Detainees

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:38 am on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 11:38 am, 18th July 2019

I thank the Minister for the Cabinet Office for advance sight of his statement. I always look forward to my debates with the Minister, even if on one recent occasion I was denied that pleasure, as he greatly enjoyed pointing out at the time. Although on that note I should say that if this time next week he ends up on a slow train to the gulag, along with the Chancellor, to be replaced by some “do or die” no-deal Brexiteer, I can tell him that it is 20° and sunny in Siberia today—so don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

On a serious note, I genuinely hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to be a regular fixture at the Dispatch Box. Unlike the new Prime Minister, he always treats his ministerial responsibilities with the seriousness and diligence they deserve—I believe I speak for the whole House when I say that.

On this occasion, I fear there will be little consensus between me and the right hon. Gentleman. I believe the outgoing Prime Minister has made a fundamental error of judgment not to make good on the commitment of her predecessor, not to honour the promises of the former Justice Secretary and now Father of the House, and not to listen to the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee. They were all absolutely clear that the only way to get to the truth on these issues and to learn lessons for the future was for the Government to commission an independent and judge-led inquiry with the power and authority to examine all the evidence, question every potential witness and come up with conclusions to which the Government would be bound.

If the argument in 2010 or 2012 was that the inquiry could not be held at that time due to ongoing criminal investigations, that argument simply does not hold water today. If the long delay and sorely mistaken judgment was the result of a genuine deliberation within Government about the merits of the public inquiry, I could possibly agree to disagree but at least respect the thought that had gone into the decision. However, I do not believe that that is the case. Even before the ISC report was published, I believe there was a deliberate attitude on the Government’s part to circle the wagons and avoid any judicial scrutiny or public consultation on the past actions of the intelligence services or the future rules by which they operate, even though it is the intelligence services themselves whose reputation and morale is damaged most by failing to deal with this scandal.

On the new guidance published today, we are told that the views of civil society have been taken into account. Right from the outset, however, we know that the Government were determined to resist those views. If we want evidence for that, just look at the letter written to me and the shadow Attorney General in June last year by the man about to become the next Prime Minister, who, titan of competence that he is, left attached to his letter the background note written by his staff explaining the position they were suggesting he take. This is what they said on the subject of public consultation with human rights groups on the guidance given to security service personnel, designed

“to reassure personnel that they are operating in accordance with UK and international law”.

According to the Foreign Office note, they had concluded that

“Public consultation…is likely to generate recommendations that we would not be able to implement without damaging national security.”

My first question to the Minister for the Cabinet Office is whether all the recommendations from civil society have been incorporated in the new guidance. Can I ask him specifically whether one of the most important recommendations they made has been adopted? Has there been an express prohibition on Ministers giving the green light to the torture of overseas detainees? If not, why not?

I could talk at further length today about the historical allegations in relation to torture and rendition dating back two decades and about the operation of secret courts, all of which I believe justify the independent judge-led inquiry for which we, the ISC and the Father of the House have called, but in the time that I have I want to make a simple point. If the Government are so confident that all the lessons of the past have been learned, that all the abuses of the past cannot be repeated, and that the new laws and procedures, which were, sadly, not strong enough before, are now in place, then what exactly do they have to fear by allowing a judge to look at this issue to examine all the evidence, interview all the witnesses and look at the new procedures and rules, so that he or she can tell the Government whether they are right?