Monday 18th March 2019

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Home Office
Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate) (Con)
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18 Mar 2019, 4:32 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered E-petition 231521 relating to ISIS members returning to the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The petition has been signed by more than 580,000 people—more than any other petition that the Petitions Committee has received in this Parliament. It calls on foreign fighters who travel to Iraq and Syria in order to join the terrorist organisation Daesh—also referred to as ISIS—to have their citizenship revoked. It has gained extreme momentum in recent weeks following the publicity surrounding the case of Shamima Begum, her efforts to return to the UK and the subsequent saddening news of the death of her infant child. Despite the actions of the baby’s mother, Jarrah was a British citizen guilty of no crime. I mourn his death. The case of Shamima Begum is complex and highly emotive, and it is still ongoing. The Minister will have access to realtime details of it, so I will make no further mention of it. Rather, I will discuss the petition text in the broad context in which it was originally started.

The terrorist threat facing the United Kingdom and other western nations comes not just from one front. Even as we debate this matter here today, details of a shooting on a tram in Utrecht are still coming through. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with everybody affected in the hours ahead. The horrendous atrocities in Christchurch on Friday serve as a reminder that terrorists claim to operate in the name of many different races and religions, on behalf of many groups and ideologies, and in different regions across the world. That is a timely reminder that a single, catch-all approach may not be the most suitable means of dealing with all terrorists. I will therefore use this opportunity to consider the petition text—the proposal that restricting the return to the UK of anybody who has decided to join a terrorist group, and removing their citizenship and passports, would help keep the UK safe from terrorists and their actions.

The Home Secretary recently stated that as many as 900 people who have been deemed to be a concern to our national security have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist organisations. About 20% of those 900 have been killed on the battlefield, 40% remain in the region and 40% have returned to the UK. That means that about 360 people who are deemed to be a security concern have travelled to Iraq and Syria and since returned. Of those 900 people, more than 100 have been deprived of their British citizenship.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
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18 Mar 2019, 4:33 p.m.

More than 11,000 of my constituents have signed the petition. I believe that enemies of our country should not be allowed back into it. Does my hon. Friend agree that British citizenship should not be taken for granted, and that the decision not to allow ISIS members back into the country will act as a deterrent to others who are thinking about betraying our country?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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18 Mar 2019, 4:34 p.m.

My hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter. The fact that so many of her constituents signed the petition demonstrates the strength of feeling in many communities. Later, I will look in a bit more detail at whether and when it is right to remove citizenship. I thank her for that intervention.

The petition text states that a ban on all foreign fighters returning to the UK would send a message to others that membership of terrorist organisations is not tolerated. That is representative of a concern raised by many people that, in recent years, our democracies have taken too lax an attitude in dealing with extremism, allowing people the freedom to act in unacceptable ways that contravene traditional British values. Many people who have contacted me since this debate was scheduled worry that a precedent is being set, and that people are allowed to act as they please with no fear of consequence, resulting in an environment in which people feel able to join terrorist groups without any retribution.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
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18 Mar 2019, 4:34 p.m.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is illegal under international law to strip away someone’s nationality if thereby they are left completely stateless?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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18 Mar 2019, 4:37 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. At the moment, I am trying to articulate the concerns of the people who signed the petition. In a minute, I will talk about my own thoughts on the petition text. I am very aware of the point she makes, and I thank her for doing so, but that cannot cloud the fact that a lot of people feel this, which has resulted in the huge support for the petition. Those who have contacted me feel strongly that these are reasons for change alone.

A number of people who signed the petition think that, when foreign fighters realise that the area they have travelled to is not the utopia they anticipated, they feel able freely to return to their old lives in Britain without being prosecuted, and that taking a stronger line in denying those people the right to return to the UK would remove a substantial burden from our police force, which is required to spend time and resources in responding to terrorism-related incidents. The police’s time could be better used on other issues to maintain security and keep people safe on our streets.

A third argument that has been put forward is that the Government could do more to ensure that people who travel to countries such as Iraq and Syria to aid and abet terrorism can be reliably prosecuted for their actions on return to the UK. At present, every person returning to the UK is questioned and investigated. The Government have made it clear that, wherever possible, prosecutions are brought. However, statistics show that, of the 360 people who have returned to the UK, only 40 have been successfully prosecuted. It is of course incredibly difficult to gather evidence from regions such as the territories held by Daesh. Most people recognise and understand the difficulties that are likely to arise in trying to build a case against foreign fighters in order to level a charge against them that can be successfully prosecuted when they are in those regions.

People support the new public offence of entering or remaining in a designated area, which will enable prosecutions to be brought against people travelling to regions that the Government have designated as a terror risk. Therefore, although deprivation of citizenship may be suitable in certain unique situations, there are advantages to establishing that broader approach while retaining the ability to strip citizenship if the circumstances dictate that that would be the best course of action to keep our country safe.

Lord Walney Portrait John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Ind)
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18 Mar 2019, 4:38 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is setting out well the concerns raised in the petition. Does he agree that we ought to look exceptionally at the idea of applying the declared area offence retrospectively? That unusual but not unprecedented measure could be a way of prosecuting many of the hundreds of people who have come back to this country and are escaping prosecution at the moment.

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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18 Mar 2019, 4:40 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue. If that was something that our police and security services felt would aid them in their work, I would support it. We should consider our responsibility as a country for dealing with British nationals who have become radicalised by domestic terrorists. We should have faith in our British court system. If someone is born, raised and radicalised in Britain, it ought to be the British Government’s responsibility to hold them to account for their actions. They should be tried in front of a British jury by British judges, and held accountable to the standards required of our great legal system.

The precedent that blanket deprivation of citizenship, in contravention of international law, would set for other nations around the world should also be considered. Consider this scenario: a person from another country becomes radicalised by a terrorist group and has their citizenship from their country of birth revoked on the grounds of their eligibility for British citizenship. Were that individual’s country of birth to take the view that it wished to disown them, would it be right for the UK to be required to be responsible for the detention, rehabilitation and guarding of the future welfare of that individual?

Were such policies to be pursued by countries around the world, the extent of the problems created would be untold. For example, suspected terrorists would end up littered across the globe, with no state prepared to take them, own them and prosecute them for their crimes. Some countries could choose to go further and cancel citizenship for someone who has committed a crime at any point while they are away from their country, which would render them the responsibility of whichever state they happen to be in at that particular time.

Part of the solution to the question can be found in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which introduced temporary exclusion orders enabling the Secretary of State to render invalid a foreign fighter’s British passport and require that individual to apply for a permit to return to the United Kingdom—that was clearly a positive step. In some cases, the severe penalties for failing to comply, including lengthy prison sentences, go some way to providing a deterrent—my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) mentioned this—to people considering making the journey to join terrorists groups.

We should acknowledge that the circumstances are different in every case, so the approach that we adopt must allow Ministers, informed by this country’s security services, to evaluate every instance based on its own circumstances. A framework that allows that to happen effectively is required. We must be able to demonstrate that membership of terrorist organisations is never tolerated under any circumstances, and provide a greater deterrent to people considering becoming a foreign fighter. That can be effective only as part of a wide-ranging Government framework for tackling the problem head-on and confronting it at an earlier stage.

The measures that the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy takes to prevent people from becoming radicalised in the first place are vital to ensure that risk is minimised. I support the Government’s Prevent strategy and the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, which updates offences relating to the obtaining and sharing of terrorism-related materials. I was pleased to sit on the Public Bill Committee for that Bill as it was steered through the Commons. The new legislation ensures, for example, that material that is only viewed or streamed—rather than downloaded to form a permanent record—is also now considered an offence. There is room for the Government to go further. A July 2018 report, co-authored by the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, considered the possibility of designating treason as a new offence.

The matter of how the UK ought to deal with returning foreign fighters is clearly complex. Although a number of arguments support proposals to remove the citizenship of anybody who decides to travel to Syria or Iraq to join Daesh or any other terrorist organisation, evidence shows that adopting a catch-all solution is not always so simple. With the Government’s Prevent and Contest strategies, along with the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, I feel confident that we are taking positive steps, but more can be done.

What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to build a case for prosecuting people who have travelled to regions such as Iraq and Syria? What assurances can she give that the legislative framework is now in place to prosecute effectively any returning foreign fighters? What more are the Government doing to improve the prosecution rates of people who we know have been in the region and are a threat to our national security when they return to the UK? Finally, what consultation has she had with our security services and police forces to get a better understanding of what further powers they would like us to legislate for?

I conclude by sending my condolences to everybody affected by the attacks in Utrecht and in Christchurch. A tough and balanced approach from the Government will allow us to uphold our principles of access to justice while continuing to be one of the safest countries in the world, with security services that are the envy of the world.

Lord Walney Portrait John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Ind)
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18 Mar 2019, 4:44 p.m.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth, and it is a pleasure to follow that very measured and balanced opening contribution from the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall). It is unfortunate that the debate clashes directly with an urgent question in the main Chamber about far-right violence and online extremism in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist atrocity. That means that a number of us have had to choose between one and the other, which we did not originally think would be the case.

I will set out why I do not agree with the central proposition of the petition. The Government could be far more effective in tackling the menace of foreign fighters returning to the UK. Their current measures probably alienate people on most sides of the debate, and not for the first time.

It is abhorrent for anyone who claims to be British, who was born here and who has benefited from the manifest advantages that our country and society offer our citizens, to declare themselves effectively in opposition to everything that the UK stands for, to go as far as to travel to another country to take up arms—or to aid those taking up arms—fundamentally against the British state, and to aid actions that could result in members of the British armed forces being killed on the battlefield. Why, then, although I sympathise with its aims, do I think that the petition is wrong? There are two reasons.

The first is on the grounds of effectiveness. If we pronounced that no British citizen who went abroad as a foreign fighter would be allowed to return to the UK, we would essentially be tearing up long-standing international agreements on the exchange of citizens. That would make this country less, not more, safe, which is the opposite of the petition’s intention.

In the wake of the focus on the Shamima Begum case, I asked the Home Office to list the number of foreign citizens whom it has attempted to deport from the country, both for terrorist-related reasons and for other reasons. The officials who drafted the parliamentary answer on behalf of Ministers said that that information was not available. That sounds absurd; of course the Government know how many foreign nationals they have deported over recent years. The Government should be open about figures, particularly when that information probably stands to strengthen their overall position, which is to adhere to international rules on deporting citizens who are guilty of sufficiently serious offences.

I would be surprised if the figures, once we have them, do not show that, overall, the UK has deported more foreign extremists from our territory over the past five, 10 or 20 years than it is looking to accept back via deportation. Therefore, if we were to declare unilaterally that we will no longer accept British people back from foreign countries, not only would we be in breach of international rules, but why then would any other country accept back one of its nationals who has been found guilty, or is even suspected—people can be deported on the basis of less than a full conviction by a British court—of committing a terror offence. That approach could spectacularly backfire.

The second reason is a moral one, and I believe this strongly. When British society has created the problem—Shamima Begum was born in Britain, she is a British person and she was radicalised in Britain—she is our problem to sort out. How is it acceptable for the Government to deport the problem to another country through whatever strangulated means they used and without fully explaining them? In such circumstances, surely we need to be careful about the message we are sending as lawmakers. I am afraid that statements such as, “These people aren’t really British”, often have an undercurrent of meaning—that such a person does not look right, that they do not have the same skin colour as a British person or dress in the same way or follow the same religion as a British person. That is fundamentally wrong. We are an open society. We welcome people in and, once someone has been born here or has been accepted as British, that is it. We need to make our society work and to be far better at rooting out extremism in our country and in our communities, but the Government are not doing that sufficiently well enough.

We should pay attention not to stopping those Brits who have gone over and committed atrocities coming back, but to finding a way properly to prosecute them for any evil acts they might have done. That would be the deterrent effect to stop future generations going over.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott
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18 Mar 2019, 4:53 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that telling first-generation British citizens of Bangladeshi origin that their citizenship can be stripped from them at will is potentially counterproductive, and that Shamima Begum should have been brought home, interrogated, and put on trial if that was the right thing to do?

Lord Walney Portrait John Woodcock
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18 Mar 2019, 4:53 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. Yes, I believe strongly that Shamima Begum should be brought home and put on trial. The possibility that there is insufficient evidence to try her is deeply alarming, however, and I will come on to how the system ought to be strengthened. Anyone who looks at the case, apart from those from a narrow and legalistic background, will see a woman who travelled over to the so-called caliphate of Islamic State with the express intention of supporting it. She admitted that openly to the journalists who found her and who interviewed her subsequently. She admitted to supporting the caliphate as part of a community. How on earth can she not be prosecuted for terrorist offences? If the legal position is that proof is needed of the active aiding and abetting of violent acts, or of carrying out such acts directly, clearly the legislation is far too lax.

That is the first point on which I want the Minister to come back to me on, although I understand that she is standing in for her colleague, the Security Minister. By the way—if this is not too much of a detour, Mr Howarth —I commend the Minister, probably on behalf of everyone present and of much of the House, on what she apparently said on the margins of a vote to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), about the issue of historical child abuse. I will say no more than that and I do not expect her to comment on it for Hansard.

We should ensure that the terrorism laws are fit for purpose. If people go over there and admit to being part of and in general support of that organisation, in whatever way, that means that they are guilty of a terrorism offence, and they should be prosecuted for it. Some of my colleagues and I have long pushed for an Australian-style declared areas offence in British law—to be fair to the Security Minister, he was also on that track. That is finally being done, although it is being weakened in a way that I am concerned about, but let us see. It is good for it to be on the statute book. The Iraq and Syria conflicts will not be the only such conflicts so, in future, with such an offence, a case could be made against someone simply for going to an area that has been prohibited.

As I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate, a potentially severe threat to national security is posed by the hundreds of returnees whom it is apparently not possible to prosecute—or the enforcement agencies are not willing to prosecute them—so, in these serious times, we should make that law retrospective to cover people who went out to the area during the conflict with Daesh, to make it possible to prosecute them. If they had good reason to be there—they were genuinely part of an aid mission or were there with journalists, for example—they will be able to prove that.

What is palpably obvious, however, is that the majority of those returnees went over to support the caliphate. The failure to prosecute, or the apparent unwillingness to countenance such radical measures to hold them to account, leads people to lose faith in our judicial system and to favour the kind of measures set out in today’s petition. If the Minister cannot give an answer, I would very much appreciate one from her colleague.

The Government have announced a review of the Prevent programme. It is important for Members in all parts of the House—unfortunately, in particular, those in the Opposition—not to undermine and damage the purposes of the Prevent programme by, in essence, mimicking the criticism pushed forward and pumped into our communities by Islamists determined to delegitimise the intervention of the British state. Too many times in recent years, we have seen good people in effect taken in by the idea that the British Government should in some way not get involved at all in such issues. That is a deliberate strategy—it is exactly what Islamists of different shades, from the apparently non-violent to those committed to violent jihad, have intended to do, and it is very dangerous.

I hope that the Government will reflect on the culture of secrecy that they still maintain on this issue. We recognise that there are difficulties and that it can be awkward to talk about the lack of success, but the Government are doing themselves no favours by making it difficult to drag out information about their measures to tackle extremism. It took months for me to prise out of the Security Minister the figure of 40 successful prosecutions, and the Government still refuse to give any details of the nature of those prosecutions, despite repeated requests from journalists. In a recent meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary, with the permanent secretary sitting next to him, agreed to my request to look at that issue. I would like a response soon.

It is a total fallacy to suggest that the British state’s inefficiency in prosecuting people can be kept secret. The Government may be worried that a message is going out to communities that people can get away with extremism, but there are hundreds of people who are living examples of that message. Government secrecy will not prevent potentially vulnerable people from finding out. With respect, I suggest it is solely a measure to cover the Government’s embarrassment. If they want co-operation across the House to find more effective ways to prevent extremism, they need to begin with more transparency.

Like the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate, I hope that the Government are looking realistically at modernising treason laws. We should not simply stick that on a press release to sound more draconian and in touch with the 19th century; in these difficult times, we ought to examine that closely. I would welcome an update from the Government: what steps are they taking to look at how the law could be modernised to apply to the current situation?

Toughening up our data-sharing laws could be an important part of stopping foreign fighters before they make the journey abroad. There was debate in the main Chamber about the proposed data-sharing agreement with the United States, which I do not propose to rehearse. In recent days, following the appalling tragedies in Christchurch, social media companies have been unwilling to acknowledge their responsibility and the impact they can have. I have not tried to look for the video, shared far too readily on social media, of deeply distressing images of peaceful Muslims being gunned down as they went to pray. It is shocking that social media companies refused to pull the plug on their platforms while the vile video was being shared, which clearly could incite further acts of terror.

There is something deeply wrong in the relationship between community, Government and the social media giants. An effective way to address that could be to take down the platforms in international emergency situations. A palpable contribution to fighting the extremism that leads people to go to foreign lands could be to require companies to share with Government the IP addresses and log-in details of every user who hosts extremist content that companies take down.

Social media companies are getting better, although far slower than we would like, and are upping their game at taking down extremist materials. But there is a weird situation because, although far more is being taken down than just a year ago, the vast majority disappears into the ether. Every time that extremist material is shared online, spotted and taken down is an opportunity for Government to spot someone who has been or is being radicalised. That is better than waiting until it is too late, when they have committed a terrorist act on British soil—God forbid—or have become foreign fighters or supporters of foreign fighters abroad. The Government can do so much more. In this debate and in the weeks ahead I hope they will step up their fight.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
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18 Mar 2019, 5:07 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—something I have not said before—for setting out the petition so well. It can be quite difficult to do that in a balanced way on such a sensitive issue, but he handled it very well. He spoke of the declared area offence, which is intended to make it easier to convict those who travel to conflict areas. We tried to put appropriate safeguards in place, and we welcome measures provided that those safeguards are in place. I join him in sending our condolences to those involved in the atrocities in Utrecht and Christchurch—an urgent question is being asked about that in the Chamber. It is important to remember the victims of extremists and terrorists.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) mentioned the clash between this debate and the urgent question in the Chamber. I am curious about why we are often quick to label far right violence and extremism as that, rather than as terrorism. We are quick to describe members of Daesh and al-Qaeda as terrorists, but we seem to talk about the far right in stages; we call it extremism and violence, and only after a certain amount of time do we call it terrorism. I am a little uncomfortable with that, to be honest.

I jokingly said before the debate that I do not think the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and I have ever knowingly agreed on anything since my election in May 2015. However, halfway through his speech I found myself agreeing with almost everything he was saying—I even said, “Hear, hear” at one point. That was a shock to both of us. We did diverge at one point, where we have subtle differences of opinion, but I welcome much of what he said. He made a good point about the impact on international relations in an incredibly sensitive area if we were to disallow the return of Daesh terrorists to the UK. His point about social media companies is incredibly important. I think we would all accept that there has been an improvement in those companies’ reactions with regard to taking down content and so on, but too often their reaction is still far too slow. There is still a long way to go with regard to social media platforms doing their bit.

There is no doubting the gravity and importance of this issue and of the petition. We must all recognise that there is a deep sense of anger in the country. That is evidenced by the nearly 600,000 signatures on the petition, 582 of which came from my constituency. Regardless of our opinions on the petition or anything else, we are all deeply concerned about the threat from Daesh, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations and ideologies. I very much feel the anger—I hear it in surgeries, and I get emails the same as everybody else—of those who signed the petition. However, I do not agree with the solution they call for.

The petition asserts that removing citizenship from Daesh members would keep the UK safe from terrorism, but that is fundamentally flawed and, as we heard, flies in the face of international law. The UK must meet its international obligations, allow the return of its citizens and ensure that they face the full consequences of their actions. If we do not take responsibility for that, on whose shoulders should it fall? Stripping extremists and terrorists of their citizenship would leave a line of angry, radicalised and violent people in post-conflict regions and give them, through their extremist lens, further reason to wish violence upon the people of our countries.

Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, insisted that although he is “very concerned”—as we all are—about the individuals making their way back from Syria and elsewhere in the region, British nationals have a right to come to the UK. The Times also reported that MI5 sees individuals who have joined Daesh as potentially valuable intelligence assets in continuing the fight against Daesh and its murderous ideology at home and in the region.

However, no one who has fought for or assisted a terrorist group will ever face a warm welcome on their return to the UK. Many of these fighters have committed unimaginable acts of terror and violence against innocent people in the name of a fascist ideology; of that there can be no doubt. It is vital that we recognise that if a UK citizen becomes isolated from society and susceptible to radicalisation, it is we—our society and our Government —who failed to prevent that. As has been said already, if the UK allows radicalisation to happen, it is our responsibility to make amends and bring the UK national in question to justice.

Having been the SNP’s Front-Bench spokesman on the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill—I am sure that I took interventions from the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness—I very much look forward to the review of the Prevent strategy that the Opposition secured during the Bill’s passage. We will seek to ensure that the review is independent and that its scope is wide enough for it to be truly effective. The point was made earlier that that is not about watering down our approach to Prevent; I say in response that it is about ensuring that it is effective, which I think we all want.

Between 2014 and 2017 there was a dramatic rise in the number of UK citizens who lost their citizenship, so will the Minister carry out a full review of the powers available to the Home Office to strip an individual of their citizenship? Statistics show that citizenship deprivation was used only a handful of times a year, but its use rocketed from 14 times as recently as 2016 to 104 times in 2017. Under the Immigration Act 2014, the UK Government are required to carry out a review of the Home Secretary’s power to revoke citizenship. The first such review was conducted in 2016 by the eminent QC David Anderson—he is now Lord Anderson—in his capacity as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, but no subsequent review has been published, and the position of independent reviewer is currently vacant. The next review would need to cover the period from July 2015 to July 2018.

On that note, it is worth considering these comments by Duncan Lewis Solicitors:

“The power to deprive UK citizens of their citizenship can only be used against the children of immigrant parents—meaning that the application of the policy is inherently discriminatory. It cannot be used on a white English person with white English parents.”

That aspect of the current powers must surely be dealt with in the next review to address fully the obvious concerns about the policy.

The Home Secretary also has powers to ensure that foreign fighters can return to the UK to face justice, and powers that would enable him to manage the return of foreign fighters. Provided he reasonably suspected that an individual had been involved in “terrorism-related activity” and posed a threat to security in the UK, he could impose a temporary exclusion order, which have been mentioned, under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. That would permit return only on strict licence conditions. If an individual was still considered a threat to national security, further restrictions could be imposed on his or her liberty through a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, or TPIM. It may be possible to prosecute under the Terrorism Act 2000, which includes offences of being a member of, or aiding and abetting, a proscribed terrorist organisation.

I shudder to think what state we would find our world in if all countries abdicated responsibility for the terrorists born in their country. The UK has been described as being in the “vanguard of citizenship deprivation”, with an approach that contrasts starkly with that of other European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, which have returned their citizens from Iraq and Syria to face justice at home. In a recent similar case, Ireland most likely will not revoke the citizenship of a Daesh fighter returning there. Even Donald Trump tweeted that the UK should “take back” Daesh fighters captured in Syria and “put them on trial.” Surely that shows just how out of step with the rest of the world we have become.

I have not mentioned her by name thus far, although she has been brought up, but the reason this issue has gained so much attention of late is of course the case of Shamima Begum, who had her citizenship revoked by the Government—a move I wholeheartedly disagree with. Surely she must come to the UK to face justice. What has not gained the same attention is the death of her son, Jarrah, an innocent newborn baby and a British citizen who died in a refugee camp in Syria—a child who, if he had returned, may eventually have gone on to live a normal life in the UK. I hope that the Government reflect on their actions, or lack thereof, in that case.

Our position is clear: the UK bears responsibility for all its citizens, and the actions of the Home Secretary are to be condemned. It is time for Daesh members to come back to the UK and face justice.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
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In the light of the terrorist atrocity in Canterbury, New Zealand, this debate about a petition that quite correctly expresses horror and condemnation of terrorism, whatever its source, is extremely timely. The petition expresses a deep sense of anger about terrorism, but it also poses the very important policy question, “What are we going to do about returning foreign fighters?”

Government Members said that British citizenship should not be taken lightly. You do not have to tell the daughter of West Indian migrants that British citizenship is a pearl beyond price. I do not take it lightly, my parents did not take it lightly and I do not believe the parents of some of these foreign fighters take it lightly. I do not think the contention that, because someone’s parents or grandparents migrated from somewhere, they do not take the notion of being a British citizen very seriously stands up.

A lot of this debate revolves around the particular case of Shamima Begum. I have said before in the House—I will repeat it, for the avoidance of doubt—that Shamima Begum made some very bad, very stupid and quite possibly illegal choices. She has also made some terrible statements in the media. I do not, and Labour does not, sympathise with or excuse her views or her actions. What we on the Opposition Front Bench are concerned about is what should be done genuinely to make this country safer.

On the question of Shamima Begum, we have to recognise that she was just 15 when she left this country to join ISIS. She had clearly been groomed in her bedroom by the disgusting agents of ISIS. There has been talk from Members who seemed to imply that she is wholly responsible for her fate; I thought that since the Rotherham child sex abuse cases the House had moved beyond blaming 15-year-olds who had been groomed entirely for their fate.

We have recently discussed cases of British people being deprived of their citizenship, including Shamima Begum. We now learn that other British women were made stateless under the previous Home Secretary, but in secret. At least the current Home Secretary has disclosed, with a little prompting, that he has made someone stateless, which is an improvement on his predecessor. However, he seems unable to tell us if he has received any advice from MI5 or MI6, and what they have said about his decision to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship. He is unable to clarify what other legal advice he may have received.

It is not clear what steps, if any, the Home Office took to ensure the safe return of Shamima Begum’s son, Jarrah, who was a British citizen and who was born before the Home Secretary’s decision. That son now lies dead. Shamima Begum has buried three babies in Syrian soil in less than a year. Will the Minister tell us whether there will be coroner’s inquest for Jarrah and whether the Home Office is willing to facilitate contact between Shamima Begum and her legal representatives?

When we debated this issue, the Home Secretary repeatedly hid behind the words that he cannot talk about individual cases. He appears to be pretending that Shamima Begum’s case is somehow sub judice and therefore cannot be safely discussed. I put this as kindly as I can: that is nonsense, as everyone knows—the Speaker had to point this out—he had no compunction about naming Shamima Begum directly, for the benefit of 400,000 readers of The Times in an article he wrote on 17 February. That article was headed:

“If you run away to join Isis, like Shamima Begum, I will use all my power to stop you coming back”.

He clearly had no problem discussing an individual case then. Can Ministers not see that that defence will not do?

The House can only speculate what line of defence Ministers will take when the almost inevitable legal challenge to their decision comes, if not in this case then in other cases. I remind Ministers that they have lost twice in court when attempting to strip British citizens of Bangladeshi descent of their nationality. As Ministers like to remind us, the duty of the Government is to ensure the safety and security of all our citizens. I contend that it is not for Ministers to pick and choose who enjoys those rights; it is a matter of law. One is almost obliged to ask Ministers if they regard it as their duty to uphold the law and to defend British citizens, such as the defenceless baby, Jarrah.

Let me remind the House of article 15 of the universal declaration of human rights, which says:

“Everyone has the right to a nationality…No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”.

Could the legal position be any clearer? The idea that Ministers can unilaterally deprive British citizens of their nationality and render them stateless is clearly contrary to international law. Hopefully, the Minister will explain how she proposes to get away with that. Shamima Begum had only one nationality; now she has none. The same applied to her children. The Home Office decision, which I contend was clearly against international law, has deprived them all of their citizenship.

Citizenship entails obligations as well as rights. The basic obligations include not breaking the law of the land. If Shamima Begum and others in similar circumstances have broken the law, they should be allowed to return, but they should be investigated, interrogated and, if appropriate, prosecuted. They are the responsibility of the British Government. We are talking about British citizens. If Shamima Begum or anyone else is identified as representing a threat, our judicial system is there to deal with it. We are a country of laws, and it should be clear that dealing with a threat is preferable to not dealing with it, and dumping it on foreign countries.

Ministers like to say that they are acting in defence of us all from the terrorist menace. We see from Christchurch, New Zealand, that the terrorist menace, whether Islamic or far-right, is real, but does anyone seriously claim that Shamima Begum was more dangerous than the upwards of 400 foreign fighters who have returned from conflict zones, having fought for ISIS, al-Qaeda or their disgusting offshoots or splinter copycat organisations? It is reported just 40 of those fighters have faced any charges, and that the others remain at liberty. We need a more systematic approach and a proper programme for returning foreign fighters—perhaps an extension or an enhancement of the Prevent programme—but the idea that one 19-year-old girl with a two-week-old baby was somehow more dangerous than the 400 foreign fighters who have already returned seems to me to be a difficult position to defend.

No less a person than the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has said that European countries ought to be prepared to take their foreign fighters back from Syria and related territories, and put them on trial, where necessary. It is not often that I find myself agreeing with the President of the United States, but on this point he is correct. How can we expect other countries and jurisdictions to deal with British citizens who have broken British law?

Returning foreign fighters are a real threat to our security. That is a genuine terrorist threat, and I contend that the Government have yet to respond to it adequately. We cannot ignore the fact that there are many hundreds of British foreign fighters in Syria and associated areas. We need a proper programme to deal with them. Arbitrarily stripping people of their citizenship, contrary to international law, is not the answer, not least because it can be challenged in court.

Instead of seeking cheap headlines and grandstanding against Shamima Begum, Ministers’ time would be better spent—and our security enhanced—by addressing the real risks and threats posed by foreign fighters, and understanding that if they are British they are Britain’s responsibility and should be subject to the British criminal justice system. As the security services have said in the past, we need a genuinely tailored programme to deal with the threat. It cannot be a case of knee-jerk reactions to newspaper headlines. Some 400 foreign fighters have returned to this country; we need a more systematic approach to keeping this country safe.

Victoria Atkins Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Victoria Atkins)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:31 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. May I join colleagues from across the House in reflecting on the fact that the debate follows upon the weekend’s terrible events in New Zealand and Surrey and, today, Utrecht. As has been said before, we will reflect on the fact that terrorism takes many forms but the purpose of terrorist acts is to undermine the rule of law, to frighten, and to put a stop to the values that we hold dear in western society. It is sickening that people choose to undermine our societies by killing the most innocent of people—people going about their daily lives, whether at a place of worship or in a car park as they go about their day-to-day business in a working day.

Many colleagues are in the main Chamber, focusing on the issue of far-right violence and online extremism, and bearing that in mind I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for the measured and balanced way in which he opened the debate. It is quite something that the petition has secured some 570,000 signatures which, as my hon. Friend told us, makes it the most heavily endorsed petition to have come before the House. It is with those great expectations of the public weighing heavily on our shoulders that I hope to answer some of the points raised today.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:31 p.m.

Can the Minister provide the House with figures about the number of far-right terrorists we are engaged with, or who are perhaps currently going through the Prevent programme?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:31 p.m.

I am sorry; I was talking about the people who signed the petition. I do not understand the link. Perhaps the right hon. Lady could clarify.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:32 p.m.

I apologise to the Minister. I was referring to her earlier remarks about far-right terrorist responsibility for the atrocity in New Zealand. I wanted to understand whether she has figures available for the number of far-right terrorists whom Government agencies are currently engaged with, and who are passing through the Prevent programme. If she does not have the figures to hand I will quite understand, but perhaps she can write and furnish me with those figures.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:33 p.m.

I am happy to provide that information. As the right hon. Lady knows, the Prevent programme, which I shall talk about later, focuses on the threats and risks posed by individuals regardless of the ideology under which they claim to be acting or which people who are worried about them, and who have referred them to the Channel programme under Prevent, are worried they are operating under. The Government have been clear that people of far-right tendencies are part of the programme and are being helped through it. We are clear that it is a matter of threat and risk. The efforts to stop radicalisation apply regardless of the false ideologies that people appear to subscribe to when they are put through the programme.

I thank other Members—including the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who has paid particular attention to this subject during his parliamentary career—for their contributions and thoughtful comments on such matters as the passage of the most recent counter-terrorism Act, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019.

The Government’s priority is the safety and security of the United Kingdom and the people who live here. That includes managing the risk posed by those who have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq or to support terrorist organisations such as Daesh or al-Qaeda. We have a range of powers and tools available to us to protect the UK from the national security risk posed by returning Daesh members. Members have referred to specific cases in their speeches, but I cannot as the Minister discuss individual cases in response, for many reasons including the possibility of related or future investigations or legal proceedings. Of course the Government never comment on the operational capabilities and methodologies of the security services, for obvious reasons.

All decisions that we make must be rooted firmly in British values and must be made in accordance with the law. That means that we cannot make people stateless, and UK nationals have the legal right to return to this country. However, anyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq can expect to be investigated by the police and prosecuted, where there is evidence that they have committed criminal offences that meet the requirements in the code for Crown prosecutors. About 900 people have travelled from the UK to engage with the conflict in Syria and Iraq, against the advice of the Foreign Office. Of those, approximately 20% have been killed in the conflict and about 40% have returned to the UK. They have all been investigated and the majority have been assessed to pose no or a low security risk. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness asked about the number of foreign nationals who have been deported and I am afraid I do not have that information at hand, but I will ask the Security Minister to write to him with it.

We know that those who remain in the conflict zone include some of the most dangerous, who choose to stay to fight, to raise families or otherwise to support Daesh. They turned their back on this country to support a group that butchered and beheaded innocent civilians, including British citizens. Those individuals pose a greater threat to the UK than those who returned earlier in the conflict. They will have become desensitised to violence and may have received combat training and intense indoctrination. They will have had the opportunity to expand their terrorist network. Where they pose any threat to this country we will do everything in our power to prevent their return. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to Syria and since 2011 there has been no consular support available to British nationals there. We are resolute that we will not put British officials’ lives at risk to assist those who have left the UK to join a proscribed terrorist organisation, and therefore we cannot and will not actively provide assistance to any individuals who have travelled to the region.

The Home Secretary can exclude non-British nationals from the UK, and under the British Nationality Act 1981 has the power to deprive any British national of citizenship status. Deprivation of citizenship is used in extreme cases where it is conducive to the public good and where it would not leave the individual stateless, which would be unlawful. Deprivation is a powerful tool that can be used to keep the most dangerous individuals out of this country. Each case will be considered based on the information that is available, regardless of gender, age or family status. Since 2010, the power has been used about 150 times for people linked to terrorism or serious crimes. I know that that is a matter of concern to colleagues, so I emphasise that Parliament has clearly set out the legislative basis for the exercise of the power, and that it is a decision to be taken by the Home Secretary. Removing an individual’s British citizenship is a weighty decision and, for that reason, it is a matter reserved to the Home Secretary. He takes those decisions in the light of carefully considered advice prepared by officials and lawyers. However, a statutory right of appeal is attached to each deprivation decision, and individuals can and do exercise that right, so that the courts can review the appropriateness of a decision independently.

Several colleagues have raised the issue of bringing to justice people who return to this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate did so on behalf of the petitioners, and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness emphasised its importance. Those who have fought for or supported Daesh, whatever their nationality, should wherever possible face justice for their crimes in the most appropriate jurisdiction. Sometimes that is in the region where their offences have been committed.

Individuals who return will be investigated and, where there is evidence that crimes have been committed overseas, they should expect to face prosecution in the UK. There have been about 40 convictions of individuals prosecuted following their return from Syria for a range of offences, either connected with their activities overseas or as a result of subsequent CT investigations. That includes a 10-year custodial sentence for Mohammed Abdallah, a British national convicted in December 2017 of Daesh membership after leaked documents from a defector revealed his role as a specialist sniper, and a minimum of 40 years imposed on Khalid Ali, who was sentenced in 2018 for planning a terrorist attack in Westminster. I will, however, remind the Security Minister of the specific request by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness.

In answer to questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate regarding new offences, or offences available for law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute, our courts could try cases involving overseas terrorism offences relevant to foreign fighters even before the recent extensions of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019. Those offences include preparation of terrorism, for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment; encouragement of terrorism, the maximum sentence for which has been extended from seven to 15 years by the 2019 Act; training for terrorism, which also has a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; and membership of a proscribed organisation, which has a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Hon. Members also asked whether the Government are considering a new law of treason. That is a matter for debate and the Government have not yet reached a settled position, but our concern is that to prosecute terrorists for treason risks giving their actions a political status or a glamour that they do not deserve, rather than treating them merely as criminals. That is why we recently passed the 2019 Act, which updates terrorism offences and introduces new powers to reflect the threat we face today from foreign terrorist fighters, thus providing the police and intelligence services with the powers they need to protect the public. At this point, we do not believe there are grounds for introducing an offence of treason, but of course the Government keep all these matters under review.

It is of course for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether individuals should be prosecuted, in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. As has already been acknowledged, for crimes committed in a conflict zone where there is no national infrastructure and no police force taking section 9 witness statements or making notes about who said or did what, obtaining evidence admissible in a UK court is extremely difficult. That is the problem we have to face.

That is why, where prosecution is not possible, we have a range of powers available to protect national security and to monitor and manage the risk posed by terrorism suspects in the UK, including terrorism prevention and investigation measures and temporary exclusion orders to place conditions on individuals’ return, including regular reporting to a police station and mandatory attendance on our de-radicalisation programme. The best way to reduce the risk posed by these individuals will be judged on a case-by-case basis. Those decisions are based on advice and intelligence from the security services, counter-terrorism police where relevant, and specialist security and legal officials in the Home Office.

We publish statistics on the total number of TEOs in place in the annual “Disruptive and investigatory powers: transparency report”. Last week the Home Secretary asked officials to expedite the publication of the next transparency report, which will include the most up-to-date annual figures on disruptive and investigative powers, including TEOs and deprivation orders, because we recognise that it is a matter of great concern to the House.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act updated our terrorism laws for the digital age and modern patterns of radicalisation, closing gaps in some existing offences and adding new ones, such as recklessly expressing support for a proscribed organisation, or publishing its flag or logo online. The Act also creates a new power to ban British citizens from entering designated terrorist hotspots without legitimate reason. The designated area offence, along with most of the Act’s provisions, will come into force automatically in April, two months after Royal Assent. Decisions to designate an area will be based on careful assessment of all relevant information, including sensitive intelligence as well as open-source information, while applying the tests of necessity and proportionality.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness raised the question of retrospectivity—an understandable point to make. This is where balance is required; our priority to protect the security of the United Kingdom must be within the confines of the rule of law. In line with normal judicial principles, the power will not be retrospective and it will not be possible to prosecute for travel to an area before it is designated, but it will be an offence to remain in an area after it has been designated, even if the person has been there for some time. Individuals will have one month to leave the area, following which they will face prosecution if they remain. I hope that goes some way towards answering his concerns.

These powers and tools send a clear message to individuals that membership of or support for terrorist organisations will not be tolerated. Of course, as has already been discussed, this is against the backdrop of the Prevent strategy, which seeks to help those who may be at risk of radicalisation and extremism and to put them on to another path of lawfulness, away from criminality and potentially terrorism offences, by ensuring that they are able to obtain help locally from Prevent officers and others to steer them on to that better path.

The UK is doing all it can to help innocent people caught up in this conflict. We have committed £2.8 billion to Syria since 2012—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis—and we are on track to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees who have fled the country, with our national resettlement programmes resettling more than any other EU state in 2017. We do not have a consular presence within Syria from which to provide assistance. Our position therefore applies as much to children as it does to adults. However, if British children were able to seek consular assistance outside Syria, then we would work with local and UK authorities to facilitate their return.

Children returning from Syria are likely to have been exposed to the conflict and to have experienced trauma. In some circumstances they may also pose national security concerns that must be carefully managed. A range of specialised support, some of which is funded directly by the Home Office, is offered to address many concerns ranging from safeguarding to national security. Our support will be tailored to the needs of each individual child. Local authorities and the police can use existing safeguarding powers to protect returning children, support their welfare and reintegration back into UK society, and minimise any threat that they could pose within schools and to their local community.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the question of children, which the Minister addressed a few sentences ago, we have seen that journalists, aid workers and United Nations officials can go in and out of Syrian refugee camps. Why is it so impossible to make arrangements to protect British children?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:49 p.m.

As the right hon. Lady knows, and as I have said twice already, we do not have a consular presence in Syria. The firm advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that it is not safe to travel there. I know that journalists and aid workers travel there against that advice, and they must take that decision very carefully and seriously. However, we are clear that we do not wish to put British officials at risk in a part of the world that we have designated as so dangerous that we have withdrawn consular support from it.

Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:50 p.m.

I am well aware that the Government advise people that it is not safe to travel to Syria. However, the Minister will be aware that children, particularly those who may only be a few months old, are not in a position to abide by that advice. I ask her again: would it not be possible, working with NGOs, to get these very young—often weeks or months old—British children out to the nearest British consular presence, which may be on the border with Turkey?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

18 Mar 2019, 5:54 p.m.

First and foremost, we do not want babies to be born in war zones, so the longer-term answer is that we do not want people traveling to Syria in the first place. It is not good for them and it is against clear FCO advice; we have clearly advised people for some years not to travel to the area. As I have already set out, if children are in a camp, it may well be that aid workers and others seek access. That is against our advice. I am afraid we cannot put officials at risk in that way.

This is very difficult—I do not think that anyone pretends otherwise—but Syria is in a part of the world from which we have withdrawn consular support, and anyone going there does so against Foreign Office advice. Given the situation in the region, everyone who returns from Syria or certain parts of Iraq, including some children, must expect to be investigated by the police, to determine whether they have committed criminal offences, to assess any safeguarding concerns and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security.

Before I bring my remarks to a close, I note the completely reasonable comments that have been made about the role of social media and tech companies in this regard. Colleagues will know that the Home Office and others are working with tech companies to ensure that they clean up their own back yards. We have seen some progress by some of the major technology companies, including the development of technology that can automatically detect and take down terrorist content. However, such material continues to remain accessible. More needs to be done.

As part of our efforts to prevent the dissemination of terrorist content online, the Government are not only preparing a White Paper on online harms, but working with those in the advertising industry to make them more aware of the types of content that is appearing online, and to highlight that their advertisements may unknowingly appear next to that harmful content. I must say that the industry response has been very positive, and I hope that we will see some real change over the coming months. However, as this weekend has shown, there is a great challenge to the tech companies to ensure that, when invidious material is placed on their platforms, they remove it as quickly as possible, so that it cannot be forwarded or embedded in the web.

I conclude by thanking the 570,000 people who felt moved to sign the petition, causing us to debate this important issue again in the House. The Government’s priority is to ensure the safety and security of the United Kingdom and the vast majority of our citizens who continue to uphold our shared values. We will not allow anything to jeopardise that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered E-petition 231521 relating to ISIS members returning to the UK.

Sitting adjourned.