National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 8th September 2022.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 59, in clause 58, page 42, line 2, at end insert—
“(2A) If the court concludes following its consideration under subsection (2) that the claimant has not committed wrongdoing involving—
(a) the commission of a terrorism offence, or
(b) other involvement in terrorism-related activity, subsection (3) does not apply.”
Clauses 58 to 60 stand part.
Under the Bill, courts can formally be required to consider whether to reduce or withhold damages awarded when they find for the claimant in a national security claim where the claimant’s own wrongdoing of a terrorist nature should be taken into account. I will set out the detail of the reforms when I speak to clauses 58 and 59.
On clause 57, it is important to set out the types of cases in which the powers that would be exercised in clauses 58 and 59 would apply, and those in which they would be excluded from applying. The clause establishes that the reforms to reduce damages would apply only in cases that relate to national security proceedings. Those are cases in which one of the parties in the proceedings has presented evidence or made submissions to the court on a matter of national security. That particularly applies to specified types of claims—for example, those involving the use of investigative powers or surveillance, or the activities of the UK’s intelligence services, and cases relating to terrorism-related activity in the UK or overseas. However, the legislation excludes claims brought under the Human Rights Act 1998. The clause specifies that the reforms apply only to claims that are brought against the Crown, which reflects the fact that this cohort of cases is aimed at actions brought against our national security services.
Clause 58 details the measures under which courts can be formally required to consider whether to reduce or withhold damages awarded when the court finds for the claimant in a national security claim, but the claimant’s wrongdoing of a terrorist nature should be taken into account. This measure is aimed at those cases where a claimant, often based overseas, makes a claim against UK security services that is based on, or related to, the claimant’s own involvement in terrorist activity. Although courts already have discretion over the amount of damages to award, they can in theory make a declaration on a finding of fact outcome with no award. In civil tort cases, however, this approach is very rarely taken. In such cases, the courts follow a regular pattern by seeking to establish liability, calculate compensation and award damages. The Bill would go further by requiring courts to consider reducing or removing damages in exceptional cases. These are cases involving matters of national security in which the claimant’s case relates to their involvement in terrorism—for example, to personal injury sustained in the course of such activities—where a claim is then made against UK security services.
It is important to note that the Bill does not fetter the court’s discretion; judges will still be able to determine cases fairly, independently and objectively. However, we think it is appropriate in these cases that they consider the claimant’s conduct as well as the state’s. Here, as in the companion measures on damages freezing and forfeiture, the Government have an overriding duty of public protection and the safety of society. The measures will reduce the prospect of large sums in damages being paid to people associated with terrorism, who may use those resources to fund acts of terror.
In addressing amendment 59, I have spoken about the duty imposed on the court to consider, in the circumstances of the case and on the evidence presented, whether it would be appropriate for the claimant’s damages award to be reduced, including to nil. The key word there is “consider”. The legislation is not fettering the court’s discretion. Judges will assess whether, on the balance of probabilities, the factors set out in subsection (2) are made out, and if they are, whether a reduction in damages is appropriate. If the court is satisfied, it will assess what an appropriate reduction in damages should be. In making that assessment, the court will receive submissions from both the security services and claimant, and there will be a right of appeal. The proceedings will be able to rely on the closed material procedures where necessary, to ensure that there is a fair trial and that the evidence is tested. It is also important to note that the claimant will have a right of appeal against the decision of the court.
Amendment 59, tabled by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, seeks to make it explicit in the Bill that the court will not be required to consider reducing damages when the claimant has not been involved in the commission of terrorist offences or other terrorist-related activity. The Government’s intention is not for this reform to apply in national security cases where a claimant had no involvement in wrongdoing of a terrorist nature; nor is it contemplated that the security services would make an application for this duty to be exercised by the court in such cases. The Government will seek to introduce an amendment to clarify this point in the Bill once consultations with parliamentary counsel have concluded. In such case, I ask the hon. Member to withdraw her amendment, and I will be happy to discuss the issue with her in advance of the Government tabling its proposed amendment.
Clause 59 provides some supplemental procedural requirements, including safeguards, for the Crown’s application for the court to exercise its duty under clause 58. As I have outlined, the measure is aimed at those cases where a claimant, often based overseas, makes a claim against the UK security services that is related to that claimant’s involvement in terrorist activity. Clause 59 supports and supplements clause 58 by setting out the essential requirements of an application made under that clause. The procedural and evidential requirements are set out, as well as the grounds on which the court may refuse an application. We are confident that our measures provide a reasonable, proper and proportionate balance between the right to access justice, and the need to protect national security and to properly deploy the resources devoted to it. The reforms will have a deterrent effect on litigation, so that the UK is no longer seen as such a soft touch for litigation of this nature.
Finally, clause 60 is designed to ensure that interpretation of the legislation by the courts and others will be consistent with terms defined and understood in existing statutes that concern national security, and in measures to combat terrorism. As such, the clause defines relevant terms used in the Bill, such as “terrorism offence” and “intelligence service”. That ensures that there is no inconsistency or ambiguity in the wider legal framework, and that the Bill complements existing legislation. The clause clarifies the relatively narrow cohort of cases at which these reforms are aimed, which are those brought against the Crown on matters of national security, in which a claimant has had some involvement with terrorist activities or offences.
I have heard what the Minister said. The Committee is finding common cause on these matters, as we do on much of the Bill. This is in no way a criticism of him, his speech or what he is offering, but it is a shame that there has been no Justice Ministers on this Bill. Frankly, part 3 of the Bill is far more concerned with justice measures than it is with home affairs in the classic sense. I have felt for some of the many Home Office Ministers who have been in front of us during this Committee in the role of Security Minister; they have had to justify things that did not relate to their Department.
My problem with part 3 more generally—then I will come on to my amendment—and this was clear from the evidence sessions, some four Ministers ago, concerns the nature of deterrents. As we go through the Bill and look over each acronym—we have all learned them like a second language by now—we are seeking to protect and secure our nation. Nobody in this room has any greater claim to do that than anybody else. That is all we seek to do. The trouble with much of part 3—evidence on this has been presented to us—is that it potentially reverses that. Parts of it are of concern for the prevention of terrorism. That is a fundamental line that needs to be drawn. Labour certainly wishes the Government, with their new slew of Ministers, to go back and investigate whether prevention is at the very heart of what is being suggested in part 3 more generally.
I totally see where the desire for part 3 comes from. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, will know only too well, I have for many years helped to represent the families of the Birmingham pub bombings victims, who suffered gravely from terrorism. One of the major parts of the battle—this is certainly public opinion about these sorts of cases; as the Minister pointed out, the Government are considered to be a soft touch on some of these cases—is the idea that terrorists get funding for legal aid while victims do not. In the case of the Birmingham pub bombings families, the issue was that they, rather than the terrorists, did not get legal aid in a case that they were bringing against the state. There is a real questioning of why we are paying for baddies to take the Government to court, when the people who have to go through inquest after inquest do not get legal aid. I totally understand that underpinning feeling.
However, none of what has been suggested in part 3 would have given the families of the Birmingham pub bombings victims access to legal aid. I suggest that if there is real concern about that problem at the Ministry of Justice, the Government should look at their policies on legal aid more broadly.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Sadly, over the past 12 years, legal aid has been cut back in this country. It is now a tax on the innocent, in my view. Would she agree that, while people find legal aid for potential terrorists abhorrent, there is a long list of other people that the public might want to withdraw legal aid from? That could include rapists, paedophiles, murderers—you name it. The core point is that those individuals need to go before a court. That is not just for those individuals, but for the potential victims, so that we can ensure that the truth comes out and justice is served.
I agree 100%. For much of my career, I have been painted as being very one-sided on such matters, but I know that justice has been properly served to the victims I have worked with in my life by a justice system that is properly resourced.
I have seen the degradation of legal aid harm victims’ processes in court. It holds things up and, in lots of cases—certainly in the civil courts, which is what part 3 is largely about—it has caused a perverse situation whereby perpetrators are able to cross-examine victims, as neither has access to any advocacy because neither qualified for legal aid. There is therefore the perverse situation that victims of domestic abuse or rape can, in family court, be cross-examined by their rapist. There is potential for that same unintended consequence as a result of what is being proposed in the Bill. I say that it is an unintended consequence; I think that the will to do what has been put in the Bill comes from a decent, if somewhat misguided, place.
I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend. The problem with the Bill, as she suggests, is that we have a Home Office Minister, and an MOJ shadow operation in the back. The lifting of that shadow, via the dismissal of Dominic Raab, might help the process and ensure that we get a Bill that is at least functional and does everything we want it to do.
Throughout this Committee, a lot of people have been called on to comment on what is going on internally on the Government Benches. I may be less qualified than others, but I suspect that what my right hon. Friend says about the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton may well be true. I wish him the best of luck on the Back Benches.
I will move on to the amendment. I have heard what the Minister has graciously said about the Bill not intending to come in the way of people who are caught up in acts of terrorism. However, its drafting leaves that open. I also hear what he says about proposing further amendments in this space.
Amendment 59 seeks to protect innocent bystanders, or even victims of crime, from being excluded from seeking damages for harm caused by the state. The Bill provides for a duty on the court, in cases where evidence is related to the intelligence services, to consider reducing damages that could be paid in a claim against the state. Potentially, the whole amount can be denied. While we of course support the concept that public money via damages should not be used to fund terrorism, the drafting of the clause is incredibly broad. The potential consequences of such loose and opaque language are disturbing and must be taken seriously if we are not to undermine the values we seek to uphold with this legislation.
I will demonstrate the issues—as I am sure nobody here will be surprised to hear this—through a gendered lens. In the discourse on security and terrorism, we commonly forget about women. In the assessment, analysis and debate, the impact and experiences of women do not often play a central role. I will use the platform I have to unpack the issues through consideration of how they will affect a victim of gendered violence.
Earlier this year, a case hit the headlines. The BBC claimed that an MI5 informant—I shall call him X—used his status to abuse his partner. I will share just a few of the details from the investigation. Beth—not her real name—a British national, met the MI5 informant online. As time passed, she became aware that he collected weapons, and he made her watch terrorist videos of violence. She realised he was a misogynist and extremist. Beth claimed he sexually assaulted her, was abusive and coercive, and used his position in the British security forces to terrorise her. She said:
“He had complete control. I was a shadow of who I am now,” and:
“There was so much psychological terror from him to me, that ultimately culminated in me having a breakdown, because I was so afraid of everything—because of how he’d made me think, the people that he was involved with, and the people who he worked for.”
Beth says X told her he worked as a covert human intelligence source, infiltrating extremist networks. Beth claimed he told her that his status meant she could not report his behaviour:
“It meant that I couldn’t speak out about any of his behaviour towards me, any of the violence I went through, sexual or physical, because he had men in high places who always had his back, who would intervene and who would actively kill me, if I spoke out”.
In a video filmed on Beth’s phone, X threatens to kill her, and attacks her with a machete. She is screaming as the video cuts out. A few hours later, Beth says he tried to cut her throat. X was arrested and charged, but the case was dropped, and the BBC claims its investigation uncovered serious issues with the police response to this incident. That is an entirely different speech for an entirely different day. Heartbreakingly, Beth had a mental breakdown and was hospitalised.
Another previous partner—we will call her Ruth—says that X also abused and terrorised her. He threatened her life and that of her child:
“He said he would be able to kill me and my daughter, too, and then put our bodies somewhere and no one would ever know who I am.”
Ruth was unable to speak due to trauma and was also admitted to hospital. She said:
“I was psychologically broken, really broken”.
There are many issues to discuss around this case, regarding how the state and intelligence services should balance the need to safeguard individuals and the need for informants who infiltrate the darkest circles of society. What I want to outline, however, is the horrendous, hellish experience of those two women at the hands of this man X: the trauma, the violence, the abuse, the isolation, and how the man exploited his position to terrorise those women, who had done nothing wrong. Under the clause, if those women had sought damages for harm caused by the state, those damages could have been limited, or reduced to zero.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not the state doing harm, but the individual?
There is almost certainly always going to be an ideological difference between the hon. Lady and me on personal responsibility and the responsibility of the state. It is of course the individual doing harm, but it is the state that intervenes to protect the parties, or the state that allows cases to be closed. The idea that the state does not have a responsibility for the human rights of a victim of crime such as this when it comes to how they are treated when they try to interact with the state is, I am afraid, for the birds. Almost every single rape victim I have ever met—I have met thousands—tells me that the initial trauma they were put through is almost nothing compared with the trauma of going through any particular state system.
The provisions of the clause, as it stands, mean that if the women had sought damages for harm, those damages would be limited, potentially, to zero. These are completely innocent bystanders, victims of crimes in which the intelligence services and their power were weaponised to abuse and control them. These women could be denied redress even if wrongdoing by the state was proven. This case, where a man was videoed attacking a woman with a machete, was then closed. Even if it were found and proven that the state was responsible, the woman would still not have a claim. The current drafting does not require that the matter over which damages are sought is directly related to terrorist activity.
I have used this case—a covert human intelligence source case—as an example, but the concerns apply to many other situations and many people whose actions will have had nothing to do with criminal activity. That cannot be right. The provisions are simply too broadly drawn.
The amendment would mean that the limitations to seeking damages apply only to those who have committed wrongdoing involving terrorism. I have made my feelings clear about part 3 of the Bill, but this is simply an amendment to make sure that innocent people definitely do not fall within the scope of the provisions when they are caught up in a terrible situation, which I am very glad the Minister has recognised. The Bill must include this constraint.
There are other broad, loose elements in the Bill that are concerning. I raise them now and urge clarification from the Minister. Seeking damages is a tool to hold the state accountable. The clauses apply only when courts have already found the UK Government liable for wrongdoing. How are the Government going to ensure the provisions in these clauses are not used to allow the Government to evade being held accountable for their actions?
The current drafting seems to suggest that, if there is any evidence related to national security or the intelligence services, the damages for harm could be reduced or erased. The Law Commission has highlighted that that could create a perverse situation where the state could introduce pointless or insignificant national security evidence in order to avoid paying damages under the provisions in the Bill. How will the Government safeguard against that situation? It is a perfectly reasonable to want to have safeguards against that situation in place.
Reprieve has argued that clauses 57 to 60 could limit the ability of victims of torture to seek legal redress for harm done. The state could claim, for example, that in becoming complicit in torture or abuse, the UK was seeking to prevent or limit some other risk of harm, and so reduce or erase damages for a claimant.
Clause 57 rightly excludes from the definition of “national security proceedings” any claims under the Human Rights Act 1998. Our concern is the breadth of the clauses. They potentially enable the state to avoid paying out for UK complicity in torture and abuse under UK civil law. Most survivors of torture seek redress through ordinary civil claims. I will not go into details because it is sub judice, but the case of Jagtar Singh Johal, which was debated in the House yesterday, springs to mind.
We seek reassurance that the clauses will not be used to evade accountability and redress for complicity in abuse. Furthermore, the involvement of the intelligence services in other countries is covered by the Bill, but how do the Government intend to ensure that conduct is legal and ethical under UK law? What safeguards exist around that?
Many concerns and questions remain about the drafting of this part of the Bill, and we urge that our amendment be included in it. We will seek to vote on this issue at the next Commons stage of the Bill’s passage should we not be satisfied, but I have heard the Minister’s words and I thank him.
I endorse what my hon. Friend has just said from the Front Bench regarding the breadth of some of these provisions, but before the Minister replies I want to put another point to him. There is going to be a question about the necessity of the provisions, and whether or not they give a court any real, additional power beyond what it already inherently has.
There is a general requirement that judges would apply in any case to those coming before the court and seeking redress, which is that they have to come with clean hands. If any court has a case before it where some ne’er do well is trying to take advantage of court proceedings to get damages for something that they then intend to use for nefarious purposes, it is perfectly normal for that court, under its inherent jurisdiction and the rules of equity, to take into account, when deciding damages, whether or not the applicant has come to the court with clean hands.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what tends to get the headlines in newspapers is when people bring claims in these kinds of cases? Some of the cases seem quite horrific and brazen, but what never gets reported is that they are usually thrown out, because, as my hon. Friend has outlined, the courts already have powers to do so. The fact that someone has the ability to bring a case does not necessarily mean that it is going to be successful.
Indeed. Certainly, my experience of the courts is that judges are not daft: if they have somebody arguing a case before them and seeking damages who has been a very badly behaved individual, that person is less likely to get damages in the first place, and to the extent that they get any damages, they are likely to be exceedingly small—probably not enough to cover the costs they have incurred in bringing the case. Where those cases have been legally aided, zero damages would certainly be an option in most of them.
As such, I wonder whether any of these provisions are actually necessary. They are setting out requirements for judges, telling them what they must do in all cases and creating extra procedures, but they do not go an awful lot further than the inherent jurisdiction of the court under the general rules of equity. As I say, judges are not daft: they know what their powers are, and they tend to apply them.
My other concern regarding these provisions is that, if they stay in the Bill and ossify into court procedures that have to be undertaken in each case, there will be a slippery slope. This legislation addresses instances where especially badly behaved people are coming before a court, seeking damages that they intend to use for nefarious purposes. In this particular case, it is terrorism-related offences, but what about gangsters? What about murderers? We can all think of other dodgy characters who could go to court without clean hands, seeking damages to further their nefarious behaviours.
Once all these procedures are set in aspic, in statute, it is very easy for draftsmen—well, I am not having a go at parliamentary draftsmen, who work very hard. It is easy for the next outraged junior Minister, clearly not from the Home Office but from some other Department, to say at some point in the next couple of years, “We will use those provisions that were in the National Security Bill.” We may see a slippery slope, where these provisions are extended to other nefarious characters who might decide to go before the courts seeking damages. All the while, judges have an inherent jurisdiction and can make their own decisions. I am really not sure that the measures are at all necessary, and while the Minister is looking at some of these things, I invite him to think about removing them entirely. In any event, even if he decides that these unnecessary measures will remain in the Bill, they are certainly too broad.
There is lots in the Bill on which there is cross-party agreement. We want to achieve a situation whereby law enforcement, our agencies and others have maximum powers to stop the real threat out there from those who wish to do us harm. Clause 57, and the ones on legal aid, which we will come to next, seem to have been plonked into the Bill as headline-grabbing measures—“We will do this because it will look as though we’re tough on terrorists.” I do not think they add anything to the ability of our security services to do their work; nor do they ensure that our courts deal with such cases effectively, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood has outlined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned a case. I will not refer to it in detail—my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and I are members of the ISC, which has looked at it in detail—but it comes back to the checks and balances point that I made this morning, and not just in terms of security. When the state does something that leads to a wrong being committed against a citizen, there needs to be a redress mechanism, and I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood that the provision will be extended to other areas. The measures will get a nice headline for the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton, who clearly wants to be seen as tough on terrorism, but I am not sure that, in practice, they represent anything of the sort.
Increasingly—and this is a slippery slope of which politicians need to be wary— we in this country react to newspaper headlines about what the courts do, such as “They have got X, Y or Z wrong.” Is the justice system or the jury system perfect? No, they are not, but they are robust. As my hon. Friend has just said, judges know in most cases when someone is pursuing a claim that is not grounded—they are experienced. I believe that we should leave that to courts and judges to decide.
When a newspaper rings up to say, “This judge has just done X, Y and Z. Isn’t this terrible?”, I always urge colleagues to dig into it because in most cases, the headline is completely different from the facts of the case. Without hearing the facts of the case in detail, making an instant judgment is difficult. I do not accept that our judges and judiciary are somehow woolly liberals who are prepared to turn a blind eye to justice; they are robust individuals who want not only to uphold the law, but to ensure that they get the right balance between the rights of the state and the rights of the citizen, as I mentioned earlier.
I accept that the Minister cannot accept the amendments today and that he perhaps does not want to carve out this piece of the Bill now, but discussion needs to be had on this—we will come to the next bit in a minute. If it does not get carved out here, when it goes to the other place, which is full of legal experts and people with a lifetime and huge experience in this area, it will get sliced to pieces. It is not just bad drafting; it is Ministers trying to put provisions in Bills for political purposes, rather than because they make common sense. As I said the other day, what irritates me is that, if we are going to take the provision out, we should do so in this House rather than allow it to go to the House of Lords. It will not survive that process, and we need to be honest about that. It is far better that we do it, and actually do our job, which is scrutinising legislation.
I said the other day, when the Minister was not here, that there is something that has built up over the last 21 years that I have been in the House: Ministers take it as a slight if a provision gets dropped when a Bill goes through the Commons, as though that is a weakness of the system. No, it is not: it is proper scrutiny. With a certain amount of co-operation, much of the Bill could go straight through, but measures such as this cannot, unfortunately.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for her comments. I appreciate the tone with which she approached this matter, and the intent with which she seeks to amend the Bill. She also heard my comments, and my commitment to listen more closely. There are slight differences—important differences—between terrorism and other crimes: one is a direct attack on the state, and a betrayal of the very protections that the state affords to everyone, whereas other crimes are by their nature of a different nature. That is not an absolute, and I appreciate that that raises different elements, but it is worth noting.
It is also important to remember that we have already instructed parliamentary counsel to prepare a redraft of part of the Bill, to make it narrowly drawn and to capture only those involved in terrorism. I appreciate the points that the hon. Lady made. I would argue that, as I mentioned, courts do not generally consider reducing damages in these cases, and we are not telling them to do so but inviting them to consider doing so. Courts are still independent, and I appreciate her point.
I am sorry, but what is the purpose of the measure? I know judges. The Minister might want to ask them to reduce damages, but he is not going to interfere with their independence. Frankly, therefore, is it really worth it?
The point of this House is to indicate opinion as well. I do know two judges, under whose roofs I have lived, and both of them left me in absolutely no doubt as to who takes the decision. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
As I said in my opening speech on the clause, the courts when awarding civil tort damages will only very rarely exercise their right to limit them. That is why we believe it is right to require the courts to consider doing so, even if they then do not do so. I hope that answers the questions at this stage, and I repeat my commitment to engage in further conversation with members of the Committee.