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3 Mar 2003 : Column 586continued
David Winnick (Walsall, North): I recognise some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)the rule of law is absolutely essential, although I do not believe that this contradicts the rule of lawbut is it not a fact that if a terrorist could commit an atrocity such as 11 September in Britain, they would not hesitate for one moment because they believe that we are non-believers, infidels?
Mr. Blunkett: I am afraid that my hon. Friend is right. I say "afraid" because, if we were dealing with people who we could talk to, negotiate with and understand so far as the parameters that they are following are concerned, we would be in an entirely different situation in terms of the nature of the international terrorism that we are debating today, and which we have debated on a number of occasions since the Act was approved in December 2001. The many measures undertaken under the Terrorism Act 2000, and under the 2001 Act in general and part 4 in particular, have been undertaken only where no alternatives were available. In holding in detention the 13 people to whom I referred earlier, we are also mindful of trying to speed up the process. They decided, presumably on the advice of their solicitors, to challenge the whole validity of part 4 of the Act. That was dealt with in the first instance by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, and then by the Court of Appeal. It was agreed that we had both the right and the power, that we were exercising it properly, and that it was proportionate. It is in that vein that we are having today's debate.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Given that one reason why it was necessary to take these powers is that the Home Secretary is no longer able to deport everyone whom he thinks is a potential threat to the life of the nation, what will he do when he can no longer place his hand on his heart and say that we face a threat to the life of the nation because of international events, and yet these people are still here?
Mr. Blunkett: If they themselves posed a threat according to the way we laid out that threat in the Actin terms of their behaviour and contacts, and of the way in which their links affect the likelihood of terrorist actionwe would not recommend that the House cancel the powers under part 4. That is the purpose of seeking annual renewal: to make the assessment, and to seek guidance from those who are independently advising us on the operation of that part of the Act. I want to pay tribute to Lord Carlile for his work in providing us with the first annual review. His timely comments are helpful. He supports the need for these powers, and he has confirmed that they have been exercised correctly, as laid down in the Act.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Did my right hon. Friend note the suggestion by Lord Carlile that if the law were amended to make actions preparatory to committing an act of terrorism a criminal offence, it might be possible to subject some, most or all of these people to due process?
Mr. Blunkett: I hesitate to take on Lord Carlile in an area in which he has enormous experience and expertise; however, were it possible through normal legal procedures to identify actions that would lead to terrorist actsand were we able to provide, in court, evidence of the level required to stand up to the normal processeswe would of course do so.
Mr. Blunkett: I see no reason at all why I should not tell the House that a consultation is currently taking place on whether there should be a change. There have been considerable differences of opinion among security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in this country for many years as to whether that would be appropriate. Let me say this as carefully as I can. Anything that prevents the security services from being able to undertake the kind of work that leads them to pre-emptive action, and not just prosecutionor undermines that workis deeply unfortunate. If people were to withdraw from their normal practice, or if they thought that by engaging in normal communications they would be subject to court action and therefore ceasedand that put us at greater riskwe would have gained nothing and lost much. We seek to achieve a balance.
Mr. Bercow: Given that it would be difficult ever to declare that we had won the war against terrorism, that relentless surveillance is required, and that it would be difficult to say with alacrity that this country no longer faced a particular threat, does the Home Secretary agreefurther to the inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)that in practice, the sunset clause notwithstanding, the power seems destined to remain in place for much longer than five years? By the way, I mean no indictment of the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Blunkett: The power is destined to remain as long as it enables us to protect ourselves against the international terrorist threat. That is what it was put in place to do. Should the threat recede to the point at which we believe that the powers are no longer appropriate or applicable, I would be the firstas I said when we passed the legislationto tell the House to say that we no longer needed to renew them.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Home Secretary was earlier explicit that this country faces a condition of emergency and that that is the justification for these powers. Is it his assessment that the qualitative threat to the United Kingdom is greater than that to other western European countries? Is he satisfied that the areas of co-operation within Europe, for the exchange of information between security and police services, are adequate to the task of dealing with the terrorist threat?
Mr. Blunkett: On the second issue, I am absolutely clear that the level of co-operation that now takes place is materially improved from when we first met, at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 20 September 2001, to address those issues, both in terms of collaboration between European states and between Europe, the United States and other international partners. We are continually trying to improve matters.
Simon Hughes: For today. Following the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), can the Home Secretary confirm that apart from the general reservation that France has had since the beginning about being a signatory to the European convention, no other country has sought derogation to allow the same powers and, therefore, that must mean that it is believed that Britain is subject to a different and greater threat than all other European Union countries? Does he think that it would be better if SIAC dealt speedily with the appeals so that a judicial hearing could be held in this country on the validity of detention, instead of people having to wait for a final decision?
Mr. Blunkett: On the hon. Gentleman's first question, we took the view, which we repeatedly spelled out in the debate on the comprehensive measures in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, that we faced a specific threat level to this country and that that required us to take the actions under part 4. The certification that I have engaged in reflects that. I indicated to the House when we took these powers that they would be used sparingly, and they have been. I said that they would be proportionate, and the Court of Appeal agrees that they have been. The decision, on the advice of the lawyers, of those who are held under sections 21 to 23 to challenge the validity of the measures as a whole is precisely why there has been such a delay in dealing with individual cases. I hope that they can now be processed within a matter of weeks so that those individuals have the right to be heard judicially and to challenge whether what we have certificated was proportionate and acceptable. I should like us to be able to get on with that.
I want to make one further comment about Lord Carlile's report. He recommended that there might be a discrete and specific change to the way in which those held under part 4 were held. I have authorised that we should make such a provision available should the individuals choose to take it up. It would not be appropriate compulsorily to move all 13 into one area against their will and I do not intend to get into a secondary dispute about that. Lord Carlile put perfectly valid arguments concerning the length of time for which they had been held and might be held, suggesting that we should consider that urgently, and I have agreed that we should.