Oral Questions in the Lords highlighted the dilemmas being faced by the new Coalition Government in trying to reconcile their previous position – or rather positions (the LibDems don’t necessarily have the same view as the Tories) – and the reality of Government.
Baroness Neville-Jones, the Security Minister, was pressed repeatedly by Labour Peeers (including me) on the problems they face following the decision by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission that two individuals pose a “severe threat” to national security but cannot be deported to their country of origin.
Previously firm commitments have now become “reviews” and subject o indeterminate timescales 0r – in the case of the intention to repeal the Human Rights Act airbrushed from history:
Asked By Lord Corbett of Castle Vale
To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they decided not to contest the judgment of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission on 18 May that two men considered a “serious threat” to national security could not be deported to Pakistan.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, to appeal further there must be present an arguable material error of law in the judgment. The decision of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission was studied closely by officials and the Queen’s Counsel and no such error was found. Consequently, there were no grounds on which to contest the decision. However, departments—including, notably, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—continue to pursue the circumstances in which it would be possible to return these men to Pakistan.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission decided that these two terrorist suspects—they were never charged—could not be deported to Pakistan because of that country’s abuse of legal and human rights. Does that not reinforce what was said to be the Government’s determination to repeal the Human Rights Act? If that is the case, does it have the enthusiastic support of the Liberal Democrats?
Baroness Neville-Jones: I can recognise wedge-driving when I see it. I do not think that there is a commitment on the part of the coalition to repeal the Human Rights Act. We are certainly going to look at the possibility of a Bill of Rights which is in conformity with the obligations that we have under the Human Rights Act.
Lord Howarth of Newport: What will the coalition do about control orders, of which the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat Party and the judges were so critical in recent years? Now that it has responsibility for the lives and safety of the people of this country, what will it do when there is the apprehension of individuals who there is good reason to believe are terrorists; who cannot be deported because of our adherence to the European convention; and against whom the evidence to secure a conviction cannot be produced in court for good reasons of national security?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, there are two parts to that question. In the particular case we are looking at, I can assure the House that appropriate safety measures have been taken in respect of the individuals concerned. As for control orders, the House may be aware that the coalition has a commitment to review their use. I cannot go further on what the outcome of that review will be until such time as we have conducted it. However, it is clear that we would like to reduce our reliance on such measures as is consistent with the security of this nation.
Lord Dubs: Would not one way of reducing dependence on control orders be to look again at the question of intercept evidence? Will the Minister indicate whether the coalition is looking at the possibility that intercept evidence might be used in our courts?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, as the House will be aware, the Chilcot commission is conducting its work but has not yet finished it. I have had discussions on this and I am quite satisfied that the serious work being done by the Chilcot commission needs to be concluded. As the noble Lord knows, we would like to be able to introduce intercept evidence but we have to await the outcome of that work. We will come back to the House.
Lord Avebury: In the SIAC judgment to which the Question refers, was there not a substantial discussion of the risk that these two people, if sent back to Pakistan, would be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment and that therefore it would have been a breach of the ECHR? However, did not SIAC also add that if the two people who went back voluntarily were not subjected to treatment of that kind, the question of whether the two individuals the subject of the Question might be deported could be revisited?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, the individuals who returned voluntarily did so many months ago, before the hearing. That fact is relevant to the subsequent consideration of the individuals referred to in the Question. The fact that they returned and were not ill treated was one of the reasons for the Government considering that Nasser and Khan would not be ill treated on return. However, the court took the view that this was not sufficiently reliable in their case. The ability to return the two men can be revisited if circumstances change, and we are working on creating the circumstances in which that might be possible.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, does not the issue whether these two individuals should be deported raise a number of fundamental questions about the way in which national security is to be pursued? First, had intercept been available as evidence, would it have provided a different route for dealing with the individuals? Secondly, do the costs associated with the regime being put around the individuals represent the most efficient way of managing individuals who are considered a severe threat to the UK?
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, those are very good questions. I shall not trespass on the hypothetical question of whether it would have been different had we had intercept as evidence. It is clearly a relevant issue, which is one of the reasons why we want to explore its availability. As for control orders, cost is clearly one element in considering what we need to do to keep the people of this country safe. The efficiency of the regime is also an element. We are considering precisely those issues in our review of control orders.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but the Minister’s answer raises a number of questions. First, when will the control order study be finished? Are we looking at something that is fairly rapid? The next relates to the resources being used to look at subjects of interest. There is a difficult balance to be struck between the cost of control orders and the cost of doing it in other ways. I am concerned that, as the CSR comes galloping down the track towards us, we can ensure that we have the money required for surveillance of the subjects of interest. As the Minister well knows, it is a very close-run thing. I want to be sure that that money will be protected.
Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, the Government will not—I repeat not—put the safety of this country at risk. As for the noble Lord’s question on the review of control orders, I can tell your Lordships’ House that we are looking at it now; it is an issue for the present. I cannot tell your Lordships exactly when the review will be completed. It is more important that it is done properly than that it is done very quickly.”
It was noticeable that there was no string of Coalition-supporting Peers offering helpful or supportive supplementary questions.