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Abu Qatada

Volume 736: debated on Monday 30 April 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the current position regarding the deportation of Abu Qatada.

My Lords, we await the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on whether to accept Qatada’s referral request. We wrote to the Strasbourg court to ask that it reject this application both on the merits of the case and on the timing of his request. Qatada, meanwhile, remains in detention.

My Lords, let us forget the shambles of last week. Will the Minister explain exactly how and when this terrorist is going to be deported?

My Lords, I cannot give a precise answer on when he will be deported because that matter is in the courts. However, I do not accept what the noble Lord says about there being a shambles last week. It was quite clear from all the advice and all the precedents that the three months for making the referral expired at midnight on 16 April. My right honourable friend made her decision on that basis. We now await to see what the courts are doing.

My Lords, on 7 February, the last occasion on which the noble Lord answered Questions about Abu Qatada, he was asked whether the Government could provide a new reassurance that this sort of situation would not recur, and he referred to the fact that the Government were hoping that reform of the Strasbourg court might make it less likely. We have now had the Brighton declaration. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government think that this is more or less likely to happen again, and if it is less likely to do so, why?

My Lords, my noble friend is a lawyer and therefore will know that we can never give an absolutely cast-iron guarantee about what the courts or lawyers might or might not do, but I can say to him that the agreement reached at the Brighton conference represents a substantial package of reforms and marks a significant step towards realising the goals that the Prime Minister set out at Strasbourg.

Will the noble Lord give the best guesstimate he can of how much, over the past decade and under both Governments, the British taxpayer has had to pay to keep this man and his family in this country by way of social security payments and legal aid? When will this end?

My Lords, I cannot give that figure to the noble Lord, much as I would like to because I think it is one that the public ought to know. If I can make some sort of guesstimate, working with my own department, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions, I will certainly do so. However, I can give him an assurance that my understanding is that he is not to have his costs paid in the current matter of the referral to the European Court of Human Rights.

Has not the Minister rather overplayed the importance of this when compared with the Government’s objectives in the Brighton declaration? Will he give an assurance that we will abide totally by the Brighton declaration, that we will cease as a country to suffer the humiliation of having our Government condemn the European Court of Human Rights, and that we will regard it in the way that it always should have been regarded, as the bulwark of our civil liberties?

My Lords, I do not accept what the noble Lord says at all. All I said was that I thought that the declaration represented a substantial package of reforms. There could be many more reforms to that court. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that it very often exceeds its functions and goes beyond what was ever intended in 1950 when we signed up to the original convention on human rights.

My Lords, the procedural issues are important but so, too, is the substantive issue. With the Government having reached what they regard as an acceptable memorandum of understanding with the Jordanian Government as to the evidence that will be used in a trial in Jordan, can the Minister tell the House how that process will be monitored to ensure compliance with the memorandum of understanding?

My Lords, we will maintain very close contact with the Jordanian Government when we manage to extradite this man to Jordan and he faces his trial there. We will make sure that we keep fully cognisant of what goes on in the trial in that country.

My Lords, when I was the Security Minister I was constantly struck and somewhat surprised by how my opposite numbers in a number of European countries seemed able to return terrorists to the countries to which they belonged. Perhaps we could ask those countries how they manage to circumvent the rules and how they avoid getting into the complete muddle that we seem to have got in.

My Lords, other countries do things in other ways. The important thing to remember is that this country abides by the rule of law and listens to what the courts say, however unpalatable that might be. I think that what that court has done is unpalatable. We hope that it will see reason on this occasion and accept that his referral is out of time and that there are no merits in the case whatever.

My Lords, whatever the merits of the 24 hours that were being debated at the beginning of this matter, did my noble friend notice that the infection can spread to the Back Benches opposite? The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, suggested in his supplementary that the dramas had happened last week when in fact they had happened the week before. Seven days is an even longer period to lose.

My Lords, the Minister has already referred to listening to the court. In terms of lost days, he will know that the Prime Minister told the BBC that his officials had checked with the European court the deadline for the appeal. Will the Minister give the House of Lords chapter and verse as to when the Home Office checked with the European court and what the court said?

My Lords, the Home Office and other parts of the Government have been in regular contact with the court ever since the judgment back on 17 January. We are absolutely clear, and both precedent and legal advice are clear, that the deadline for the referral was within—I stress “within”—three months, by midnight on 16 April, and that the judgment comes into effect after three months; that is, after midnight on 16 April. That could hardly be clearer and the precedents could hardly be clearer.

My Lords, it appears that all the discussions and advice were handled verbally. Are we to believe that that is the case? Is there nothing in writing or a paper trail to say specifically that these deadlines were properly arrived at? If not, why can that not be published?

My Lords, I can only repeat the answer that I gave to the noble Lord’s noble friend, Lord Hunt. I said that we have been in constant contact with the court, that all legal advice and legal precedents indicated that this was the case, and that the difference between the timing for the referral, which had to be within three months, and the timing for the judgment—that is, after—made it quite clear that midnight on the 16th was the moment in question.

My Lords, the Minister has not given the information on exactly when the court advised the Government that that was the date. He referred in his answer to my noble friend Lord Hunt to legal advice and general advice in correspondence with the court. What is the exact date on which the court in Strasbourg gave advice to the Government that the final date was the one which the Government used?

My Lords, the point I was making, if the noble Baroness would be fair enough to listen to me, was that we had been in regular contact with the court on these matters. It was quite clear from precedent and legal advice that the case that I have put forward is the right one. Therefore we were satisfied that we were right to consider that the last possible moment for referral was 16 April at midnight.

My Lords, this is a serious question—with respect to those opposite—and the Minister has still not answered the questions about the future. What are the Home Office’s plans for dealing with this man and when can we expect him to be deported? Please can I have an answer?

My Lords, like the noble Lord, and like the previous Government—who tried to do something about this for 10 years—I and all other noble Lords would like to see this man deported as soon as possible. He represents a very real risk to this country, and this has been going on for 10 years. However, we must abide by the rule of law and we must wait until the court makes its decision. I do not know when the European court will deal with this referral case. As far as I am concerned as a very simple lawyer, this looks like a pretty simple case that the court could deal with pretty quickly, if for no other reason than that it is obvious that he is out of time in his referral.