Those of you who follow these matters would have been forgiven for thinking that in the (increasingly unlikely) event of a Conservative Government one of the first things they would do is scrap Control Orders – the method used at present for keeping tabs on the handful of individuals (and it is a handful: less than a dozen) who are deemed to pose a serious terrorist threat to the public but who cannot for a variety of reasons be charged and brought before the Courts.
Successive Tory Home Affairs and Security spokespeople have attacked the very concept of Control Orders as being totally alien, an affront to liberty etc etc. Repeatedly they have said that they would repeal the legislation.
Now, however, like with their economic policies and their promises on marriage, what had seemed like a cast-iron pledge has vanished like a mirage in the desert.
Their new policy document, “A Resilient Nation” changes the pledge into a review, saying “A Conservative Government … will … review the Control Order system with a view to reducing reliance on it”.
Zowie!! Radical stuff!
This was all aired in Lords Question Time this afternoon (in which I played a modest part):
“Lord Lloyd of Berwick
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for phasing out control orders in the light of the unanimous decision of nine Lords of Appeal in Ordinary in Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF (No. 3).
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the Government do not have any plans for phasing out control orders.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The House will recall the unusual circumstances in which we passed the control order legislation five years ago after an all-night sitting. Do the Government have any alternative plan—plan B, as it were—if Parliament decides not to renew the legislation when it comes up for renewal next month? If so, could the Minister let us know what that plan is?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, this House has gone over the control order issue at length and there have been numerous Questions on it. None of us likes control orders. I did not like them when I came into post and I specifically asked whether there was any way of getting round them. A detailed study into this was done by the Security Service—SO15 OSCT—and control orders were the least worst option. There are a very small number of them—12, according to the last quoted figure and fewer than that now. We use them on a carefully selected basis.
I believe that they are necessary for the security of the nation. We do not like them and we have a lot of safeguards in place. Three High Court judgments have upheld individual control orders since the House of Lords judgment. Mr Justice Wilkie said of one of the cases that there was overwhelming evidence of past involvement in terrorism-related activity and future intentions to be so involved. It would be remiss of our Government not to look after the security of our nation. Control orders are absolutely necessary and I will fight tooth and nail to keep them because there is no easy alternative at the moment.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is my noble friend aware—
Lord Elton: My Lords—
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps we could hear from my noble friend first, and then from the noble Lord, Lord Elton.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in his capacity as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, that there is no readily available alternative to control orders? Is he also aware of the interesting document on national security published by the Conservative Party, in which it, too, acknowledge that the best that the party can offer as an alternative is to review the system with a view to reducing reliance on it—which, as I understand it, is the Government’s policy?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who is the independent reviewer, stated,
“it is my view and advice that abandoning the control orders system entirely would have a damaging effect on national security”.
He went on to emphasise that he had considered the effects of the court decisions on disclosure and did not agree that the effect was to make control orders impossible.
My noble friend is absolutely right that we constantly review this issue. I am very hard on people, when they try to come up with a control order, to see that it is absolutely necessary. It is interesting that those in the party opposite, who earlier said that they were going to get rid of these things, have, amazingly, slightly changed their view—which is much more sensible, because all of us are interested in the security of our nation.
Lord Elton: Nevertheless, the noble and learned Lord, in his supplementary question, asked about the Government’s plan B. I did not hear an answer: do they not have one?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, all the time we are looking at threats, possible threats and what might happen. It would be foolhardy of me to say on the Floor of the House what we would do. Clearly, we would ensure the safety of the nation. It might cost a huge amount more, and take a great deal more effort, and it might mean we could not be quite so sure of our safety, but that is what we would do.