» Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Belmarsh Detainees

Asked why we were passing this legislation if, as the leader of the opposition had pointed out this afternoon, police already had very similar powers to arrest people suspected of terrorist activities, the PMOS said that if you arrested someone you had to arrest them on the basis of evidence. The whole point of this issue was that these were people against whom you could not get evidence that would stand up in court. The question was what did you do when you had intelligence which by its very nature you could not use, particularly in an adversarial court system. Questioned further, the PMOS said that the basis on which you arrested someone was with the view to eventually charging them. In this case you could not do that. Put to him that in an imperfect world lots of people got arrested and not charged, Chris Eubank for example, the PMOS said that in terms of general acceptance if you arrested someone you either had to charge them or let them go. Asked how if the people were so immediately dangerous as to necessitate preventing them from using a mobile phone, it wasn’t best just to arrest them, the PMOS said that was simplifying a complex situation. Anyone who had had to work with intelligence would say, as Sir Stephen Lander had recently: that the important thing was that sometimes you did not give away what it was that you knew. It was important that we protected the sources of intelligence, the nature of intelligence and the pattern of intelligence that we had. Asked why a judge would be slower at making this decision on these matter than the Home Secretary, the PMOS said that you would have to have the appropriate judge and you had to go through the judicial process. What you were relying on was the intelligence. You had to have a situation where only a small number of people had access to that intelligence. We were dealing with highly sensitive information. There was also the secondary point which Charles Clarke himself made which was that in the end it came down to an assessment of the threat to the country. Therefore it was right that the Home Secretary, who was accountable to Parliament, ultimately made the judgment about how to stop a threat to the country.

Asked whether without these new measures these people would still have been locked up without charge, the PMOS said that we had been in this situation because up to now, we had not had, as ACPO referred to them, the appropriate tools to deal with the threat. What the new legislation gave the police and the security service was a range of tools which could be applied appropriately. Asked if the range of measures could be combined, the PMOS said: of course. If you believed that the threat was lessened by restricting people to a particular area and also by stopping them talking to particular people then measures could be taken.

Asked why we couldn’t use the Commissioner for the Intelligence Services who was a high court judge to judge these cases, the PMOS said that that it was the Home Secretary’s responsibility to deal with issues of national security. In the end if it came down to a judgment about national security it was right that the Home Secretary made that decision. Asked if the Home Secretary risked looking foolish if judges repeatedly overturned his initial decisions, the PMOS said that he did not answer hypothetical questions. The important thing was that the Home Secretary had the ability to act flexibly. That was what the Police and the Intelligence services had said was necessary. Put to him that it had seemed to be the case that the Belmarsh detainees had not been held because they were an imminent threat but rather because they were a potential threat, the PMOS said that not every threat was the same. If you had information that someone was going to do something in a short timescale then you had to be able to act on that. Threats did not come in neat packages. Put to him that if you found out that someone was going to blow up the House of Parliament surely you arrested them, the PMOS said that again people were oversimplifying the nature of the level of threat.

Asked if there was certain types of intelligence that were so sensitive they couldn’t even be shown to the judiciary, the PMOS said that he didn’t want to get into too much detail on this for obvious reasons, but there were types of information that were so sensitive that it was important that they were not widely spread.

Asked if we were going to derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights on this issue since it was such a benefit to terrorist suspects, the PMOS said that we should be clear that the European Convention on Human Rights was of enormous benefit to this country and it should not be smeared as being only of benefit to terrorist suspects. It was enormous benefit to British citizens when they travelled abroad, it was of enormous benefit in terms of the country as a whole and the country’s international reputation. Therefore it was important that you did not derogate unless you absolutely had to. Where it was absolutely necessary that was something this Government was prepared to do but it was nothing that should be done unless we had to.

Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news

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