With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the deportation of Abu Qatada.
Yesterday – more than ten years after it ought to have happened – Abu Qatada was deported from the United Kingdom and sent back to Jordan. On arrival in Amman, he was handed over to the Jordanian authorities and formally charged with the two offences of which he had previously been found guilty in absentia. He is now held in Muwaaqar Prison.
As Honourable Members know, successive governments have sought to deport Qatada since 2001. The long delays and significant costs that his case has incurred are down to the many layers of appeal rights that were available to him, and real problems with our human rights laws. I will turn to those issues later, but first I want to make clear that the Government has succeeded in deporting Qatada by respecting the rule of law at each and every stage of the process.
We did not ignore court judgements we did not like. We did not act outside of the law.
We did what was right. And for a civilised nation, that is something of which we should be immensely proud.
Qatada’s deportation, which took place on Sunday morning, followed my issuing of a fresh deportation decision on 27 June, and my further decision to certify any appeal which Qatada might have brought on human rights grounds as “clearly unfounded”. This meant that the only choice open to Qatada was between challenging my decision through judicial review, or conceding that the game was up. Given the strength of the agreement we reached with the Jordanian Government in March, he accepted the inevitable.
It’s important to remember that the UK Government already had assurances about Qatada’s treatment in Jordan – assurances that have been upheld in the courts – but in February last year the European Court of Human Rights moved the goalposts and declared his deportation would be unlawful because of the risk that evidence obtained through the mistreatment of others might be used against him. That was the first time ever Strasbourg had blocked a deportation on that basis. The treaty we agreed with the Jordanian Government puts the answer to that final question beyond any doubt.
The treaty guarantees a fair trial for anyone deported from either of our countries. The treaty benefits both countries and I would like to thank Honourable Members in this House for ensuring its rapid ratification. It was the key that unlocked the door to deportation.
Qatada’s deportation demonstrates both our commitment to abide by the law and our resolve to deport foreign nationals who threaten our safety and security. It also demonstrates the legal validity of our policy of deportation with assurances.
I want to turn now to the lessons we need to learn from this case. The deportation of Abu Qatada has taken 12 years and cost over £1.7 million in legal fees for both sides.
That is not acceptable to the public, and it’s not acceptable to me. We must make sure it never happens again.
First, we have to do something about the legal fees spent by defendants and paid by the taxpayer, not to mention the benefits they also claim.
Second, we have to remove the many layers of appeal that are available to foreign nationals we want to deport.
And third, we have to do something about the crazy interpretation of our human rights laws.
The Government is taking action to address all three concerns.
First, legal fees and benefits. In the case of Abu Qatada, £220,000 of his legal fees were actually funded from his own accounts, which were frozen by the authorities. But the rest – some £430,000 – was funded by the taxpayer, and in many other cases, foreign nationals we ought to be able to remove have their legal costs paid in full by the public.
That is something my Rt Hon Friend the Justice Secretary is addressing in his reforms to the legal aid system. And I can also tell the House that my Right Hon Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is also looking at how we can curtail the benefits claims made by terror suspects and extremists whose behaviour is not conducive to the public good.
Second, we need to do something about appeal rights. Through the Crime and Courts Act, the Government has already legislated for the principle that in national security cases individuals should only be able to appeal following deportation to their home country, except in cases where there is a risk of serious, irreversible harm. But we will do more, and that is why I will be introducing the Immigration Bill later this year.
That Bill will stop illegal immigrants accessing services to which they are not entitled; it will make it easier to remove foreign nationals; it will make it harder for them to prolong their stay with spurious appeals; and it will make clear to courts once and for all that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes shall, other than in exceptional circumstances, be deported. I hope Honourable Members and Right Honourable Members from all parties will give their support to that Bill.
And I can also tell the House that my Right Honourable Friend the Justice Secretary is looking at ways to speed up the pace at which the courts hear national security cases.
But those reforms can only achieve so much until we make sense of our human rights laws. This Government is already taking action to address the misinterpretation of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a private and family life. And we achieved reforms to the way in which the European Court works in the Brighton Declaration.
But the problems caused by the Human Rights Act and the European Court in Strasbourg remain. And we should remember that Qatada would have been deported long ago had the European Court not moved the goalposts by establishing new, unprecedented legal grounds upon which it blocked his deportation.
I have made clear my view that in the end the Human Rights Act must be scrapped. We must also consider our relationship with the European Court very carefully, and I believe that all options – including withdrawing from the Convention altogether – should remain on the table.
But, Mr Speaker, those are issues that will have to wait for the general election. Today we should take quiet satisfaction that a dangerous man has been deported to face justice in his home country.
I know the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all the Home Office officials, lawyers, police officers and members of the Security Service who have worked on this case, as well as Peter Millett, the British Ambassador in Amann, and of course, my Hon Friend the Security Minister.
Last year, Mr Speaker, I said “the right place for a terrorist is a prison cell; the right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell far away from Britain.” Today, Abu Qatada is indeed in a foreign prison cell, and so I commend this statement to the House.