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Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition

Volume 644: debated on Monday 2 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on whether the Government will now reinstate the judge-led inquiry that the former Government promised in 2012, in the light of the two Intelligence and Security Committee reports on detainee mistreatment and rendition published on 28 June 2018.

Order. Before the Minister of States replies—we look forward to that with eager anticipation—perhaps I can be the first in the House to congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Father of the House, on his birthday. The only prediction I feel that I can make with any confidence is that, as he celebrated two weeks ago today the 48th anniversary of his first election to the House, it is a fair bet that he has now reached the mid-point of his parliamentary career.

May I also congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? At the outset, I want to thank him for his question and his leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition.

The Government welcome the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s reports and are grateful for its vital work and examination of allegations of UK involvement in mistreatment and rendition. May I also declare that between 2014 and 2016, I was for a period on the Intelligence and Security Committee when it was conducting this very long investigation? It is right that these reports and as much information as possible from this period are put in the public domain. We need to ensure that we learn from past mistakes so that they are never repeated. The Prime Minister laid a written ministerial statement in Parliament last Thursday, setting out the Government’s initial response to the reports.

It is important to note the context in which the Government, including the security and intelligence agencies and the armed forces, were working in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001. The UK responded to the tragic events of 9/11 with the aim of doing everything possible to prevent further loss of innocent life. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that UK personnel were working within a new and challenging operating environment for which, in some cases, they were not prepared. It took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate, and too long to understand fully, and take appropriate action on, the risks arising from our engagement with international partners.

The “Current Issues” report recognises that improvements have been made to operational processes since those post-9/11 years. In particular, the consolidated guidance, published in 2010—I would point out that we are the only country to have active consolidated guidance of this sort in operation—provides clear direction for UK personnel and governs their interaction with detainees held by others and the handling of any intelligence received from them. This is coupled with world-leading independent oversight, including by the Committee and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Adrian Fulford.

Formal oversight responsibility for the consolidated guidance rests with the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. Last week, Sir Adrian Fulford welcomed the Prime Minister’s invitation to him to make proposals on how the consolidated guidance could be improved further and he would be able to take account of the Committee’s views and those of civil society. The Prime Minister has stated that the Government will give further consideration to the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. The Government will also give careful consideration to the calls for another judge-led inquiry and will update the House within 60 days of publication of the reports.

I would like once again to reassure the House that the Government do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose. We can and should be proud of the work done by our intelligence and service personnel, often in the most difficult circumstances. It is right that they should be held to the highest possible standards, and I am confident that the changes we have made in recent years will allow us both to protect our national security and to maintain our global reputation as a champion for human rights across the world.

We need robust and effective intelligence services to protect our national security, and I am sure we are all grateful to those who carry out this work and do it for us. I welcome the Minister’s reiteration of our opposition to torture and our acceptance that good but robust standards must be maintained. In the light of that, however, I would like to know why the Intelligence and Security Committee was stopped from completing the report, on which he himself had been working, when it had already uncovered the unacceptable situation of a large number of cases of British complicity in torture, mistreatment and hijacking of people to Guantanamo Bay and to Libya?

The Committee reached the stage at which it wished to call witnesses directly involved. As it makes clear in its own report, it reached the stage at which it wanted

“to examine certain matters in detail, which could only be done by taking evidence from those who had been on the ground”.

The Government denied that, and the Committee felt it had no alternative but to stop its work. Why was that done, and what are we trying to cover up of what was done during the time of the Blair Government?

The judge-led inquiry was set up in 2010, to wide welcome, and Sir Peter Gibson produced a report that established more than 20 important questions that we all agreed should be answered. The inquiry had to be suspended—brought to an end—in 2012 while we waited for the police investigations on Libya to finish. As Justice Secretary at the time, I announced the delay to the House. I said:

“It will then be possible for the Government to take a final view as to whether a further judicial inquiry still remains necessary to add any further information of value to future policy making and the national interest.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 916.]

We had actually guaranteed earlier that the inquiry would be resumed, which was welcomed across the House. It was suspended so that the ISC could start, and then the suspension was put in place, under the terms I have just read out.

It is quite obvious that, as the ISC had not finished its work under the previous coalition Government—I spoke with the full authority of the then Prime Minister and the whole Government, including the current Prime Minister, who was then Home Secretary—we would have considered it necessary to appoint a fresh judge-led inquiry, as the ISC has been frustrated from going any further. Therefore, what reputable reasons do the Government have for not holding an inquiry? I am glad that the Minister has said that a judge-led inquiry is still being considered, and I hope that a prompt announcement will be made that such an inquiry will now follow.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. As he rightly says, he was the Minister who made statements to the House on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry. Indeed, as Justice Secretary, he made a statement in January 2012, and as Minister without Portfolio, he made a further statement in December 2013. In the further statement, there was a slight measure of doubt about whether there would indeed be a judge-led inquiry. He said:

“It will then ​be possible for the Government to take a final view as to whether a further judicial inquiry still remains necessary”—[Official Report, 19 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 916.]

That remains the case. As I said earlier, the Government will give careful consideration to whether a judge-led inquiry is necessary.

I say again to my right hon. and learned Friend that this inquiry has gone on for very many years—his statements about the judge-led inquiry were made in 2012 and 2013, and here we are in 2018. I take issue with his use of the word “complicity”, which I think was a notch too strong. I think that it is honest to say that the ISC found no evidence that agencies had deliberately turned a blind eye.

Perhaps the main issue here is whether in our intelligence agencies it would be right, 15 years after the event, to take someone who was then a junior operative in the field and put them in front of a judge-led inquiry. It is senior people who should take responsibility. Whether someone who was then of a lower rank should be subjected to such an inquiry 15 years later is, I think, one of the serious question that must be asked before a decision is made.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this hugely important urgent question. I congratulate the Father of the House on securing it. Today, as on so many other matters, he has spoken a truth, logic and wisdom that transcends all party divides and will, I hope, be listened to by his own Government.

The ISC report lays bare the sheer scale of our country’s involvement in torture and rendition. In doing so, it vindicates those who for years sought to expose these facts—investigative journalists, civil liberties campaigners and Members of this House—and who were right to claim that the full truth was being hidden. As detailed as the report is, it still does not give us the full truth, and we will not have the full truth until we have a full and independent judicial inquiry—an inquiry with access to all available evidence and the ability to question directly the military and intelligence officers involved. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about junior officers, but we expect that of police officers, for example, when there are investigations. We expect police officers of all ranks to answer questions and the same should apply here.

We also need to have access to all the Ministers and security chiefs who oversaw those activities. Like all such inquiries, we do not need it just to examine what went wrong in the past; we need it to learn lessons for the future and to provide recommendations that cannot simply be ignored by the Government. Most importantly, we need it to ensure that never again is the UK involved in these illegal and barbaric acts.

I ask the Minister today to listen to the ISC, to listen to the Father of the House and to listen to the united voice of the Opposition parties in this House, because we all recognise the need for a comprehensive investigation of the UK’s involvement in torture and rendition and the use of secret courts, with unfettered access to all potential evidence and witnesses. Many in this House have great confidence in Judge Adrian Fulford, but in my view anything that is inquired into should be done in a way that is structured and formal.

We all recognise the need for a public consultation of civil liberties groups on the current consolidated guidance to identify the gaps and grey areas that have allowed these abuses to happen and to recommend the changes that must be made, so that we can all be confident that they are not happening now and can never happen again. But we also all recognise that, to achieve these things, there is only one course of action: we urgently need, and the country is owed, a full judicial inquiry.

I listened very carefully to what the right hon. Lady said and I would be grateful if she thought again about the words she used when she accused officials in our agencies—I think that I quote accurately—of being “involved in torture”. They were not involved in torture, so I really think the right hon. Lady may want to come back to the House and say that, actually, that is an inaccurate accusation.

These were very unique times. The twin towers had been blown up in the biggest terrorist attack we have seen. It went right to the heart of the United States psyche, and there was inevitably going to be a very strong and strict response. We are, of course, very close allies of the United States and work very closely with them on intelligence matters. What the response led to was a lot of officers being asked to do things that they had not been trained for and had never encountered before. It took time to understand that there were certain practices going on which required new rules. Perhaps, if there is a fault, it is the time it took for that appreciation to dawn. But once it did, I think it is of credit to this country and our intelligence agencies that they reviewed their practices, revised them and adjusted as best they could to the new world in which they were working.

The right hon. Lady says that I should listen to the ISC. I can say that I have done so, as I was on the Committee. Not only did I listen to it, but many of those interviewed also had to listen to me. The inquisition and witness sessions of the Committee, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), were very robust indeed. I also say to her that Adrian Fulford is part of a structured and formal apparatus. The fact that the Prime Minister has said that he should look at the consolidated guidance in the way that she has is, I think, addressing some of the outstanding issues, which, quite rightly, the House would like to see studied.

It is not the role of the ISC to take a view on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry. That is a matter for the Government and for this House. What I think can and should be said about this matter, and which may be helpful for the Minister, are three points.

First, as the Minister will appreciate, when the report was published, the Committee was extremely disappointed that it was not able to access the witnesses from whom it wanted to hear. It is important to understand that this was not because it wished to pass judgment on those witnesses—far from it—but because it felt strongly that the witnesses would be able to help to fill out the information that was present on the documents in a way that would be helpful to the purposes of the Committee in explaining to the House and the public what had been going on.

The second point, which has been raised from time to time, is what is to happen to the Libyan cases. My right hon. Friend has not commented on that, but what I will say about the Libyan cases is that in view of the difficulties that the Committee has experienced, there can be absolutely no question of the Committee being willing to consider those cases in the light of the difficulties it has had.

Thirdly, if I may gently pick up with my right hon. Friend the length of time this report has taken, the reason why it has taken so long is that, for nearly 12 months of that period, there was no Committee sitting at all, which should be a matter of concern to the House, and there was a period of six months, which in my view was also much too long, in which we failed to get a response from the Government about our request to have those witnesses.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments. I quite understand what he is saying about the difficulty of a Committee working when it is not actually constituted, and I hear what he says about the Libyan cases. In the case of witnesses, I think it has been made clear in the House that he regrets that he was unable to see more of them, but the fundamental question here is: if things went wrong as it is thought they did, could such things ever happen again? The reassurance that we can offer the House, and indeed the wider world, is that agencies now have clear guidance, including the consolidated guidance, which covers all aspects of dealing with detainees and has training on operational management. Compliance with this guidance is mandatory and this is very much a part of agency culture. The consolidated guidance is coupled with a world-leading independent oversight regime, underpinned by the Justice and Security Act 2013 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which has just commenced, so these are extant—they are working. It has given enhanced powers to the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee the activities of the security and intelligence agencies alongside the statutory role of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Adrian Fulford, to whom I referred earlier.

I congratulate the ISC on a very thorough report, despite the obstacles that have been placed in its way. This damning report confirms what many of us had suspected—that the UK has been involved and effectively complicit in rendition. That is not just shameful but could, in fact, be criminal if, as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer has suggested, any of these events took place in the context of international conflict or war.

Does the Minister understand that justice must be done and must be seen to be done? That does mean a judge-led inquiry as soon as possible, with all the reports reported as appropriate to the police. Will he clarify who in the Government on day-to-day basis is responsible for making sure that the UK is not in future complicit in unlawful rendition? And will he assure us of the UK Government’s full co-operation with ongoing inquiries by Police Scotland into the implications of the possible use of Scottish airports in unlawful rendition?

When it comes to unlawful rendition, there is now a very different system. The UK’s immigration authorities are responsible for the collection of manifests, for instance, for private flights arriving in or transiting through the UK. If we had strong, verifiable information that an individual on board was being rendered contrary to international law principles, we anticipate that the police would attend the plane on arrival to investigate. The diplomatic flight clearance process ensures that all flight requests are assessed and, where necessary, sent to the Foreign Office for political clearance. All incoming flight requests through the diplomatic flights clearance process and subsequent decisions are registered electronically on the Foreign Office records management system and are fully searchable by the Foreign Office.

The House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for the tone of his statement this afternoon. Like him, I yield to no one in my respect and admiration for the vital work that our security agencies accomplish, but it would really have been much better if my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and his right hon. Friends and colleagues had fully investigated this matter, which has done considerable damage to Britain’s international reputation as a firm upholder of international humanitarian law and human rights. It is clear that the ISC was prevented from conducting the full investigation it wished to undertake by the Government. There are problems with judge-led inquiries that could have been avoided if these matters had been addressed by the ISC. Given where we are and that we promised a judge-led inquiry—I was a member of the Cabinet that made that promise—it seems incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government now to implement that promise in full.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments. As I said earlier, the question of whether there should be a judge-led inquiry is still to be considered, but on the question of torture generally I hope the House will appreciate that the Government do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment for any purpose whatsoever. We continue to work closely with international partners to eradicate this abhorrent practice.

Given that President Trump is coming to this country next Friday and has openly endorsed torture, will the Government use that visit to reinforce to him the point that we will not in future be involved in any form of torture, and will the Minister commit to a judge-led inquiry to underline that view?

We will continue our close co-operation will the United States on a range of foreign and security policy issues, but we will maintain our integrity on human rights and interrogation procedures. Intelligence sharing between our two countries has undoubtedly saved British lives, and in both countries intelligence work takes place within a very strong legal framework. We operate under the rule of law, we are accountable to it and we will uphold it.

Does the Minister accept that it is not just bleeding heart liberals and humanitarians who reject the use of torture even under the most provocative circumstances, but senior counter-insurgency professionals such as the late Sir Robert Thompson? He wrote in his seminal work, “Defeating Communist Insurgency” in 1966 as follows:

“There is a very strong temptation...for government forces to act outside the law... Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficulties for a government than it solves.”

We really should not have to learn that basic lesson over and over again.

If there is one person in the House whom I would most definitely not describe as a bleeding heart liberal it is my right hon. Friend. I understand exactly what he says, and again I can but reiterate that the Government, in everything they do, under much enhanced rules, procedures and practices and on the back of what we have learned from the Committee and the preceding events, will uphold the rule of law and the decencies that all of us in the House expect.

Just over 10 years ago, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, came to the House and apologised for the fact that his predecessor, Jack Straw, had misled Select Committees, including the Foreign Affairs Select Committee when I chaired, it, and that in fact the United States had rendered people to Guantanamo via Diego Garcia, a British territory, having lied to or misled the British Government and forced them therefore to mislead this House. In the interests of getting to the bottom of all these matters, is it not time for a judge-led inquiry, which would not be perceived by the public as having any political taint? Accusations have been made that might be completely unjustified, but the public will not be satisfied unless there is a full inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman’s question itself illustrates the period over which much of this has unfolded. It has been well over a decade, and over that period we have learned an enormous amount and changed our practices. We are fundamentally opposed to unlawful rendition, to which he referred, and as such we do not use rendition. It is not part of our security apparatus. If a foreign Government were to approach Her Majesty’s Government, a request involving the transfer of a person between jurisdictions would be granted only where the purpose of the transit complied fully with international law.

My right hon. Friend plays a significant role through the Council of Europe in seeking to maintain the highest possible standards of human rights throughout the 47 member states. We have a good reputation, and that reputation must be maintained. I fully accept that the first priority of Government must be the protection of the realm, and that that sometimes involves difficult decisions, but if Ministers have failed in the past, is it not right that we should acknowledge that?

There will of course be a formal Government response to the Committee’s reports within 60 days, and if it is thought that any such comment is needed in that regard, of course it will be made.

I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he does in the Council of Europe, a body in which there are many controversies and in which his voice, and that of the United Kingdom, do an enormous amount to uphold the standards that we would like to see in countries across the world.

When the Attorney General apologised earlier this year for UK involvement in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, he told Parliament that the Government had

“enacted reforms to ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 927.]

However, the ISC has concluded that the Government’s policy on torture

“falls short in a number of areas”,

and has warned that

“a full review is long overdue.”

Do the Government still believe that their reforms would prevent any repeat of these abuses?

The Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, apologised unreservedly to Mr Belhaj and his wife in May this year, saying that we were profoundly sorry for the ordeal that they had suffered and for the role that we had played in it. As we said at the time, the UK Government have learnt many lessons from this period, and I believe that those lessons have now been converted into much-enhanced practices which are built into the DNA of our intelligence agencies and all who work for them. The consolidated guidance that forms the bedrock of this will be studied further by Sir Adrian Fulford. I hope that, taken together, all that will satisfy and reassure the House that we both set the highest standards and meet them.

The reports clearly state that there is no evidence that any of our intelligence officers were directly involved in the mistreatment of detainees. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we are the only country in the developed world to produce consolidated guidance in the way that we have, but we must accept that mistakes were made. Does my right hon. Friend agree that “consolidated guidance” is a bit of a misnomer? If it is to have the widespread confidence that we feel that it should, its title should be looked at again, because it is not guidance. It is a standard for action relating to detention and rendition, to be interpreted by the agencies individually, and to be accountable to the House.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has been doing on the Committee. As he rightly points out, we are already the only country that publishes guidance. The Committee found no evidence that agencies had deliberately turned a blind eye, but the Investigatory Powers Commissioner now has a very important role to play in the oversight of the consolidated guidance. Last week the Prime Minister invited him to make proposals for how it could be improved further, and I have no doubt that the Committee of which he is a member will exercise its rights to make recommendations whenever it thinks them appropriate.

The Committee has met for five years, and I have been a member of it for the past two. Investigating this issue has been a thorough exercise. My question to the Minister is simply this: does he believe that, if the Government or the House ultimately decided on a judge-led inquiry, that judge-led inquiry could call witnesses who were denied to the Committee?

It would be invidious of me not to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the service that he gives to the Committee, which he joined just after I had left. I do not want to pre-empt speculatively what might be the possible shape of a judge-led inquiry should it so happen, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me not to answer his question specifically, as it would indeed be only speculative.

The Minister has rightly pointed out the unprecedented and extremely difficult position that many UK security operatives were in at the time, but the fact remains that clearly some terrible things were done. The ISC report says:

“the UK tolerated actions, and took others, that we regard as inexcusable.”

This was an ugly, ugly moment in our country’s history. May I reassure the Minister—he is probably getting the message from right across the House—that when he has taken his 60 days and he decides to come back to the House and respond on behalf of the Government, there will be a huge cheer should he stand up and say he is going to introduce the independent judge-led inquiry that the former Secretary of State for Justice my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) promised at the time? This matter will not be put to rest until he does so and the inquiry happens.

I hope time will prove that my hon. Friend is not right in saying that this would be the only way to put matters to rest. The inquiry itself over these years has been very thorough, admirable and indeed a good example of democracy working well, where this House and Ministers are held to account by a specially constituted independent Committee. It is absolutely true to say that it did take time for us to realise quite what was going on and for many of our agency people on the ground to realise that things to which they were not used —which they had not encountered before—were happening at the hands of others. I think that has largely now been addressed, but we will never rest totally satisfied and will always examine whether we can do better.

I greatly welcome what the Minister says on the subject of the consolidated guidance, but he will be aware that in December last year the intelligence services commissioner identified eight cases in which the consolidated guidance had not been followed by UK officials, leading to the possibility of their either providing or using intelligence that could have led to torture or mistreatment. Can the Minister tell the House whether the individuals in these eight cases have been told of UK involvement that may have led to their mistreatment?

There will of course be a formal response to any such comments made in the Committee’s report, but the right hon. Gentleman is really asking what happens if we ever receive intelligence from countries that torture, and whether that amounts to collusion in torture. The reality is that in most cases countries do not disclose the sources of their intelligence that they share with us. However, the guidance outlines the action to be taken if we suspect that intelligence has been derived from the mistreatment of a detainee, and we ensure that our partners are in no doubt about the standards to which we adhere.

What is the Government’s official estimate of the number of post-9/11 illegal renditions with which the British authorities were connected?

I regret that I do not have a statistic of that detail in front of me. I am not sure whether it appears in the Committee report, but I will investigate and write to my hon. Friend if the information is readily available. I do not guarantee that, as I am not sure what statistics are in the public domain.

When the then Leader of the House made his initial statement on winding up the Gibson inquiry in January 2012, the then shadow Lord Chancellor, now Mayor of London, asked that it be paused. The reason given as to why it was not was that the process would take so long, and three times the Leader of the House said there would be an independent judge-led inquiry, so it was always contemplated that it would take this long. In the interim, the ISC inquiry has been inadequate by its own admission, and for this reason a number of torture survivors have not taken part. There are many people who could have given evidence that has not yet been given, so will the Minister say why this will take 60 days and what criteria he is using to decide whether to go ahead with the inquiry?

Her Majesty’s Government will respond within the 60 days to the Committee report. I do not think there is much more that I can add to that at this stage. Many years have elapsed since the statements were made in 2012 and 2013, and the question of whether anything could be added that would be of benefit to our knowledge or usefulness is increasingly in doubt as time passes.

The Intelligence and Security Committee was reluctantly forced to draw a line under its inquiry. Will the Minister tell us whether it was the Prime Minister personally who refused the Committee access to key witnesses?

This goes back to the answer that I have just given to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). The question is whether that can add much more to the fund of knowledge that the Committee has already gathered.

In order to restore public confidence, is there not a case for a rare public session of the ISC so that those who were in charge of our intelligence services at the time and those who are in charge now can account for their actions and describe what lessons have been learned?

I slightly take issue with the hon. Gentleman, in that I think our intelligence services enjoy massive public confidence, and they deserve to do so. They put their own lives in danger sometimes, and they work to the highest standards of decency and democratic values that anyone could ask for. Instead of saying that they lack public confidence, I would like to take this opportunity to say that they enjoy enormous public confidence and they deserve to do so. I hope that that will continue.

Does the Minister agree that there are no longer any practical or legal hurdles preventing the Government from delivering their long-promised judge-led inquiry?

I think I have answered that question in various ways over the course of the past 45 minutes. This is being studied further and it will be part of the Government’s response in due course.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and detailed response. Will he outline the procedure that was taken with the 128 complaints made by foreign liaison services about incidents of mistreatment? Will he tell us how they were dealt with? Does he feel that this matter has measured up to the Government’s protocol of dealing with these issues?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, in answering an urgent question on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry, I have not gone into as much detail as he requests. I am not equipped to give an answer on such a specific question, and the main answers that I have been giving are in response to the definition of the urgent question before the House today.