Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:17 pm on 4th March 2010.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 1:17 pm, 4th March 2010

I, too, will be relatively brief, but I want to note my concerns to the House.

On these counter-terrorism measures, Ministers come to the Dispatch Box at short notice to present their cases, on which they have had evidence and information; and Members, because they trust the Government, accept everything that Ministers tell them about such organisations. I have no reason to distrust this Minister: I rate him highly, and in all the posts that he has held he has been straight, honourable and transparent with this House. Therefore, when he comes before us today and says, "This is a wicked, nasty organisation that has been involved in gross acts of violence in the horn of Africa and in Somalia. It seeks to destabilise the Somali Government, and it fits the Government's criteria for proscribed organisations," we accept what he says, because neither I nor Mr. Blunt, Tom Brake nor any other Member has had the benefit of seeing the information that he has seen. However, there are problems with the scrutiny of such measures and with just accepting absolutely everything that is said without probing and prodding, which is the role of Parliament.

As the Minister knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is a distinguished member, produced a report about the need to bring together the various agencies and organisations that deal with counter-terrorism. We suggested establishing a national security council, with advisers to the Prime Minister who would then be able to come before the House and answer questions on issues such as that which we are debating today. Sadly, the Government were dismissive of our report-that is politics: we are dismissive of certain aspects of what the Government do-but our proposal bears scrutiny, because we were suggesting a more effective way of putting such information before the House.

If the Minister says that al-Shabaab meets the criteria and the Home Secretary has decided to proscribe the group, we will go along with that and there will be no vote in the House today on this matter. I cannot see any Member or political party doubting the sincerity of the Government in this respect.

However, the Minister needs to look very carefully at the effect of the proscription on the wider Somalian community. I accept his statement that he cannot micro- manage the way in which these orders operate, but I can tell him-and call on other Members who are not present today to give him examples-of the effects of proscription of organisations such as the LTTE. As far as I am concerned, that organisation no longer exists. It was defeated in Sri Lanka a few months ago, and its leader has been executed. It does not function in Sri Lanka at all now. I do not believe it ever functioned in the United Kingdom, and I did not therefore see the need to proscribe it here.

The Government need to pay heed to the effect of that proscription on the wider Tamil community, and to the effect that the proscription of al-Shabaab will have on the 45,000 Somalis who live in the United Kingdom. When members of the Somalian community wish to hold meetings to discuss the terrible situation in Somalia, they will face a lot of pressure from the police and from the Government of Somalia. They will be told that their meeting is actually in support of al-Shabaab. They might have absolutely no connections or dealings with al-Shabaab; they might, as the Minister has said, have come to this country in order to escape its activities, but the fact that they are holding a meeting to discuss the situation in Somalia will result in police activity and almost certainly in the embassy of Somalia writing to the organisations from which the people wish to book accommodation for their meeting, to prevent those meetings from taking place. How do I know this? I know it because that is precisely what happened to the British Tamils Forum and members of the Tamil community over the past few years, since the Government decided to proscribe the LTTE.

The Minister says that there is a simple answer to all this: if people do not like proscription, they can appeal to the independent commission that the Government have set up. That is precisely what the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran has done in respect of its proscription, in relation to its activities in Iran. Did the Government accept the wishes of the independent commission that they set up when the People's Mujahedeen appealed to it and asked it to raise the proscription? Absolutely not! The Government fought their own commission-their own creation, which was supposed to act independently-tooth and nail, all the way to the Supreme Court, which in those days was in the House of Lords, until they lost and had to give in. Then, a Minister-not this one-had to come before the House and eat humble pie at the Dispatch Box because the Government had to recognise that they could not defy the highest court in the land.

That is why I say to the Minister that, although we will not vote against the motion to proscribe al-Shabaab, I do not think he has given sufficient consideration to the consequences of his action. I know he is a good Minister; he is also a busy Minister, and Home Office Ministers have to accept the advice presented to them by their civil servants. I hope that, as the Minister responsible for counter-terrorism, he will ask the large number of civil servants who have advised him on this issue whether the Government go back and look at the consequences for communities of the proscription of these organisations. I hope he will also ask whether they look at the list to ensure that it is absolutely current and that the organisations still exist. Who looks at the list? When do the submissions come up to Ministers? How many meetings has he had with his civil servants to discuss the number of organisations on that list? Is there a monthly meeting, or does it take place every three or four months? When does he probe and push his civil servants into giving him this information? That is what we expect of the Government when we go along with a motion such as this, because, although we do not have the information that he has, we accept everything that he says and believe the case that he makes.

When I asked the Minister whether the criteria had been met, he reeled off a list of all the terrible atrocities that al-Shabaab had been involved in. I am not sure, however, whether he told the House that those activities had found their way to the UK mainland. I accept his assertion that it might well be involved in terrorist activities in the horn of Africa, but is it involved in these activities in the United Kingdom? Are al-Shabaab cells operating in the UK at the moment? This is not private information that the Minister needs to keep secret; it is the kind of information that the House needs to be made aware of. Can he satisfy the House that he has seen a file on the activities of al-Shabaab in the United Kingdom? It would bolster his case if he could say that he had, and that he has seen the evidence.

As the Minister knows, he had me from the moment he stood up at the Dispatch Box and put this proposal before the House. We give the Government a huge amount of leeway on counter-terrorism matters, as do the Opposition: the hon. Member for Reigate has spoken very eloquently in support of the Government today. In order to continue to give our support, however, we need to know that these processes of scrutiny are ongoing in the Home Office. That would help us to explain to our constituents why this is happening. There is still confusion among the 300,000 members of the British Tamil community, and there has been confusion among those who support the People's Mujahedeen.

There will now be confusion among the Somalian community in Leicester. I have a thriving British Somalian community in my constituency. There was a time when I wondered why so many Somalis were ending up in Leicester. I was told that they were making their way from the horn of Africa to Holland, where they settled in Rotterdam. Then, having become EU residents, they were deciding to exercise their right to come to the United Kingdom. They were choosing to come here and settle in places such as Leicester, London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester because they felt very safe here. From time immemorial, millions of people have come to settle in those places because Britain is the safest country for them. This is the most tolerant country in the world. It is a mirror of the world, and that is why people choose to come here when they are fleeing persecution.

I ask the Minister please to look at the consequences of what he is doing, in respect of the wider Somalian community. I have no problem with proscribing al-Shabaab, but he must realise that what he does today will have a profound effect on the Somalian community in the United Kingdom. Will he please ensure that that effect is carefully assessed, monitored and reviewed?