ISIS Members Returning to the UK Debate

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Department: Home Office

ISIS Members Returning to the UK

Gavin Newlands Excerpts
Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Home Office
Lord Walney Portrait John Woodcock - Hansard
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) - Hansard
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.

Ms Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) - Hansard

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.