ISIS Members Returning to the UK Debate

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Department: Home Office

ISIS Members Returning to the UK

Victoria Atkins Excerpts
Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Home Office
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.

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

Ms Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott - Hansard
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
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.

Ms Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott - Hansard
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
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.

Ms Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott - Hansard

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
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.

Ms Diane Abbott Portrait Ms Abbott - Hansard
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
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.