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Terrorism: Detention of Suspects

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. The Question is as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they are announcing their revised plans to extend the period that terrorism suspects can be held without charge, without the promised consultation with Members of both Houses of Parliament.

My Lords, the Government have already consulted widely on the proposals for the Counter-Terrorism Bill, including those on pre-charge detention. We have made it clear that discussions on the revised proposal will continue both inside and outside Parliament.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. How can the Government’s proclaimed aim of seeking genuine consensus before advancing a proposal be reconciled with the statements the Government have issued today, which appear to cut short party consultation and which are not the basis for a consensus? Secondly, it would be helpful to understand from the Minister how the Government rationalise the argument that they have either too much or too little power. The desire for a Goldilocks outcome does not by itself warrant an extension of the powers of the state, which still does not seem justified by the arguments advanced today by the Government. The dramatic scenario is covered by the Civil Contingencies Act. Will the Minister explain why, in situations falling short of that combination, the ability to continue post-charge questioning and the ability to surveil people if they have been released do not constitute adequate power to protect the nation?

My Lords, I am fairly new to the House. I have looked in some detail at how much consultation there has been in the past on various proposed Bills, and am absolutely amazed at how much consultation has gone on already. It is quite remarkable how open we have been about our plans for what is to be in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We have talked broadly, both in this House and in the other place, with various Members. I understand that the noble Baroness has had two consultations with my colleague the Home Secretary in conjunction with the right honourable David Davis. In fact, that week she saw more of the Home Secretary than I did. There has been quite a lot of discussion and debate. I am proud to be part of a Government who are doing that, and I am sure that the House is pleased that we have gone in for so much consultation; my goodness me, I am scarred by parts of it. Consultation is important, and I think that we have done a great deal of it.

My Lords, does the Minister think that the publication of a few draft clauses and a couple of bilateral meetings constitutes wide consultation? Would not it be better to continue building the cross-party consensus on the use of intercept evidence and post-charge questioning rather than pursue this “number of days” game, about which he is on the record as having serious doubts?

My Lords, I say again that we have had considerable consultation. I have talked with a large number of people about a number of these issues. There is a group looking, under Privy Council rules, at intercept evidence, and we await its report with great interest. There is no doubt that this is a very complex and difficult issue. The approach now put forward is significantly different from the one originally proposed.

As the noble Baroness rightly suggests, I feel scarred by this. As an aside, there was some very unfortunate press reporting about me, which gave the wrong impression. What it means is that there is a firm of chauffeurs that refers to a U-turn as an Admiral West, which I find rather difficult. It was not a U-turn. I believe that we have had a real amount of detailed debate. This is important for the nation; it is important for all of us. I know from all those I have spoken to that it is important to everyone in this House, and I believe that we are moving forward in the right way. This is a very different approach from that which was originally put forward.

Just to make the matter absolutely clear, from detailed trend analysis I have no doubt that some cases will require more than 28 days. What matters is how we protect ourselves from that small number of cases. I have no doubt that the trend analysis shows that. I want to look at all the other safeguards. That is so important for this nation and for the freedom of the individual.

My Lords, I admit that I have not seen the Statement or what the plans are, but have the Government—and I hope not—yet gone firm on post-charge questioning, which raises in my mind very great difficulties?

My Lords, post-charge questioning is still within the proposed Counter-Terrorism Bill, and there will be ample opportunity within both Houses of Parliament to discuss the details of the Bill and go into depth on those various points. I believe that post-charge questioning will be a useful addendum and will help us, again, to protect the British public.

My Lords, is the Government’s priority to have wide-ranging consultations and then do whatever they decide to do, using their majority in the other place to drive it through, or is their priority to seek consensus?

No, my Lords, our intention is not just to drive something through. We have had a great deal of discussion with people and have sought consensus. We knew that there were difficulties here; we have taken advice from people and we have incorporated that in a considerable number of ways. As with everyone in this House, our prime aim is to protect the British public. That is what we are trying to do; that is what is important for all of us.

My Lords, some weeks ago the noble Lord was unsure about the extension of the 28-day limit. Since then he has obviously changed his mind. One is not concerned about this trend, but on what evidential basis is the change necessary?

My Lords, I had hoped that I had clarified the issue of my uncertainty about timings. I have no doubt at all that trends were showing that there would be a requirement at some stage—and possibly very soon—to have longer than 28 days to continue our questioning and look at the evidence needed to bring a proper charge against people in these very complex cases. That is because there is no doubt that the terrorists are getting cuter and cuter at learning the way we do these things and making it more and more complex—that trend is there. I was uncertain of the best way forward. I now believe that our proposal is significantly different from before and covers a lot of the concerns I had.

I also wanted to look at whether we could throw money at getting more computer experts and other people in to look at how we could crack these cases quicker. Again, that evidence has now been presented for me. We did not just charge through and say, “We are going to get more days—bang”; we were looking at the details and complexities of these matters. I will be very happy when I have the full information—I have enough now to convince me that I can put this down on paper and share the trend analysis with noble Lords—to show why it is quite clear that it will happen in the future.

My Lords, we have to take this very carefully. The noble Earl is explaining something, but I think that there is an issue about his arrival which my noble friend wishes to challenge. Is that correct?

My Lords, I have to say I was not going to ask a question of the Minister. I was going to object to the fact that somebody who had just come into the Chamber had got to his feet, not having heard the Answer or the Question. As I understand it, that is not in accordance with the rules of order and customs of the House.

My Lords, I am on the Joint Committee of Human Rights. Yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Service said that it could see no need for 28 days. Can the Minister explain?

My Lords, the House is making its view known. My interpretation is that in this House it is customary that, if we are unable to be there at the beginning, we take the opportunity to talk to the Minister directly outside the Chamber. I know that he would have wished to have been here, but the noble Earl sadly missed the important part of this debate, which was the Question from his own Front Bench and the response of my noble friend. I think that courtesy to the House demands that we behave in that way. The noble Earl will forgive me, but if he would take the matter up outside, I think that that would be better.

My Lords, despite all the consultation about which the Minister has talked, there has been not a shred of consensus on the further extension. Why has the process stopped now? Why do we not further seek consensus on such a divisive issue?

My Lords, when one looks at the totality of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, I find it remarkable how much consensus there is. That is wonderful, because I know that all of us believe that the security of our people is so important. In that one area, there has certainly been a lot of debate. As I said, I believe now that the proposals put forward are significantly different. There are lots more opportunities to talk it through. Today, we have released a number of documents, all of which are available for people to see what comments have been made and what discussion there has been. There will be opportunities during the next few weeks to discuss the new model with various people, and of course we will have the opportunity in the other place and in this House to debate more fully. I do not think that we could have done more, and I am rather proud of being part of a Government who have done that. I cannot think of any other case where that has happened.