Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

Part of Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 21st February 2008.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 2:14 pm, 21st February 2008

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 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, 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, 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, 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 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.