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Syria: UK Nationals

Volume 795: debated on Monday 18 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Answer given in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to an Urgent Question on UK nationals and Syria. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, may I start by paying my respects to the honourable Member for Newport West? Our sympathies are with his loved ones and all those in this House who were close to him.

Can I welcome the Urgent Question from my honourable friend? My priority as Home Secretary is to ensure the safety and security of this country. We cannot ignore the threat posed by those who chose to leave Britain to engage with the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Over 900 people took this path. Without the deradicalisation work of our Prevent programme, there could have been many more. Whatever role they took in the so-called caliphate, they all supported a terrorist organisation and in doing so have shown that they hate our country and the values that we stand for. This is a death cult that enslaved thousands of Yazidi girls and celebrated attacks on our shores, including the tragic Manchester bombing that targeted young girls.

Now this so-called caliphate is crumbling and some of them want to return. I have been clear that, where I can and where any threat remains, I will not hesitate to prevent this. The powers available to me include banning non-British people from this country and stripping dual nationals who are dangerous of their British citizenship. Over 100 people have already been deprived in this way, but we must, of course, observe international law and cannot do this where it would leave someone stateless. So, where individuals manage to return, they will be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.

Our Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which got Royal Assent just last week, provides more powers to prosecute returnees. It extends the list of offences we can act on when they are committed overseas and it creates new laws to ban British citizens from entering designated terrorist hotspots without good reason. Our world-class police and security services closely monitor all those returning who pose any risk. We do not hesitate to use the range of tools at our disposal, including using temporary exclusion orders to put in-country restrictions in place and managing risk through terrorism prevention and investigation measures.

The House will have seen the comments that Shamima Begum made in the media and will draw its own conclusions. Quite simply, if you back terror, there must be consequences”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for repeating the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place earlier today. I endorse the comments made about the honourable Member for Newport West in the other place.

Keeping our country safe must be the number one priority for the Government, and they will always have my full support in doing that. We must not forget the countless victims of ISIS and the caliphate who have been murdered and abused. Can the Minister confirm that, notwithstanding the comments of the Home Secretary, anyone returning from Syria will find themselves subject to a rigorous police investigation and potential prosecution to the full extent of the law? Will she also confirm that, as this country believes in the rule of law, democracy, freedom and justice, anyone found in that position will be given the opportunity to seek legal advice and prepare a defence for themselves in court, if the appropriate tests are met and charges brought, and will benefit from a fair trial?

Can she also comment on any plans that the Government may have to designate parts of Syria, as permitted by the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019? Finally, can she comment on what happens to those individuals who in the end do not have charges brought against them when they are back in the UK?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions and am happy to confirm that anyone returning to this country would be questioned and investigated and, if there is sufficient evidence, prosecuted. The principle of a fair trial is one that this country has held dear for many years and we do not intend to change that.

In relation to the new proscribed areas, I will take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for the support we received from him and his colleagues on the Opposition Benches in the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill. In anticipation of introducing the proscribed areas, we have been working on those, but I remind him that it will require the approval of Parliament for any new area to be so designated—and there will not be retrospective designation.

My Lords, the Statement mentions observing international law—without any huge degree of enthusiasm, as I read it. Can the Minister tell the House what nationality is Ms Begum’s child? Does the UK have any responsibility towards him as it does to all British citizens—as of course the Minister knows?

I cannot comment on any individual case or the nationality of Ms Begum’s child, but I can make a few comments in relation to children more generally who return to this country. Obviously, each case is taken on its merits, but the noble Baroness may have heard my right honourable friend say in the other place that it is the responsibility of the parent to consider the risks that they subject a child to by going to a country that has been clearly advised as unsafe to travel to, and without any consular presence there. This Government have made more than 50 children wards of court to prevent them leaving. My right honourable friend in the other place also pointed out the risk to future children in such situations—but, unquestionably, having any child caught up in such circumstances is a tragedy.

My Lords, can I clarify something that my noble friend the Minister outlined? Although she cannot comment on specific cases, where the Home Secretary has to make a decision and the decision involves a parent and a child, how many decisions are actually being made? There is a long-standing principle in our family courts that the interests of the children are often not the same as those of the parent. It cannot be the case here that they are, when the parent has obviously been involved in some kind of terrorist activity or sympathy with it, but the baby clearly has not. It is important to know from the point of view of judicial review how many decisions the Home Secretary has to make in any case where a parent and a child are being considered if, under the Nationality Act, they are almost certainly both British citizens.

I thank my noble friend for her question. I will have to write to her in relation to numbers—I do not have that information at my fingertips—but she is right to point out the risk and harm that these children have experienced. We expect children returning from Syria to have been exposed to conflict, potentially indoctrination, and almost certainly to have experienced severe trauma. A range of specialised support will be necessary to address those concerns, with all aspects of safeguarding being considered and tailored to the needs of the individual child.

My Lords, the House may have heard the lawyer representing Ms Begum asserting that there was no law which was in any way going to be found adequate to deal with what might or might not be considered offences committed by her. My noble friend may recall that during the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and I put down an amendment suggesting that it was time to update the 1351 law in relation to treason, based on a Policy Exchange paper. Might my noble friend care to reconsider the Government’s opposition to that amendment, and to take into account that a suitably updated law would in fact deal with many of the problems that are now coming up?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I am ashamed to say that I did not remember that it was his amendment, but I do remember the amendment. This point was raised in the other place, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary confirmed that he would always keep under review all the tools at our disposal. Obviously powers have been increased and developed through the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act that came into law just last week, but he reassured the other place that he would continue to look at these issues carefully.

I thank my noble friend for repeating the question. I know no more than is in the newspapers. It would appear that the child has a British mother and a Dutch father, but I know no more than that.

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that this Government will never divert the all too limited resources that are available for giving refuge to the innocent, to giving facilities for enemies of this country to enter or return to this country?

I can only repeat that obviously the security of our citizens remains our pre-eminent concern, and hope I can reassure the noble Lord on his concerns.