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2.14 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Minister delivered one of his characteristic speeches. He tends to look at the general rather than condescend to the particular. This is an important issue. When my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who is in the Chamber today, opened the debate for the Opposition last year, he said, with good reason, that he thought it most unlikely that we would be able to support the renewal of the control order arrangements again.

The background to this matter is, in a sense, engraved on my heart, given that it started with a marathon 36-hour sitting of the House in 2005. It is significant that much of what was proposed by the Government in an effort to reach a compromise at the end of the stand-off between the House of Commons and the House of Lords has not really occurred. At the time, it was intimated in debate that these powers were required to deal with several hundred people. That is what the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, said; it was one of the strongest arguments advanced. We now know, however, that a maximum of 31 individuals have been dealt with under this procedure.

Furthermore, the stand-off was ended when the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), told the House that he was working on the basis that there would be an early opportunity for an entire review of the architecture of the anti-terrorism laws, which would allow the issue of control orders to be looked at afresh. Indeed, he put forward a timetable that envisaged that, during 2006,
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we would have a new anti-terrorism Act, that we would be able to consider it with great care, and that there would be an opportunity during its passage for us to conduct a complete overview of the existing anti-terrorism legislation and to consider carefully reports such as that produced by Lord Carlile in early 2006, when the first renewal of control orders would come before the House.

In fact, that did not happen. In fairness to the Government, it did not happen because the July 2005 bombings led to the next anti-terrorism measure being introduced earlier than the Government expected. In fact, it was passed, after ping-pong with the House of Lords, on the very day that the first renewal came up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark will remember. Far from that legislation providing us with an opportunity to take an overall view of anti-terrorism measures in the round, it was so narrowly crafted—and, most regrettably, sufficiently harshly guillotined as to prevent adequate scrutiny, as is characteristic of the way we legislate in this place today—that no such opportunity existed to examine, by amendment in Committee, how the existing anti-terrorism powers might need to be reviewed or got rid of. Instead, our deliberations were dominated by such issues as glorification and the proposal for a 90-day pre-charge detention period.

For that reason, when this matter came up for review on its first review date, we did not oppose it. We looked at Lord Carlile’s report. It is noteworthy that, with each of his reports on the operation of control orders, he has become more lukewarm. He has also become more anxious about the impact that they will have by lasting a longer time, and about the fact that, in many cases, it is difficult to see how they provide adequate protection for the public, given that it appears relatively easy to abscond or to breach their terms. He also highlights the fact that they have—mercifully, perhaps—been applied only to a very limited number of people.

Currently, as the Minister highlighted, only 15 control orders are in force. Although I do not think that there has been any dispute of the view that several hundred people—it might possibly run into several thousand—in this country may pose a threat, 15 is a very small number. Because we are concerned with only 15 people, it raises the question, which the Minister has to answer, of whether we could do without this mechanism at all, particularly when the Minister has acknowledged that in its impact on civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law, it is an undesirable mechanism of last resort and not one that any Government would wish to see on the statute book for a day longer than is necessary.

It is worth looking at Lord Carlile’s comments. The Minister was rather dismissive of the suggestion of replacing light touch control orders with antisocial behaviour orders. When I read that, my eyes started out of my own head, because my personal view of ASBOs, in terms of being an effective mechanism for controlling people’s behaviour, is not very high. However, if someone with the authority of Lord Carlile thinks that an ASBO would probably be as good as a light touch control order, it really highlights an issue that the Minister must deal with in his reply,
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because on the face of it, the light touch control order clearly appears to Lord Carlile to be of very little benefit indeed.

Lord Carlile also highlighted the extent to which the implementation of control orders will require considerable human resources for surveillance. One issue that clearly arises is the extent to which that surveillance is available. The number of cases of absconding suggests that the surveillance supplied may be relatively limited. Of course, one could reverse the argument and say that if large levels of surveillance are already available, we might not need a control order in the first place—one of the arguments raised when we first discussed this issue some three years ago.

Another matter that troubles me is the length of time for which these orders have lasted. We know that seven individuals have been subject to control orders for more than two years and there is plainly great anxiety on Lord Carlile’s part about the propriety of such lengthy infringements of liberty. It is important to note that he thinks that the likely value of an individual to terrorists after a prolonged period of being subject to a control order is, in reality, going to be very slight. That being the case, finding some way of dispensing with control orders is clearly going to be very desirable.

What troubles me—and it may trouble the House—is what practical steps the Government are going to take over the next 12 months before we come back for the next renewal to see whether we can, in fact, get rid of control orders for good. That is the challenge that the Minister has to answer. It is a challenge that I have also had to consider as Opposition spokesman deciding whether to support the renewals or to seek to oppose them. On balance, and with a considerable degree of reluctance, our conclusion is that we should allow renewal to take place this year. There is a very specific reason for that, which I want to bring to the Minister’s attention, and I shall seek some assurances that he will not only note it, but act on it.

We know that a Counter-Terrorism Bill has been published and it is believed that it is likely to secure its Second Reading before the Easter break. That provides an opportunity, if the Government wish to provide it, for an overall review of counter-terrorism legislation. I have to say that I am rather cynical and not very confident that that is what will happen. The history of such legislation suggests that we often tend to get bogged down in confrontation—and there may well be serious confrontation over the plan to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days—and that the way in which such Bills are considered in Committee and, indeed, on Report makes it virtually impossible to table Opposition amendments to probe and review the current operation of existing terrorism legislation, which would allow us to have precisely the sort of debate that the Minister suggested earlier would be so desirable in order to examine things with a broader perspective rather than focus on the narrow issue of renewal.

If the Minister and the Government are prepared to rise to the occasion, I like to think that we could use the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the opportunity for debate surrounding it to have some sensible discussions that could lead to the Government having sufficient
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confidence to decide that this order will not require renewal at all next year. It is only on those grounds that we have decided not to vote against the renewal motion this afternoon. I have to tell the Minister, however, that the longer this process goes on and the longer control orders remain in place on individuals, the more difficult the renewal process will become. If we come back next year and find that seven individuals will have been subject to control orders for more than three years, the Government’s position will start to become even more difficult.

I acknowledge, as we acknowledged at the outset, that there might be circumstances in which control orders are necessary. That is why, when we first debated the matter three years ago, we accepted the principle. Our argument was over the question of having a sunset clause. We wanted such a clause, which is different from an annual renewal, in order to ensure that, at some point in a reasonable time frame, this matter could come to the crunch and the Government would have to justify their position by primary legislation and a full Bill rather than by a mere one and a half hour debate. We were right in that, and everything that has happened since makes me think that our position was reasonable, moderate and correct. Now, however, the question is whether the Government will take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance this afternoon that he has taken our points seriously into account.

2.17 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am not normally a great supporter of consensus. I doubt whether many Members would say that I have urged consensus during my time in the House, especially when I sat on the Opposition Benches. I certainly did not—and for good and valid reasons. When it comes to combating terrorism, however, I depart from my perhaps more controversial position because I believe that there is room to find a consensus.

We are all opposed to terrorism—that goes without saying. Not a single Member of the House would argue that there was any possible justification for inflicting terror, and we are not likely to forget in a hurry the 52 totally innocent people who were slaughtered on 7/7. They had as much right to live as the rest of us. In the House and in the country we have a pretty long collective memory, and I hope that what occurred then will not be forgotten for a long time to come. Neither should we forget that those who were responsible acted from a fanatical religious position that was at odds with everything that scholars of Islam have said repeatedly, arguing that the mass murderers had totally distorted the religion of Islam.

As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has just said, we will probably debate the Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism Bill before the Easter break. I hope it will be possible to use the short period before that debate to try to reach a consensus, particularly on the number of days for which terror suspects can be held without charge. As I have said repeatedly in the Home Affairs Committee and elsewhere, it would be unfortunate to have once again division of the sort that occurred in November 2005.

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Obviously, I am not keen on control orders—is anyone?—but I go along with them, perhaps more so than the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, because I well understand that in certain circumstances it is not possible to prosecute although there is a pretty strong feeling—or evidence, rather than feeling—that certain individuals could pose a danger or a threat to this country. In such circumstances, I suppose that there is an argument for control orders, but they should not be indefinite. I hope that, over a shorter period rather than a longer one, we can find a different solution. However, I certainly would not wish to divide the House on the issue, and if the main Opposition were to do so, which they will not, I would not be other than on the Government’s side, because I understand their position.

I return to the intervention that I made in the Minister’s speech: at the end of it all, there is no adequate alternative to prosecution. It is essential that, in so far as it is possible, the normal process of law should take place. Indeed, before this debate we had exchanges on rendition and the situation in the United States, and no one who spoke was other than critical of the situation there.

We want to remain entirely committed to the rule of law—let us compare the situation in the UK with what is happening in the United States—which is why I am pleased that Parvis Khan has been convicted, for the reasons that I stated earlier. The case is indeed monstrous and he pleaded guilty. The intention was to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier. Rightly, the court decided on a life sentence—a minimum of 14 years—and as the judge pointed out, Khan might not be released at all, unless the authorities feel that it is safe to do so.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman has just said. May I impose for a second longer on the House with the observations of Sir Robert Thompson, whom I quoted earlier? He also said that

is vital. He went on:

That is precisely what the trial of that terrible case has just done.

Mr. Winnick: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Another point I want to make arising from the conviction of Parvis Khan and others relates to the remarks of the assistant chief constable of the west midlands, Anil Patani, who is head of security and cohesion for West Midlands police. He urged everyone to recognise that the terrorist threat is genuine, and he was rather critical of comments made by some in the Muslim community in the Birmingham area. For example, the chair of the Birmingham central mosque compared the raids that have occurred to the situation in Nazi Germany.

It is important for everyone to recognise the terrorist threat, and the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community, whether in the west midlands or anywhere
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else in this country, knows and recognises that terrorism is wrong. Those people recognise, as was the case with 7/7, that if terrorism takes place, Muslims can be the victims—slaughtered or seriously injured like anyone else. They have no illusions on that score. It is therefore important for those who are, or claim to be, representative of the Muslim community not to make remarks like the one that I have just quoted. It serves no purpose whatever.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how we can sensitively understand what sometimes happens behind the closed doors of mosques that have been seen to harbour a form of extremism?

Mr. Winnick: In my borough, there is no such problem. The Muslim community in the Walsall area has always been moderate and totally opposed to any form of terrorism or anything of that kind. I believe there are very few places of religious worship that would wish to help or encourage those engaged in terrorism, but of course any that exist should be exposed. What the assistant chief constable of the West Midlands police said is important: everyone should recognise that the terrorist threat is real, and must be combated in every way possible.

Mr. Grieve: As it happens, I visited the Birmingham mosque shortly after those words were uttered by its chairman. I do not think the chairman’s words necessarily represented the views of the worshippers in the mosque, or indeed anyone’s views. It should also be said that one of the regrettable aspects of the police operation in Birmingham—I hasten to add that it was none of their fault—was that, as the hon. Gentleman probably remembers, details of it were leaked to the press in a manner that turned the central mosque and the main area in which Muslims were living into a goldfish bowl. I am afraid that it produced the very circumstances in which paranoia can thrive.

Mr. Winnick: What happened in Forest Gate is another example. I hope that the authorities—the police, the Home Office and the rest—will always bear in mind the fact that if certain steps are taken which are not appropriate, they can prove entirely counter-productive in the fight against terrorism.

I hope that in the short period between now and the Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism Bill the Government will make some attempt to find a consensus, particularly on the number of days for which people can be held without charge. There is already a broad consensus in the House that the period should be 28 days, and no evidence has been produced suggesting that it should be longer. If the Government want to secure a consensus, they should again enter into negotiations with those of us who are highly critical of an extension beyond 28 days, and certainly with the Opposition parties.

2.37 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): In preparation for the debate, I studied last year’s debate carefully and noted the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). In his opening speech, he identified four points relating
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to control orders which he felt should be addressed. In his view, the standard of proof required for the Secretary of State to sign non-derogating control orders was too low, the power to impose the orders should reside with the courts, the orders should be strictly time-limited, and they should be subject to regular and thorough reviews. It is worth considering what progress has been made since then, and what progress has been made generally.

Some progress has been made on at least one issue, that of intercept evidence. Notwithstanding the Minister’s proviso that intercept evidence does not necessarily supply a silver bullet, I am glad the Prime Minister has said that he is examining the Chilcot report to establish which of its recommendations can be implemented as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about how those recommendations will be implemented.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Do I understand from what the hon. Gentleman is saying that we have the ability to use intercept evidence in court? No, we do not. And have we made any progress in that regard? Absolutely not.

Tom Brake: I think we have made some progress. I think it may now be more widely accepted on the Government Benches that intercept evidence should be considered. The Prime Minister’s statement makes it clear that he is willing to consider it, and presumably willing to allow it to be used at a future date. The progress could, however, be described as limited rather than extensive.

Patrick Mercer: In other words, the hon. Gentleman is saying that we are just talking and creating hot air yet again.

Tom Brake: Far be it from me to suggest that the Government are creating hot air. We have a statement from the Prime Minister that makes clear his willingness to look at the report’s recommendations, and one can only anticipate that his Government will act on them.

I had also hoped that we would make some progress in terms of the official Opposition’s position. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) when he spoke 12 months ago, made clear their position on control orders. The hon. Member for Newark said:


Unfortunately, despite the fact that he described control orders as “a series of shambles”, the official Opposition then chose to vote in favour of them. The hon. Gentleman also stated 12 months ago that it was very likely that the official Opposition would again support control orders this time, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has made it clear that that will be the case.

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