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Terrorist Attack in Paris

Volume 758: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015


My Lords, with permission, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place earlier this afternoon.

“Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement about the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the threat we face from terrorism in the United Kingdom.

It will take some time for us to learn the full details of the attacks last week, but the basic facts are now clear. Seventeen innocent people were murdered in cold blood, and a number of others were injured. Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who attacked the Jewish supermarket, claimed his actions were carried out in the name of ISIL. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Cherif and Said Kouachi—the two brothers who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo—were associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the same al-Qaeda affiliate that had been in contact with the men who murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013.

As the appalling events in Paris were unfolding, this House was debating the Government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, and the threat level in the United Kingdom—which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre—remains at severe. This means that a terrorist attack in our country is highly likely and could occur without warning.

Three serious terrorist plots have been disrupted in recent months alone. Nearly 600 people from this country have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight, around half of them have returned and there are thousands of people from across Europe who have done the same. As I said during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill and on many, repeated occasions, the Government will do everything they can to keep the public safe.

As soon as the attacks in France took place, the Government increased security at the UK border. Officers from Border Force, the police and other organisations intensified checks on passengers, vehicles and goods entering the UK. We offered the French Government all assistance necessary, including the full co-operation of our police and Security and Intelligence Agencies.

On Sunday, before I attended the peace rally in Paris, I held talks with my counterparts from Europe, the United States and Canada to discuss what action we can take together. There was firm support from all countries present for new action to share intelligence, track the movement of terrorists and defeat the ideology which lies beneath the threat. It is important that we now deliver on those talks, and my officials, the Security Minister and I will keep up the pace—in particular when it comes to passenger name records—with other European member states.

On Monday, the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and I held a security meeting with senior officials to review the Paris attacks and the risks to the UK of a similar attack. Of course, we have long had detailed plans for dealing with these kinds of attacks. The House will recall the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 when terrorists armed with assault weapons and explosives took the lives of more than 150 people. Since 2010, and learning the lessons of that attack, we have improved our police firearms capability and the speed of our military response, and we have enhanced protective security where possible through a range of other measures. We have improved joint working between the emergency services to deal specifically with marauding gun attacks. Specialist joint police, ambulance and fire teams are now in place in key areas across England, with equivalents in Scotland and Wales, and they are trained and equipped to manage casualties in the event of that kind of an attack.

The police and other agencies regularly carry out exercises to test the response to a terrorist attack, and these exercises include scenarios that are similar to the events in Paris. We will ensure that future exercises reflect specific elements of the Paris attacks, so we can learn from them and be ready for them should they ever occur in the United Kingdom. In addition, I should tell the House that the police can call on appropriate military assistance when required across the country.

The attacks in Paris were enabled by the availability of assault weapons. Although there are obviously a number of illegal weapons in the UK, we have some of the toughest gun laws in the world, and as a result firearms offences make up only a small proportion of overall recorded crime. The types of firearms used in the attacks in Paris are not unknown in the UK, but they are extremely uncommon. However, as the Prime Minister has said, we must step up our efforts with other countries to crack down on the illegal smuggling of weapons across borders. In particular, the member states of the European Union need to work together to put beyond use the vast number of weapons in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and disrupt the supply of weapons from other parts of the world, especially north Africa.

The measures we have taken following events in Paris are in addition to the substantial work that the Government have undertaken, and continue to undertake, to counter the threat from terrorism. Last summer, Parliament approved emergency legislation to prevent the sudden and rapid loss of access to communications data and the ability to intercept communications where it is thought necessary and proportionate to do so. Parliament is of course scrutinising the proposals in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill as we speak. This important legislation will strengthen our powers to disrupt the ability of people to travel abroad to fight, and control their ability to return here. It will also enhance our ability to deal with those in the UK who pose a risk. In particular, it will allow the relocation of people subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures to other parts of the country. In addition, the Prime Minister has announced £130 million over the next two years for the agencies, police and others in addition to the more than £500 million spent on counterterrorism policing each year.

This Government have done more to confront the ideology that lies behind the threat we face. I have excluded more foreign hate preachers than any Home Secretary before me; we have deported Abu Qatada and extradited Abu Hamza; we have reformed the Prevent strategy so that it tackles non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism; and we have invested more time, resources and money in counter-narrative operations.

We have always been clear that the police and the security agencies must have the capabilities and powers they need to do their job, and following the attacks in Paris the Prime Minister has reiterated that commitment. Unfortunately, when it comes to communications data and the intercept of communications, there is no cross-party consensus and therefore no parliamentary majority to pass the legislation to give the police and security services the capabilities they need. Let me be absolutely clear: every day that passes without the proposals in the communications data Bill, the capabilities of the people who keep us safe diminish; and as those capabilities diminish, more people find themselves in danger and—yes—crimes will go unpunished and innocent lives will be put at risk.

This is not, as I have heard it said, “letting the Government snoop on your e-mails”. It is allowing the police and the security services, under a tightly regulated and controlled regime, to find out the who, where, when and how of a communication but not its content, so that they can prove and disprove alibis, identify associations between suspects, and tie suspects and victims to specific locations. It is too soon to say for certain, but it is highly probable that communications data were used in the Paris attacks to locate the suspects and establish the links between the two attacks. Quite simply, if we want the police and the security services to protect the public and save lives, they need this capability.

Last weekend people of all nationalities, faith and backgrounds came together out on to the streets of France and other countries to demonstrate their opposition to terror, and to stand for democracy and for freedom. We must stand in solidarity with them, and do all that we can to confront extremism and terrorism in all its forms.”

My Lords, it seems just a few hours ago that the Minister was at this very Dispatch Box, late last night, responding to the debate on counterterrorism. I am grateful to him for coming back today to repeat the Statement of the Home Secretary.

The Minister will know that the whole House shares in the shock at, and condemnation of, the murderous attacks in France. Those bring back two very clear messages. First, it is the duty of Government to ensure that we do all we can to protect citizens and to provide for safety, security and liberty. The second clear message, as people rallied together and linked arms—not just in Paris and France, but in so many other places—was how much free speech and liberty are valued across the world. In many ways, today’s Statement follows on from our debate and discussions on the counterterrorism Bill yesterday. That debate was well informed, considered and measured. I have no doubt that our debates on the Bill will not be just a vehicle for discussion but will see very real changes to improve the Bill and provide greater clarification.

There are a number of questions that arise from this Statement. Although there are no specific announcements or proposals in the Statement, I seek clarity on just two or three points and no doubt we can pursue other issues during our discussions on the Bill. First, the Government have again repeated that around half of the 600 or so people who they consider have travelled from the UK to fight in Syria have returned. While some of those will have become seriously disillusioned and will have rejected radicalism, others will have returned to the UK more dangerous. The proposals in the new counterterrorism Bill are that those who have been engaged in terrorist activity abroad should have a managed return to the UK so that they can be interviewed, and TPIMs—terrorism prevention and investigation measures—can be imposed where appropriate. What action has been taken regarding those 300 who have already returned? I appreciate that the whereabouts and the identity of every single person will not be known, but they will be known for a large number. Are those 300 cases being reviewed? Are any of those 300 subject to TPIMs, or are the Government seeking to address this only for those who return in the future?

Secondly, the Home Secretary announced in her Statement that,

“As soon as the attacks in France took place, the Government increased security at the UK border”,


“intensified checks on passengers, vehicles and goods entering the UK”.

I had presumed that the increased threat level had meant increased checks anyway. I have raised before in your Lordships’ House the delays and time taken in border checks for travellers at Calais—and no doubt the same can be said for other places as well. Travellers understand that increased security means that it can take longer to go through border checks, but it is incredibly frustrating when there seems to be so few staff on duty and over half the border agency booths are closed, due to the reduction in staff because of budget cuts. So, have extra resources been provided to assist the border agency in its checks, and is this part of the £130 million over the next two years that the Government have announced?

My final point regards communications data—and I wonder if that is the reason for the Statement coming forward today. The Home Secretary is very critical on this issue. I said last night that we believe that data communication information and intercept evidence are vital in tackling not just terrorism but also the most serious crimes that we face in society. In July, Parliament supported—and your Lordships’ House debated this here—emergency legislation to maintain vital capabilities, although we felt the Government should have acted earlier to avoid fast-tracking the legislation. As a result of our amendment, all parties agreed that the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, would undertake a review of the powers and oversight needed, particularly in light of changes and advances in technology.

When the Home Secretary published her communications data Bill three years ago it was the Joint Committee, set up by the Government to examine the Bill, which said it was too widely drawn with not enough adequate checks, balances or oversight. I am not aware that the Home Secretary has brought any further measures before Parliament to be considered or that she has spoken to the Official Opposition about measures to be considered. Last night, I and a number of other noble Lords expressed concern about statements from the Prime Minister and counter-statements from the Deputy Prime Minister that appeared to caricature the arguments as being about security on the one hand and liberty on the other. This issue cannot be about political rhetoric or electioneering. This is serious, and it needs to be approached with wisdom, judgment and evidence. I ask the Minister to reflect on those comments and answer my questions today.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her characteristically thoughtful and measured response. I, too, pay tribute to noble Lords who were here into the late hours last night in what was, I thought, an incredible debate demonstrating the House at its best, with its deep expertise and concern in this area.

The noble Baroness asked about the 300 people who are thought to have returned. Of course, we do not know the whereabouts of everyone, and that is part of the purpose behind the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill—to improve the ability of the security services to identify and track people coming in and to seek to prevent them from going out. We can say that last year, in 2014, more than 120 people were arrested for alleged offences relating to Syria, including terrorist financing, preparing acts of terrorism and attending terrorist training camps. There were seven prosecutions. In the previous year, 27 people were arrested in the UK for Syria-related terrorist offences. Some of those people will also go into the Channel programme; 2,000 individuals are taking part in the Channel programme. I do not have a particular breakdown as to those who were part of the 300 who came back, but that gives an idea as to what the security services are doing with those people, and we need to give them what strength we can.

On the concerns about the situation at the borders, there was a particular operation, as we would all expect, in the wake of the attack, which was as much in solidarity and co-operation and as part of the tracking procedure with the Home Secretary’s opposite number in France, Monsieur Cazeneuve. I entirely understand the point that the noble Baroness made about capacity at border points. That is why we need to rely more on intelligence and data gathering about who is travelling and why, where the threat is, and communicating and working with our partners in Europe through the opt-ins to the joint home affairs measures which we announced before Christmas to enable us to work more effectively.

On the communications data Bill and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, when that review took place, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary responded to the Joint Committee that it had made a very thorough review of the Bill and that, broadly, all the committee’s recommendations were acceptable, with some modifications. That was communicated to the committee. It now looks as if it is not possible to pass the Bill in this Parliament, but, if the Conservative Party were to form a Government after the election, it would of course be brought forward immediately in any Queen’s Speech.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Does he agree that since the attacks the solidarity shown by the French people of all faiths in defence of the values that we all share is the surest way to show the world that the terrorists will not prevail? Does he further agree that the sharing of information about potential terrorist attacks among EU countries, the United States, Turkey and other countries is an essential way to prevent future terrorist attacks from taking place in our country and in other countries?

Taking the last point first, I certainly agree that information sharing needs to improve. That is why we signed up for the ECRIS security system data checks and the Schengen information sharing system and why dialogues are happening at this very time in the US—the Prime Minister departs soon for Washington to engage in conversations with our partners there—and elsewhere in Europe.

On the noble Lord’s first point about image, when people resort to violence and intimidation the result, as is so often the case, is exactly the opposite of what they try to do. They tried to divide and spread terror but instead they brought confidence onto the streets of Paris which was shared across Europe. That was a welcome sight and a very bold message to send to those who would challenge our liberties.

My Lords, the view was widely expressed in yesterday’s debate that Prevent, and the Channel programme within it, is the most difficult and most important strand of the counter- terrorism strategy. I welcome the reference in the Statement to the investment of time, resources and money in the counternarrative. Money, time and energy are not unlimited. Do the Government agree that it may be more productive to apply these to quiet, informal, non-traditional and imaginative support and advice and will they remain open to not using up those resources on putting Prevent on a statutory basis?

Some 45,000 people have had contact through the Prevent programmes but their provision across England and Wales is, one might say, patchy. The idea behind putting it on a statutory footing—something which the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, supported—was to try to raise standards to ensure that we get better value for money from it. In doing that, it is important to work with those in the Muslim community. They are our partners and they want to work with Government and the wider community to identify people who pose a potential risk and to challenge the notion that these acts of terror are anything other than brutality and have absolutely nothing to do with their faith.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that the events in Paris—the public reaction to them throughout Europe has been very moving—have persuaded a very large number of people in this country, including me, to reconsider our previous position and take the view that we ought to go further than the provisions in the Bill and withdraw or cancel the passports held by British subjects who have gone to the Middle East or elsewhere to enlist with al-Qaeda, Islamic State or other jihadist or terrorist organisations? It is often said that withdrawing their passports would be against international law. I think I am right—the Minister will correct me if I am not—that there is no actual convention or explicit treaty which constricts us in this area. What is said to be international law is really just an opinion on the subject. As the Minister has already said, the prime and overriding necessity and priority must be to save British lives. Is there not a real danger that, if hundreds more people in this category come back to this country, the additional strain placed on our security services of monitoring them may be such as to create a significantly enhanced risk of an oversight at some point which could cost a lot of lives?

The noble Lord’s point about passports is absolutely right. Eight people have had their British citizenship revoked since August 2013. The power already exists, under royal prerogative, to cancel someone’s passport. Those decisions are not taken lightly but the power is there. Whether it needs to be extended is something we will have to keep under continuous review. The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation will be a key asset in giving us advice on that.

Is my noble friend aware of a surprising recent change which has taken place at London City Airport whereby you can get through immigration simply by putting your passport in a machine, with no direct contact with an individual immigration officer at all? Is this likely to improve security?

Counterintuitively, it probably does because the only people who are able to go down that channel are those who have biometrics in their passport. Although it might not be apparent, the access channels for those who have biometric passports are overseen and visually checked by a Border Force officer.

My Lords, much has been said since the attacks in Paris about the right to offend. If there is a right to offend, there is a right to be offended. People react to offence in different ways. Some will turn the other cheek, some will come out with expletives and some will resort to violence. Does the Minister believe that there is any merit in deliberately antagonising people?

This goes to the heart. We need to separate the issues. There can never be any excuse under any terms whatever for people using violence to raise a point. In fact, in many ways the spirit of Paris on that dreadful day was best represented by the Muslim police officer, a personal protection officer, who was murdered defending one of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo who had been under attack. It is that spirit of service that we ought to highlight. We may disagree with people, but we defend absolutely their right to speak. That is the spirit we should carry forward.

Does my noble friend recognise that while there were criticisms of the Government for bringing in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which they did well before the events in Paris, I do not think there is much criticism now of the need for steps to be taken in recognising the importance of introducing those measures? Those of us who are the survivors of last night’s marathon will recall the words of the impressive maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, a former director-general of MI5, who said that the threat level now is greater but our capacity to meet it is less. I challenge my noble friend on what he said at the end in reply to the question about the communications data Bill. We still have three months left of this Parliament. This should not be a party-political issue. These issues are our vital to our intelligence services. It does not matter how many boots we have on the ground; intelligence is our safeguard and our defence in those issues. We must ensure that in the present very dangerous situation the intelligence services have the resources they need. In the three months we have left, I hope the Government will consider that we could still do that and make sensible progress in this area.

The noble Lord brings immense experience to this, not least from his chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the oversight committee. He makes an interesting point. I repeated the Home Secretary’s Statement in which she that there is no cross-party agreement. Should that cross-party agreement emerge—of course, in your Lordships’ House party affiliation is only part of the picture as there is a distinguished coterie of expertise on the Cross Benches—then all things are possible.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord is aware that the Jewish community in France feels extremely threatened at the moment. I think it is also the case that the Jewish community in the UK does not feel terribly comfortable at the moment. What efforts are the Government making to help to support and reassure the Jewish community? Is any support being given to organisations such as the Maimonides Foundation, which was set up to bring together the Jewish and Muslim communities? That is a very useful measure. I express an interest as a previous member of the Maimonides Foundation.

I shall have to write on the latter point. On the former point, the Community Security Trust, which has responsibility for security at Jewish schools and synagogues, has been working closely with the Metropolitan Police and other forces to continue to take appropriate operational response measures to protect the Jewish community from terrorism, hate crime and the impact of public order protests. Police forces continue to work closely with the CST and other Jewish community organisations. I am deeply conscious of the sense of unease and fear which is felt within the Jewish community at this time. My honourable friend the Security Minister is meeting the CST today. I hope that in future I will be able to report back more. If not, I will write on it at the same time as I write on the other matter.

My Lords, in the short time that I have been back in this House, I have learnt to have the highest regard for my noble friend. However, I was slightly surprised that, speaking on behalf of the Government, he stressed the importance of trying to press forward with the communications data Bill because, as it is acknowledged, there is not agreement within the Government on this matter. Is it not the case that—as came out in the debate yesterday on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill—that we really need to wait to review and possibly strengthen the legal framework before collecting more data? This also applies at the European level because the Government are pressing for the passenger name record EU directive but are resisting the strengthening of the EU data protection laws, on both consumer data and data that are used for law enforcement purposes. Do not the two need to go together so that people can be reassured that their data are secured before more are collected?

Again, the thoughts are mutual in terms of respect but also in terms of disagreement. This is just part of the disagreement and people can express their views. The Home Secretary has been very clear that we think that this Bill is absolutely necessary and the security services are very clear that they think this is necessary. The current head of MI5 thinks that this power is absolutely necessary. We want to give it to him. We might disagree with our coalition colleagues about that. I am perfectly able, as a Minister and part of the Government, to say that, as the Deputy Prime Minister was able to offer a different view in the media this morning.

My Lords, in the Statement the Government say that they will do everything they can to keep the public safe. While we would all agree with that sentiment, the fact is there has been a scandal developing over the past two and a half years where the National Crime Agency is not operational in all parts of the United Kingdom. It does not fully operate in Northern Ireland because Sinn Fein has decided to veto it. When will the Government do something about this instead of pussyfooting around it? It is not going to fix itself and yet it is opening the back door to terrorism and criminal gangs. I do not believe that that elementary step should be left untaken.

Of course I recognise that. The National Crime Agency is responsible primarily for organised crime and child sexual exploitation; it is looking and working in those areas. The Home Secretary has made it clear that we would like to see the National Crime Agency extended to Northern Ireland but because of the devolved agreement that we have, we need to seek approval from Northern Ireland to welcome it into the role. We would like to see it but really it is for Northern Ireland to decide.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the work of the Community Security Trust with the Jewish community. He will also be aware that the trust also works with some Muslim communities, and no doubt he would be prepared to encourage working between the two communities on an interfaith basis. The CST has a high reputation, I believe, with the police and security forces and it would be welcome for the Government to explicitly back that interfaith approach.

I am very happy to do that. That is absolutely right. We saw images of Jews and Muslims coming together in Paris—there was reference made to them last night. I think they were actually from Albania and came together to show solidarity that this is not happening in their name and that all faith communities are going to stand together against this attack on their freedoms. The more we see of that, the better.

Does my noble friend agree that there is nothing remotely disrespectful in the cartoon in this week’s Charlie Hebdo which depicts the Prophet Muhammad identifying with the victims of the murderous attack by fascist terrorists and weeping at the thought that it could be claimed to have been done in his name?

I think that all those who believe in a divine force in this world will recognise that any divine element who is love will be weeping at what is happening now, not just in France but across the whole world, in many corners where people’s lives are blighted and violence is used.

Do I understand the Minister correctly—perhaps I misunderstood it, although I did not miss a single speech last night—that the Home Secretary is sitting on some legislative proposals that she has not been allowed to bring forward, which would fit in the Bill we are discussing? We will have that Bill in this House for four weeks, so it would not be that rushed. If that is the case, and if there is a problem because there is a veto on allowing her to give it to the Minister, frankly it is Parliament’s decision, so why does he not ask the Home Secretary to offer the amendments to a Cross-Bench Peer so that this House can decide whether or not to further amend the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill before we send it back to the other place?

The communications data Bill is there; the Joint Committee on Human Rights carried out an excellent review of it, making a few recommendations. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made her position clear on those points. Of course, people are entirely at liberty to pick up amendments and bring forward any that they wish.

My Lords, my noble friend referred earlier to the fact that Muslims are partners and we very much need them to work and co-operate in order to root out these extremists in our society after the terrible events in Paris. However, does he agree with me that comments such as those made by Rupert Murdoch, who lays the blame firmly on the world’s Muslims and says that they “must be held responsible”, and Nigel Farage, who said only the other day that the authorities had turned a blind eye to,

“the growth of ghettos where the police and all the normal agents of the law have withdrawn and that is where sharia law has come in”,

are unhelpful as regards promoting good race, community and interfaith relations? Will they help in what we are trying to achieve?

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that point, which perfectly illustrates the tensions. I disagree fundamentally with what has been said, both by Rupert Murdoch and by the UKIP member in the other example that she gave. Again, however, we defend the free press and its right to say that.

My Lords, I can well understand that Members on the Lib Dem Benches wish to wait, as many of us would like to in an ideal world, for the outcome of David Anderson’s review of terrorism legislation, and they welcome the ISC on the subject of data and the work of the independent group at RUSI. However, does the Minister accept that in waiting for those recommendations and in taking a slow and considered look at legislation in this difficult area, we heighten the risk to our citizens?

The noble Baroness, who of course has immense experience in this area, will recall that the Home Secretary said that,

“every day that passes without the proposals in the draft Communications Data Bill, the capabilities of the people who keep us safe diminish; and as those capabilities diminish, more people find themselves in danger and—yes—crimes will go unpunished and innocent lives will be put at risk”.

That is a very sober message for all Members of this House to reflect upon.

My Lords, just for complete clarity on the government position, will the Minister agree that the Snowden revelations have made us all much less safe and have enabled terrorists now to use methods of communication that we cannot penetrate, and that there will therefore be deaths as a result of what he has done?

That is absolutely right. I also pay tribute to the interventions and remarks that the noble Lord made last night on people trying to present the communications data Bill as some kind of snoopers’ charter. That is absolutely ridiculous and offensive to people who are trying to do a serious job of trying to keep us safe in this country. They deserve our support and do not deserve to be trivialised in that way.

My Lords, before we move to the main business of the afternoon, can I raise, yet again, this artificial time for questions? There were a number of distinguished Members eager to answer questions but because of our rules, we are allowed only 20 minutes and then the guillotine comes down. In any sensible Chamber, it would be left to the Chairman to allow further time. That should be for the Lord Speaker or the Chairman standing in. I have raised this again and again. The Procedure Committee seems totally incapable of giving some flexibility to deal with these things properly, so that we can give some time to matters of importance. I hope it will have another look at it.