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Volume 724: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend Damian Green, the Minister of State for Immigration. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the Home Secretary is currently in Budapest at an informal meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, and so I will be responding on her behalf.

As the Home Secretary, Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have made clear, the first duty of any Government is to protect the British public, and we will not do anything that puts our security at risk. The arrests of individuals for terrorism-related offences before Christmas, the cargo bomb plot in October and the bombings in Stockholm in December have all demonstrated that the threat from international terrorism remains a serious one.

On 13 July last year, the Home Secretary announced that she was renewing the current order for 28 days’ pre-charge detention for six months whilst the powers were considered as part of a wider review of counterterrorism powers. As the Home Secretary will be giving a full Statement to the House on Wednesday on the outcome of that review, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt her statement by giving details of the review today.

This Government are clear that the power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 28 days’ detention before they are charged or released was meant to be an exceptional power. This has always been Parliament’s intention, but under the last Government it became the norm, with the renewal of 28 days repeatedly brought before the House. This was despite the power rarely being used; since July 2007, no one has been held for longer than 14 days despite the many terrorists arrested since then. This is a testament to the efforts of our prosecutors, our police and our intelligence agencies. As I said, the Home Secretary will next Wednesday announce to the House the findings from the wider review of counterterrorism and security powers.

The Home Secretary will set out the detailed considerations of the Government in determining whether the current regime of 28 days should be renewed and, if not, what should be put in its place. In the interim, I can announce that the Government will not be seeking to extend the order allowing the maximum 28-day limit and, accordingly, the current order will lapse on 25 January and the maximum limit of pre-charge detention will from that date revert to 14 days.

We are clear that 14 days should be the norm and that the law should reflect this. However, we will place draft emergency legislation in the House Library to extend the maximum period to 28 days to prepare for the very exceptional circumstances when a longer period may be required. If Parliament approved, the maximum period of pre-charge detention could be extended by that method. In our announcement on the wider review, the Home Secretary will set out what contingency measures should be introduced in order to ensure that our ability to bring terrorists to justice is as effective as possible.

This country continues to face a real and serious threat from terrorism. That threat is unlikely to diminish any time soon. The Government are clear that we need appropriate powers to deal with that threat, but those powers must not interfere with the hard won civil liberties of the British people. There is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting our security and defending our civil liberties; the outcome of our counterterrorism powers review will strike that balance. It is this Government’s sincere hope that it will form the basis of a lasting political consensus across the House on this fundamentally important issue”.

I commend the Statement to the House. That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Private Notice Question in the other place as a Statement. However, it is disappointing that the Statement had to be dragged out of the Government by means of a PNQ this morning. When the Conservative Party was in opposition, it made much play of the need for the Executive to respect Parliament and parliamentary procedures. In office it has acted rather differently. I will return to that in a moment.

Keeping the public safe and striking the right balance between security and protection of fundamental liberties is one of the most vital challenges facing any Government. As a responsible Opposition, we seek to support the Government on issues of national security and on their review of counterterrorism powers, provided that decisions are made on the basis of evidence, solely in the national interest and following an orderly process. That is still very much our intention. That is why we said before Christmas that if the evidence shows we can go down from 28 days’ pre-charge detention without impeding the police and security services in doing their job, we should do it.

However, the process has not been at all orderly; it has been delayed considerably. It was to be completed after the summer Recess, then in November, then by the end of the year and then last week. During that time there have been considerable leaks to the media. On only 15 January, the Sun reported that £20 million of extra funding would be required for the security services to implement the changes to control orders, which were agreed as part of the Government’s counterterrorism powers review. That was followed by detailed reports by the BBC and other newspapers last week. For example, the BBC reported the coalition plans to replace control orders with a new range of restrictions to keep terror suspects under surveillance. One working title for the new curbs, according to the BBC, is surveillance orders. These would restrict suspects’ movements but end overnight curfews and a ban on mobile phones if numbers were supplied. The Daily Telegraph reported the following from political sources:

“Curfews for terrorism suspects are to be abandoned as part of a government overhaul of control orders, it can be disclosed”.

There have been all these briefings and leaks in the media, but we are told today of the conclusions of the Government’s review, as the noble Baroness has set out—of a reversion to 14 days and draft emergency legislation to be brought to extend the maximum period to 28 days in the circumstances that the noble Baroness described. We must, however, wait until next Wednesday for a full justification for this decision and the details; yet the powers to detain terror suspects for 28 days expire, as the noble Baroness has stated, next Monday. Why are we not receiving a full Statement today, before the reversion to 14 days? Have the police and the security services agreed that, on the basis of the evidence, the power to detain suspects beyond 14 days is no longer necessary? Will this evidence, if it is available, be published in the review outcome, which I assume with be published next Wednesday? Has the Minister's department established a leaks inquiry into the series of disclosures that we have seen in the media in the past few weeks?

This party is determined to do everything that it can to support the Government in any appropriate and necessary national security measures. However, the Government’s conduct on this matter has not given us any confidence in their approach.

My Lords, I welcome the Opposition’s intention to support the Government so far as they can in this very important policy area. When the full Statement has been made and the review published, I hope they will feel able to support the Government’s position and proposed legislation in their entirety.

I will say something about the review. As the House would expect, I have been fully involved in it. The word I would use to describe what we have been doing is “painstaking”. It has undoubtedly taken us longer than we thought it would. I make no apology for that. It is much more important to get the outcome right, get the balance right and go into all the possibilities. As we did the work, we found that there were more angles and aspects that we needed to consider than we had realised at the outset: otherwise, we would not have stated in public the timetable that we did. We have been at pains to do extremely careful work, and to ensure that all those involved in government agreed with the outcome. The Home Secretary will set this out in detail on Wednesday.

The noble Lord asked a number of questions. I will endeavour to answer them. First, there will be a full Statement. The police and security services have made it clear that they are able to work within the limits that have been set. I do not wish to go into great detail because it would be wrong to anticipate the Statement. However, we will set out the considerations that lie behind the contingency that we will put in place because, like everyone else, we realise that the terrorist threat can change and therefore that it is right and proper to have an arrangement to enable us to respond to that, but with the sanction of Parliament. That will be one difference between the arrangements that we will put forward and those that were previously in place.

There has undoubtedly been significant and considerable press speculation about what the Government were going to decide. I have no doubt that journalists talked to people. However, there has been no leak and no statement by the Government of a kind that anticipated what they were going to say to Parliament. It is in response to the Urgent Question put down in the other House that we have chosen to respond to the part of the CT review that is urgent—the part that relates to the expiry of the pre-charge detention period—and to make it clear that it is the Government's intention to allow the 28-day limit to lapse and to revert in normal circumstances to 14 days. The evidence since 2007 shows that this has been sufficient time for valid charges to be brought.

Is the Minister aware that although there is no collective view on the Cross Benches, we on these Benches, after a very difficult period in which our civil liberties have been threatened by suggestions at one stage that this period could go up to 90 days, then to 48 days, will greatly welcome this decision by the coalition Government? It is a decision on which this House can claim to have had a considerable influence. It is also the end of a rather shameful period in which many of us feel that we reacted to the undoubted threat of terrorism, which was and remains great, by reducing our intrinsic and long-standing respect for civil liberties.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his statement. This House has indeed striven to be a guardian of civil liberties, and many noble Lords have played an important part in that role. As a House, we shall always strive to do that with due regard to the security of this country.

My Lords, this is indeed welcome news. I welcome, too, the proposal to put forward draft emergency legislation. There may be other contexts in which having legislation on the stocks could be useful. I hope the Minister will take back the view, which I suspect not only I take, that it would be useful to have an opportunity to scrutinise the draft legislation and not simply publish it, leave it there and hope it is okay. There needs to be a formal opportunity to scrutinise it.

On the 14 days, which will “be the norm”, detention on the basis of suspicion for as long as 14 days is significant and must have an immense impact on an innocent individual. Has any progress been made on work, particularly intercept evidence—the noble Baroness will not be surprised by that question—that might enable a reduction to less than 14 days?

I thank my noble friend for her sentiments. On the 14 days, more detail will indeed be set out about the context in which 14 days will become the norm. Perhaps she will forgive me if I do not go into that now. Some of the detail will respond precisely to the points that she just made.

I have no doubt that the Home Secretary will have something to say about the use of interceptors’ evidence. All I will say to the House at the moment is that the work that is being done on that subject—and a new round of work is being done—is continuing.

My Lords, I apologise to the House for arriving late for my noble friend’s Statement. As one of the survivors of the 90-day ping-pong between the Houses, when fortunately the robust position of so many of your Lordships at that time ensured that a very serious error was not made, I welcome the Statement that my noble friend has repeated today and look forward to further details that will emerge next Wednesday.

I thank my noble friend. In making the Statement on Wednesday, I hope that we will be able to give the full context in which the 14-day decision rests.