[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair] — Terrorism (Detention and Human Rights)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 7th December 2006.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs 3:19 pm, 7th December 2006

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Dismore, and I thank him for the report that his Committee has prepared. I also congratulate Mr. Denham on a very fine and incisive opening speech.

On Monday, I spent some time at Belmarsh prison and had the salutary experience of briefly glimpsing a 32-year-old man who was starting a 40-year sentence. Whatever one thinks about the deliberations of the Government and the Opposition parties on these issues, or about the rights and wrongs of the crimes committed by the people we are discussing, it is none the less a chilling fact that, for the rest of his life, that man will spend 19 hours a day locked down. I want to record my thanks to the governor and staff of Belmarsh for the work that they do and the extremely humane way in which they handle the prisoners. I was terribly impressed.

It is tempting for someone like me, who has spent a long time fighting terrorism at the sharp end, to think that he has the answers and can, as a practitioner rather than a theoretician, say, "It wasn't like that in my day; this is what we did in hot blood, on the end of a rifle or a baton, to people who had tried to carry out particular acts, and who indeed killed friends and colleagues." I would not pretend for one moment thatI have the answers. I was extremely interested to hear the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen talking about witnesses who have long service and experience in Ulster and who said that there is no difference between what happened in the three decades of that campaign and what is happening now. There are huge differences and people with the sort of experience that I have could be drawn down very wrong avenues, to make some very wrong conclusions. None the less, there are valid comparisons to be made, andI shall ask the Minister a couple of questions; some of the matters on which I shall ask him for illumination arise from my practical experience, and some are based on experience that I gathered in later years, in what I hope was a more mature way than when I was a young, roaring infantry officer.

A panoply of ideas has been put forward to try to make pre-charge detention more or less effective—we have talked, for instance, about intercept; although we have not mentioned it yet, the report mentions the business of preferring a lesser charge; and post-charge questioning is another such idea—but anyone who has seen those things in practice would not begin to think that any of them is a silver bullet, to borrow the phrase. None the less, I think that they are all useful tools, which may make it possible not to have to extend the period of pre-charge detention. Anyone who argues that the problems can be solved with any one tool is wrong.

My first question to the Minister arises from the fact that I disagree slightly with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen about the business of earlier arrests. My experience in Ulster was that we frequently carried out arrests that were referred to, rightly or improperly, as preventive arrests, at an early stage of the terrorist process. The devices that we were dealing with were unlikely to kill more than, say, dozens of people—and clearly, dozens was too many, but none the less a 1,000 lb bomb in a crowded city centre would kill a lot of people. The only devices that have been successfully detonated so far in our current campaign against Islamist fundamentalism are similar.

I fully appreciate that the young man whom I talked about earlier is serving a 40-year sentence for tryingto design—forgive the phrase—weapons of mass destruction, dirty devices and the like, but I ask the Minister to be clear and to throw some light on the business of why, if we were arresting IRA terrorists at an early stage, we did not then feel the need to talk about such judicial oversight as has been discussed by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen and, very eloquently, my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve. Where does the difference between the two lie, and why should it apply? In my day, we had seven days to detain those people; that was all. As far as I can remember—I should not want to suggest that I was an expert, having been very much at the blunt end—we always managed to produce a successful charge against terrorists within seven days. My view was that when we went to 14 days life would be made slightly easier for counter-terrorism in all its styles, but I began to quail when we moved to 28 days, let alone the proposed 90 days.

I am probably arguing against myself, but perhaps the Minister can help me with this one. I thought that one of the arguments that might be made for a 90-day period of detention, or even more, was about contamination. That problem is something that we did not experience at the hands of the IRA; however, most notably after 9/11 in America, several hoax and genuine threats of the use of contaminative agents of one sort or another have been made. They make it extremely difficult to get to the scene of the crime. I understand, although I do not necessarily accept, the arguments about de-encryption of disks, hard drives and the rest, but I wonder why the Government have not mentioned this issue. It is probably not helpful of me to say it, from the Opposition's point of view, because I find it quite persuasive. The Minister looks a little confused, but I should be interested to hear his views.

One of the arguments that we have deployed, particularly on the 90-day detention period, is the argument of resource. I think that the Government made the case extremely badly this time last year, and I have no doubt that we shall return to it, either in the fullness of time or, more sinisterly, hard on the back of the next incident, which is coming, I suspect, shortly. May I have clarification from the Minister that he has looked into the argument closely, and can he convince me that if a number of terrorist suspects with overseas connections are held and there are difficulties with translation, encryption, hard drives or all the other things that we have talked about before, the argument is not actually just about resource? Could not we achieve our aim with more police, legal officers and analytical experts, and if our security forces in their broadest sense were properly resourced—as they would have been if we had taken the warning of 9/11 properly, sensibly and maturely, and begun to expand our security forces as we should have done? The Minister has heard me make this argument many times before. Can he reassure me that the argument founders, or is it still a live and valid argument?

My next point is about intercept. It is terribly important to try to divorce it from the campaign in Northern Ireland. I hope that I am not compromising anything by saying this, but I think that it is now widely known that our most active source of covert intelligence against the IRA was intercept, which was used against what used to be called citizen band radio. That is no longer really very relevant. I am talking about 10 or more years ago, when it would have been disastrous to the security forces' efforts if that style of intelligence gathering had been compromised. I am not convinced that we have managed to pull ourselves out from under the shadow of Northern Ireland. I continue to be concerned about the fact that in recent conversations with Greater Manchester police, officers have said to me, "Please understand that we desperately need intercept evidence to be made admissible. Currently on a regular basis we are turning back individuals, mainly from Manchester airport, who are hellbent on killing themselves in one or another theatre of operations abroad, who have come to terms with death, but whom we can arrest only on lesser charges. They end up with a £50 fine in the magistrates court, at best, and then we return them to the community, prepared to die, at ease with themselves, and determined on their course of jihad. We need desperately to be able to use intercept to prosecute these people—to nail them and send them down."

I find that desperately persuasive. Those are police officers. None of us in the House is doing what they do. We sit on comfortable seats in warm buildings every day of the week, while those people are out risking their lives, trying to prevent gangsters and thugs from carrying out the inevitable suicide attack, in this case in the centre of Manchester. I simply do not understand why the intercept case is not being pursued with much greater energy and determination by the Government. I should be awfully grateful for a reply about that from the Minister.

My next point is about lesser charging. In my younger days, I was probably the victim of Royal Ulster Constabulary blarney: if it held a terrorist suspect beyond the seven days, it did him for tax evasion, bald tyres or something like that. I suspect that that never really happened—that it was a bit of Irish myth that one tended to believe as an ordinary soldier. However, I am extremely impressed by volume I of the Home Affairs Committee report, paragraph 103 of which states:

"The use of lesser charges was opposed by a wide range of witnesses, who raised serious practical and moral objections. We do not think it would be an appropriate response to the challenges of counter-terrorism investigations."

As far as I am concerned, that conclusion closes the argument. It impresses me hugely and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen for coming to it. I also read the report's conclusionson post-charge questioning. To my mind, they are fascinating. As paragraph 104 makes clear, the legislation states:

"A detainee may not be interviewed about an offence after they have been charged with, or informed that they may be prosecuted for it, unless the interview is necessary...to prevent or minimise harm or loss to some other person, or the public...to clear up an ambiguity" or it is

"in the interests of justice for the detainee to have put to them, and have an opportunity to comment on, information concerning the offence which has come to light since they were charged or informed they might be prosecuted."

That strikes me as very applicable. I challenge slightly what the right hon. Gentleman said about the vast majority of individuals remaining silent after arrest. Having visited a trial currently going on at the Old Bailey, my impression is that that is not the case. I should be interested if the Minister threw some light on the issue. If post-charge questioning is relatively easy to do and the legislation exists to do it, why are we not doing it? Would it not help?