David speaks in The Queen’s Speech Debate


Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). While I may differ with his analysis, there is never any doubt that he holds his views passionately. He certainly supports his constituency and community passionately, and has done so in the past several years in which I have watched him in this House.

Let me say to the Prime Minister that it is also a pleasure to talk about the real Queen’s Speech as against the one that I and others proposed last week. This Queen’s Speech has enormous merits to it, particularly in the context of growth. I am particularly supportive, as he will be unsurprised to hear, of his proposals on bank reforms, competition law, and joint enterprise law reform, including labour law reform. He will be happy to hear me mention those, but I am afraid that it goes downhill from here on in. [Hon. Members: “That was less than a minute!”] Well, I will make up the whole minute by saying that the Government can be proud of most of their record in the past couple of years on the issues of liberty and justice, which the Prime Minister knows I hold very dear. Their actions on identity cards, on cutting down on the amount of detention without charge, and on the misuse of counter-terrorism stop-and-search powers are all matters of pride for them.

Beyond that, however, I have three concerns: one about a constitutional issue, one about state power, and one about justice. Let me start with the constitutional issue on which the right hon. Member for Tottenham finished—the House of Lords. One of my concerns about our whole approach to the House of Lords is that we are arguing about its composition without worrying enough about its purpose, which we have not done enough to consider. There is a great deal of talk about the House of Lords as a revising and reforming Chamber, but it has a much greater function than that. Historically, the House of Lords has been a serious check on excessive Executive power. It was a check on the Government of Margaret Thatcher when she had a very large majority, on the Government of Tony Blair, and on the Government of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and no doubt it will be a check on this Government as time goes on.

It is very important in Britain that we have this check, because we are different in one respect from most other democracies. Without any separation of Executive and legislature, the power of the Executive in this House means that this House is less good than it could be at defending the rights of individuals when the Executive impinge too much on them. We saw that very often with the previous Government. There were a great number of occasions when I am sure that many Labour Members did not want to support some of their Government’s more illiberal actions. That is why the House of Lords is incredibly important.

Mr Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making a case from a Conservative point of view against reforming the make-up of the House of Lords. If the House of Lords has the distinguished record of preventing excessive use of Executive power that he is suggesting, why does he think that Margaret Thatcher’s first Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, delivered a speech roughly 50 years ago in which he said that we did not have sufficient checks and balances in our constitution, which he characterised as an elective dictatorship?

Mr Davis: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he goes right to the central point. The House of Lords is not perfect, and there are many things that it has wrongly allowed to happen. I am in favour of reform of the House of Lords, but we must be very careful to get it right. If, in our reform, we do away with, or weaken or mitigate to any great extent, the check that it provides, that check will never be returned, because no Government will ever bring back a restraint on their own powers.

I think it was the Deputy Prime Minister who characterised his preferred state of the House of Lords as being one that more reflected the political composition of the House of Commons. That is precisely what I would not want it to do. A House of Lords that exactly reflected the political composition of the House of Commons would not be very much of a check on the Executive, and that would be a really serious problem. We must be very careful about what we do.

I do not believe that a referendum, of itself, will solve the problem, because it is a subtle and difficult matter and will be very hard to argue in public. However, it is very important.

Mrs Laing: I agree with my right hon. Friend that providing a check on the Government is Parliament’s most important role. Does he agree that having an elected House of Lords would undermine the position of the elected Members of the House of Commons and make them less likely to be able to hold the Government to account in this House, where the Prime Minister sits?

Mr Davis: I take my hon. Friend’s point, although I believe the greater problem would be legislative gridlock if too much legitimacy were given to the House of Lords. The simple fact is that over the course of the past century, these Houses have managed a pretty effective balance without crippling government. The position that we have arrived at still needs reform, but very careful reform.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to consider two things hand in hand, the composition of the House of Lords and its function. Although I am passionately in favour of an elected second Chamber, one of my criticisms of the draft Bill is that clause 2 will not reinforce the primacy of this Chamber. Some kind of concordat would have to be agreed by both Houses and written into their Standing Orders. Does he accept, though, that the current situation is unsustainable? We already have far too many Members down the other end of the building, and if there is no reform, there will be another 200. There will be more than 1,000 Members, the vast majority of them appointed by party leaders on a party Whip. Surely that is unsustainable.

Mr Davis: I agree with the last point, but the hon. Gentleman should not let the best be the enemy of the good.

I will finish my points about the Lords, because I want to talk about two other significant issues of justice and freedom. For me, the test is to look back and see what would have happened in the past decade if we had introduced whatever new reform we will come up with. As the Deputy Prime Minister will be only too conscious, in the past decade the Lords have stopped the curbing of jury trials and a number of other measures, including the extension of detention without charge. That would not have happened if we had had too politically similar a House of Lords. When the House considers the matter in some detail, my test will be whether a reform will achieve the same check on the Government.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Davis: I want to move on, but I will give way later if the hon. Gentleman still wishes to intervene.

The second issue that I want to mention is state power and what has become known colloquially as the snooper’s charter. The Queen’s Speech stated that the Government intended “to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.”

I take the last part to mean that how it will happen is up for argument. That is a good thing, because I am afraid the proposal is very similar to what the Labour Government came up with. I will give way to the Deputy Prime Minister if he really wants to argue the point, but I do not recommend it, because the Government have already consulted heavily with internet service providers and producers and talked to them about what they want to do. They want to require companies to maintain large databases of contact information. If I have telephoned somebody, there will be information about who the call was to, when it was made and where from. That will lead to extremely large databases, which the state then wants to be able to access relatively freely.

Frankly, I am surprised that the Government have made the proposal, because both coalition parties opposed it in opposition, and as far as I can see, it goes against the thrust of the coalition agreement. It certainly goes against the thrust of a comment that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made when we were in opposition. He said:

“Faced with any problem, any crisis—given any excuse—Labour grasp for more information, pulling more and more people into the clutches of state data capture…And the Government doesn’t want to stop with the basic information…Scare tactics to herd more disempowered citizens into the clutches of officialdom, as people surrender more and more information about their lives, giving the state more and more power over their lives. If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.”

We opposed those measures in opposition, not just because they were illiberal or risked turning our country into a nation of suspects, but because we believed that they were ineffective. Nearly every measure that we opposed when I was my right hon. Friend’s shadow Home Secretary we opposed because we thought that it would not work against terrorism. That is also true of the measure that we are considering.

I took advice from experts. I asked them a simple question: “If you were a terrorist, how would you avoid this scrutiny?” I stopped them when they got to the fifth method. It is pretty straightforward: for terrorists, everything from proxy servers to one-off mobile phones means that such scrutiny is easy to avoid. For criminals, it is also easy and quite cheap to avoid. However, for ordinary citizens, that scrutiny is not easy and cheap to avoid. We will therefore create something, which some Ministers said will cost £2 billion—the London School of Economics suggests that it will cost £12 billion—that will not be effective against terrorism, but constitutes general-purpose surveillance of the entire nation.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Sometimes terrorists make a mistake. If we save lives through having the information, that balances my right hon. Friend’s argument.

Mr Davis: The simple truth is that when the House reacted understandably to the horrific events of 9/11 and the preceding terrorist events, such as the USS Cole and the east African embassy bombings, and introduced a couple of measures: the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, it took away many previous protections. Before RIPA, the agencies would approach British Telecom or Cable & Wireless and ask for the data, which were sometimes—not always—handed over voluntarily. The companies exercised some responsibility. In about two thirds of cases, the agencies got warrants, and the information had to be handed over. The central, though not the only issue is whether the databases are available to the agencies of the state without a warrant. They are currently available without a warrant. If we want to make such practices acceptable in a civilised, liberal state, we should have warrants first.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): As a Liberal Democrat, but also as the MP for Cheltenham, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that it should be possible to strike a perfectly good balance between the absolute need to protect civil liberties and traditional British freedoms and apply the principles behind the existing legislation that he mentioned to new and fast-developing technologies to prevent our security services from falling behind.

Mr Davis: Of course, but frankly, talk about falling behind is a bit of a red herring. The security services today can collect more data by several orders of magnitude than they could when I first became a Member of Parliament, simply because technology allows that. In 1987, one pretty much had to get a BT engineer to plug in a bug in the local exchange. People do not do that now—they could almost do it from my office through software. I could listen to all hon. Members at once—[Interruption.] Hon. Members’ conversations are too boring to bother with.

Of course, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is right and there is a balance to strike. No one has ever been foolish enough to suggest that I favour helping terrorists, making it easier for them or harder for our agencies. However, we must act under judicial control and return to the prior warrant process that applied before RIPA for the systems to work.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Davis: No, I am about to finish that part of my speech. The prior warrant process would ensure that we stop the great overuse of the new powers, which has happened dozens of times in the past decade. If we do not, the public reaction will be one of outrage, because the measure will affect not just a few people, but tens of millions of people, and they will not take it quietly.

My last point is on a justice measure, but it is not a measure like the snooper’s charter, which will create a tsunami of reaction as it goes through the House—I am confident of that, because we already have 137,000 signatures on the online petition. Secret courts affect only tens and perhaps hundreds of people, but they bring against those people a serious injustice. I take the view—a very unfashionable one in modern politics, with too many polls and focus groups—that an injustice against one is an injustice against all, and the secret court proposals undoubtedly propose an injustice.

I say that with complete confidence, but for a rather obscure reason. A secret court procedure is proposed, but we already have such procedures. They are called special immigration appeal courts—SIAC—and they have existed since 1997, when the Labour Government introduced them to deal with people they thought they could not deal with in open court. Of course, no hon. Member has ever been in one or seen one in operation. No hon. Member knows how they work, including all Ministers of this Government and the previous one.

One group alone understands how those courts work: special advocates. There are 69 special advocates, of whom 32 have had detailed exposure to the proposed closed material procedure. The procedure involves the Executive—a Minister—saying to a court: “This information can be heard only in very close camera.” It cannot be heard in court as a whole in secret: the judge and the Government advocate of the argument can hear the evidence, but only the special advocate—a lawyer who cannot talk to the defendant or litigant in the case—can challenge it.

Tony Baldry: We had a system of special advocates in courts in Northern Ireland for a very long time—a number of members of my chambers were special advocates in such circumstances—and I do not recall my right hon. Friend when we were in government ever complaining about those procedures, which we had to use in Northern Ireland given the particular circumstances there.

Mr Davis: I am sorry to correct my hon. Friend’s memory, but I did complain. I actually appeared in a Diplock court as a witness, so I know exactly how they work from that point of view.

The simple truth is not my view, but the view of the 32 special advocates who have had such experience. Virtually all of them signed a document that challenged the Government’s Green Paper, in quite robust terms. The special advocates said that closed material procedures

“represent a departure both from the principle of natural justice and from the principle of open justice. They may leave a litigant having little clear idea of the case deployed against him, and ultimately they may prevent some litigants from knowing why they have won or lost. Furthermore, and crucially, because the SA appointed on his behalf is unable to take instructions in relation to that case, they may leave the SA with little realistic opportunity of responding effectively to that case. They also systematically exclude public, press and Parliamentary scrutiny of parts of our justice system…Our experience as SAs involved in statutory and non-statutory closed material procedures leaves us in no doubt that CMPs are inherently unfair; they do not ‘work effectively’, nor do they deliver real procedural fairness. The fact that such procedures may be operated so as to meet the minimum standards required by Article 6 of the ECHR, with such modification as has been required by the courts so as to reduce that inherent unfairness, does not and cannot make them objectively fair.”

That is the view of the only people who understand this system.

The secret courts measure is being held up as a proposal to improve our security. It would undermine and corrode our justice system, and it would not improve our security, because the other point made by special advocates is that the public interest immunity system as it now stands—again this is not properly understood by Ministers—works perfectly well, and much better than what is proposed. Indeed, one special advocate has pointed out that this proposal is less good than that available to the terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay. That is how poor this procedure is. In fact, there are many other procedures abroad that would work better than this one. Sadly, this is not a measure that I will support in the coming months.

The Government came in with a grand, important and liberal—both small “l” and big “l”—tradition to uphold. That tradition supported both freedom and justice in this country. These two measures—putting the Lords to one side, as that is a matter for argument—would, if we are not very careful, undermine that tradition and our reputation, and do nothing to improve the protection of Britain against terrorism. Indeed, just the reverse—they would make it worse.