one absconded—since 2007. Lord Carlile, the former counter-terror reviewer, has said:
“nobody absconded while subject to a relocation order”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 January 2013; Vol. 742, c. 20.]
However, since the Home Secretary got rid of relocation orders and control orders and introduced the weaker TPIMs, two terror suspects have vanished. Ibrahim Magag was previously relocated to the west country. The Home Secretary’s decision brought him back, and he disappeared. Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed was previously relocated outside London. The Home Secretary’s decision brought him back and he, too, has disappeared. Her policies brought those two terror suspects back into contact with their old networks and with people who could help them to disappear, and made it easier for them to run off.
Last time the Home Secretary said there was plenty of money for the added surveillance needed, so was Mr Mohamed under active surveillance when he entered the mosque, or was it just ordinary CCTV? His case was in court on Friday—he was accused of tampering with his tag—but why did the Government drop the case? Were the tags faulty? Were there other charges?
The Home Secretary said that Mr Mohamed was under a TPIM to stop him travelling overseas. What did she plan to do next year when his and all the other TPIMs ran out?
TPIMs apply to a very small number of difficult cases. Everyone recognises that there is no perfect answer and that there will always be challenges, but this Home Secretary has made it easier for serious terror suspects to disappear. That is irresponsible. She was warned about changing the law and weakening controls. She was warned that more people would abscond and they have done so—twice—but still she will not act. The question on everyone’s lips is: how many more warnings does the Home Secretary need?
This is a serious issue, but the right hon. Lady’s response was beneath somebody who is supposed to understand these matters.
The right hon. Lady referred to the money available for surveillance. I understand that she briefed Sky News this morning that she would tell the House of Commons that there have been cuts to the funding for monitoring and surveillance. I notice that she has dropped that from her argument, because the truth, as she well knows, is that as part of the TPIM package the Government introduced in 2011 we did not cut the surveillance budget for the police and Security Service but increased it—by tens of millions of pounds per year. We did not cut the budgets for counter-terrorism, policing and the security service; we protected them.
The right hon. Lady asked about the lessons learned from the Magag case. I can confirm that there was a review of that case, which was shared with David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who mentioned it in his annual review. All the recommendations of that review have been acted on. I can also confirm that a similar review will be conducted of this case.
The right hon. Lady referred to the changes in TPIMs. They are, of course, time-limited, but time limits have nothing to do with this case, as the subject was still bound by the terms of his TPIM. What she never tells the House when she makes this point is that 43 people who were subject to control orders have now exited those control orders. The truth is that even before time-limited TPIMs were introduced, the courts would not allow people to be left permanently on control orders. When the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was asked whether he had concerns about time limits, he said:
“I do not think so.”
I will come on to the relocations.
The right hon. Lady talked about tagging. GPS tags are used to provide information on the location of TPIM subjects and the tags that are used for TPIMs are significantly better than the ones they replaced, which had no ability to track subjects outside their homes. In this case, the police believe that the tag functioned exactly as it should have done, but it will be one of the aspects considered as part of the review of the case, and I should tell the House that I have been advised that this abscond does not raise any new operational issues with the tags.
The right hon. Lady also talked about relocation, but she knows that if someone is determined to break the terms of their TPIM or control order, there is little to stop them doing so in one place or another. David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, says:
“The only sure way to prevent absconding is to lock people up in a high security prison.”
Unless the right hon. Lady is proposing the introduction of such draconian laws—and I thought she had conceded long ago that 90 days was too long—she should accept what David Anderson says. There will always be the risk of an abscond.
The shadow Home Secretary talked about the control order regime as though it never allowed any absconding by its subjects, but during the six years that control orders existed, there were seven absconds and only one of those seven people was ever found again. The idea that somehow control orders prevented absconds is not true. Even if we wanted to go back to the days of control orders, we would not be able to do so. The powers available under control orders were being steadily eroded by the courts, and the system was becoming unviable. Unlike control orders, TPIMs have been upheld consistently by the courts, so we now have a strong and sustainable legal framework to handle terror suspects.
The police and security service have always said that there has been no substantial increase in overall risk since the introduction of TPIMs, and despite the implication of what the right hon. Lady said, we have increased by tens of millions of pounds the annual budget for surveillance by the police and security service—and we have also given them new powers. In April this year, in a written statement, I explained how we would use the royal prerogative to remove passports from British nationals whom we want to prevent from travelling abroad to take part in extremist activity, terrorism training or other fighting. That power has already been used on several occasions since it was introduced. As for foreign nationals, the Immigration Bill will make it easier for us to get them out of the country, By the way, the Opposition failed to vote for that Bill on Second Reading.
The idea that under this Government the police and Security Service have fewer powers to keep us safe is just wrong. The idea that they have less money to keep us safe is wrong. The right hon. Lady should take her responsibilities seriously and support the police and Security Service in the important work that they do.
Acton is a diverse community. It is also, overwhelmingly, a peaceful and law-abiding community. At its centre sits a mosque well known for being moderate, mainstream and popular. However, I am aware of concerns about potential radicalisation of younger members of the community. Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether her Department had previous concerns about the An-Noor Masjid and Community centre, from which this young man was able to escape?
This is an issue to which my hon. Friend has paid much attention in her constituency. I understand that the mosque authorities have been co-operating with the police and we welcome that co-operation. She refers to radicalisation. Within our counter-terrorism strategy we have the Prevent strand, which is precisely to ensure that young people and others do not find themselves being radicalised, and that we can exercise interventions, particularly through the Channel programme, to help to stop that radicalisation taking place. As I said in relation to the mosque where this individual was last sighted, I am pleased that the mosque authorities have been co-operating with the police.
In the light of no abscondings under control orders in the five years from 2007 after they were strengthened, but two abscondings in the past 10 months since TPIMs, which the Home Secretary introduced, greatly weakened the controls on these individuals, does she not think that a little contrition rather than bombast would be appropriate in these circumstances? Does she not recognise that the fundamental responsibility of any Home Secretary is to take proper measures to protect the safety and security of the British people? She has failed to do so by acting irresponsibly in weakening the powers available to control terrorists.
May I first say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is my first opportunity in the Chamber to note that he has announced his retirement from politics? He has given many years of service to this House, to his constituents and to the Government in various roles. I am sure there are many people who will be sorry to see him go from this Chamber.
National security is always the Government’s first priority. The right hon. Gentleman quoted some figures. I have to say to him that, yes, there have been two absconds in the two years that TPIMs have been in place, but there were seven absconds in six years under control orders. As I made clear in my response to the shadow Home Secretary, the control order regime was gradually being eroded by the courts. What we now have under TPIMs is a legally supported regime that puts measures in place to control and provide for those individuals whom we cannot prosecute, but who present a risk. The best place for any individual who is a terrorist is behind bars.
May I commend my right hon. Friend’s approach and urge her to go further in her robustness and scrap the Labour-introduced Human Rights Act 1998? While she is at it, will she follow the advice of our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and have the burqa banned in this country? It is alien to our culture and has enabled this man to abscond.
I thank my hon. Friend. He and I, as Conservative Members, both stood on a manifesto at the general election to scrap the Human Rights Act. I expect to stand on that manifesto at the next general election; it will be a Conservative commitment. He asks about the burqa. I will repeat my position, which is one that I have made clear on previous occasions. First, I believe it is the right of a woman to choose how she dresses. We should allow women to be free to make that choice for themselves. There will be circumstances when it is right to ask for a veil to be removed—for example, at border security or perhaps in courts—and individual institutions, like schools, will make their own policies on dress. However, I fundamentally believe it is the right of a woman to be free to decide how to dress.
I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about the burqa. This is not a case where the burqa is responsible. I urge her to look at the role of G4S and the tags that have been provided. As she knows, last week a number of cases were dropped after the police found out that there was a suggestion that tags had been tampered with; in fact, it was a question of wear and tear. Will she please investigate this again, rather than just accept that assurance? Was Mr Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed a British citizen? If he was, when did he acquire citizenship, bearing in mind the fact that he was a supporter of al-Shabaab, and does she have his passport?
On the last points, Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed is indeed a British citizen. I do not have his passport, but the police do. I know the right hon. Gentleman raised the same issue over the Magag case. On tags, as I said earlier, the police believe that, in this case, the tag functioned exactly as it should have done. He referred to the court case. The issue there was not about the effectiveness of the tags, but about reaching the evidence threshold for taking a criminal prosecution in relation to the operation of the tag.[Official Report, 6 November 2013, Vol. 570, c. 1MC.]
I agree completely with the Home Secretary that people who have committed terrorism offences should be convicted and in jail. Does she agree, however, that to have forcible relocation for people not convicted of any offence is not only a bad idea, but deeply un-British?
As my hon. Friend knows, the TPIM legislation did not contain relocation provisions. As I indicated in a couple of earlier responses, gradually, over time, the courts were reducing the ability to use various measures within the control orders, and they made it clear that they were not orders on which people should be left indefinitely.
Can we work on the reasonable assumption that the Home Secretary’s spin doctors will not shortly be telling us that this happened because of that wicked man Edward Snowden or that somehow The Guardian was responsible for what occurred?
My right hon. Friend has protected surveillance budgets since she came into office and was the first Home Secretary to deport Abu Qatada. In short, she is a commendably tough Home Secretary. Will she allow me to say that as a result of those things, Government Members can trust her to find out what went on in this case and that we have 100% confidence in how she is running the show?
This year, 12 people previously convicted under terrorism legislation will be released and on our streets. Early next year, the orders of many of those still on TPIMs will come to an end. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, has said it is
“tempting, in the most serious cases, to wish for longer”
than the two years under TPIMs, and has described those whose orders will expire as at
“the highest end of seriousness”.
What steps is the Home Secretary taking to manage the undoubted increase in risk that will result from those on TPIMs who have completed their sentences under terrorism legislation being released and walking our streets?
The right hon. Lady started by referring to people being released, but these were people who had come to the end of their sentence. That is what happens—it happens in the normal course of events—but for individuals who pose a terrorist risk, or who are suspected of posing a terrorist risk, the law enforcement agencies take appropriate measures to ensure the security and safety of the public. As I said, national security is the Government’s first concern.
I offer the Home Secretary my full support. As she will know, under existing legislation, she has the power to revoke the British citizenship of somebody who holds dual citizenship. May I encourage her to undertake a review of all those in custody and under TPIMs who hold dual citizenship and to consider revoking their British citizenship so that we can deport them more freely back to their home countries?
I note the point that my hon. Friend makes. I think I am right in saying that the majority of individuals who are under TPIMs are British nationals. He is right to say that it is possible to revoke the British citizenship of someone who is a dual national, but we would have to ensure that we did not render anyone stateless in so doing. There are a number of people who are subject to TPIMs who are British nationals.
TPIMs remain on the statute book as a tool that can be used when it is most appropriate to do so. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that we would prefer to see anyone who is in any way involved in terrorism being prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail. As David Anderson has said, the only really secure place for someone who is a terrorist is behind bars. TPIMs remain on the statute book as a tool to be used when it is operationally appropriate to do so.
I also offer my full support to my right hon. Friend. Does she agree that we would do well to remember the long saga of detentions, control orders and absconding under the previous Government, following hard on the heels of the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, which has made it so difficult to deal with dangerous people in our society? Can we now expect some humility, common sense and realism from those on the Opposition Benches regarding their responsibility for that?
The Home Secretary has sought to blame the courts for chipping away at the previous regime, but she cannot escape the fact that it was a deliberate decision by her and her Government to increase the freedoms of these terror suspects by granting them access to technology and removing the relocation power. The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, said today that the lack of a relocation power was
“always going to be a vulnerability in the way TPIMs operate”.
In the wake of this latest absconsion, will she now reconsider the sunset clause in relation to the remaining TPIMs? If not, will she acknowledge that, as a result of a deliberate political decision by her Government, the rest of the suspects will be released on to the streets without supervision in a few months’ time?
I will make two comments in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. First, he knows full well that when TPIMs were introduced, this Government increased the funding available to the police and the Security Service for surveillance to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. I pointed this out in an earlier response to the shadow Home Secretary. Secondly, he referred to time limits but, as I have said, 43 people were on control orders and all of them have now exited those controls.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, under her leadership of the Home Office, despite the difficult times of austerity that we inherited from the previous Government, the funding in this area has increased, not decreased, as was suggested in duff information given to the media earlier? Will she also confirm that in May 2007, the then Labour Home Secretary had to come to the Chamber to explain why three men had escaped while under the control orders regime of the previous failed Government?
My hon. Friend has got his facts absolutely correct about those who absconded while under control orders. We have protected the funding for counter-terrorism policing and increased the funding for surveillance and other measures as part of the package relating to the introduction of TPIMs. As I said, that involves tens of millions of pounds a year.
I should like to take the Secretary of State back to the answer she gave to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). What convictions have been obtained against Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed? What prosecutions are planned? Does she not think that there is something deeply dangerous about using the royal prerogative to bypass Parliament in order to take away someone’s nationality or access to a passport? Should not an element of accountability be essential in any democratic liberal society such as ours?
For those who are under TPIMs, and others, we make every effort to ensure that prosecutions take place whenever possible. I commend the Security Service in this regard. A number of individuals were prosecuted earlier this year for terrorism-related offences relating to significant plots. This shows the very good work that the police and the Security Service do on a daily basis to keep the public safe. I believe that it is appropriate to have slightly changed the ruling in relation to the interpretation of the exercise of the royal prerogative. It is important to have that measure available; and, as the hon. Gentleman will see from the fact that I am here at the Dispatch Box answering his question, I am also accountable to this House.
Unlike the shadow Home Secretary, I have actually taken part in surveillance operations, and it is incredibly hard to watch someone 100% of the time. To come here and try to blame the Home Secretary for what is probably an operational front-line challenge is to play politics with our forces of law and order. Does the Home Secretary agree that one way to improve the capability of our Security Service and police force—to improve surveillance or to get more convictions—would be to introduce the communications data Bill which Labour opposes and our coalition partners block?
I commend my hon. Friend for bringing his personal experience to the debate; he has more experience of participating in surveillance operations than I do. He is absolutely right that we ask our Security Service and law enforcement agencies to undertake difficult tasks and that they do an excellent job for us on a day-by-day basis; they are not, I think, often enough praised for the work they do. My hon. Friend is also right about the importance of communications data. I have been clear on many occasions, including in this Chamber, that I believe we need to increase the ability of our law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies to access the data that will enable them to investigate—but, crucially, in many cases, also to prosecute —those involved in terrorism and organised crime.
The Home Secretary told us at the time of Ibrahim Magag’s escape that the security and surveillance elements of the TPIMs were specific to each individual package and subject to regular review. Is she in a position to tell us when the arrangements covering this individual were last reviewed?
The money made available both to the police and the Security Service was made available around the TPIMs package, and obviously there are a number of ways in which that funding will have been used to enhance their capabilities. As to the individuals under TPIMs, there are regular reviews of the nature of the measures attached to them. As I said, those reviews take place regularly and for every subject of a TPIM.
Would not the difficult job of keeping up surveillance on these nine individuals who are subject to TPIMs be made easier if relocation orders were made available? Does the Home Secretary not understand that the British people would expect her at least to review these procedures in the light of the fact that all it seems necessary to do to evade them is either to hail a black cab or to dress up in a burqa?
I have made it absolutely clear that all the measures relating to individuals under TPIMs are regularly reviewed to ensure that they continue to be appropriate. We have made more funding available to the police and to the Security Service when the TPIMs were introduced—and that funding continues to the tune of extra tens of millions of pounds a year—to enhance their capabilities for dealing with these subjects. I remind the hon. Gentleman, furthermore, that the police and security services have to deal with a number of individuals, not simply those involved in TPIMs, and we saw some good prosecutions earlier this year of those who were involved in plots to cause significant harm to British citizens.
My right hon. Friend is quite right to point out that Labour’s control orders were failing. Their powers were being eroded by the courts and there were seven absconsions in six years. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), will she say what might happen to those who may be assisting Mr Mohamed at the moment?
When it is possible to take criminal action against people who have been involved in criminal offences, we will expect appropriate action to be taken through prosecutions. As I have said this afternoon and on a number of other occasions, I believe that the best place for those who are involved in terrorism is behind bars.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of those facts. I believe that the very first Bill introduced by the present Government was the Bill to abolish the ID card scheme that the previous Government had introduced, and I am pleased to say that it was this Government who reduced the period of pre-charge detention from 28 days to 14—although, as my hon. Friend has reminded us, the last Labour Government discussed increasing it to as much as 90 days.
Order. I listened patiently to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), but it was difficult to detect anything in his scripted question that appertained to the policy of the Government. I have exercised my natural tolerance on this occasion, but I trust that the hon. Gentleman will not push his luck in future. Questions must be about the policies of the Government, not those of the Opposition.
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind what I said earlier, which was a statement of fact: that over the years, the courts were beginning to erode the control orders that his party had introduced. We responded to that with a package of TPIMs legislation, and, crucially, by giving extra funding to our law enforcement and security services to help them do their job of keeping the public safe.
As I have already made clear, I think that we should indeed consider replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, and the Conservatives will take that policy to the next election. Meanwhile, I am taking the action that I can take to make it easier for us to deport foreign criminals in particular, and to ensure that certain aspects of the interpretation of the European convention on human rights reflect the will of this Parliament. As we know, this Parliament is on the people’s side, and that is where the law, and its interpretation, should be as well.
When did the Home Secretary know that Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed had become a British citizen, and when did she become aware of his terrorist activities?
I looked at the issue of the individual’s terrorist activities when the TPIM was placed on him. I do not have the information about when he became a British citizen in my mind at this moment, but I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and the Chairman of the Select Committee.
My right hon. Friend said that the case would be submitted to the independent reviewer. Can she give us some idea of how long she expects him to take to make recommendations? Consistent with the robust position that she always takes in protecting the people of this country, can she confirm that, if necessary, she will announce further measures to the House to ensure that terrorists who cannot be prosecuted are dealt with properly and the public are protected?
As I said earlier, national security and the protection of the public are always at the forefront of the Government’s mind when we are considering these issues.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for enabling me to clarify something that I said earlier, which his question suggests may have led to some misunderstanding. The review in the case of Ibrahim Magag was undertaken by the Home Office, but it was overseen by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. It is not in his remit actually to review, but he looked at the Home Office review and said that it was thorough, and I expect him to look at the review that will be undertaken in this case as well.
To be honest, it is not that easy to balance the conflicting interests of security and individual liberty and freedom, but what really worries me about the attitude the Home Secretary has presented today is that she seems to think that these two men came up with some phenomenally cunning plan. One of them jumped in a black cab and the other slipped on a burqa. Surely she understands that the others will probably be laughing in her face.
In August 2011 the Home Secretary told Parliament in an oral statement that she was going to change the law relating to face coverings. If that had happened—or, indeed, if the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) banning face coverings in public had been introduced—she would not have had to come to the House today. Has she changed her mind on that policy?
We did indeed consult on the issue of face coverings, but that was about not the wearing of the burqa but the powers available to the police in circumstances such as mass demonstrations and riots where people are covering their faces, and whether the police needed any further powers. The police were clear that the powers available to them were sufficient for them to be able to deal with such circumstances in future, which is why we did not bring forward any legislation on that matter.
I commend the Home Secretary in at least one respect today: her generous words for my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) may cause him to pause and think that perhaps he will not depart this place, but will instead stand again. However, in the light of there having been two absconders within 10 months, should the Home Secretary not consider whether the measures she has put in place might be improved?
I am clear that we have the TPIM legislation on the statute book, and that it will be used when it is considered operationally appropriate for it to be used. The range of measures that will be applicable to an individual will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Given that the burqa is mediaeval, sexist and oppressive and given that, as we now know, it represents the easiest and most complete disguise for a Muslim terrorist suspect, will the Secretary of State reconsider her opposition to my Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill? May I also say to her that this is not about telling women what to wear: first, because we now know that men wear burqas as well as women; and secondly, because this issue is about somebody concealing their identity, and such a law must cover both balaclavas and burqas?
Despite my hon. Friend’s best efforts, my position on this issue has not changed in the last half-hour. I continue to believe in relation to the burqa and niqab that it is for an individual woman to decide how she chooses to dress. Women should be free to make that choice for themselves. There will be circumstances in which it is appropriate to require somebody to remove a face covering: that could be in court, as we have seen in a number of instances; it could be at the border, for security purposes; and individual institutions such as schools should make their own policy in relation to dress that they consider appropriate in their institution. I continue to hold the view that it is not for the Government to tell women how to dress.
Order. None of us wishes unduly to embarrass the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but following the Home Secretary’s most gracious tribute to him, may I say—on behalf, I think, of Members throughout the House—that the way in which, after 30 years of uninterrupted service on the Front Bench, the right hon. Gentleman has shown his continuing respect for Parliament and enjoyed something of a Back-Bench renaissance over the last three years is hugely respected in all parts of the Chamber?