BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.09.01

Interview: DAVID BLUNKETT MP, Home Secretary.

What are the limits to the action America should take in the fight against terrorism? And how much will civil liberties need to be curtailed in Britain in order to protect people here from the terrorist threat?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well the Home Secretary David Blunkett is in our Sheffield studio. Good afternoon Mr. Blunkett. DAVID BLUNKETT MP: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Come to the question of what we're doing at home in a moment, can I ask you first about what seems to be, see whether you agree with this, a growing reservation about what actions the United States might take, given that everybody seems to agree that something must be done, there is serious reservation about what? BLUNKETT: Well that something must be done is absolutely hopeless unless people accept that that something involves tackling sending signals to preventing the actions of terrorists, so we need to take a deep breath and to reflect that immediately after the terrorist attack on the 11th September people feared that there would be an immediate, inappropriate and indiscriminate response. That didn't take place. A great deal of consultation and thought has taken place since and a great deal of preparation. Now I would have thought that would have reassured people that we weren't simply lashing out, we were trying to ensure that the response was both proportionate and targeted at those who threaten all our lives in the future. HUMPHRYS: Doesn't seem quite to have reassured many quite senior people in your party, some very senior people like Clare Short, and we heard from others, Peter Kilfoyle and so on in that film. BLUNKETT: Yes, Peter's a very good friend of mine, but I have to ask him a question and I think it's one that your own article in one of the Sunday's poses today as to whether there are moral equivalents and we have to ask ourselves, because this is a fundamental argument that goes on behind the scenes in politics about moral relativism. If someone destroys the life of almost seven-thousand people, their families, innocent people, not involved in Bin Laden's war against our state of life, as well as the Americans but innocent people, do we simply sit back and protect ourselves only by taking measures at home, which in themselves are then criticised by the very same people who are worried about the proportionality of the action we take against Bin Laden internationally, in other words, we can't have it both ways. HUMPHRYS: But do you share the view and it's expressed at the front page of the Independent this morning, the opinion poll that they've done and the many people that they have talked to, that yes, to go back to that phrase, something must be done and targeted action must take place, but they are very reluctant, people in this country are very nervous about the implications of a wider assault that might for instance lead to another war in the Middle East, or something. BLUNKETT: Yes of course they are and I think one of the great strides that have been taken over the last ten days, and I hope my breath in terms of it lasting, is that there is, at least some appreciation in the Middle East that the Israeli/Palestinian situation has to be taken into account and hopefully over a period of time resolved. People will be concerned, but they'd be even more concerned if internationally and at home we didn't take the basic measures, firstly, to strike back and to get the signal across that we're simply not prepared to sit there and wait for the next creative and imaginative terrorist attack, because it was, in the attack on the World Trade Centre and on the Pentagon, but we are prepared to take action that seeks to protect our democracy, whilst maintaining the right of free speech and maintaining the ability to disagree, a right which those very terrorists would take away from us. HUMPHRYS: Do you share reservations about widening this beyond Afghanistan, to say, Iraq? BLUNKETT: Well I think there's been a very considerable discussion going on in the United States in the Executive of the United States, which those in the know have not only known about, but it's been written about, people are aware, that in traditional terms there are hawks and doves. What our Prime Minister has been able to do, not only by the tremendous stand he's taken, but by also ensuring that Britain had a voice with the United States, is to ask the very question that people will be asking who are viewing this afternoon, which is, "have we evidence on where Bin Laden was aided and how he was aided, and the financial, as well as the organisational backing? And did that involve regimes?" And of course, that debate has led us to the pause that has taken place over the last ten days, so I'm answering your question by saying, of course they're looking at this and taking it into account, and the fact that there hasn't been an immediate response and that those who wanted a strike within days on other countries have been asked to hold their hand. HUMPHRYS: So you're saying we need to be cautious, in short? BLUNKETT: I think we need to ensure, as we've been saying from this country, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been saying, that we actually look to strike back at those who are identified as being the terrorists or supporting the terrorists. HUMPHRYS: Can we look at what's happening here at home now. We know that some people are being held on suspicion, clearly, you're not going to talk in detail about anybody being held by the police but can I ask, if you can, just to clear up this single area, those three people who are being held, are they being held on suspicion of being connected with what happened in the United States or on suspicion of something, of being involved in something that might have been planned in this country. BLUNKETT: They're being held on suspicion of whether their actions and their contacts and the way in which they behaved was involved with or contributed to the terrorist act. And we obviously have to route here, not merely whether people have been involved directly, but whether people have aided and succoured those who engineered and took the terrorist actions, and that does of course involve quite wide ranging inquiries. It's why time has been taken to identify and then to pick these people up, and of course our securities as well as policing services are doing that now on an hourly basis, so with the experience we've had regrettably from Northern Ireland, we have good practice in terms of knowing how to and where to look for these people. HUMPHRYS: There are as we know many extra police on the streets of our big cities. What are they doing. I mean it's very hard to see how any number of extra police can wage this war against terrorism, spot the things that are going on that we might be concerned about, to protect us. What are they doing, all those extra police? BLUNKETT: Well, there are two tasks immediately. One is to protect any likely target and to have sufficient surveillance to watch whether people are acting suspiciously in approaching or in fact around those areas, secondly, to protect the people who may be at risk. And as I met the Islamic leaders in this country on Friday, giving support to the stance of our government, very clear in their condemnation of terrorism, said to us, "Please ensure that we are protected, that people who are at risk receive the necessary action" Now, that's true of anyone whatever their race or religion in circumstances where crazy people are likely to do crazy things, and sometimes are encouraged to do so by others. So that's what they're doing. I want the policing operation not to frighten, not to create insecurity because we need to live our lives. If we're going to avoid our economy disintegrating we've got to live our lives as we normally would, within reason, taking care of course, but we've also got to make sure that people do feel that in those circumstances we as government are fulfilling the traditional role of government, which is to provide that security, that order, that stability. HUMPHRYS: So what's your assessment of the risk facing us. John Stevens, Sir John Stevens the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said "We are the next biggest target". Do you agree with that? BLUNKETT: Well, I talked to him on Friday after he'd been reported as making those remarks. He indicated to me that he was answering a very specific question. We don't know where the next target will be, which is why dealing with terrorists in this way is both a bigger challenge and a greater laying down of the gauntlet to us than we've experienced before, even when we were dealing with the IRA who, we knew where they were and knew what their particular objectives were at that time. With terrorism of this sort with suicide bombers, with people who could strike at any time, we're dealing with a different enemy. HUMPHRYS: Geoff Hoon, your colleague in the Cabinet, the Defence Secretary, talked in an interview this morning about us having been - he didn't use the word complacent I don't think, but he talked about us not having taken warning, sufficient warning of previous threats to us, not having taken sufficient note of those warnings. Do you agree with that, have we been a bit complacent in the past? BLUNKETT: Well, I don't know what Geoff was referring to, maybe perhaps the attacks on the American Embassies in Tanzania, in Kenya three years ago, but... HUMPHRYS: I think in more general terms. You know, where we've had our security forces, our intelligence people have had a number of warnings that may or may not have been passed on, but we've been a bit sort of lax in following them up. I think that was the idea. BLUNKETT: Well I don't think anyone perceived a suicide attack of the nature that we saw against the World Trade Centre. I don't think we'd envisaged that people in taking theirs and other peoples' lives on the planes and in the offices would actually do such a thing, so I put no blame on people who did not imagine other than in dreams and outrageous films that nobody would for a moment have taken any notice of in real life.... HUMPHRYS: No, but in general terms, have we been a wee bit complacent? BLUNKETT: Well, we do take our democracy and our freedoms for granted, and I shall be saying more about this later in the week because I'm publishing a little book where I say that we need to secure our democracy in depth, we need to develop people's appreciation of what they've got to lose and at the same time, provide that security, that order, that stability, that mutuality, internally and across the world, that enables us to live together. We're interdependent, we can't isolate ourselves either as individuals and families, nor as nations, and that really does bring us back to the beginning the question we just had, which is, that you can't separate out the moral imperatives here. The need to appreciate that interdependence globally as well as at home, leads us to have to both strengthen our own democracy, to engage people with it so that we know what we're defending and why, and to be vigilant in taking difficult measures to protect ourselves, and that second part is going to be the crucial balance that I've talked to you about on the radio twice over the last ten days where, of course, we must take action that involves avoiding people literally making a monkey out of us, literally abusing democracy, but we must try and do so proportionately as we are in striking back against the terrorists. HUMPHRYS: So what is the purpose of the new anti-terrorist legislation that you are proposing to introduce quite soon we're told? BLUNKETT: Well the Prime Minister is examining at the moment the package of measures from a number of departments and I don't wish to pre-empt what he might wish to announce except to say that, whatever we do will take time to put through parliament, even with emergency measures, and there may be more than one necessary bill, the drafting of those in a democracy and to be able to put them through parliament coherently is a tremendous challenge so nobody need talk about recalling parliament this week or in the following two weeks to pass legislation. It will take us time to get this together. The purpose firstly, obviously, is to provide mutual recognition and to align what we are doing with our fellow European Union members so that we can recognise their judicial and policing systems in their own democratic system, secondly to be able to make sure that people who are at risk to us are dealt with decisively and that includes those who may be trying to enter the country, and thirdly to balance those against maintaining free speech and the rights that we take for granted so that the terrorists don't achieve their ultimate goal which is to destroy our economy, our democracy and our way of life. HUMPHRYS: But it is possible, isn't it, inevitably, that some of the measure proposed, might, if they are going to be sufficiently Draconian, sufficiently effective is perhaps a better word, might fall foul of the Human Rights Act, and therefore present us with a problem. BLUNKETT: Well there are two things. Contrary to general belief, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our own Human Rights Act will at least allow our judiciary to make judgements related to our own act, albeit that Article, I don't want to lose the audience at this point, but Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights as I've discovered over recent weeks is very difficult indeed to deal with in these circumstances, but yes there will be a balance to be struck, there will be tensions between the ECHR and the Human Rights Act and the necessary protection that we seek, and of course, in looking at these of the last week or two, I've actually found out that these tensions were there in the Second World War, that judgements had to be made by a judiciary, they did so of course with an eye to the political realities around them, and I hope that in getting this balance right we can accept one fundamental tenet of our system, which is that it is elected representatives who can be removed and who are accountable in a democratic open and transparent parliament who should be the prime concern, the prime protectors of our rights, rather than having to rely on the judicial system, which by its very nature, might protect us against authoritarianism but isn't accountable. HUMPHRYS: So is it possible that we might have to try and find a way of amending our Human Rights legislation, difficult though that may be? BLUNKETT: Well far be it for me to enter into these very difficult areas on a television programme, important as it is, and with time that you've given me to explain it. I think we'll have to find an accommodation which allows us to ensure that we take the kind of actions that prevent those terrorists undermining and doing away with the most basic freedoms of all, the freedom from insecurity, from fear and of course from taking of life. HUMPHRYS: So you would take whatever action is necessary to prevent that happening, in other words, to prevent that ultimate sanction by the terrorists against us, that is more important at this stage in our history or at least, that takes priority. BLUNKETT: That is the objective. The means of getting there and maintaining those balances are precisely the discussions that we are and will be having over the next few weeks both in terms of government and then subsequently and openly in a parliament that can debate these issues, only free to do so because we protect ourselves from having to take even more Draconian measures by allowing the terrorists to act against us freely in the belief that somehow that moral equivalent exists that I talked about at the beginning of the programme. HUMPHRYS: So you would do those things even if it meant the Human Rights legislation having to be amended in one form or another, however it were done? BLUNKETT: I am not making a judgement at the moment until... HUMPHRYS: ...but it is possible? BLUNKETT: ...I had the opportunity with is possible that we will have to change the balance in terms of ensuring that that most basic right of all, the right to live freely in this country, is maintained. HUMPHRYS: Let's look at that question then of living freely in this country, and that's identity cards, we've spoken about this past of course and a number of other people have raised it. You'll have seen, the public seems overwhelmingly to support the introduction of identity cards, and they feel that this should be given a higher priority than it seems to be given at the moment. Are you impressed by that? BLUNKETT: Well I'm giving it a fairly high priority in terms of the discussions and the consideration behind the scenes. What I've said before, and I repeat again this afternoon is that it would be quite wrong for me to make a snap announcement or to do so with my colleagues when we haven't had the chance to properly think through the implications and of course to do so on the back of the attack on the World Trade Centre. There are much broader issues about entitlement and citizenship and not merely security in terms of some form of identity card which we are looking at very seriously indeed. HUMPHRYS: And are you looking a compulsory ID card or something voluntary? BLUNKETT: Without pre-empting the decision of government, because this needs to be taken not just by myself but by other colleagues with me, without pre-empting any final decision I do think it's worth me just saying that I think a voluntary card in the present circumstances would not be a great deal of help. HUMPHRYS: We have many people who would say entirely pointless. BLUNKETT: Well you've just said it. HUMPHRYS: Right. And as far as compulsory cards are concerned, if they were to come in, the worry again that many people have, and this will something that you've considered yourself quite clearly is that they can be easily forged, so that given that, given that they may prove ineffective, the potential loss of our liberty in that narrow respect would be something that you'd be concerned about. BLUNKETT: Well of course the technology has changed. The ability to have thumb or fingerprint cards, or even the iris of one's eye, is very different now in terms of people potentially forging the cards, it's partly why the deliberations have to be about entitlements, not just security, this should not be seen in the discussions that are undoubtedly taking place, and I've seen the newspapers this morning, should not be purely on the basis of some sort of police state. We don't have a police state, nor will we have a police state so long as we can combat the kind of terrorism that we saw two weeks ago. HUMPHRYS: And one of the things that worries many people about that is that within the country there are many organisations that have been proscribed as a result of the relatively new legislation, but they are still out there, their supporters are still out there, and they hate that, and they're scared of that. BLUNKETT: Yes I understand that very well. The Terrorism Act came in, it was passed last year, the twenty-one organisations that are proscribed were dealt with by my predecessor Jack Straw at the end of February. Those organisations and those who belonged to them are being monitored, and action will, I promise everyone, be taken, the moment any of those individuals steps over the line. HUMPRHYS: But defining steps over the line is a bit tricky isn't it? And many other countries accuse us of harbouring terrorists. BLUNKETT: Well it's tricky only because of the very democracy that people are seeking to defend and others are abusing, so we have this genuine problem of making sure that we have due process of law, but we have due cause, not only to pick them up, it would be very easy for me to say to the police and security services, pick them up, but actually to take them through to prosecution, one individual for instance who has been shouting his mouth off lately, was picked up in 1991, '96, '98 but was not adjudged to have taken sufficient steps to warrant prosecution. In the first case, he had actually threatened the life of Margaret Thatcher, so you know, we do in a democracy have restraints and structures that are neither respected by, nor understood, by the people we are now dealing with. HUMPHRYS: Right, but your first priority as you have acknowledged in this interview is to protect that democracy and many say if it means changing the law to make it easier to pick up these people and hold these people, then do it. BLUNKETT: Yes they do and I am hearing it and I say what I've said before that my instincts are the same as the men and women who are sat in their lounge this afternoon watching this programme but I have a responsibility to make sure that whatever with the Prime Minister and my Cabinet colleagues we bring forward to parliament, not only stands up to scrutiny, but actually is effective in dealing with the terrorists in protecting ourselves and ensuring that they ..that the measures stand up to scrutiny in years to come. My instincts are to ensure that we take whatever action is necessary to prevent those engaged in terrorism abusing our democracy in order to destroy it. HUMPHRYS: So your instincts are possibly to change the law? BLUNKETT: My instincts are to ensure that the law is proportionate to dealing with the threat and that where the law failed in very different times, without the threat of suicide terrorist bombers, suicide actions that threaten the lives of civilians, not of the military, that we actually take the necessary steps to ensure that we get that right. HUMPHRYS: Home Secretary, many thanks for joining us. BLUNKETT: John, thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.