Victoria AtkinsMain Page: Victoria Atkins (Conservative) - Louth and Horncastle)
Department Debates - View all Victoria Atkins's debates with the Home Office
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?