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Home Secretary explains new police spying powers

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Yesterday, the Anti-Terrorism Bill was discussed for a second time in the House of Commons and Home Secretary David Blunkett succeeded in persuading MPs to vote against just about every amendment put forward by the Lords.

Here are his arguments, contained in an edited version of the debate in the Commons yesterday. The full version is here:

David Blunkett, Home Secretary:Our law enforcement agencies and our security services have given us a clear understanding that if the Lords amendments are approved, they will simply not be able to do their job. I give an example in relation to the interchange of information, the knowledge that exists and the way in which people react.

Take an employment agency that is being inspected. The inspectors come across information relating to an individual seeking to take up a particular, sensitive job. It is discovered that that person has claimed large amounts of benefit. Let us call him Mr AQ, just as an example of someone who might seek to do that. According to the framing of the House of Lords proposal, it would not be possible for that information to be shared. No one outside the House would thank us if we so restrained information giving and the sharing of concerns that Mr AQ continued to draw benefits. It would be illegal to pass on the information required.

Mr Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I fail to understand the Secretary of State's reasoning. If it were suspected that Mr AQ is involved in terrorism and a threat to national security, under the terms of the Lords amendment the information could be shared. On the other hand, if we wanted to investigate Mr AQ for benefit fraud, surely the correct way to deal with that would be through benefit fraud legislation, not anti-terrorism legislation.

Mr Blunkett: But we would not know; that is the point. A Mr AQ is investigated for a range of activities, including massive benefit fraud, and discovered - he may be discovered, let us put it no more strongly than that - to be involved in or even wanted by security and intelligence services elsewhere. That is just a possibility, which even those on the Liberal Democrat Benches might concede to be fairly close to reality.

Mr A J Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Home Secretary not realise that a wide gate is opening, through which comes this proposition? Anyone suspected of any crime, or indeed anyone against whom there is evidence of any crime, may have applied to them the full rigour of measures that we could not justify for inclusion in normal criminal legislation. There is just a possibility, unsupported by evidence, that he might have a terrorist intention, but surely that is not the purpose of the Bill. Its purpose is to enable the authorities, if they have such a suspicion of a terrorist involvement, to bring into play powers not normally thought proportionate to the crimes involved.

Mr Blunkett: Take Customs and Excise rightly intervening on those who seek to smuggle, be it drugs, people or tobacco. It suspects that someone is undertaking a crime, but it needs to be able to share information, even if it has no proof. Remember that, in those particular circumstances, judicial review and the normal protections of the legal fraternity fall into play. There may be no suspicion of terrorist activity, but Customs and Excise needs to be able to share information with law enforcement agencies, knowing that a great deal of drug smuggling and other activity leads to the funding of terrorism [our emphasis], as the Leader of the Opposition rightly pointed out.

Mr Fisher: Can the Home Secretary explain how a suspicion may be arrived at if there is no proof of any sort against such a person?

Mr Blunkett: I am struggling to understand why my honorable friend feels that a body involved in such dealings - as Customs and Excise is day in, day out - that had a reason to pass material to the police would do so other than because it suspected that something was amiss [our emphasis].

Before the Lords amended it, the clause sought to harmonise arrangements for the sharing of information in a way that would assist the apprehending of terrorists. That is where we started on Second Reading, and it is where we are today.

As well as referring to the Data Protection Act 1998, we have indicated that the Human Rights Act 1998 would protect people from unjustifiable intrusion... proportionality should apply in relation to the use of the powers we are discussing, so that a judgment can be made on whether those using them have taken into account the proportionality of their suspicions.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Does the Home Secretary accept that there may be disclosures, or sharing, of information of which an individual has and can have no knowledge, and that that individual will therefore be unable to invoke the Human Rights Act?

Mr Blunkett: Yes. That is why my amendment helps: rather than having to apply the Human Rights Act retrospectively, or rely on agencies' familiarity with the terms of the Act, people would be able to understand the meaning of "proportionality" if it were built into the legislation and the guidance issued to such agencies.

I understand the suspicion that is felt; I understand why it is right for every Member, whatever side he or she is on, to ensure that the Executive are challenged and scrutinised. Given that I am trying to be helpful, however, I hope that my efforts will be reciprocated, because tomorrow night we must make decisions that will indeed stand the test of time.

[cut]

So there you have it. Basically, we have to trust that the range of government agencies that will be entitled to gather seven years' worth of information on any individual if they have an unchecked suspicion that they may be involved in terrorism, will not abuse their position. ®

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