Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate) (Con)
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.
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.
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.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Ind)
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.