Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls for tougher action against British citizens suspected of travelling abroad for terrorism

11th June 2018

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown welcomes the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill but calls for the tightening up of the provisions that deal with people who travel abroad to take part in terrorist training or atrocities. He also called for swifter action by internet companies to remove terrorist material posted online. 

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Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. As this is the first speech I have made in the House since your colleague, the right hon. Member for Epping Forest (Dame Eleanor Laing), received her damehood, may I, in her absence from the Chair, pay tribute to her?

There is nothing more important or more serious for this House to discuss than terrorist issues, because the terrorist seeks to destroy the fundamental rights enshrined in democracy by undemocratic means, which we must do all in our power to prevent.

Before I get on to the Bill, I want to address the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I totally take to heart what he said about the glorification of terrorist acts once they are, as it is called, time-expired. If I were a member of a family who had lost victims in terrorist incidents, I would feel utterly sick, and I hope that he will succeed in his aim of somehow amending the Bill to prohibit that practice. In saying that, I take to heart what he said about excesses by our military, but I think we owe it to the military—I do not suppose that this will form part of the Bill—to have a limit on the time when a member of our armed forces can be prosecuted for events that took place while serving in a military campaign, including in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government will somehow find a way to do that before too long.

As I mentioned in an intervention earlier, this debate takes place in the atmosphere that was described by Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5. On 17 October 2017, in a rare public speech by such an official, he described the ongoing terrorist threat as

“multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly, and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen”

from such threats. Indeed, in the year ending 31 December 2017, there were 412 arrests for terrorism-related offences in Great Britain, an increase of 58% on the 261 arrests in the previous year.

In his speech earlier, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said there have been 25 Islamic attacks since 2013, including four external plots since the Westminster atrocities. I therefore want to pay a sincere tribute to the police and the security and intelligence services, who often put their lives at risk in very difficult and dangerous circumstances to keep us all safe, and they do a terrific job. As if that were not enough, we then had the horrific attack on Yulia and Sergei Skripal, and indeed Sergeant Nick Bailey, on 12 March. Following those attacks, the Prime Minister announced on 14 March that, as part of a response to that incident, the Government would

“urgently develop proposals for new legislative powers to harden our defences against all forms of hostile state activity”.—[Official Report, 14 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 856.]

I will move on to one or two of the provisions in the Bill. The first is the provision to make a temporary exclusion order to disrupt and control the return to the UK of British citizens reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorism abroad. As we have heard in the recent exchanges, that is a very difficult offence to prove, and it is clear to me that it needs tightening up. It is also clear to me that, where there is intelligence or other evidence that people have deliberately travelled abroad to take part in terrorist training or atrocities, they deserve to be prosecuted when they come back.

I was quite attracted to the idea of proscribed areas. Why would anybody want to go to Syria, for example, and put their life at risk, unless it was for a specific valid reason such as being a journalist or overseas aid worker? There is a defence in the Bill of having a reasonable excuse for having travelled to these areas, and I am very pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering such a provision as a possible amendment to the Bill.

I am also pleased that the Bill contains provisions to be inserted into the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 relating to anti-terrorism traffic regulation orders—the so-called ATTROs. As we have so sadly witnessed in the Westminster attack and others elsewhere, an ordinary car, van or lorry can be a weapon in the hands of a terrorist. The ability to prevent people from being in certain areas at certain times is a sensible one to have. In fact, we should be able to ban traffic from a wider area around any events that are likely to be attended by large numbers of people.

I was pleased to see that the Bill will extend sentences for certain terrorist offences from 10 years to 15 years, and that the sentence actually served will be longer than the norm for non-terrorist offences. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), however, we will have to watch radicalisation in our prisons. I know from hearings of the Public Accounts Committee that conditions in our prisons are getting ever more difficult, including the smuggling in of more dangerous drugs and understaffing. It is very difficult to police what goes on in our prisons, but our prison warders and others have to be ever more vigilant for radicalisation taking place in our prisons, and we must do our level best to try to prevent it.

I am also pleased that the Bill contains provisions for allowing Government-backed reinsurance, so-called Pool Re, to be taken out for business interruption. Sadly, some of the small market traders in Borough were put out of business because they were unable to trade for so long.

I made several interventions earlier on the subject that I wish to concentrate on in my final remarks—terrorists’ use of the internet. As has been said, the terrorists’ modus operandi is getting ever more fleet of foot and using ever more innovative methods. We as legislators, therefore, have to be ever more fleet on our feet to counter them. Terrorists are making still greater use of the internet, and we do not yet have the powers to deal with that. I take strongly to heart the point made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that 1.9 million items of potential terrorist material have been removed from the internet—a 17% increase on last year. The use of the internet is clearly getting greater.

It has already been possible to prosecute people for downloading offences, but it has not been possible to prosecute people for streaming and viewing possible terrorist material on the internet. I know much has been said in the debate about the three strikes approach to viewing such material. A balance has to be struck. Personally, I would make it two views. While once might be a mistake, twice almost certainly is not, and three times establishes a pattern of behaviour that clearly indicates that someone is looking at the material with some form of purpose or intent. The Bill contains a “reasonable purpose” excuse, so a journalist or researcher looking at the material would have a reasonable excuse, but it is right to make looking at it an offence.

It is also right, as the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is doing, to look at how the internet providers can remove such material as quickly as possible. There may well be a need to legislate if that does not happen with increasing rapidity. As I said in an intervention earlier, I cannot see why the likes of Google and Facebook, which have some of the best IT writers on the planet, cannot write programs or use AI to recognise such material and take it down immediately. After all, that is the best remedy, so that people do not have the opportunity to view it. It is all very well prosecuting when they do view it, but it must be best if they do not have the opportunity. I did not want to know the precise mechanisms, because of security implications, but I was interested to know what discussions my right hon. Friend had had with internet providers in the United States on what they could do on a voluntary basis to make the withdrawal of such material much swifter and much more effective.

There are some very important provisions in the Bill, which I welcome. We need to keep ahead of the terrorists. These are some of the most vile crimes on the planet, and we need to ensure that people who contravene the norms of our democratic society are prosecuted, convicted and locked up for a long time. We need to ensure that they know that that will happen, and hopefully that will be a deterrent.

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Earlier interventions in the same debate

I can tell my right hon. Friend that he has my wholehearted support for the Bill. It is one thing to go after the people who are looking at terrorist material online, but it is another thing under clause 4 to go after people who are publishing it online. Surely, what we really need to do is get this material offline as quickly as possible. Will the Bill do anything to shut down the internet providers that allow such material to be put online?

I will give my hon. Friend two responses. First, he may know that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is looking separately at the whole issue of internet safety and potential legislation, which I am sure he will discuss with the House at the right time. Secondly, I was in silicon valley just last week to meet all the big internet and communications companies. While recognising that they have done a lot to remove terrorist content, especially in the past year, there is still a lot more that can be done. Those efforts will continue beyond the Bill, and given the meetings that the US Homeland Security Secretary and I have had with those companies, I hope that we will be able to announce in due course further measures that they will take to do just that.

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I am very sorry to labour this point with my right hon. Friend, but one of the most critical aspects of defeating terrorism is getting this content off the internet as quickly as possible. Surely, a voluntary approach is better than a legislative one, so can he give the House any information from his private meetings with the internet companies? After all, Google, Facebook and others have some of the cleverest IT writers on the planet, so they should surely be able to take down this stuff almost before anybody notices it.

As my hon. Friend knows, because I have already said it, I met the companies he has mentioned and others last week. This was the only topic that we discussed: the meetings were very focused on terrorist content on the internet. He is right to point out that, through voluntary action and persuasion, a lot has already been achieved, and all these companies understand that legislation has not been ruled out.

My hon. Friend asked me to say a bit more about some of the newer work that the companies are doing, but I hesitate to do so. That sort of thing should be announced at the right time, because it requires international co-ordination. There is a lot more work, and I will say that a lot more effort is going into the use of both machine learning and artificial intelligence to deal with this very important issue. I must now make progress, because a number of Members wish to speak in this debate.

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The director general of MI5, Andrew Parker, said in a speech in October last year that the ongoing terrorist threat was operating at a scale and pace we have not seen before. Does the right hon. Lady’s party support the Bill in principle or not?

I think I have said three times that we broadly support the Bill in principle, but we are Her Majesty’s Opposition and we are entitled to set out our reservations on Second Reading.

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My right hon. Friend has talked about terrorist methods continually changing. Did not the situation in Northern Ireland tell us that we needed constantly to update our legislation, often by emergency legislation, to keep one step ahead of the terrorists?

Yes, that did happen, but I would go as far as to say—reflecting what Andrew Parker said—that the scale of what we now face and its character is unprecedented in modern times. I am cautious about being too definitive about these things, because it is never wise to be so, but I defer to the man who runs MI5, who is closest to these matters. I think that we are facing new challenges of the kind that we have never really seen before. To go back to my earlier remarks, when we think of Irish terrorism, there was, for the most part, a degree of predictability, and the key difference with terrorism then was that most of the terrorists did not want to risk their own lives. They wanted to save the lives of the operatives. That is a fundamental difference from the sort of terrorism that we have seen in more recent years. There are also differences in the command structure of terrorism in Ireland compared with what we now face. Many of the terrorists that we seek to counter, and which this legislation addresses, are people who have been radicalised in their own home. They are inspired by rather than part of an organised network. Given what I said about the availability of weapons, in that a vehicle can be a weapon, one can imagine the damage that an inspired terrorist, possibly unknown to the security services and police until they commit the act, might do.

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My hon. Friend knows that the Bill contains provisions to lengthen both the period that prisoners serve and the length of sentence for certain terrorist offences. Is he worried that that will mean that terrorists will serve more time in prison and have more time to radicalise other prisoners?

I thank my hon. Friend. In fact, in my notes for this debate I have written next to my previous point “so they will be more radicalised by spending more time in prison.” By extending prison sentences, we run the risk that prisoners will be more susceptible to the influences that will affect the radicalisation process. We need to address that matter in total from the beginning.

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