Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:29 pm on 26th October 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 5:29 pm, 26th October 2005

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I had my normal Friday length of time to speak, I would happily give way, but unfortunately I do not.

People have questioned why the police need an extension of their powers, but Mr. Clarke provided two very good examples. The brief that we have received from the police so far refers in general terms to the ricin plot. However, Mr. Clarke told us that

"had we had this provision in 2002, the outcome of a recent court case, the so-called ricin trial, might have been very different. Mohamed Meguerba was one of the suspects in that case and it is likely that we would have held him or applied for his detention for sufficient time to find that his fingerprints were on the ricin recipe and he would have stood trial as a main conspirator in that case had he not fled the country. As it was, he was not available to stand trial".

Basically, he did a runner and the police had no ability to hold him, although his fingerprints were there.

Mr. Clarke provided another useful example of a current case in which the police found—by chance on the 13th day of detention—crucial evidence on a computer, which led to the authorisation of charges from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The inference was clear—that if the computer had not been decrypted until the 15th day, the individual could have walked and probably done a runner. Mr. Clarke made it absolutely clear how much pressure is on the police, when he told us that officers are often

"sleeping on the floor . . . just ploughing their way through this vast amount of data."

The police, he told us, would like to see

"criminal investigations . . . conducted in a slightly calmer and more ordered atmosphere than that."

Many other examples and explanations are given in the evidence, fleshing out the views expressed by assistant commissioner Hayman. I strongly suggest that hon. Members read that evidence, as it answers many of the points that have been raised in the debate. If hon. Members have an open mind—I suspect that many do not, but should—they will find that evidence to be significant. I was certainly sceptical before I heard the police, but adjusted my views after hearing them.

Searches of domestic dwellings that the police have to conduct were another example, as was the length of time required to decrypt SIM cards. Obtaining evidence from overseas was another instance of where it could take the police a very long time. It is not, as some hon. Members have suggested, a question of resources. Mr. Clarke clearly said:

"It is not about resources".

Rather, it was the "sheer weight of material" that needed to be analysed, focused into an interview strategy and then into an investigation strategy by the senior officer. "At some point", he said,

"one person has to be aware of what is emerging from all this data. It cannot just be a cavalry charge."

Some have mentioned lesser charges, but Mr. Jones made it clear that they are often not possible and he mentioned the risk of bail. In those circumstances, it would often not be possible to proceed.

I was very pleased to hear that the police welcomed judicial oversight of the process. They do not want everything to remain in the hands of the police, but approve of "robust judicial oversight" to ensure as much transparency as possible. They cited some cases where district judges had not given the police what they had asked for. Mr. Clarke said:

"It is very often the case that we will ask for perhaps four or five days and the district judge will say, 'No, 48 hours and then I want to hear the case again.'"

That is a frequent occurrence, we were told. He also said that before the police can go to court and ask for a warrant, they often have to

"think very carefully about it and . . . consult the Crown Prosecution Service as to whether it is an appropriate course of action."

Having said that, I certainly agree with the conclusions of Lord Carlile that further safeguards are required. I agree that a more senior judge would be appropriate in the circumstances. Personally, I think that the best way forward is to work towards an investigating judge system—copying the continental European system—where a judge is in charge of an investigation, gives directions and views the evidence. I believe that having a system of specialist prosecutors with specialist judges working together will provide valuable safeguards. I hope that my Committee will look further into that option in the future.

Three months may or may not be the right period for the extension, but the police have certainly made a very cogent case—they certainly did to my Committee. Many of us who heard the evidence last Monday were initially sceptical, but are now less so. For those reasons, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall support the Government tonight.