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Justice: Evidence

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 15 December 2011

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to receive a further report from the Privy Council review, led by Sir John Chilcot, on using intercept as evidence.

My Lords, there have recently been changes to the membership of the Privy Council group. I look forward to it reconvening shortly to assess progress and, as appropriate, to offer advice.

My Lords, it is now nearly four years since the Chilcot committee was asked to find a way of making intercept evidence available in court. The preferred approach has always been by what has been called public interest immunity plus, which has many advantages. However, in December 2009, that approach was abandoned in the light of the decision of the fourth section of the European Court of Human Rights in a case from Finland. Since then, we have heard very little. Does the Minister recall that a month ago the Lord Chief Justice and the president of the Supreme Court gave evidence that the courts are following decisions of the European Court of Human Rights too strictly? If that is accepted, would he encourage the Chilcot committee to look again at PII+ and perhaps take further legal advice?

My Lords, I am sure that the group will want to reflect on the implications of the judgment to which the noble and learned Lord referred in the European Court of Human Rights and to reflect on the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice when he said that the United Kingdom courts should give due weight to decisions from the European Court of Human Rights. However, the noble and learned Lord should recognise that experience in other countries, whether they are bound by the European Court of Human Rights or not, is that using intercept as evidence involves significant operational burdens, and that the review is helping to address those issues by trying to find the right balance between advantage, costs and risks.

Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Privy Council review has been looking at a very small number of possible models for admissibility and that the key issues, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, said, concern the ECHR, upon which the review might perhaps take note of the recent and very helpful public comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine? Will the Minister try to ensure that, given that all the legwork has actually been done now, an announcement is made within weeks rather than months?

My Lords, it is not for me to decide when the Privy Council group should make its decisions. That must be a matter for the group itself. As I stressed at the beginning, there have been changes to the membership of that group, which has complicated matters and slowed things down somewhat. As I said, I am sure that the group will take account of the implications of the judgment in the European Court of Human Rights and of the views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine.

As a former member of the group that we are talking about, could I press my noble friend a little further on this point? My recollection is that some time ago we were within spitting distance, we were within reach, we were edging fast towards a settlement or compromise that would satisfy both the main parties and points of view in this complicated matter. What has gone wrong since then?

My Lords, it is not for me to pronounce on the problems that the group is having. As my noble friend knows from his distinguished service on this group, the membership has changed not once but twice over the last year or so. There are difficult issues to be addressed. I know that it came forward with one model, and there were problems with that, but I think my noble friend will accept that trying to get the right balance, to which I referred in my first Answer, between advantage, costs and risks is a very great challenge and one that we want that group to get right.

I am not clear from the Minister’s answer whether the Government have a view on this issue or not. In light of the remarks made by the Lord Chief Justice in relation to the ECHR decision to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, referred, do the Government take the view that there appears to be no insurmountable obstacle in principle to the use of intercept evidence, or are our intelligence services still voicing significant concerns on this issue?

There are obviously significant concerns about using intercept as evidence. It can be very useful as intelligence, but using it as evidence can create significant problems. We want to address those problems and make sure that we have got it right before we allow intercept to be used as evidence. That is why the previous Government set up the review under Sir John Chilcot and why we are continuing to look at the work that it is doing and looking forward to its report in due course.

I understand that what happened was that the first group of privy councillors under Sir John Chilcot, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was a member, made a report that was considered. It then went into the next phase, with the privy councillors liaising with an action unit, or something like that, in the Home Office. That activity has hit problem after problem. It is not the fault of the privy councillors that there is a delay in reaching a solution. As the Minister said, it is a very complicated matter.

The noble Baroness is absolutely correct. I was not trying to imply any criticism of the group; I was saying that it has put forward a solution that we have found a number of problems with. We will continue to look at any ideas that it puts forward. If we could use intercept as evidence in a manner that was safe and appropriate, we would, but again I stress that we have to get the right balance between advantage, costs and risks.

My Lords, when I heard the Minister’s original Answer I wondered whether it was a case of changing the membership if you do not like what is being said, and in this case I would welcome that. However, does the Minister accept that the longer this goes on, the less trust and confidence there is among those of us who take an interest in this about whether there is a real determination to reach a good and useful outcome?

My Lords, the only reason why the membership changed was because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, stood down due to reasons of health. He has been replaced by Shaun Woodward, and there is nothing else behind that.

My Lords, during my three years as Minister for Security, almost every key plot against this nation was first identified through the auspices of GCHQ and this sort of intelligence. While one has to be sad that things have been delayed, will the Minister confirm that the most important thing to get right is not to lose any of the skills and capabilities that have been lost in the past when people have spoken about them unnecessarily?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to underline the importance of intelligence—and I stress the importance very often of intercept as intelligence. Whether it can be used as evidence is always another matter. Frequently, even if it could be used as evidence, it would not be very useful evidence, having been useful intelligence.