Queen’s Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 9th June 2014.

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Photo of Lord Noon Lord Noon Labour 4:41 pm, 9th June 2014

My Lords, I welcome the announcement in the gracious Speech that the Government are to introduce a slavery Bill and a Serious Crime Bill. I will touch upon three areas, and will put several suggestions to the Minister.

On the Serious Crime Bill, on Friday Mr Justice Dodgson is expected to pass sentence on Mashudur Choudhury, who was arrested on his return from Syria and whom a jury found guilty of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts. The Government estimate that around 400 Britons have travelled to Syria to join these radical jihadi groups. So far this year, police have arrested over 40 Britons who, like Mr Choudhury, they believe have returned to the UK after fighting and attending terrorist training camps in Syria.

Mr Choudhury has been convicted under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006, and as such, faces a potential life sentence. However, that Act was drafted as a consequence of the dreadful London Tube bombings on 7 July 2005, long before the Syrian uprising of 2011, and was not crafted to deal with the proliferation of terrorist training activity by British-born citizens overseas. As a consequence, it may be difficult to prosecute many of those returning from Syria under Section 5 and, with no other suitable legislation, prosecutors may have to charge many returnees with lesser offences with lower sentencing tariffs. I welcome the provisions in the Serious Crime Bill, which the Government introduced in the House last Thursday, to provide for extraterritorial jurisdiction for the Section 5 offence and to extend the existing extraterritorial jurisdiction for the Section 6 offence. That will make it much clearer to those who seek to join jihadi groups in Syria that they will face prosecution on their return to the UK.

However, the Bill as currently drafted keeps sentencing tariffs for those offences at life imprisonment and a term not exceeding 10 years respectively. I believe that in respect of Section 6 offences the public rightly expect a higher tariff, and I ask the Government to consider amending the Bill to make provision for longer sentencing. With such an amendment the legislation would help prosecutors bring these would-be terrorists to justice. It would also reassure the British public that those who go to Syria to train in the tools of terrorism and return with the intent to cause harm will receive the most severe sentences.

While we must do everything we can to keep our community safe and protected from those who would do us harm, we must also do our best to provide a safe haven for those fleeing persecution in their own lands and seeking asylum in the UK. That brings me to my second point. Keeping us safe inevitably means that many asylum seekers will be kept in detention while their backgrounds and claims are properly investigated. I have no problem with this but we must also treat them with dignity throughout that process.

I have been troubled by ongoing reports of events at Yarl’s Wood detention centre—allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable women by male guards, the failure of authorities to investigate the matters properly and the refusal to allow the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women access to the detention centre during her fact-finding mission to the UK. The Yarl’s Wood website home page states:

“We focus on decency and respect in all aspects of care for our residents and use continuous innovation to further improve and develop our service”.

Yarl’s Wood is operated by a private contractor, and I note that the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons has indicated that the contractor will be called before the committee. However, what can and will the Government do now to ensure that women held at Yarl’s Wood, or other immigration removal centres, are treated with dignity; that complaints they make are treated seriously and investigated properly; and that United Nations and any other appropriate monitoring officials are allowed free access? Is this something the noble Lord the Minister could consider tightening up by way of amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which will shortly make its way to this House from the other place?

I welcome the news that following detailed pre-legislative scrutiny a modern slavery Bill is to be introduced in this final session of Parliament. Slavery, in any form, is abhorrent, and many fall victim to it through human traffickers who exploit the poor and vulnerable. It is almost unbelievable that slavery can exist in Britain in the 21st century. Yet as we mark this year the 10th anniversary of the harrowing case of the 23 Chinese cockle-pickers who tragically died in Morecambe Bay, we continue to see further cases in the UK where vulnerable people, including children, have been forced into slavery and prostitution by traffickers.

Where Wilberforce led in the 19th century, I humbly suggest Britain must lead again in this century to rid the world of slavery, exploitation and trafficking.