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UK Govt on Anti Terror Legislation and ISC Report

Press Briefing: 3.45pm Thursday 10 March 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Anti Terror Legislation and ISC Report.

Anti Terror Legislation

Asked what the Government thought of the Sunset Clause lasting a year, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) told journalists what the Prime Minister had said this morning was the key: that whether advice was from the police and the security services was listened to. The strong advice was there should be no uncertainty surrounding the position. Uncertainty bred instability. Therefore it was not helpful. That applied in terms of the Sunset Clause and also in terms of the burden of proof. The position set out by the Prime Minister remained the same: he believed that a Sunset Clause of any kind would be a mistake because it would put a pall of uncertainty over the future of the legislation. That in turn, whether it was the intention of those who proposed the Sunset Clause or not, would be interpreted as weakness by terrorists, and would prolong uncertainty for the security services and the police. That was not in the interests of national security.

Asked if the Sunset Clause of any kind, regardless of the length would be opposed, the PMOS said that unfortunately, the threat from terrorism would still be present in a year's time. That had been underlined by Sir Ian Blair's comments today. Therefore what was needed was a strong signal sent to the terrorists, and the police and security services that whatever measures were necessary would be taken to counter that advice. In the end, the situation was whether the Law Lords' decision was responded to, and whether the professional advice given by the security services and police was used. The answer was yes, or no.

Put to him that if the Bill was not passed tonight, the Belmarsh detainees would start to be released, the PMOS replied that it was something those people who were opposed to this legislation should take into account. The position of the Elected Chamber was opposed to the Sunset Clause, and to a change in the burden of proof, and supported the Government's position. What other people had to consider, therefore, was whether they were going to ignore the advice of the security services and the police.

Asked how it was known what the advice of the security services and police was, the PMOS said with regards to the security services, they did not comment on the record. However, in terms of the police, the PMOS directed the journalist to the comments of the ACPO Chairman of the Counter Terrorism Committee.

Asked if the Sunset Clause was seen as a sign of weakness, why had the Home Secretary offered to review the legislation, the PMOS said, as he had this morning, that reviews were an accepted part of the Parliamentary system. A Sunset Clause meant things had to "go back to Go" and start all over again, and a signal was being sent that said that in some way, the legislation was not expected to last. We said a reverse signal had to be sent, which was a sign of strength, not weakness.

Asked if it was now a "point of principle" for the Government that they would not accept a Sunset Clause in any way, shape or form, the PMOS said he did not think the Prime Minister could have been clearer this morning. The Prime Minister had said "it would be a mistake".

Asked that despite the fact people had voted to change the law from 8 months to 12 months, it had actually changed nothing, the PMOS said: yes, that was correct.

Put to him that would it not be a sign of weakness if the Lord's legislation was relied on, the PMOS said people should not jump forward two steps. He explained that if the Elected Chamber said that it accepted that a Sunset Clause was wrong, and that the burden of proof should remain the same, the next question was not "what would happen if the bill failed", but rather, "do those who oppose this measure say they would be prepared to ignore the advice given by the security services and the police". People could not jump that question.

Put to the PMOS that the last point was one that the Labour Party had asked, and was not the next question in terms of people who were worried about detainees coming out of Belmarsh, the PMOS said: no. If the House of Commons again supported the Government's position, that was the next question.

Asked to clarify that there was specific advice from the security services and the police that a Sunset Clause would be a bad idea, the PMOS replied that what the security services and police had made clear was that they were opposed to anything that sent a signal of weakness or uncertainty.

Asked if that was what the security services saw, or if that was something the Government saw was a sign of weakness, the PMOS said the security services and the police did not get involved in political debates.

The PMOS was interrupted at this point by people saying the security services had already been brought into a political debate. He continued by saying he was reflecting the security services' view about the desirability of certainty in legislation.

Asked to clarify again that the PMOS was reflecting the security services' view that a Sunset Clause would specifically send the wrong signal, the PMOS said that was correct in the sense that the signals were ones of uncertainty about what would happen.

Asked if anyone had posed to the security services that their perception might be wrong, the PMOS pointed out, as Sir Ian Blair had also done this morning, that following the Madrid bomb, there was a widespread concern about being seen as weak. That was not something that Britain could afford to send to terrorists.

Put to the PMOS that Jose Maria Aznar had said at the time of the Madrid bombings that he thought they had been carried out by ETA, not Al Queda, the PMOS said that we had commented at the time that there was an international terrorist dimension.

Asked if there was a context where the Prime Minster had not acted on the advice given by the security services, the PMOS said that in the context of this debate, the advice was very specific. As he had said this morning, what people had to face up to was the genuine dilemma involved. The dilemma was if there was intelligence, but there was not sufficient evidence in order to proceed down the traditional evidence route. People could not duck the dilemma, but rather it had to be faced, and measures had to be found that met the dilemma. The measures had to be done in such a way that they not only allowed the security services and police to act, but also to send the right message to terrorists.

Asked what considerations were given to the Security services' advice before the Government decided to act, the PMOS said the Prime Minister did take the advice of the security services and the police very seriously. This was reflected in ACPO comments, because not least, he wanted to prevent terrorist attacks. He also knew that if a terrorist attack did happen, the first question people would ask would be: had he acted on the advice of the security services and police. That was what drove the Government's attitude to choose this.

Asked if the Bill fell tonight, would it be the fault of the Conservative Party, the PMOS said he would not get involved in Party Political matters. He also said that people had to ask themselves whether they would act on the advice of the police and security services or not.

Asked if the Prime Minister would be voting tonight, the PMOS said the Prime Minister, as he had said earlier, would return in time to vote tonight.

Asked to explain further his comment that there was a widespread perception of weakness regarding the Madrid bombings, the PMOS said there was a widespread view, without intervening in Spanish matters, that the vote could have been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a sign of weakness. There was equally, therefore, as Sir Ian Blair said today, a fear that terrorists might try to exploit the run up to any election in this country.

Put to him that people might have felt "lied to" about ETA, the PMOS said he had not said whether he thought that had influenced the vote or not. Rather, he had said that after the event, there had been a fear that that perception had been taken by terrorists.

Asked hypothetically if the Lords returned with a two year clause to the Bill instead of one year, the PMOS said he was not going to get into hypothetical questions. He added that the questions about what happened were ones that sould be addressed to those opposing the will of the Elected Chamber, and who were acting against the advice of the police and security services.

Asked again, if this legislation did not go through, would the Belmarsh detainees go free, or would they be held on continued detention the PMOS said the reality was that the lawyers of the detainees were likely to apply immediately for bail. However, for a court to consider any such application would also take into account that at that point the Government, rather than trying to find an immediate alternative to the legislation which the Law Lords found unacceptable, was actually in open defiance of that legislation. Therefore, that was likely to strongly influence the judgment of any court in such a bail hearing.

Asked if any existing legislation would be extended, the PMOS explained again that any existing legislation would be certainly highly questionable in terms of usefulness because of the likely reaction of the courts. The PMOS referred journalists to the words of Sir Ian Blair from earlier today.

Put to him that the Prime Minister had said yesterday during PMQs that this was an argument that would have to "go to the country" in order to be resolved, and did he feel this was an issue where he would have to call a General Election, as the will of the elected house was frustrated, the PMOS said in terms of the election, for many reasons, he could not help the journalist very much. With regards to the overall position, he referred people to what the Prime Minister had said this morning. The Prime Minister had said he did not regard this as a matter of party politics, but rather, as his duty as Prime Minister to respond to firstly the highest court in the land, the Law Lords, and also to the security services and the police.

Asked again that did the Prime Minister think he could carry on governing the country, as the will of the elected House seemed to be frustrated, the PMOS replied the Prime Minister had set out this morning how he had tried to avoid this becoming a party political issue. The Prime Minister believed this issue should be considered on its own merits. On the other hand, with reference to the poll in the journalist's own paper, the public was highly supportive of what the Government was doing in this legislation. The Prime Minister was not surprised at that because he suspected that the public were keenly aware that the police and the security services did not give advice of this kind lightly. Therefore, it should not be treated in any way lightly, even though the Prime Minister accepted that people had genuine concerns. Those concerns had to balanced against the risks that were faced and the advice that was given in response to those risks.

Asked if it was still the Prime Minister's view that the House of Lords, as the second Chamber should not be elected, the PMOS said that was the Prime Minister's view. In terms of the role of the House of Lords, equally he believed that the House of Lords, just as the Commons, should of course express concerns and debate these issues. In the end, however, people could not doubt the need for a decision. The nature of that decision could not be doubted either, as what would happen in the situation where there was intelligence about a live threat to this country, but there was not the evidence to go through the court procedure.

ISC Report

Asked if people were "seriously expected to believe" that in the light of the ISC report this morning, the police and the security services were worried about the distinction between an annual review and a Sunset Clause when agents of MI6 who were sent to interview people in a prisoner of war camp did not know the Geneva Convention, and did it not "beggar belief" that they did not know the law regarding international conflict, the PMOS said that what they were concerned about was whether the legislation that they had come to rely on was actually going to be pulled. The PMOS said that was a much bigger distinction between a Sunset Clause and a review.

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