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Abu Qatada

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Since December 2001, successive British Governments have sought to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan, his home country, because he poses a serious risk to our national security. Qatada has a long-standing association with al-Qaeda. British courts have found that:

‘His reach and the depth of influence … is formidable … He provides a religious justification for the act of violence and terror’.

In Jordan, he has been tried and found guilty in absentia of terrorism offences, including conspiracy to cause explosions at western and Israeli targets, and involvement in the bombings of the American School and the Jerusalem Hotel in Amman in 1998.

The House of Lords agreed with the Government that Qatada can be deported to Jordan to face a retrial because of the diplomatic assurances negotiated by Britain and the Jordanian Government. This agreement ensures that individuals deported to Jordan will not be tortured upon their return.

Despite the agreement of the House of Lords that Qatada should be deported, and despite accepting that he would not face mistreatment in Jordan, last month the European Court of Human Rights ruled against his deportation. It did so on the grounds that deportation would be in violation of Article 6 of the convention—the right to a fair trial—because of the risk that evidence obtained from the torture of others would be used against him. Honourable Members should be aware that this argument had already been considered by a British court, which rejected it.

I hardly need to tell the House that the Government disagree vehemently with Strasbourg’s ruling. We believe that Abu Qatada should be deported. We are considering all the legal options available, including whether to refer the case to the Grand Chamber. As we do so, we will continue to negotiate with the Jordanians to see what assurances we can be given about the evidence used against Qatada in their courts.

Following the Strasbourg ruling, Qatada’s lawyers appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission for bail. We opposed that appeal vigorously, but yesterday it was granted, and will start within a week. The bail conditions are among the most stringent imposed on anybody facing deportation from the UK, and reflect the conditions set out when Qatada was bailed in 2008. He will be under a 22-hour curfew. He will not be allowed to access the internet or any electronic communication devices. He will not be allowed to travel outside an approved boundary. Visitors will need to be approved under very strict conditions. He will be subject to a specific condition preventing attendance at mosques and leading group prayer. If any of these conditions are breached, he will be rearrested and we will seek his immediate detention. But however strict the bail conditions, I continue to believe that Qatada should remain behind bars.

It simply is not acceptable that after guarantees from the Jordanians about his treatment, after British courts have found that he is dangerous and after his removal has been approved by the highest courts in our land, we still cannot deport a dangerous foreign national. We continue to consider the case for a British Bill of Rights, and the Prime Minister is leading the Government’s attempts to reform the European Court of Human Rights.

The right place for a terrorist is a prison cell and the right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell, far away from Britain. That is why we will do everything we can within the existing legal regime to deport Qatada, and we are doing everything we can to reform that regime to avoid these cases in future”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary in the other place.

This judgment raises two questions for the House. First, what more are the Government doing to get Abu Qatada deported? Secondly, what are they doing to ensure the public are protected in the mean time?

The Minister has made clear the Government’s displeasure at and disagreement with the decision made by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission to free on bail the cleric Abu Qatada. The decision comes in the wake of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Abu Qatada could not be deported to Jordan as he would face what was deemed to be a flagrant denial of justice since he could face a trial based on evidence obtained through torture. As the Minister said, that ruling overturned a decision by our Law Lords. Perhaps the Minister could say when the Government will decide on any form of appeal against the European court’s ruling.

Abu Qatada has been detained under immigration laws for the past six and a half years pending his deportation to Jordan. The bail conditions, which have now been set, are in line with those set in 2008 when he was released for a few months. They are substantial and include a 22-hour curfew. Does the Minister know whether it is true, as has been reported in at least one newspaper, that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission judge indicated that the conditions of bail would be relaxed after three months if there was what he—the judge—described as no “demonstrable progress” made with the Jordanians?

We share the Government’s position that Abu Qatada should be deported and should stand fair trial in Jordan. There is a need for the Government to pursue discussions with the Jordanian Government to make that possible. The Government, I know, are aware that before the election the British Government had reached agreement with Jordan on safeguards against the use of torture in order to make deportation possible. That agreement has been upheld and endorsed in our own courts. Clearly it is possible to make diplomatic progress. However, we need more evidence that the Government are straining every sinew to address the remaining issue that has now been raised by the court. Perhaps the Minister could say what discussions there have been with the Jordanian Government over the past 12 months on this issue of safeguards so that Abu Qatada can be deported without being put at risk of a trial based on evidence obtained through torture of others. Perhaps more significantly, what discussions are expected over the next three months, and how do the Government rate the prospects of bringing such discussions to a successful conclusion?

From the Minister’s words it would appear that the Government do not consider the bail conditions sufficient to address the issue of the threat to our security which Abu Qatada represents. Abu Qatada has never been charged in this country. Perhaps the Minister could say whether that is expected to remain the position or whether the issue is under consideration now or is likely to be if the bail conditions—and we know that Qatada has previously broken bail conditions—either continue because it is not possible to deport him or, if it is true, are relaxed after three months.

In addition to the 22-hour curfew, the bail conditions apparently involve no internet or electronic communication devices, no travel outside an approved boundary and restrictions on visitors. These requirements would appear to go beyond the conditions provided for under the Government’s revised weaker control orders, the TPIMs—conditions which the Government said would be sufficient to control and keep in check the activities of those who could not be charged but who were deemed to pose a serious threat of terrorist action.

Is it the Government’s view that the provisions in their new, weaker, revised control orders, the TPIMs, would be sufficient to control any threat posed by Abu Qatada, assuming that he is released on bail very shortly; or do they take the view that having been released on bail by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, the more substantial bail conditions which have been set out by the judge are, indeed, all needed? If they are felt to be needed for Abu Qatada, why would they not also be needed for those constrained under the new, weaker control order regime that the Government have introduced, the TPIMs, which are time limited to a maximum of two years, provide only for an overnight residence requirement, provide access to the internet and telephones, and do not enable restrictions to be imposed on someone coming into London?

The Government cannot blame the European Court for their own decision to weaken British counterterrorism powers. We did, of course, urge the Government to keep the previous control order regime at least until after the Olympic Games. The Minister needs to spell out what action will be taken, including the possibility of any further legislation, and what safeguards will be introduced to minimise the risk to national security that the decision to grant bail to Abu Qatada represents both in the immediate future and later this year, at a time when our police and security forces are already going to be stretched to the limit with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations at their peak and the Olympic Games starting.

The courts, the security services and the Home Secretary have all made clear that Abu Qatada is a continuing threat to public safety and national security, and the Home Secretary and the Government should be straining every sinew to get him deported. If they cannot, the Home Secretary should make sure that we have the legislation and the safeguards in place to protect the public now.

My Lords, again I repeat that we regret the decision of the SIAC court, just as we regret even more the earlier decision of the European Court of Human Rights. As I repeated towards the end of the Statement, those things need to be addressed in due course. The noble Lord then asked what we are doing to ensure that Qatada will in due course be deported. I assure him that we will do everything we can, in terms of the negotiations that have taken place and the negotiations that will take place, to make sure that we can deport him to Jordan, and that he will be entitled to a fair trial that is compliant under Article 6. We believe that the European Court of Human Rights got that wrong and that our own courts got it right in that what he was going to face was compliant under Article 6, but that is another matter which is for discussion on future occasions. We will continue to discuss it with the Jordanian Government and I hope that in due course my right honourable friend or myself or both of us will be able to let the House know how we are managing on that. But as regards a timescale, I cannot give the noble Lord one at this stage, and nor do I suspect he would expect to have one from me on this occasion.

The bail conditions are very severe; they are set out in the 1997 SIAC Act and the Immigration Act 1971. We are satisfied that they are appropriate for keeping him under control for the next three months, as is appropriate before we have to look at these matters again. The conditions are more severe than what is available under TPIMs. We discussed at length during the passage of the TPIMs Act the appropriate level of security that we and the security services need for keeping adequate control over dangerous people. I believe that we struck the right balance in reflecting not only the individual’s human rights but the security of this country. No doubt the noble Lord would like to use this one particular case to make a political football out of the matter. I think that that is regrettable and I hope that he will not follow that on this occasion. We believe that what we have in TPIMs is appropriate and adequate to deal with the threats that we are likely to face this year and in any subsequent year. We believe that what the previous Government set out was overly onerous and not appropriate to what is necessary to provide security for the individual.

I hope that I have given the noble Lord the appropriate assurances that he wanted on the more important questions. We will, as I said, exert every sinew to ensure that this very dangerous man, Abu Qatada, is deported from this country in due course, with proper respect for law and the support of the courts as is appropriate.

My Lords, may I remind the House of the benefit of short questions being put to the Minister so that he may answer as many as possible?

My Lords, is this not perhaps the most obvious example we have ever had of the fact that the use of intercept evidence in limited cases would enable an individual to be brought to trial in this country, found guilty and imprisoned without all the problems of the European Court of Human Rights apparently causing us difficulties? If the Government would only allow intercept evidence to be used in limited instances, we might be a lot further forward than we are now.

Intercept evidence is a matter that we have debated in this House and in another place on a number of occasions. I have debated it from the opposite side of this House in a previous role as a justice spokesman, just as I have as a Minister on this side. It is a very difficult issue. The special committee of privy counsellors should continue to examine it and report to Ministers in due course. Being frank and honest with the noble Lord, I have changed my mind more than once on this issue. It is an issue on which it is very easy to flip-flop between the two sides. The advantages at times seem overwhelming, but one then discovers that the risks to one’s intelligence and the sourcing of evidence can be even greater. It is a difficult question and not one that I would want to answer in detail when repeating a Statement of this sort.

My Lords, the European Court of Human Rights has been reported as saying that our memorandum of understanding with Jordan is one of the best that it has ever seen. I do not know whether the Minister can comment on this, but if he can, can he tell the House whether it is capable of being extended to give the assurances that would be required? I hope that it is, because I speak as someone who—like the Minister, I am sure—is proud of a legal system that rejects evidence obtained by torture.

My Lords, under no circumstances do we want to make use or encourage the use of evidence that has been obtained by torture. In that, I would agree with my noble friend. All I can say on the memorandum of understanding with the Jordanian Government is that we will continue to discuss this matter with the Jordanian authorities so that we can ensure that we can get the deportation of Qatada, but get it in such a manner that any trial he faces there will be compliant with Article 6, which is what we are seeking to do. We thought that that was what our courts—I think it was the House of Lords before the creation of the Supreme Court—had said was the case. For some reason known only to the European Court of Human Rights—but, then, one always has strange views about it—that court did not agree with us on this occasion.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will agree that public safety must be paramount, and I am confident that Her Majesty's Government are doing their utmost in this situation. Did I understand from the Minister’s Statement that something was being done to avoid this kind of situation in the future? On appeals, did he indicate that we could appeal to the Grand Chamber? Would that be evidence-based, and would every ounce of effort be made to ensure that there is such evidence? Do I presume correctly that there is no appeal from the granting of bail?

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that last question on the granting of bail, but the fact is that the court has granted him bail, and that is where we are at the moment. Yes, there is the possibility to appeal to the Grand Chamber. That is something that we are looking at, but I cannot go beyond saying that at the moment. If I hear anything more, I will certainly let the noble and learned Lord know in due course. The only other point from the Statement that I want to emphasise is that my right honourable friend made it quite clear, as has my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, that we will continue to look at the case for a British Bill of Rights, which we think is relevant in these matters, and for reforming the European Court of Human Rights. The Government are right to be taking the leading role in that.

The Minister has just said that the Government will attempt to reform the European Court of Human Rights. I know that there is great concern about, among other things, the backlog of cases and the insufficient margin of appreciation which ought to be delivered to national courts. Can the Minister help the House with how any such attempts to reform the court might avoid the very situation that we are confronted with now?

I am afraid that my noble friend has probably asked me the hardest question of all, as to how we can deal with that problem and how it can solve our problems. Nevertheless, we want to make it clear that we think that it is right to look at reform of the ECHR. One of the reasons for that was given by my noble friend—that is, the backlog of cases that has built up there and the fact that the court seems to be involving itself in a whole number of relatively small cases that are not necessarily appropriate to it, particularly when one thinks of reforms brought through by the party opposite that have given us something known as the Supreme Court. It seems rather sad that, as soon as we have something called the Supreme Court, we have to announce that there is a court above it in the form of the European Court of Human Rights. As I said to my noble friend, finding a way to reform a court such as the European Court of Human Rights, which has of the order of 47 different members, will be a difficult job—but it is one that this country should continue to pursue.

My Lords, as somebody who, in a different role, has known of Abu Qatada’s case for nearly a decade, I fully understand the dilemma in which the Minister and the Government find themselves. The same dilemma has sat in front of us in different ways for 10 years. I will look forward and then ask the Minister a question. If we go forward three months and it has been impossible to reach an agreement with Jordan, I understand that we would then revert to the TPIMs process. One issue about that process, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is that it can only be done once, for two years. So in two years and three months, Abu Qatada will be a free man under the current legislative arrangements. While not wanting to make one case into bad law, will the Minister refer this specific case to the reviewer of counterterrorist legislation to see whether that two-year rule is sustainable under these circumstances?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention, for all the experience that he brings to these matters, and for reminding the House, as I did in my Statement, that successive Governments have tried to get this man out of the country for over 10 years, since 2001. This and the previous Government have obviously faced some difficulties in that. The noble Lord talked about the future and mentioned that in three months these bail conditions are likely to expire unless we have got Abu Qatada out of the country—I sincerely hope we will have done—or he will be detained again for some other reason. The noble Lord then speculated that it might be that, after the three months expire, we find we have nothing else to use but TPIMs. As he said, that can only last two years and we would then be in some difficulty. He then rightly stressed the important point that one case might make bad law, and that the matter should be referred to the reviewer of counterterrorism. I can assure the noble Lord that the reviewer will examine this and its consequences. At the moment, we are satisfied that we will make some progress—I hope that we will—and will have a happier outcome to announce within the next three months.

To follow the intervention by my noble friend Lord Dubs, this is obviously a problem that arises because of the inability to use intercept evidence in court. We all know that. It is a pressing issue because some of us in the House—I am sure I am not alone—would be deeply troubled if we went down the road that would tailor human rights to suit a flawed system of administering justice rather than ensuring that our system of justice was robust enough to handle such a desperate case. This is obviously an incredibly serious case. From that standpoint, it seems that the urgency is not simply to look at human rights in the European context but to look at our system of justice. If we have two systems of justice in operation resulting in the problem now before us, we must ensure that we have one system of European justice capable of dealing with terrorists of this kind.

My Lords, I am not sure that I would go as far as the noble Lord in saying that we have two systems of justice. We have our own justice but obviously we also have appeals from that to the European Court of Human Rights. His principal question was about intercept evidence. Again, I do not think I can take the noble Lord much further than I took the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. This is a very difficult issue. I appreciate that there are very strong views on either side. It is not a decision that any Government will make lightly. As I said, I have certainly changed my view on this more than once, and I think that others have. I know that my noble friend Lord Howard, who made earlier comments on this, confessed that he had changed his mind on intercept. The same is true of others. It is being looked at by a committee of Privy Counsellors, and we should wait for their decision.

My Lords, as I understand it, the bail conditions will be personal to Abu Qatada. Will other people living in the same house be allowed mobile phones and devices that can connect to the internet? What is the position with visitors to the house? Will they be properly searched to ensure that no such devices are taken in?

My Lords, we will ensure that no mobile phones are allowed into that house. That is my understanding, at least, and I will write to my noble friend if I have got it wrong. We will have very strict control over who goes into the house; they will go in only with the approval of the appropriate authorities and only when they have been properly searched. But we do not think it is right that Abu Qatada or other people in that house should have access to electronic devices or the internet that he might be able to use for his own purposes.

Does the Minister agree that the difficulties in deporting this gentleman would not have arisen if he had not been in the country in the first place? Why do we offer an open door to such people to enter this country and become resident here, and were the particular circumstances of this man’s entry into the country investigated in the first place?

My Lords, I do not know how and why Abu Qatada ever came into this country, but I will no doubt make inquiries for the noble Lord and let him know. Having said that, there are aspects of our policy of allowing asylum to certain people of which this country should be proud. I do not know whether that is how this particular gentleman, as the noble Lord described him, got in. It would have been better if he never had come in—I agree with the noble Lord on that—but I do not think that we necessarily want to pursue a policy whereby no one could come in at all. We want to have the appropriate strict controls; that is something that my right honourable friend has always made clear and some thing that we are tidying up after the mess of the past 15 years.

The last two questions indicate two major issues. One is that extremist preachers in this country have access to exceptional measures of communication that never previously existed and that have become available to many impressionable young people, creating an extremely dangerous situation. The point made by my noble friend of ensuring the total efficacy of the prohibition of access to those means of communication is very important. Secondly, although here we are dealing with Jordan, from which I understand acceptable undertakings have been given by a responsible Government, is it not increasingly the case that there are a huge number of countries of which it is easy for anybody arriving in this country to claim that they will be in danger if they are asked to return there? Finally—and this applies to this case alone—what might be the overall cost incurred by this country, with the number of people that we cannot remove who should properly be removed? Presumably, we are carrying costs that we carried for Abu Qatada while he was in jail—and presumably he is on benefit and carrying further costs as well.

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point to the development of modern means of communications over the past 20 or 30 years and the advantages that they give to extremist preachers of this sort, which was never the case in the past. That is one reason why it is very important that we have very tight controls on what forms of communications will be available to Qatada in his house, with his family, when he is subject to bail.

My noble friend asked about other countries and rightly pointed to the problems of deporting individuals to a large number of countries throughout the world because of their human rights record. That is something that we are simply stuck with; there is not much that we can do about it, because of the nature of the countries that we are talking about and the nature of what goes on. Certainly, that imposes enormous costs on us. I cannot give my noble friend precise figures of the costs of Abu Qatada over the past 10 years. However, I think all noble Lords will be pretty sure that they must have been fairly large costs considering that he has spent some five years in prison and is now going to be living at home, presumably surviving on benefits of some sort, along with his wife and five children. The same was true beforehand and there are all the costs of supervision that my noble friend mentioned, which are also very great indeed. Yes, keeping the security of this country is not a cheap option.

Is it not clear that this man has made outrageous and bloodthirsty comments about a variety of circumstances, particularly concerning the Jewish community? Is there any evidence that those threats have been resiled from? If not, that is highly relevant in the circumstances which the Government have to consider.

My Lords, I am not aware that those have been resiled from but I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for emphasising the particularly nasty nature of this man and the sort of threats he has made, to Jewish people and to a great many others. That significant fact ought to be taken into account and I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing it to the attention of the House.

The Minister will be aware that there is widespread dismay throughout the country at the course of events, because our own Government and courts look powerless in our own country. Can the Minister advise the House whether any other Government have approached Her Majesty's Government seeking the extradition of this person? I understand that other Governments were interested in him. Is it not also the case that Her Majesty's Government have a duty of care for the security and well-being of the British people? How is that to be exercised and how is it consistent with the release of this individual, who has already been described both by Governments of different colours and by the courts as exceedingly dangerous?

My Lords, he is to be released but he is to be subject to particularly severe bail conditions, which over the next three months will protect the country. However, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is quite right to refer to the widespread dismay that many people have felt at the decisions of the courts, particularly that earlier decision by the European Court of Human Rights. If it had not decided as it did on that occasion, by now Abu Qatada would be back in Jordan and facing the trial that he properly ought to be facing in that country.