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Clause 1

Part of Counter-Terrorism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 29th April 2008.

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Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Security, Counter-terrorism, Crime and Policing), Home Office 10:30 am, 29th April 2008

I join the hon. and learned Gentleman in welcoming you, Mr. O’Hara, to the Committee. I also concur with him in welcoming everybody to this room rather than to the dainty little room in which we had the public evidence sessions. It is a pleasure to stand to speak. With your indulgence, Mr. O’Hara, we are moving close—as I promised last week—to a session for the Committee on intercept as evidence and coroners. I think that it will be on 7 May, which will hopefully be convenient for all Members who wish to avail of it.

I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman’s opening remarks about the principle of law and the privacy of papers. I hope that we will show that that concern is reflected in this set of clauses. I also hope that we will show that the reason for this and other clauses, which is not simply to enhance or grow the police’s capability to seize papers, but to seize papers to then ascertain whether the police have the right to seize them, is the correct focus. However, it might be useful—as he implied—if I talk a little about the clause and then come back to the amendment, because that will put matters into context, with a commensurate reduction in my ramblings on a clause stand part debate.

Clause 1 introduces a power for the police to remove a document for examination to ascertain whether that document can appropriately be seized. The police can remove the document to another place, such as a police station, and retain it there until the examination is complete. The power is limited to documents found during a terrorism-related search. The power gives the  police lawful authority to take a document away for examination, to determine whether it can be seized. Hon. Members can work out for themselves examples of where that might be appropriate.

The police can already seize a document found during a search where they have reasonable grounds for believing that the item is authorised by the search power or warrant, has been obtained in consequence of the commission of an offence, or is evidence in relation to an offence. The power is to cover situations where no reasonable grounds exist. For example, where the police have conducted a search and find a document in a foreign language, they will not have been able to demonstrate fairly that they have reasonable grounds for believing that it might be evidence.

The power was first suggested by the Northern Ireland Office following the expiry, in July 2007, of a similar power that applied only to Northern Ireland and allowed the removal of a document to ascertain whether it contained information useful to terrorists. The police support the new power being extended to the whole of the United Kingdom and to allow examination of whether a document is evidence of wider terrorist purposes. People will understand that clause 1 establishes that principle, and elements of the clause detail the time frame for ascertaining whether seizure is appropriate, as do other clauses that we will discuss in relation to other amendments.

The point of the power is therefore to allow the removal of documents to ascertain whether the threshold for seizure—usually reasonable grounds for belief—is met. If the police found a document in a foreign language, they would need to remove it for translation before an officer could form the reasonable grounds for belief that the document was a terrorist publication, for example, and seizure of the document could take place. Without that power, the police may not be able to take possession of documents that might amount to significant evidence of a terrorist threat. The power may be used only when a search is carried out under the terrorism-related search powers of clause 1(1). Those allow for documents to be seized, but apply thresholds for such seizures.

The amendment would limit the power to documents found under the searches listed in clause 1(1)(d) to (f): searches for evidence of the commission of weapons-related offences; searches in relation to control orders; and searches for terrorist publications. The searches under paragraphs (a) and (c), which would be removed by the amendment, fall into two categories. The first category includes section 43(1) and (2) of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows for the search of suspected terrorists before and on arrest. Both searches allow for seizure on reasonable suspicion. It is important that the power to remove documents is attached to those powers, for the reason already given that the current threshold for seizure might not be met for a document, the initial nature of which is entirely obscure.

The second category includes the search power under paragraphs 1, 3, 11, 15, 28 and 31 of schedule 5 to the 2000 Act, which allows for searches that take place as part of a terrorist investigation. Other than the powers under paragraphs 28 and 31, which relate to Scotland, those powers are covered under part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001.