Counter-terrorism and Security Powers

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Treasury – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 13th July 2010.

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Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities 3:31 pm, 13th July 2010

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving me early sight of her statement. It is important to recall that when the Terrorism Bill received its Third Reading in November 2005, it had all-party support, so both parties to the coalition Government supported the bulk of the legislation that will now be reviewed. Two things characterised that debate, which came a few months after the horror and carnage of 7/7. The first was the realisation that no change in Government policy would remove the UK from al-Qaeda's firing line and that the only response to the threat was to contest and then defeat it. The second was the extraordinary lengths that were taken to proceed on the basis of consensus, not just with the then shadow Home Secretary, Mr Davis, and the Lib Dem spokesman Mark Oaten, but with the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The threat that was faced then has not diminished. The Prime Minister put it succinctly in his statement of 6 July, when he said:

"As we meet in the relative safety of this House today, let us not forget this: as we speak, al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen are meeting in secret to plot attacks against us; terrorists are preparing to attack our forces in Afghanistan; the Real IRA is planning its next strike against security forces in Northern Ireland; and rogue regimes are still trying to acquire nuclear weapons."-[ Hansard, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 178.]

Can the Home Secretary confirm that the review is not being held to scale down the powers needed to address a diminishing threat, but is far from that? What is the latest estimate of the number of terror suspects actively engaged in complex plots and can she tell us how many such plots have been disrupted since 7/7?

The review must surely be held in the context of how those powers are working on the ground. In that context, will she provide information, if necessary on Privy Council terms, as Charles Clarke did in 2005, to allow Her Majesty's Opposition to be fully conversant with the backdrop to this review? Will she ensure that the same spirit of consensus-seeking takes place in reviewing anti-terrorism legislation that characterised the approach to the Terrorism Act 2006?

The Home Secretary's statement contained the immature and partisan attacks on the previous Government that are becoming rather tiresome and that are unworthy of a debate of this seriousness. Will she tell me in what way she considers the previous Government to have ridden roughshod over civil liberties on control orders, deportation with assurances, dealing with organisations that promote hatred or violence, or on the detention of terrorist suspects before charge?

On the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and in relation to some of the most widely spread myths about RIPA, is she aware that the interception of communications commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, concluded his latest annual report by saying that

"no evidence has emerged from the inspections which have been conducted during the last three years to indicate communications data is being used to investigate offences of a trivial nature, such as dog fouling or littering"?

What are the terms of reference for the review? They are not in the statement. Is it to be held purely in the context of civil liberties, or will it have a wider remit? We believe that it should. Does the Home Secretary think the time scale long enough to do justice to the issues under review? Given the fact that the Olympics are fast approaching, will they be a factor in the deliberations?

Given our joint desire to overcome the practical difficulties that prevent the use of intercept as evidence in our courts, given that 28-day detention has to be reapproved by Parliament each year and given that control orders are subject to annual report by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, what further safeguards does the Home Secretary believe may be necessary? I would on this occasion appreciate some answers, given the importance of the subject.

I worry about the Government's position on counter-terrorism. They admonish senior counter-terrorism police officers for daring to discuss in a closed meeting with colleagues the implication of a 25% cut in their funding. They refuse to give the police and the security services the same assurances on funding as they provide for the Department for International Development. They plan to diminish important weapons in the fight against crime and terrorism such as the DNA database and CCTV. The balance between collective security and individual freedom has to be carefully struck under the ever-changing and constantly evolving threat of international terrorism, but this review appears to be about one side of that balance.

Liberal Democrats should remember the words of John Stuart Mill, who said:

"All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people."

The Government should remember that the slow creep of complacency is a phrase often used to describe the erosion of civil liberties. It is equally applicable to our vulnerability to terrorist attack.

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