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House of Commons Hansard
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23 February 2017
Volume 621

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the case of Jamal al-Harith.

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I make it clear at the outset that the United Kingdom takes the security of its people, interests and allies very seriously, and we will not hesitate to take action in accordance with our inherent right of self-defence. The Government strongly discourage British nationals from travelling to conflict zones and work hard to dissuade and prevent people from travelling to areas of conflict.

It is, however, the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to comment on intelligence matters. The monitoring of individuals is an intelligence matter, and the Government do not and cannot comment on individual cases. Neither can the Government comment on whether particular individuals have received compensation payments.

In November 2010, the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), informed the House of Commons that the Government had secured a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the early 2000s. The details of that settlement were subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement, and we are therefore unable to confirm whether any specific individual received such a settlement.

More broadly, the Government’s priority is to dissuade people from travelling to areas of conflict in the first place, and our strategy works to identify and support individuals at risk of radicalisation. More than 150 attempted journeys were disrupted in 2015. Since Channel, the Government’s process to identify and provide support to individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism, was rolled out in 2012, there have been more than 4,000 interventions to prevent radicalisation, but we have been clear that we will seek to prosecute those who travel abroad to commit criminal or terrorist attacks. Our brave men and women of the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies work every day to make sure that the risk to our citizens is minimised.

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It has been reported that Jamal al-Harith died in a suicide attack in Mosul, and in doing so killed several others on behalf of a barbaric extremist regime. If the reports are correct, he was a deeply dangerous man involved in the worst kind of extremism and terrorism that I am sure is widely condemned on both sides of the House.

We know that Jamal al-Harith was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004, and it is reported that he received a payment from the Government after concerns that defending his case would lead to the revelation of intelligence and the compromising of national security.

The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has provided information about the case, as has the former Home Secretary, Lord Blunkett. Everyone understands that some information cannot be revealed for intelligence reasons. However, the Minister has provided far too little information about such a serious case. Can he confirm whether Mr al-Harith was made any payment? Notwithstanding the subsequent welcome legislation to tighten the law, which had cross-party support, does he agree that people across the country will feel sickened at the idea of large payments being made to someone who may have been involved in serious terrorist activity?

We know that Mr al-Harith was subject to monitoring after 2004. Was he subject to monitoring between 2010, when the compensation payments are reported to have been made, and his reportedly leaving the country in 2014? Was he considered for a control order or a terrorism prevention and investigation measure? Can the Minister confirm that no one is currently subject to a TPIM? It is reported that al-Harith left to join ISIL in 2014. Was he being monitored at that time? Was he on any border watch lists at the time? We ask that question because, legitimately, we want to know whether this occurred because of a lack of intelligence about his case or whether there was some failure in the border watch list system, in which case there are legitimate questions for this House to pursue.

What happened to the payment allegedly made to Mr al-Harith? Do the Government know whether any of that money was subsequently used to fund terrorist or extremist activity? Was any monitoring in place in respect of any of these compensation cases? Has any attempt been made since Mr al-Harith left for Syria and Iraq to recover any of the payments that have been made? Is any of that payment left now? Can the Minister at least say whether the Government are now reviewing this case and will at least provide a report to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which will be able to listen to all the questions relating to intelligence so that we can understand whether such a serious case has been properly pursued, and that every possible action has been taken on behalf of both our national security and the British taxpayer?

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I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. Like her, and like my constituents, we will be outraged and disappointed by the sums of money that have been paid. As for the sums that have been paid, and that are reported to have been paid, I cannot comment on individual cases. Unlike former Home Secretaries, the Government are bound by their legal obligations—we cannot break those legal commitments—but I can say that some of the vulnerability that led us to have to pay those damages occurred when the right hon. Lady was a member of the Labour Government and when those individuals brought claims against us.

It is important that we recognise that that is why some of these claims had to be paid out and why, in response to those outrageous sums of money that have been reported, this Government and the coalition Government brought forward the consolidated guidance— David Cameron brought that forward—to make sure that our intelligence services act within the law and get the full support of the law in order to do their job. That is also why we brought forward the Justice and Security Act 2013 to introduce closed material proceedings so that in future claims brought by such people, held in Guantanamo Bay in 2004, can be challenged in court without revealing sensitive intelligence information and we can, thus, defend many of those claims. It is also why that Act brought in stronger powers for the Intelligence and Security Committee, in order that it can investigate such incidents and give confidence to this House that such events are properly investigated, with lessons learned if they need to be and allegations put to rest if they are found to be false. That happened as a result of these types of payments; that action was taken under the coalition Government of David Cameron to make sure that we minimise the risk of this ever happening again.

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As you are aware, Mr Speaker, before I came to this place I worked as a Government lawyer. Although I did not work on this specific case, colleagues in the department in which I worked were involved in it.

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That is called hearsay evidence.

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No, it is not.

In this country, we have a proud tradition of law: law that supports not only people who are attractive to the general public, but those with whom the general public would not have sympathy. The question I wish to put to the Minister is this: to what extent has he worked and have this Government worked to enable the rule of law to be upheld and to enable the “secret courts” Act to come into effect so that we can study these cases properly?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. First, as I said earlier, by introducing consolidated guidance to guide our intelligence services when they operate abroad; by introducing the 2013 Act, which allows for closed material proceedings; and by beefing up the ISC, we have put in place a much more robust and defendable structure so that we are not the victim of people coming along and trying to sue us for actions we may or may not have taken. That is the most important part of it. It is also important to point out to the House that we will act in accordance with our inherent right of self-defence. We will always put first the defence of our citizens and our nation, and we will make sure that we do that to the best of our ability.

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Terrorism is the scourge of modern democracies. It has meant that the frontline of international conflict has moved from the battlefield to our homes and high streets. There will therefore be natural public concern about the case of Jamal al-Harith, who was allegedly paid £1 million in compensation by the UK Government following his incarceration in Guantanamo. There will also be natural public concern that the Minister has chosen to hide behind the notion of sensitive intelligence in order to fail to answer even the simplest factual questions about this case. I repeat: was there any payment? We do not need to know exactly how much, but was there any payment? Is there any truth in the idea that the settlement was designed to prevent al-Harith from making embarrassing revelations about our acquiescence in and enabling of the torture of a UK citizen? Given the monitoring of British detainees after their release from Guantanamo, how was he able to leave the country and travel to Syria in 2014? Will the Government review this case and refer it to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which we believe would be the appropriate, and secret, method of dealing with these very important issues?

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I can perhaps answer the last point. Of course, the Intelligence and Security Committee now has the power, because of the 2013 Act, to properly investigate these issues. Members of that Committee will be listening to this debate and will have read the media reports, and it is entirely for them to choose what they wish to investigate. If they do choose to investigate, we will of course comply, as we are obliged to and as we would wish to. It is very important that we do that.

The right hon. Lady asks me to disclose intelligence operations concerning an individual. I cannot do that; it has never been the practice of this Government, the previous Government or the Government before that. We are not hiding behind that phrase; we are having to oblige ourselves in line with the legally binding confidentiality agreement made between Her Majesty’s Government and the parties involved. I am sure the right hon. Lady is not trying to encourage me to break the law and reveal details of the compensation.

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It is reported that around £20 million has been paid to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees. This morning, Lord Blunkett suggested that that sum should be formally reviewed because the public will be dismayed. They will be particularly concerned if any of that money has gone to fund terrorism. Will the Minister undertake to review the £20 million, or thereabouts, that is reported to have been paid to these individuals?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point about the destination of, or what happens to, any money paid to individuals. One reason why only this Tuesday we took through the House the Criminal Finances Bill, which covers terrorist financing, is to give us even more powers to track money destined for terrorism and deal with it. It is incredibly important that we do that. The comments of the former Home Secretary Mr Blunkett are of course a matter for him. No doubt he may be questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee about the role that he and his colleagues played at the time in making sure that British citizens’ interests were protected when they were in Guantanamo Bay, which may have led to these claims being made in the first place.

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I associate myself with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). The Scottish National party is of course committed to protecting the people of Scotland and keeping our communities safe, while recognising that that commitment needs to be balanced with the protection of civil liberties. We recognise that the ways in which people are becoming radicalised are constantly evolving, so we must remain vigilant and refresh our approach in doing so. Police forces throughout Scotland have been extremely vigilant, and for many years have been working closely with the Scottish Muslim community to prevent violent extremism and radicalism.

It has been suggested that Jamal al-Harith was able to travel to Mosul because the Home Office, when it was under the current Prime Minister, weakened the surveillance of terror suspects because of issues of resource. What will the Government do to meet their duty of care and vigilance in monitoring those who have been vulnerable to radicalisation and to address any resource issues so that they can do that effectively?

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May I say how impressed I have been, in my time as Security Minister, with the Scottish police and their work across the United Kingdom to protect UK citizens and people living in Scotland from the threat of terrorism? I have been to visit them, and their work on Prevent and on fulfilling the Contest strategy agreed between the UK and Scottish Governments is the reason that we are seeing people in many areas prevented from travelling and dissuaded from radicalisation. I am grateful to the Scottish Government for their role in ensuring that people in Scotland are safer. Of course, everything we do is within the rule of law and the rights of the country to take action in self-defence. I urge hon. Members to look at the Government memorandum to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in which we restated our view on when we are legally able to take action against individuals.

The hon. Lady mentioned funding. We have increased funding for Prevent year on year, to ensure that we focus on dissuading people as much as on putting money into pursuing people, tracking them down and trying to stop them.

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I was a strong supporter of the Justice and Security Act 2013, which was bitterly opposed by elements in this House—some of whom were on our Benches, I am sorry to say—but it was quite a modest step in the right direction. Does my hon. Friend accept that public confidence in the system is at the absolute heart of the concept of the rule of law and that the current framework of human rights, as it affects areas such as our ability to monitor suspects, is unsatisfactory? That is one more reason to review human rights law in this country.

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I hear the points that my hon. Friend makes, but I remind him that this House took the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 through collectively. The Government conceded a huge number of amendments, tabled by all sides, and we worked across parties to deliver the Act. We believe that it is a robust and successful piece of legislation that complies with human rights obligations, but also ensures that our people are kept safe and gives law enforcement agencies and intelligence services the powers they need in the 21st century to face the threats posed to us today.

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The root cause of the problem is the operation of the detention camp at Guantanamo. The Government supported President Obama’s aspiration to see it closed or its numbers reduced. The current President said when he was campaigning that he would

“load it up with some bad dudes”.

Do the Government now support President Obama’s position or President Trump’s?

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Before the Government comment on the actions of the United States, we should see what those actions are. From my personal experience as a young officer doing counter-terrorism in Northern Ireland, I can say that torture and degrading people do not work. They do not get the results that anyone wants; in fact, they usually extend conflict. People should know that the use of torture should not be tolerated. On Tuesday, I was therefore delighted to introduce a new power in the Criminal Finances Bill to allow the Government and law enforcement agencies to freeze the assets of people guilty of human rights abuse anywhere in the world.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to ask a question on this important subject. I declare an interest: when these incidents were happening, I was an Army officer serving in Her Majesty’s Intelligence Corps. Although I was not aware of the particular incidents that arose in this case, I am aware of the situations that could have given rise to it. I have to say that I welcomed the decision of the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. It is difficult to know when and how to make evidence public that could endanger the lives of fellow citizens. The then Home Secretary took a difficult decision, which might have resulted in a payment that—let us be honest—none of us is comfortable with. However, if that payment saved the lives of others by not revealing sources, it was the right decision not only politically but morally, and we should defend him. I ask the Minister to talk not about that decision but about the changes that have happened which mean that instead of making those payments, we can now have a proper trial—admittedly in a closed court—to review the evidence and see what the real decision should be.

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My hon. Friend is right. At the heart of some of this was our inability to test allegations in an open court, and that is why we passed the Justice and Security Act 2013, which brought in the closed material proceedings. Hand in hand with that was the reassurance of a beefed-up Intelligence and Security Committee, to make sure that there was no abuse or any other issue. We should not forget that many in the House opposed the 2013 Act, which could have left us facing even more claims and pay-outs.

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Understandably, there is much justified concern about public money being given to those engaging in terrorism, and obviously we all deplore that. However, those of us who campaigned against British nationals being held in Guantanamo Bay are not going to offer any apology whatever. We were right to so campaign. If people are suspected of terrorist offences and there is evidence, they should be tried. In many respects, Guantanamo gave ammunition to terrorists and potential terrorists, and that should not be forgotten for one moment.

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I have not come to the House to ask the hon. Gentleman to apologise for campaigning against Guantanamo Bay. My and the Government’s view is that the best place for these things to happen is in a court of law, with evidence presented. I sat on the Opposition Benches listening to a Labour Government constantly try to cut corners in terrorism legislation, trying to mix intelligence with evidence; the hon. Gentleman and I were probably in the same Division Lobby on the 90 days issue. It is my long-held experience that these things should be done in a court of law, through the rule of law, and with appropriate evidence. I have not come here to ask him to apologise; I pretty much agree with what he said.

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I hope that those who celebrated the release from Guantanamo Bay of Jamal al-Harith will reflect on what he has done since his release.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), will the Minister say whether the Government are exploring any options to recover the compensation paid to the people from Guantanamo Bay? Taxpayers have been ripped off and terrorists have prospered from appalling activities. The public are rightly disgusted, and they want to know what the Government are trying to do to rectify the situation.

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My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I will go from here and make sure that any legally binding agreements are correctly monitored and that, where there is a breach, we recover any moneys we can.

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The British public will be completely bewildered by the lack of information from the Minister today. They will be appalled: this is not simply an issue of the individual case, but a policy issue that we need to reflect on in the House. The debate is already raging out there among the British public and the media, along with an awful lot of misinformation.

There are questions that the Minister needs to answer about monitoring. Is he confident that we are monitoring our suspects? How are people able to leave the country, given that there are checks at the border? Crucially, how are we monitoring people through our money laundering laws, to notice any changes in behaviour? The Government must come clean on those policy issues. The Minister said that the Government are discouraging people from travelling to Syria, but it looks to the British public as though they have funded that.

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It is a regrettable part of the operation of the security services—and, often, our police—that we cannot sing about our successes as much as we would like. Every day and every week, we manage to prevent people at the border from going across to do harm, either within Europe or further afield. We often have to do that on the basis of intelligence that we cannot reveal, but we use our powers in a number of terrorism Acts that have gone through the House.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, there are occasions on which we have to discuss whether we could have done more or less. That is why we gave more power to the Intelligence and Security Committee: so that it can ask all the deep, searching questions without putting at risk agents, methods, capabilities and technologies that we need so diligently to protect to make sure that more and more people are kept safe from a more and more determined group of terrorists who operate in the name of Daesh.

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There was a long campaign to return British citizens from Guantanamo Bay and for them to face a proper trial. Does the Minister share my disappointment that more effort was not made at that stage to consider how sensitive information could be heard in camera to allow those trials to take place? Will he confirm that that lacuna has since been addressed by the Government?

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My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that Guantanamo Bay goes back way before the coalition Government got into power. It is interesting that it took until 2010 or 2011 when we started making plans for the Justice and Security Act 2013 to do that. The question about what was done before is a matter for a former Government.

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May I dissociate myself from these disgraceful attacks from the Tory Benches on the Daily Mail for campaigning to release British subjects from Guantanamo Bay? Lord Carlile was a Government adviser, and he has stated that Jamal al-Harith and others were paid compensation to prevent the release of security information through the courts into the public domain. It is a bit late for the Minister now to rest on confidentiality, so perhaps he will tell us the date of the confidentiality clause he cited, or is that too confidential?

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First, I do not think that anyone has heard from this Dispatch Box an attack on the Daily Mail, although I know the right hon. Gentleman would like to put up a straw man to make some allegations. As I said previously, we made a legally binding confidentiality agreement in November 2010. The key words there are “legally binding”, not “confidentiality”. As I am sure he will understand, that puts an obligation on this Government and not, by the sound of things, on former Home Secretaries or reviewers of terrorism. Even a Scottish National party Government would be legally obliged to stick to the confidentiality agreement, and he knows it.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that, as there were 16 applications for closed material procedures in the first two years after the Justice and Security Act 2013 was passed, millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money may have been saved simply because the security services are now free to present the evidence they have?

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Hopefully the closed material procedures are doing exactly what we wanted: seeing off vexatious claims, testing the evidence and ensuring that, where the allegations are unfounded, the UK Government are not vulnerable to paying out money or compensation.

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The Minister has admitted that his Government have made these payments. I accept his point about confidentiality, but I ask him a simple question. What was the decision-making process in agreeing these payments? Which Ministers agreed to them? Did the current Prime Minister agree to those payments when she was Home Secretary, or is that covered by the confidentiality agreement?

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I think the best thing would be for me to write to the hon. Gentleman. I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in the Ministry of Justice at the time. If I were to say that my memory of the time is that the Ministry of Justice or the Government signed the payments off, I may be misleading the House inadvertently. The best thing is for me to write an accurate response to the hon. Gentleman, but he will know, as a former Minister, that we all take responsibility and that the whole Government stand by their legally binding commitment.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to deal with tragic cases such as this one and the many other cases of this nature is to prevent radicalisation in the first place? Once radicalisation has happened, we need to support our intelligence services and our border officials at ports such as Dover, and work internationally with other countries to ensure that we can deal with the consequences.

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My hon. Friend makes an important point that the whole way in which we can tackle this threat is by working together both internally in the United Kingdom at our borders between all the agencies—SO15, the intelligence services, the home police, Border Force and everything else—and with our international partners. We do that more and more to ensure that when people threaten to come to this country or to leave and do harm elsewhere, we interdict them, deter them and deal with them to the best of our ability.

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It is a pity that we have not heard any regret at all from the Labour party, which lobbied intensely to have this dangerous terrorist released in 2004. Given the fact that this man was on the loose, can the Minister explain why and how our security was so slack that he was able to leave the country and to use the funds available to him to finance terrorism and kill people?

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The hon. Gentleman knows, from his own personal experience, the efforts that go into countering terrorism—the resource, the man hours, the risks taken. As a Northern Ireland Member, he will also know that it is an “easier said than done” job. It is very hard to deal with all the threats every day, and people have to make judgments. It is important to understand that we can rarely advertise our successes, whereas unfortunately, in some cases, people choose to focus on other areas that come to light. It is important to remember that people make judgment calls in good faith to keep people safe, and it is not an easy thing to do. I have the highest regard for our intelligence services and police, who have to make life-and-death decisions every day without any reward, recognition or benefit.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that this case shows the moral, legal and security dilemmas thrown up when someone is suspected of terrorism or of intending to commit an act of terror but there is not sufficient evidence to convict them, even in closed session? There were loud protests in favour of closing Guantanamo Bay, and now an outcry when a former detainee goes on to commit an act of terror.

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There is always a balance to be struck in how we live in our society. Britain is open for business and open for trade, and that implies an element of open borders. We have to allow some to-ing and fro-ing for us to prosper. This is also about a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the state to interfere in people’s lives. It is a very tricky balance, and a live balance, that is struck every day, and we do it within the rule of law. We are grateful, as are any Government, when we get the House’s support for measures such as the Justice and Security Act 2013 that improve the accountability of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. That is the challenge, and it will not change no matter who is sitting on the Treasury Bench. It is a balance we must always try to strike and do better with.

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The Minister did not answer the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) posed: is anybody currently on a TPIM? Given we know that UK citizens have travelled to fight for Daesh and then returned to this country, I would be surprised if there were not some people on TPIMs to protect people in this country.

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The hon. Lady will know that there is a bulletin of TPIM numbers every year. If my memory serves me correctly, the latest number was nine, or perhaps six. [Interruption.] It is six—there we are. That number will obviously be refreshed, however, and when the new one is published, hon. Members will be able to see the latest number. I can assure her, however, that TPIMs are just one of the tools in the toolbox we use to monitor or deter people from taking dangerous action. We use them when we need to, and will continue to do so.

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I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for dragging the Home Office to the House, although it is obviously totally unprepared and has no understanding of the issue or concern about what has happened. The former Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, cut our border staff by 15% and allowed this individual to go through the gates unhindered. Despite the TPIMs, no one had sight of this individual. It is no good hiding behind the security services. Why have the Government not dealt with this issue using those measures?

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The hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on some of his comments. It was this Government who brought in exit checks, which did not exist under the Labour Government, so people could leave the country come what may. People do not just travel through e-gates unmonitored—of course they are monitored—so his allegation is wrong. And no one was dragged to the House. He should realise that I like the sound of my own voice, and I am happy to stay here all afternoon to answer questions on this issue, if he wants.

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It is not good enough for the Minister, as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman did yesterday, simply to hide behind intelligence as an excuse for not answering the most basic questions about this dreadful case, so let me try a policy question: what assessment has he made of the impact of the coalition Government’s disastrous decision to scrap Labour’s control orders and his ability to monitor people like this?

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The right hon. Gentleman forgets the position of Labour’s control orders before the courts. Funnily enough, as I pointed out earlier, his Government did not seem to have quite the right regard for the Human Rights Act 1998 or the rule of law that they should and were constantly seeing their measures struck down. We do believe that TPIMs are a good policy—one of the tools in the toolbox to enable us to monitor these people. We will use them wherever we can and whenever we need to do so, to make sure that we do everything to keep people who pose a threat under control. So far, we have not abandoned them or failed to use them when the need presents itself.

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Can the Minister assure us that he knows the current status and whereabouts of the other three people released from Guantanamo Bay alongside Mr al-Harith in 2004?

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I cannot comment on our operations, or on knowledge or surveillance, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee can ask all these detailed questions and investigate unilaterally these issues to make sure that, if it needs the answers, it can get them and reassure the House on whether or not enough is being done.

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I welcome the Minister’s commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) to write to him and tell him which Minister took the decision about the compensation. The Minister mentioned the introduction of exit checks. Presumably, this individual was subject to an exit check when he left the country. Can the Minister give an account, from the Government’s point of view, of what happened in this case after that individual left the country?

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As I said at the very beginning, I cannot comment on the individual case or the intelligence behind it. However, as I have said, the Intelligence and Security Committee is perfectly able to look into it. The point about which Minister took the decision is a bit of a red herring. The United Kingdom Government were obliged to make certain agreements because of the vulnerability they found themselves in as a result of 2004 and the allegations made when a number of Members on your Benches were members of the Government.

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Not on my Benches. In fact, I do not have a Bench but a very comfortable Chair.

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Basically, the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, and/or the Justice Secretary, agreed £1 million or thereabouts for a man who went on to commit a significant terrorist act that killed many people. Why the Minister thinks that he can hide behind legal confidentiality and security so as not even to assuage any of the basic concerns that all our voters will have is a mystery to me. The man is dead, for a start, and secondly the Bill of Rights says that no proceeding in Parliament shall be impeached or questioned by any court of law or any other place. The Minister can tell us everything he wants today, if only he had the courage to do so.

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They always save the best for last, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman uses the word himself: it is the word “legally” that is important and seems to have missed his attention. This is a legally binding confidentiality clause between parties. If he wants to investigate more, I refer him to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has all the powers given by this Government and the coalition Government to make sure that it gets to the bottom of the issues.