BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.12.01

Interview: LORD ROOKER, Home Office Minister and OLIVER LETWIN, Shadow Home Secretary.

Will the Government be able to get the Anti-Terrorism Bill through Parliament before Christmas? Should ethnic minorities make greater effort to integrate into British society?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first the government is in some trouble with its new legislation to counter terrorism. The problem is that so many people (especially in the House of Lords) think the new legislation goes too far - that it's a ragbag of proposals that go well beyond the declared objective of stopping the terrorists. That's why the Lords voted to change so many of its clauses this past week. They're threatening to do it again this coming week. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has made a couple of concessions, but not enough to satisfy his opponents. One of whom, is the Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, and he's in our Cambridge studio. The Home Office Minister, Lord Rooker, is with me here in the studio. Let me turn to you first though, Mr Letwin, if I may. David Blunkett, he's written a piece in one of the papers this morning, says that you are actually putting the country in danger by sabotaging this Bill? Can you hear me Mr Letwin? - oh, I don't think he can. I think we have a bit of a problem in that case, we'll try and get back to him if he can hear me - no he obviously can't. So, let me put that to you, Lord Rooker, it's an extraordinary serious accusation to make this - "you are putting the country in danger" because in effect you are doing your job, which is to scrutinise a Bill. LORD ROOKER: I've got no problems about scrutinising and revising legislation. The fact of the matter is though, last week's series of defeats went to the heart of trying to wreck the legislation. I mean, I'll give you one example, there's an attempt in the Bill to give the police some powers in advance of a criminal proceedings, to make enquiries of public authorities. To decide if you like, whether or not, to investigate fully, it may or may not come to a prosecution. So, it's an extension of police powers, not even a new police power. That was taken out. There are one or two other areas of the Bill, where they have just taken them out in a very crude fashion and I think what we will try to do, we'll make the case in the Commons, we'll certainly make the case in the House of Lords this week. I'm fairly convinced myself, we can get royal assent before the end of the week. We have given some fairly substantial concessions by the way, contrary to your introduction with solid sunset clause on the detention powers after five years. HUMPHRYS: Sunset meaning that it will get through even after a certain period of time.. ROOKER: ..well it means the legislation finishes, it can't be renewed by a minister or secondary legislation. It has to be started all over again. HUMPHRYS: Alright, but let me come back to that. But the principle point that I'm making here is that the Lords have a responsibility, a duty, you are one of them yourself obviously, to look at legislation that they don't like, for whatever reason, rightly or wrongly and say we don't like this, we want to see it changed. Now, to say that because they are doing their job, they are putting the country in danger, is surely so far over the top, he almost needs to apologise for it. ROOKER: No, it went well beyond revising, to remove some of the powers that we are trying to give to the police as to the way they can carry on investigations in advance of a criminal proceedings. This is the issue about terrorist activities, redefining in the law and I know it's difficult for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. The most innocuous, narrow, minor crimes, a traffic offence, could actually lead to the discovery of a terrorist offence. Now, we can't separate out some terrorist activities from the major terrorists offences, it's extremely difficult and I think we have to allow the police, whether it's the MoD police, the British Transport Police, or the ordinary Home Office police, to have the powers, as it were, to look in the round, to try to put the jigsaw together, to make the big picture. That's what we are seeking to do. But to... HUMPHRYS: such a hurry, they had three days to discuss it in the Commons, three hours in the week they'll have in the Commons to discuss when it comes back from the Lords. I mean this is... ROOKER:, the Lords will have had eight days. I agree - that's longer than the Commons and the real problem... HUMPHRYS: Three days in the Commons? - I mean.. ROOKER: It's had three days in the Commons, I accept that, that is short... HUMPHRYS: And this is profoundly important stuff... ROOKER: ..the Lords have had eight days on the Bill, the real problem for the Lords is that there's no gap between the stages and we want to meet that and address that and we've offered to consider some kind of arrangement for a review of the Act of Parliament, after say fifteen months or a couple of years, by a group of people to report back to the Commons and the Lords... HUMPHRYS: But these are privy councillors in effect, aren't they? ROOKER: Well it would be because they could have total access to all the security information. It can't be done in any other way... HUMPHRYS: Well, it's not the same as the House of Commons. I mean what you are doing, is you are saying to the House of Commons, in effect take this on trust, we want you to do all these things, including things like - also on incitement religious hatred, which a lot of people think shouldn't be in here anyway and if it is going to be there, deserves a huge amount of discussion on itself. But you are saying, let's rush it through and then, in a year or two years, or whatever it may be, a small group of people will be able to have another look at it and make recommendations. It's hardly reassuring it is. ROOKER: It is in the sense that the actual detention rules in the Bill will be reviewed in a statutory basis by the person who reviews the Terrorism Act. There's a laid down legal process for reviewing that part of the Bill and insofar as other possibilities, let's be sensible about this, there's a lot of issues in this Bill which are really moderate precautions, things like having the..the police having the names and details of people who work with dangerous pathogens in laboratories. HUMPHRYS: And a lot of people think that's terribly sensible and a lot of people think there is a great deal in this Bill that ought to be passed and passed quickly but.... ROOKER: They are precautionary, sensible, moderate issues. It's true the Bill is long and it looks complicated but the central issue is very simple. We are taking the most reasonable precautions we can to protect ourselves from international terrorists who re-wrote the rule book on September 11th ... HUMPHRYS: ..exactly... ROOKER: We are re-writing our rule book and we need to do it as quickly as possible, let's face it it took us eleven weeks to get the legislation, we didn't bring this in the week after September 11th. We have actually thought about it. Every stage that the Bill has gone through Parliament, it's been changed. It was changed in the Commons, it was changed on the Lords Committee, it's been changed in the Lords Report, it will change on Lords' Third Reading. It will change again as it goes through this week. So, we are not setting our face against change. HUMPHRYS: But let's look, if the Bill is so important and if there is a need for urgency, as you convincingly say, because of some terrible things happened on September 11th, we don't want that to happen again. Of course, everybody would agree with that. In that case, why did you make the Bill so comprehensive, why did you bring in things that do not have to do with terrorism? Such as incitement to racial hatred for instance and all sorts of other things that you must have known would upset a great many people. ROOKER: Ah, but there isn't, no you may say that, there's two clauses on bribery and corruption, international.. which was nothing to do with terrorism. It may be the funding if you've got overseas companies doing back handers. Nevertheless, there was a consensus amongst the parties that that would be in the Bill anyway. On the incitement to racial hatred, let's get this clear, the race relations legislation covers two religions... HUMPHRYS: ..religious hatred.. ROOKER: But the Race Relations has the effect of covering two religions, the Sikhs and the Jews. Others do feel let out on that, the Blasphemy Law, just covers the Church of England, not even Roman Catholics. People were being attacked after September 11th, because they wore a turban or a beard. There were physical attacks on people, now if we can take action to prevent that, to say we are serious about this, that people are not going to be discriminated against in this country because of their religion or their race, then this Bill was a suitable vehicle for that. Now, that's not to say it's intrinsically attached to terrorism but this was something in terms of social cohesion in this country, we took the view. Like, for example, other issues, whether it be data retention which is not so intrusive, taping people's phone conversations... HUMPHRYS: And which Elizabeth France, the Data Protection person doesn't like. ROOKER: Yeah, but the voluntary code of practice won't occur unless the Information Commissioner agrees or industry, because we want to do it voluntary... HUMPHRYS: But it may not end up being voluntary. ROOKER: We've had good voluntary co-operation since September 11th, we're not looking for people's phone conversations, we'll look for the details on the bill for the phone if you like, the date, the time the call took place and the two phone numbers that were inter-changing. That's what basically we're asking people to retain. We are not asking for new information by telephone providers, it's what they already use and retain at the moment. Voluntary as a first priority, agreed with the industry, and Elizabeth France the Data Commissioner, because if they don't agree it won't be a voluntary code in the first place. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let me come back to you in a moment. Because I'm told we can, Oliver Letwin can now hear us, can you Mr Letwin. OLIVER LETWIN: Indeed, yes. HUMPHRYS: Oh good I'm sorry about that problem there, that's one of those things that happen. Now look, you'll have read what David Blunkett says about you this morning, you may have heard what Lord Rooker said to me when I put it to him, he said Mr Blunkett that you are putting the country in danger by sabotaging this Bill - a very serious allegation against you. OLIVER LETWIN: I must say I regret the fact that the government's going over the top on this. We join the government and I think all parties and certainly all peers in trying to have, wanting to have a Bill about terrorism, genuinely about terrorism on the statute book by Christmas. That is common ground, it's been common ground all the way through. What we're arguing about and I think inevitably we will have to argue about are the bits of the Bill which don't really have anything to do with terrorism. Now, on some of those I think the government's doing the right thing. Jeff Rooker is quite right, they appear to have made a major step forward towards a consensus by offering effectively to remove the parts that deal what would otherwise have been the imposition of things like European arrest warrants in ninety minutes in a committee upstairs in the House of Commons. Quite intolerable, nothing to do with terrorism. I think they've moved to get rid of those. If they have that's very welcome, we'll work with them. But there remains some elements here where there are genuine doubts. Now, I don't know how far the Government's amendment on the incitement to religious hatred which you were talking about just now will turn out to solve the problem. It may, and if it will then we'll certainly go along with it. We've no wish to seek confrontation where we don't need it. We'll look at that obviously in the Lords and in the Commons in the next few days. I hope we can reach consensus on that too. I'm delighted that the Government is moving on the question of sunset clauses. We all want to see this very rushed legislation be subject to ....(INTERRUPTION) .. that has to be renewed. HUMPHRYS: Are you satisfied with this idea that a group of councillors, six or seven privy councillors will sit down and have a look at it. Are you satisfied with that? LETWIN: Well, I don't know because we don't know the details yet. The reason we have a parliament is of course that we can tease out all these details rather than having to do it you know, in fifteen minutes on Friday night when the Home Secretary has a press conference. But we will tease out the details, and it may well be that that will do the trick or very nearly. Now we come to the things which the Lords changed in the last couple of days, and as I say I regret the tone of voice, I think the slightly bullying tone of voice that the Government's chosen to adopt. I hope it will go back to talking reasonably as Jeff was just now. We can talk about these things. The argument the Home Secretary is making is an interesting one. He's saying that in order to catch terrorists which we all want to do, he has to allow I think it's eighty-one government agencies and quangos, everything from the BBC to the NHS to reveal all of a person's records, if they are being investigated for example for a traffic offence in the United States. Now I find that a difficult chain of logic to follow. HUMPHRYS: But aren't you being a bit na�ve here, and I think this is the point that Lord Rooker was making, assuming that there is this kind of neat division between somebody who's a terrorist and somebody who's a criminal. And if you have to have the powers to investigate terrorism properly you might need to use it as a kind of criminal - take it to investigate criminals and therefore pick up the terrorist on route, because terrorists and criminals are often the same people, and they're doing the same kinds of things. LETWIN: I absolutely agree with that. A point we've been making for some months now is that for example serious corroborated crime and terrorism converge to a great degree, and of course it's right that when the police or the security forces are investigating someone for terrorist links they ought to have the ability to dig under and find things which those same people may have been doing by way of Social Security fraud or any number of other things as a way in. And for example Al Capone, very famously the terrible Chicago gangster was eventually got over a tax evasion charge. Much to the benefit to the people of Chicago. Now if what the Government was proposing was that when the police were investigating someone for alleged terrorist offences, or terrorist related offence they could go into all their records even if it was about quite other offences that they were looking at we'd have no hang up at all. The problem is here we're talking about a power which is as it's currently phrased as we understand it, and it's open to ministers to persuade everybody including the Law Lords incidentally who object to this, that we'd misconstrued the phrase, but as we currently understand it what's proposed is if somebody has nothing to do with terrorism and the police don't think they've got anything to do with terrorism, but the police think that they may have committed a traffic offence anywhere in the world for example, any offence anywhere in the world is the way it's classed, then they can go and get all their records from every agency and every quango. Now, I don't yet understand how that is necessary for the purpose of pursuing terrorism, I do understand that it poses some quite significant issues about civil liberties. It's an arguable case, but it's one that ought to come through Parliament in a mature fashion, not be ran through it. HUMPHRYS: Given that it's an arguable case are you prepared to see it killed off before Christmas if necessary to protect the civil liberties which you describe. Are you prepared to see it killed off? LETWIN: No, I don't think any of us want to see this Bill killed off. We want to see this Bill .... HUMPHRYS: You might not want to, but are prepared to do it? LETWIN: Well, I prefer not to be so to speak put over a barrel on that. I am seeking to get a consensus with the Government. HUMPHYRS: But if it doesn't get through - sorry to press the particular point - if it doesn't get through before Christmas as a result of what is done in the Lords, you will say 'that's okay'? LETWIN: Well, I understand where you're trying to push me so to speak, and then we get to an escalation of this argument, and I don't want to escalate it, I want to calm it down. I actually want to arrive at a consensus, I think the Government wants to arrive at a consensus. At the moment I'm refusing to contemplate the idea what we won't arrive at a consensus by Christmas. I think we should, we can, the Government's on the move. If it would just calm down the language, stop seeking confrontation we can work something out. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let me..... LETWIN: We just have to work having this Bill on the Statute Book, and we need it. HUMPHRYS: Thank you. Let me just put that point quickly to Jeff Rooker because I want to turn to another issue as well before we close this discussion. Lord Rooker, he doesn't like the language, a lot of people might say the language is offensive. Would you like to calm this whole thing down and are you prepared to make more concessions that might enable this to get through before Christmas? LORD ROOKER: Well if it's a general acceptance, none of the powers in this Bill will allow generalised fishing expeditions into people's private lives. Let's get that absolutely clear. HUMPHRYS: but in very broad terms... ROOKER:, no... HUMPHRYS: ...without going into detail... ROOKER:, no it isn't... HUMPHRYS: ...are you prepared to make further concessions... ROOKER: isn't a detail. The extravagant language that we are tearing up the rule of law, that we're going to have mass surveillance on millions of people is totally extravagant language as compared to the actual words on the face of the Bill. We want to get consensus, we were promised shoulder to shoulder support of course by Iain Duncan Smith. Now no-one's asking him to sign up to all the jot and every dot and comma of the detail, but the general view was we would get support and yet we did have wrecking amendments passed in the Lords on Thursday. We've made amendments to the Bill and there will be other amendments that we will seek to make. We are trying to build as wide as support as we can and we will do this whether it's on the religious incitement or whether it's even on issues like judicial review. So we do want to work in co-operation but we must have the royal assent for this Bill before the end of this week. HUMPHRYS: Okay, let me... ROOKER: ...that's absolutely clear. HUMPHRYS: Right. Thanks. Let's turn to this other point now, we have reports coming out this week in the next few days on the rioting in Bradford and Burnley and Oldham during the Summer, racial problems, severe racial problems in some cases. They are apparently going to address the issue that ethnic minorities in Britain need to develop a British identity. This is one of the thinks that David Blunkett has been saying. Should they, do you think, should ethnic minorities in this country, make a greater effort to integrate into British society, in the government's view? ROOKER: Well integrate, but not assimilate and I think the report... HUMPHRYS: ...yes I used the word carefully. ROOKER: ...yes I know you did and I appreciate that, but the reports are much more detailed than that. Of course there are a lot of cities in this country where there are large numbers of ethnic minorities where there wasn't any trouble and it is important to look at what happens in those cities as opposed to the ones where the difficulties were and I think some of the issues raised, it's not been politically correct to talk about this in the past and I think we should talk about some of these issues in order to help solve them, not to bury them. And I think that's what the Home Secretary in the report that'll be published this week seeks to do. No-one's under attack, far from it, we've got to live together on this island as well as live together on the planet and that's what we're seeking to do, while protecting everyone's heritage and culture for people to pass their heritage and culture onto their children, but to maintain activity and participation in society and you can't do that if you close yourself off. HUMPHRYS: Thanks very much for that. Oliver Letwin, is multi-culturalism as we understand it, as we've come to understand it, effectively dead, should it be? OLIVER LETWIN MP: Well, if that means the idea that we don't have any common allegiances then I hope it is dead. If it means that people should be allowed to live their own way of life in a tolerant, free, open society, then of course it's, I hope, alive and kicking. And actually this is a point about which we agree with the government. It's actually the second time that David Blunkett has announced that he's going to aim at trying to provide an effort to make everyone feel citizens of this country and share for example, a root point common language and I hope he is going to come forward with a proposal to do that, obviously we'll need to look at the details, but I think in principle it's absolutely right that whilst we want everybody to live their own lives and choose their own way of life, we also need to have a common sense that we are part of one society of one country, we need to be able to speak to one another, we need to be able to ensure that our democracy flourishes and if the Home Secretary is aiming towards those things then he'll have our full support in doing so. HUMPHRYS: Lord Rooker used the expression, politically correct. Have we been too politically correct do you think over recent years? Perhaps because we've been too nervous of offending some minorities? LETWIN: Well, I think, these are very delicate issues and it's easy for people who are trying to do good things to sound as if they're being intolerant and I hope we've got to the stage now where we have a mature enough democracy so that people on all sides of the political divides can agree that there is an ability to separate the question of whether you can live your own life from the question of whether we all ought to share some things and if we can separate those things that's a mature debate. HUMPHRYS: And in that context, should people who seek British citizenship, identify themselves first and foremost as British as opposed to Indian or... LETWIN: ...yes, exactly. No, I think you're putting it just the right way. People must identify themselves in many different ways, we all do and it's right that we should have that diversity, but we must also all feel that first and foremost as you say we're British. This is something I think has been understood in places like America and Australia where there's been a long tradition of immigration on a wide scale for a very long time and we need to create the sense that people of every kind, every colour, every race, every religion, all of us feel that we are part of one place and that we all have an allegiance and a trust in the ability of our country to do the things we need to do, it needs to do for us, we can't have that faith unless we have that common allegiance. HUMPHRYS: Oliver Letwin, thanks very much and Jeff Rooker, thank you very much indeed, Lord Rooker.
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.