Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Theresa May (The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women and Equalities; Maidenhead, Conservative)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the deportation of the Jordanian terror suspect, Abu Qatada. May I first apologise to the shadow Home Secretary for the late receipt of my statement, which was occasioned by this afternoon’s court hearing?
I can tell the House that today officers from the UK Border Agency arrested and detained Abu Qatada and served notice that we are resuming his deportation. The assurances and information that the Government have secured from Jordan mean that we can undertake deportation in full compliance with the law and with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Deportation might still take time—the proper processes must be followed and the rule of law must take precedence—but today Qatada has been arrested and the deportation is under way.
Let me remind the House briefly of where we are. For more than 10 years, successive Governments have sought to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan because of the serious risk that he poses to our national security. He has a long-standing association with al-Qaeda, he has been linked to several terrorist plots, and in Jordan he has been found guilty in absentia of terrorist offences. Despite the judgment of British courts that Qatada should be deported, and despite accepting that our diplomatic assurances from Jordan mean that he would not be mistreated on his return, in January the European Court of Human Rights ruled against his deportation. It did so on unprecedented grounds—that evidence obtained from the torture of others might be used against him in future legal proceedings in Jordan. As I have said to this House before, the Government disagree vehemently with this ruling. Qatada does not belong in Britain; he belongs in Jordan, where he deserves to face justice.
We have since been working closely with our Jordanian counterparts to get the certainty we need that Qatada will face a fair trial on his return, and I want to thank Jordanian Ministers for their constructive and helpful approach. Since January, the Prime Minister has discussed Qatada’s deportation with King Abdullah. I have been to Jordan and held meetings with the King, the Prime Minister and several other Ministers. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend James Brokenshire, who is responsible for crime and security, has travelled to Jordan. There have also been several official delegations to follow up on ministerial negotiations. These discussions are ongoing.
The result is that we now have the material we need to satisfy the courts and to resume deportation. I can give the House a brief description of the key facts that mean that Abu Qatada will get a fair trial. The state security court, which will hear Qatada’s case, is not a quasi-military court—as Strasbourg suggested—but a key part of the Jordanian legal system that considers a wide range of criminal cases. Qatada’s case will be heard in public with civilian judges. On his return to Jordan, Qatada’s conviction in absentia will be quashed immediately. He will be detained in a normal civilian detention centre
where he will have access to independent defence lawyers. In court, he will be able to summon defence witnesses in his support.
Those accused alongside Abu Qatada when he was found guilty in Jordan, whose evidence is at the heart of the European Court’s ruling, can give evidence, but what they say in court will have no effect on the pardons they have already been granted. We can therefore have confidence that they would give truthful testimony. Furthermore, Qatada will be able to challenge their original statements. Indeed, one of the more significant recent developments is the change to the Jordanian constitution last autumn that includes an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence.
I believe that continuing the deportation proceedings against Qatada on the basis of those facts will be the quickest route to remove this man from our country. I know that many hon. Members are frustrated by Strasbourg’s ruling and by the time that it is taking to deport him. I share their frustration entirely. I know that a number of hon. Members have specific concerns, which I want to address head-on.
The first is why we cannot just ignore Strasbourg and put Qatada on a plane. In reality, we simply could not do that. As Ministers, we would not just be breaking the law ourselves, but would be asking Government lawyers, officials, the police, law enforcement officers and airline companies to break the law too. As soon as we issued a deportation notice to Qatada, his lawyers would win an immediate injunction preventing us from removing him. Even if we somehow succeeded in deporting him against the wishes of the courts, we would be ordered to bring him back to Britain and perhaps even to pay compensation. Instead, our approach will bring an enduring solution. The truth is that of all people and institutions, the Government must obey the law. That means that as long as we remain a signatory to the European convention, we have to abide by Strasbourg’s rulings.
The second concern is why we cannot deport Qatada when other countries have recently deported foreign nationals. The truth is that although all legal systems and all cases are different, no Council of Europe member state now ignores rule 39 injunctions, which Strasbourg issues to prevent deportations. The recent cases of foreign nationals being deported from France did not involve an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Italy has confirmed that it will no longer deport foreign nationals in defiance of rule 39 injunctions. I am keen to learn from the experience of other countries in Europe, so we will be examining the processes and procedures used in France, Italy and elsewhere to see whether our legislation might be changed to enable us to deport dangerous foreign nationals faster.
In the longer term, we need to stop the abuse of human rights law. The Brighton conference, which begins tomorrow, will examine how to reform the European Court of Human Rights. We are changing the immigration rules to prevent the abuse of the right to a family life and, of course, we need a British Bill of Rights.
Continuing with deportation on the basis of the work that we have done with the Jordanians is the quickest and safest means that we have of removing Qatada from Britain. However, hon. Members must be aware that that does not necessarily mean that he will be on a plane to Jordan within days. There is still a potential avenue of appeal to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission court, and beyond. That appeal process
could take many months, but it would be based on narrow grounds and, with the assurances that we have received, we can have confidence in our eventual success. I believe that Abu Qatada should remain in custody throughout that process.
The other option available to us, which is to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, could take even longer and would risk reopening our wider policy of seeking assurances about the treatment of terror suspects in their home countries. That policy was upheld by the European Court’s judgment in January, and it is crucial if we want to be able to deport terror suspects to countries where the courts have concerns about their treatment. There are 15 other such cases pending. I confirm that the Government have therefore not referred the Abu Qatada case to the Grand Chamber.
British courts have found that Abu Qatada is a dangerous man, that he is a risk to our national security and that he should be deported to Jordan. We have now obtained from the Jordanian Government the material that we need to comply with the ruling of the European Court. I believe that the assurances and the information that we have gathered will mean that we can soon put Qatada on a plane and get him out of our country for good. I commend this statement to the House.
Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities; Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Labour)
I welcome the Home Secretary’s pursuit of the deportation of Abu Qatada in compliance with the law. Given her assessment of the threat that he poses to national security, it is right to try to deport him as soon as possible and to return him to custody in the meantime to protect public safety.
I accept the Home Secretary’s apology for the late delivery of the statement, which I received only 10 minutes ago. Unfortunately, the Evening Standard clearly received the statement at 12.30 pm today, when it reported what she was to say in the House.
I understand that, as the Home Secretary said, SIAC is sitting as we speak, but none of the content of her statement appeared to be contingent on the conclusions of that court hearing, and there is a troubling level of confusion about today’s events that it would be very helpful for her to clear up.
I welcome many of the points that the Home Secretary made, although I have a series of continuing concerns. I welcome the assurances that she has obtained from Jordan. Previous agreements were in place, but she was right to pursue further assurances. I welcome, too, the arrest of Abu Qatada today as part of action through the courts to pursue deportation.
The Home Secretary will know that our concern remains that the Home Office should have acted faster after the European Court judgment in January, and that had we not had early drift and delay after that judgment, Abu Qatada might not have been released in the first place. When I asked her in February, several weeks after the judgment, whether she had had personal contact with Jordan after the European Court ruling, she had not been to Jordan at that point, nor did she go for a further four weeks. Indeed, the court that gave Abu Qatada bail cited as one of its reasons that there was no sign of progress in getting a deal with Jordan. Indeed, the court said:
“I do not know precisely what the Secretary of State has in mind. Indeed, the negotiations are only at the earliest of stages.”
It is therefore very welcome that the Home Secretary has now got further reassurances from Jordan, which are important and I hope will be sufficient, and it is welcome that she is taking action today, but three important sets of questions remain.
First, can the Home Secretary set out how long this will take? Does she expect to deport Abu Qatada in weeks, months or years? She has previously told the House that she hoped to deport him by the Olympics. Does she believe that she is on track to do so? The media appear this afternoon to be reporting that Abu Qatada is expected to be on a plane by the end of April. Does she believe that that will happen or is realistic?
Can the Home Secretary also confirm that the action that she has taken today is simply to start the deportation process again from the beginning by going back to SIAC? Can she confirm that she has decided not to conclude the previous deportation proceedings, which started in 2007, by going to the Grand Chamber, and decided instead to start the process again by going back to square one and to SIAC today?
The Home Secretary and I would agree that the process that started in 2007 has been way too long. The British and European courts should be faster, and reforms are needed to deal with the delays. We are happy to work with her on discussing that. However, I continue to be concerned by her confidence that she has taken the fastest route today. She has said that the route that she is taking is quicker than going to the Grand Chamber. Can she confirm, however, that the process that she has started today is still potentially subject to a whole series of appeals throughout the British court process, or to Abu Qatada and his lawyers taking the matter to the European Courts or the Grand Chamber again? Although she has decided that simply going through the final stage in the process is too long and is ditching the Grand Chamber, in fact she may be starting from scratch a process that will still have the Grand Chamber at the end of it.
We understand, too, that the Home Secretary believes it is too risky to appeal to the Grand Chamber. I understand that she will have had legal advice on that, and I do not want her to pursue an unwise and risky process, but we equally want her to pursue the fastest possible safe process to get Abu Qatada deported. May I therefore ask her to share with the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and the Opposition, on Privy Council terms, the detail of that legal advice so that we can understand the judgment that she has reached on not going to the Grand Chamber as the fastest way to get Abu Qatada deported?
Finally, we need to know what safeguards are being put in place in the meantime. We understand that the special court is meeting as we speak, but also that it has been suspended this afternoon. Has the Home Office asked for Abu Qatada to be returned to custody? The Home Secretary did not make that clear in her statement. On the basis of what we know about the case I believe that would be the right thing for the Home Office to do. However, she will know that as Abu Qatada has already been released on bail, there is a significant risk that the court will decide either today or at a future date to continue with bail. It remains, therefore, a serious concern
that Home Office delays in January and February led to Abu Qatada being released in the first place, and are also making it harder to return him to prison now.
Given reports that Abu Qatada has been in contact with extremists in Jordan while out on bail, the Home Secretary needs to set out what safeguards she will put in place if the courts do not agree to bail. There are also reports of chaos at the SIAC hearing as we speak. Those proceedings have been held up and we understand that lawyers are being scrambled to court. The BBC is reporting that the hearing is a “bit of a mess”. Can she confirm that the hearing has been properly applied for and planned rather than cobbled together in a rush in order that it sits at the same time as the House?
There is something a little odd about the timing and confusion. We are debating Abu Qatada without knowing what the courts will decide this afternoon and what action the Home Secretary will need to take next. [ Interruption. ] Will she therefore agree to return this House—[ Interruption. ]
Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities; Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Labour)
Will the Home Secretary agree to return to the House this afternoon or tomorrow morning if the court does not agree to revoke Abu Qatada’s bail and return him to custody, so that we can hear what action she will take and what safeguards she will put in place?
I hope Abu Qatada will be back behind bars by tonight in line with the security assessment that the Home Secretary and the courts have previously made, and that we have a clear and reliable timetable for his deportation to Jordan. I hope we will not be back to square one. There was too much drift earlier this year and we have had a troubling level of confusion this afternoon. Will she assure the House that she is in control of events, and that the deportation everyone wants to see is back on track?
Theresa May (The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women and Equalities; Maidenhead, Conservative)
May I first say that I welcome the support the shadow Home Secretary has given to the resumption of deportation and to the work that has been done to receive assurances from the Jordanian Government? A number of the points she made in response to my statement were made in her press release yesterday, but I recognise that she received my statement late. Although I covered a number of her questions in my statement, I will respond to the points she has made.
The right hon. Lady asked whether the SIAC proceedings this afternoon were properly applied for. Of course they were, but I am sure she will understand that when we are moving to arrest an individual whom we intend to deport, there is a limit to the number of people we tell before we move.
The right hon. Lady seemed to suggest that the Government had done nothing about the Strasbourg ruling until the bail hearing a few weeks later, and quoted Mr Justice Mitting, the judge at the bail hearing. The quote she gave made clear that negotiations with the Jordanians had already begun at the time of the bail
hearing. I know she is always keen to attack, but her arguments might have a little more strength if they did not contradict each other.
The right hon. Lady asked about my estimated timetable for Abu Qatada’s deportation. As I said in my statement, we have resumed deportation against him and he was arrested earlier today. He has the right to appeal to SIAC, and I understand that he or his lawyers have made it clear that he intends to appeal and to ask for revocation of the deportation, possibly beyond SIAC—there are rights of appeal beyond SIAC. Because any appeal will be based on narrow grounds and because of the quality of the assurances we have, I am confident in our eventual success, but the process could take a number of months. I have been clear about that and said it in my statement.
The right hon. Lady appears to misunderstand the process. She says that we are going back to the beginning. In fact, we are resuming the deportation, which was set to one side during the appeals that went through to the European Court. She asked why we were not referring the case to the Grand Chamber. Again, I covered that in my statement. I said absolutely clearly that referring to the Grand Chamber would open up the whole of the judgment set down by the court on
The right hon. Lady asked about the length of time it is taking to deport Abu Qatada. May I remind her that deportation proceedings began in 2001, nine years before the end of the Government of whom she was a member? The time it is taking to deport Abu Qatada is not down to political will, but down to the nature of our legal system. As I said in my statement, I am willing and keen to look at how other European countries deport dangerous foreign nationals quickly, which is something that the last Government never did. We are following what I believe to be the right course of action to ensure that we can deport Abu Qatada. I have been clear in my statement—and I am willing to repeat it—that I believe that Abu Qatada should be in custody. That is why we arrested him this morning, have taken him to SIAC and are asking for his detention. The work that we have done has resulted in assurances from the Jordanian Government that I believe will enable us to deport Abu Qatada. That is what the whole of this House should want: Abu Qatada deported from this country, back to Jordan.
William Cash (Stone, Conservative)
Having made a powerful statement in favour of the deportation of Abu Qatada, will the Home Secretary confirm that at the Brighton conference, which begins tomorrow, it will be made clear that, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, a British Bill of Rights will be determined by legislation passed in this House, and not based on the European convention on—but increasingly against—human rights?
Theresa May (The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women and Equalities; Maidenhead, Conservative)
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Brighton conference, which starts tomorrow. It will be chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice
Secretary, who has been working with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe to do what I believe we all want, which is to ensure that the European Court operates appropriately and in a way that reflects its original intentions. The Prime Minister made a speech earlier this year in which he made it clear that there were a number of issues that we wanted to look at, such as subsidiarity and the efficiency of the European Court. It is those matters which the Brighton conference will be discussing.
David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, Labour)
As the Home Secretary who originally certificated Abu Qatada, it would be churlish of me not to congratulate the Home Secretary on making at least some progress on the back of the change in Jordan’s constitution and on getting agreement. However, does she agree that much of the delay has been caused by the operation of the European Court, and that the proposals originally put forward by the Prime Minister for deliberation by the Council of Europe in Brighton this week have now been watered down? Is it not a contradiction to come here and be quite belligerent about believing that something can be achieved by words, when actually, in deliberation in Brighton this week, we will go in exactly the opposite direction?
I welcome the comments of the right hon. Gentleman, the Home Secretary who, as he said, first initiated proceedings for the deportation of Abu Qatada. What I would say to him about the Brighton conference is that the Prime Minister was quite clear earlier this year about those areas where we would be working to get some change in the operation of the European Court. Of course, all Members of this House will have to wait until the proceedings of the Brighton conference are complete to see the package that comes out of it, but I have every confidence that the work that my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary has done will indeed enable us to achieve the changes we want.
Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat)
I welcome the Home Secretary’s action in obtaining assurances from Jordan. Although it is rather odious to have to wait for this man Abu Qatada to avail himself of all the rights and procedures that are available under our system, we should be clear that we want to live under a system that has rights and protections, and not the kind of regime that he and his friends would prefer to bomb us into.
My right hon. Friend makes a very valid point. It is precisely those sorts of freedoms and rights that we have in this country—the ones that we value in our justice system—that Abu Qatada and too many others would wish to destroy. As I said, we should accept that one body above all others that should obviously abide by the rule of law is the Government.
Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)
Is not the real issue in the case of Abu Qatada the fact that the Home Secretary has been engaged in a race against time as a result of her Government’s reckless decision to abandon control orders and replace them with measures that the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has said will weaken national security?
No, and I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the bail conditions that Abu Qatada has been on were more restrictive than a control order.
David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds, Conservative)
I congratulate the Home Secretary on the tenacity that she has shown; it makes her a formidable Home Secretary. On the question of assurances, will she respond to the recent comment about Abu Qatada from Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights? He stated:
“There must be watertight guarantees that he should not be tried with evidence obtained under torture”.
Is that the nature of the assurance that she has received from the Jordanians?
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. I have set out a very brief description of the assurances that we have received; more details will obviously be put forward to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission at the deportation hearing. One of the key changes that has taken place in Jordan involves explicit changes to the constitution that outlaw the use of evidence that has been gained by torture.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. I also congratulate her on the efforts that she has made, and especially on her visit to Jordan. Will she tell us the exact date on which she received the assurances from Jordan that satisfied her that a deal could be made? What worries me are the 15 other cases that she has told the House about today. At the Brighton conference, we need to establish a fast-track system so that cases involving dangerous people in this country can be fast-tracked through the European Court as well as through our own courts. That has been the view of successive Governments as far as Abu Qatada is concerned.
The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is: after he issued his press release last week.
No. The right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he knew first, but we were still in discussions with the Jordanian Government about the assurances and, as I have made clear in my statement, the work will continue. We have assurances, we are confident in the case that we have, and we will continue to work with the Jordanian authorities.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the wider use of deportation with assurances, one of the issues that my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary and others across Government have been working on in relation to changes to the European Court is the efficiency of the Court. Another issue relates to subsidiarity and the relationship between national courts and the European Court. It is on those issues that I believe we will see some movement this week.
Margot James (Stourbridge, Conservative)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this appalling case brings the management of human rights and our own justice system into serious disrepute? Does she also agree that both are in need of radical reform?
I am clear that we need to make some reforms. We all value human rights and we want to ensure that we uphold them, but we need to ensure that we have legal structures that will enable us to do so in a way that is proper and appropriate. That is why it is entirely right that the Government have been looking, in conjunction with others, at how the European Court works.
David Winnick (Walsall North, Labour)
Observing the rule of law is even more important when we are dealing with an individual like this, but I want to ask the Home Secretary the same question that I have asked on previous occasions. This individual has been here for a very long time; he came here in the early 1990s. If there is evidence against him, why cannot he be charged with any crimes that he is alleged to have committed? If there is evidence against him—and there might well be—it is puzzling that he is not being tried in the United Kingdom.
The Government have looked at every aspect of the case of Abu Qatada, as I assume the previous Government did. Of course, decisions on whether to prosecute are a matter not for the Government but for others.
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon, Conservative)
I thank the Home Secretary for her assurance that Abu Qatada will be deported in the fastest possible way, and I share her sentiment that the proper place for him is in detention. Does she not agree, however, that one of the major reforms to the European Court of Human Rights must involve addressing the backlog? Will she also assure the House that the Government will show real leadership at the Brighton conference and ensure that we make progress on this matter, once and for all, because it is seriously undermining public confidence in the justice system?
My hon. Friend has made a valid point about people’s confidence in the Court when they see that backlog. That backlog is precisely one of the issues that we have been addressing in discussions with other countries, and I expect the Brighton conference will consider how to deal with it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to welcome the outcome of that conference.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)
It is potentially unhelpful, if not confusing, that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is deliberating at the same time as the Home Secretary is making her statement. None the less, I, too, welcome the progress that she and her ministerial colleagues have made in their discussions with the Jordanian authorities. I have to put it to her, however, that if she had not been successful in her endeavours, Abu Qatada would not today be on a 22-hour curfew, but on a TPIM or terrorism prevention and investigation measure—a watered-down control order—with access to the internet and able to roam the streets of London. Would she be confident in that level of protection for the people of this country?
Yes, we are confident in the level of protection given by TPIMs—otherwise we not have introduced them. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point about the timing, I am tempted to say that if SIAC had sat before I had made my statement, I would have received
complaints from Labour Members that I should have come before the House before it had taken any decision.
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood, Conservative)
The European convention is incorporated into law by the Human Rights Act. On that basis, our supreme court has already ruled that it would be lawful to deport Abu Qatada. Why, therefore, does the Home Secretary say that it would unlawful?
Obviously, for the past three months, a rule 39 injunction against the deportation of Abu Qatada has come from the European Court. As I outlined in my statement, if any move were made to deport him immediately—we have a memorandum of understanding with Jordan about how a deportation would take place, including a timetable that we should abide by; it was a part of our arrangements supported by the European Court and had previously been supported in the UK courts—it would be open to Abu Qatada to issue an injunction. If he were to be deported contrary to that injunction, it would of course be unlawful.
Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East, Labour)
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but will she explain why, if it is in the public interest to deport Abu Qatada, it is in the public interest to allow terror suspects based here in the UK to have increased access to the internet, increased access to mobile phones and the freedom to come to London in the run-up to the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee celebrations? Does she agree with the conclusions of the Anderson review that getting rid of control orders was a “political decision” and
“one that is unlikely to further the requirements of national security—rather the reverse.”
Is that not a damning indictment of the Government’s decision to weaken our anti-terror laws?
First, as I said in response to an earlier question, I am confident in the TPIM measures that we have introduced and put in place. I note that not only a number of Labour Back Benchers, but the shadow Home Secretary herself have raised a number of questions about the issue of terrorism, anti-terrorism and national security. I simply say to them that they should ask themselves this: if they care so much about that issue, why is the Labour party campaigning to stop the extradition to the United States of a known terror suspect?
Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton, Conservative)
May I, like others, welcome the Home Secretary’s determination? As already said, the House of Lords has already approved this deportation without the requisite assurances that the Government are now able to provide. I seek some clarification of the rule 39 injunction to which my right hon. Friend has referred. Given the nature of how the UK implements international law, on what basis in UK law would such an injunction be directly enforceable in the UK courts?
The point is that if we were to act against the rule 39 injunction, it would be open to Abu Qatada—or, indeed, to anyone else in the same position—to go to our UK courts to obtain an injunction against deportation, and we would then find ourselves acting against the law that exists here in the UK. It is on that basis, apart from any other, that I say that we would be acting illegally.
William McCrea (Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs); South Antrim, DUP)
I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement, and assure her that my right hon. and hon. Friends will wholeheartedly support her efforts to ensure that this dangerous man, who is a risk to national security, is out of our country as soon as possible. Can she assure me, however, that she is confident that the European Court will not interfere again to hinder the deportation of this terrorist?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for assuring me of his support and that of his right hon. and hon. Friends. A legal process can now be obtained. Obviously Abu Qatada will have an initial right of appeal to SIAC and further potential rights of appeal in the UK courts and then the European Court, but it cannot be guaranteed that the hearing of those appeals would be accepted. The confidence that I feel is based on the fact that we are considering a narrow definitional issue as we take the matter through the courts.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)
I welcome the announcement that the Government can now deport Abu Qatada, and that they have addressed the concerns about the possible use of evidence obtained under torture. I also welcome the Home Secretary’s clear statement that we should not be in the business of breaking laws ourselves, ignoring Strasbourg, and simply putting Abu Qatada back on a plane. May I, however, follow up an earlier question from Mr Winnick? Will the Government now make every effort to pursue cases such as this through the UK courts whenever possible, so that we do not become involved in such lengthy legal shenanigans in the future?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I suspect that more lies behind it than merely the deportation of Abu Qatada.
In cases such as this, when we are dealing with individuals who are a danger to the United Kingdom and are suspected of terrorist offences, the Government explore every avenue. However, as I pointed out earlier and as my right hon. Friend will know, decisions about prosecution in the UK are not decisions for the Government. As I have said in response to a number of questions, we and other members of the Council of Europe are looking at the efficiency of the European Court, because the matter was before it for a significant period.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour)
Does the Home Secretary recognise that the vast majority of the British public who have heard her statement today will not understand why we, a so-called independent country, cannot get rid of someone who is a risk to our security? She has said, and I accept it, that we do not want to be seen to be breaking the law, but the law is clearly wrong, and we
must find ways of changing it so that we can deport, as soon as possible, people whom we do not wish to be in this country.
I thank the hon. Lady for what I think is her support for my statement. We will be considering, in particular, the systems that are available to other countries to establish whether there is anything that we should be doing here in the UK to ensure that we can deport people who are dangerous to the United Kingdom, who are suspected of terrorist offences, and who pose a national security risk far more quickly than we do now.
Brian Binley (Northampton South, Conservative)
I too congratulate the Home Secretary on setting in train the process of deporting Abu Qatada. Many people in this country will welcome her action. However, although the matter has not been helped by the European Court of Human Rights, there are rumours that our proposals to the Brighton conference will be watered down. Will the Home Secretary, here and now, give us an unqualified assurance that that will not happen when the conference opens tomorrow?
I am not in a position to predict what will emerge from the deliberations that will take place during the three days in Brighton, but I can assure my hon. Friend that—as I said earlier—the Prime Minister in a speech earlier this year clearly defined the areas in which we felt that it was necessary to work with other countries on reform of the European Court, and I have every expectation that they will be addressed at the conference this week.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)
May I again draw hon. Members’ attention to the forthcoming entry in the register? The Home Secretary may be aware that the all-party group on Jordan was also in Amman last week. I believe that it was on the same day as the Home Secretary spoke to the Jordanian Prime Minister that we were able briefly to raise the Abu Qatada issue with him, explaining the great public concern in the UK about it. I must agree that he emphasised at that time that Jordan wished to do what it could to facilitate the deportation and to make progress on human rights. It is also important to put on the record today that when we spoke to the Jordanians—I am sure that the Home Secretary will do this as well—we said that we in no way wish them to lighten up on human rights standards in their country; we want them to continue the progress they are making towards political reform, constitutional reform and human rights.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I have said, the Jordanian Government have been very helpful in our discussions about Abu Qatada. What is significant is that the way in which the Jordanian system operates today is different from the portrayal given by the European Court; a significant number of changes have taken place. Indeed, when I was in Jordan, everything that people were saying to me, both at Government level and through officials and others, was that they see Jordan continuing to move forward on this issue of human rights.
Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)
The Home Secretary has remained admirably calm in her responses to a string of former and wannabe Home
Office Ministers on the Labour Benches, whose bluster has not concealed the fact that they utterly failed, over the course of nine years, to make any progress in getting this man out of this country. Will the Home Secretary assure me that Abu Qatada will no longer be residing in the United Kingdom long before there is next a Labour Home Secretary?
My hon. Friend tempts me down a route of prediction. What I will say to him is that, as everybody in this House knows, it has taken considerable time to get to where we are at the moment. There are further processes to go through, but I believe that what the Government have done is to take absolutely the right course, which is to get together the assurances that we need to be able to resume deportation. I have every confidence in our eventual success in being able to achieve that deportation.
David Nuttall (Bury North, Conservative)
Does the Home Secretary agree with me, and, I suspect, with many millions of the British public, that British courts should have the final say on who stays in our country and not a foreign court in Strasbourg?
I am well aware of the strength of feeling on that, in this House and outside it. As I have said, and as has been made clear in this Chamber on a number of occasions, one of the issues raised by the Prime Minister in his speech earlier this year on the European Court—one of the issues that is being looked at—is the question of subsidiarity and when it is right that decisions, having been through national courts, should be considered final, without reference to the European Court.
Conor Burns (Bournemouth West, Conservative)
I congratulate the Home Secretary on her leadership in getting a grip on this issue, which has gone on for far too long. Does she agree that we can take great pride in this country that, however frustrating it may be, even those who despise our values and our freedoms are accorded the full protection of due process under the law? Does she agree that for those frustrations to disappear in future, we need to reform the European Court of Human Rights, as the Prime Minister has said, at source?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we can take pride in the justice system that we have here in the United Kingdom. I know that many people find it frustrating when they see such decisions coming out of the European Court and when they see us having to take our time to get the assurances we need. But, as he has said, it is absolutely right that we seek reform of the European Court, and that is why the Brighton conference this week is so important.
Gareth Johnson (Dartford, Conservative)
May I, too, pay tribute to the work that the Home Secretary has carried out on this difficult issue? Can she give the House any assurances that as and when Mr Abu Qatada is deported from this country he will remain deported from this country, notwithstanding the fact that he has family residing in the UK?
One reason we have been pursuing this case in the way that we have is because I want what I have called a sustainable deportation, in that I do not
want us to be required by some court here in the UK to bring Abu Qatada back into the United Kingdom. That is why we have been pursuing the case in the way that we have.
Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)
I am sure the residents of the Kettering constituency would want me to congratulate the Home Secretary on her tremendous efforts to deport this wretched man. Reassuringly, she said she would look at how France, Italy and other countries do this sort of thing rather faster. Who is going to lead that review, and when will they report?
I will come back to my hon. Friend with more details on that in due course, if I may. I have already initiated some work on this within the Home Office, and we will be looking at the matter as soon as we can. If we were to require legislative changes, we would have to look at the legislative timetable.
Michael Crockart (Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat)
Torture is abhorrent no matter where it happens, and we must all be happy that Abu Qatada’s deportation will be achieved without implicitly condoning such behaviour. The Secretary of State must agree, however, that that is still the second-best option, behind the option of trying Abu Qatada in this country. Will she therefore redouble her efforts to remove any remaining barriers to that happening in future, such as by addressing the use of intercept evidence?
As I have said in answers to a number of other Members, the Government have, of course, at all times looked as widely as possible at what action could be taken in relation to Abu Qatada, as I assume the previous Government also did. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of intercept as evidence. As he will know, we have a Privy Council group that is still looking into that issue, and the only comment I would make is that very often it is assumed that that is the one answer that will solve all our problems when all the evidence is that it is not.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North, Conservative)
May I, as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, congratulate the Home Secretary on the personal role she has played in securing Jordanian co-operation in this matter? Although the shadow Home Secretary kept referring to this as going back to square one, will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is, in fact, a resumption of proceedings that were already ongoing, having herself now obtained assurances from the Jordanians, and that this process will be faster than going through to the Grand Chamber of the European Court?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we are resuming the deportation. With his acute legal brain, he has understood that point rather better, perhaps, than the right hon. Lady the shadow Home Secretary did.
Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry, Conservative)
I obviously welcome the statement and I admire the Home Secretary’s persistence in this case, but I believe it is a huge waste of her time to have to spend so much time trying to rid the country of this particular individual. There are now a number of cases where our national security is under threat because of rulings from a foreign court whose judgments undermine both confidence in the judiciary and human rights in general. I know reform of the Court is high on the agenda, and we would all like to see that, but you mentioned the Bill of Rights in your statement. May we please speed up the timetable for that, so we have it in place as soon as possible?
Yes, I did refer to the Bill of Rights and, as my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary has set up a commission to look into this whole question of a Bill of Rights. It will report in due course. As I have said, I am looking into how we can ensure that we can deport people who are a risk to our national security, and have a speedier and more secure process of doing so than we currently have.
Steve Brine (Winchester, Conservative)
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary’s strong statement. Has this whole sorry episode convinced her and the entire Government that, as others have said, what we need is a British Bill of Rights declared senior to Strasbourg, and a supreme court over the road that lives up to its name?
The Bill of Rights was, of course, a commitment that was made in the Conservative party manifesto at the last general election, and what we have done in government is put in place a commission to look at a British Bill of Rights, and it will report in due course.
James Clappison (Hertsmere, Conservative)
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach. Those who are called upon to exercise judgment in striking a balance in this matter would do well to regard the evidence over a long period about the seriousness of this gentleman’s connections and the threat he poses, and to take into account the judgment of an eminent British judge, who called him a “truly dangerous individual”.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I assure him that the case the Home Office will be putting forward at various hearings—both at bail and otherwise—will of course draw on the past evidence that this is a dangerous individual. That is why we wish to deport him and why I believe that, prior to deportation, he should be in detention.
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale, Conservative)
I congratulate the Home Secretary on moving mountains to get to this point, but will she describe the roadblocks that the Opposition had to encounter before we could get a grip on this issue and sort it out?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course, this is not purely my effort; the Minister with responsibility for crime and security, my hon. Friend the
Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), went to Jordan, and a significant number of Home Office and Foreign Office officials have been working extremely hard over the past weeks and months since the original judgment to ensure that we reached the position we are in today, whereby we have been able to arrest Abu Qatada and resume deportation. It has taken a long time overall, and part of the reason is the lengthy legal process that has taken place. That is one of the reasons why I believe it necessary to look at whether we could make any changes to enable us to make these deportations quicker.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley, Conservative)
May I join in the congratulations to the Home Secretary on the progress she has made? Without asking her to predict failure, if the Brighton conference fails to produce a suitably robust reform for the Strasbourg Court, do the Government have a fall-back position for getting these things into a far better, more streamlined state going forward?
I am rather more optimistic than my hon. Friend is about the Brighton conference, because I know of the considerable work put in by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary, and by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others across government, to work with the other 46 member states—remember, 47 countries will be around the table to discuss this. I am confident that the areas of change the Prime Minister has set out will indeed be addressed.
Robert Buckland (South Swindon, Conservative)
At the Brighton conference, what steps will we take to ensure that cases such as this, which raise important and serious issues of national security, can be expedited and take their place over and above the thousands of cases heard by the European Court that raise no new issues of law whatsoever?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. On the length of time taken, there are two issues, one of which relates to the European Court. As I have said, the question of its efficiency will be addressed at the Brighton conference, as I understand it. The other issue is the time that proceedings here in the United Kingdom take, which is why I am looking at the systems and legal structures that apply in countries such as France and Italy, to see whether there is something we should be learning and changes we should be making.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth, Conservative)
My right hon. Friend is quite right—the British Government must not break the law, but she will know that the British Parliament must make the law, and make it quickly. Can she say when the day will come—can she indicate a timetable—when the findings of British courts and the decisions of my right hon. Friend will not be subject to overthrow by the European Court of Human Rights?
I have made my views on this issue absolutely clear on a number of occasions. As I have said, a number of pieces of work are going on to strengthen the position of the Government and the UK generally in dealing with such issues. That is partly about working with the European Court to reform the way it operates,
and partly about us looking at our own legal system to see whether we need to do anything to strengthen our hand here in the UK.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley, Conservative)
I welcome the progress made by my right hon. Friend in ridding this country of this wretched man—something the previous Labour Government should have done many years ago. Will she use the experience gained in this case to start deporting the many other foreign prisoners who continue to reside in our prisons at our taxpayers’ expense?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working on the whole question of the deportation of foreign national offenders, the assurances we need from other countries and the need to ensure that we can do it more speedily and more efficiently than has been the case in the past. This is ongoing work and cannot be done at a drop of a hat, so it will take some time for us to put in place some of the arrangements we need to ensure that we can act with rather greater rigour.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)
One of the great frustrations in this case is that foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism in other countries gain admission to the UK and use our courts and the European courts to frustrate their removal. What action can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that those foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism are not admitted in the first place?
Of course, we have been looking across the board at our policies on this subject. We have a far stronger policy on exclusions from the UK than the one adopted by the previous Labour Government. I believe that that is right. We have a duty to protect British citizens and it is right that we should consider every avenue to ensure that we can do that.
Henry Smith (Crawley, Conservative)
I welcome today’s arrest of Qatada and congratulate my right hon. Friend on her work, particularly with the Jordanian authorities, in this case. However, the central fact remains that in this case the European Court of Human Rights did not weigh up the interests of UK national security against the interests of Qatada. Will she assure the House that if the European Court of Human Rights cannot be reformed to meet the standards of security that British citizens expect, we should consider leaving it?
Of course, as I am standing at the Dispatch Box before the Brighton conference on the reform of the European Court has taken place, I can only refer my right hon. and hon. Friends to the speech made by the Prime Minister earlier this year and to the areas in which change should be made that he set out. I am afraid that in terms of what will come out of the Brighton conference, my hon. Friend will just have to be patient.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative)
For far too long, this country seems almost to have been a beacon for terrorists who arrive here legally or illegally and stay here. They live on us like leeches and we cannot get rid of them. Will my right hon. Friend instruct her officials to make as much progress as possible in reducing the time for which those people, who suck our blood for so long, stay in this country before we can get rid of them?
I have indeed already initiated work to see whether there are changes we can make to our legal structures in the UK that would enable us to deport people who are threats to our national security rather more quickly and with greater rigour than we can today.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire, Conservative)
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and on her resolve on this issue. It is hard to think of another case that so clearly sums up everything that is wrong with the twisted priorities and logic of the European Court of Human Rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that without radical reform, the European Court represents a clear barrier to British courts’ ability to protect British citizens from those who threaten our security?
It has been the clear view of this Government for some time that we need to bring about reform of the European Court in a number of areas. That work has been undertaken in recent months. As I said, the Brighton conference, under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary, will consider the action that can be taken to reform the European Court. As a Government, and in the Home Office, we will consider the systems we have in place to see whether we can learn anything from other countries to provide us with a swifter means of deporting those who are a threat to our national security.
David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford, Conservative)
I am very grateful to you for calling me, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and on the leadership she has shown on this issue, which is to be commended. Is she aware that my constituents believe that this case has gone on for far too long, that it needs a speedy resolution and that until we can get rid of this Abu Qatada, he should stay behind bars? My constituents are also looking for radical reform so that this cannot happen again.
I ask my hon. Friend to reassure his constituents that, like them, I think that this has taken too long. Like them, I wish Abu Qatada to be deported and deported sustainably so that he does not return to the United Kingdom. Like them, I think we need reform of the European Court. That is the view of the Government and that is why we have been pursuing this in our work as chairman of the Council of Europe. The Brighton conference will consider those proposals this week.