Secret policy 'allowing government to sidestep its own rules on torture' to be reviewed urgently

Intelligence services’ watchdog called in – after uproar over Ministry of Defence document that ‘betrays’ British values

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 20 May 2019 17:04
Penny Mordaunt reviews Ministry of Defence 'torture guidance'

A secret policy allowing ministers to share intelligence with allies even if there is a risk of torture will be reviewed urgently, the defence secretary has promised.

Under pressure in the Commons, Penny Mordaunt pledged to call in the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office watchdog to examine the Ministry of Defence document.

“I have undertaken to review this policy,” Ms Mordaunt told MPs – some of whom urged her to go further by scrapping it immediately.

The defence secretary insisted the armed forces were “upholding international humanitarian law”, but added: “I can understand the concerns that have been expressed about the policy.”

She was dragged to the chamber after a Freedom of Information request revealed the document, dated November 2018, that allows ministers to bypass torture fears if the potential benefits from passing on information justified it.

A leading QC and former chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee said it paved the way for ministers to break domestic and international legislation on the prohibition of torture.

David Davis, the former cabinet minister and civil liberties campaigner, demanded the policy be scrapped because it “betrayed” British values.

Urging Ms Mordaunt to publish a document “which appears to give ministers the right to overrule the law”, to aid torture, he warned: “There can never be a reason or justification for it”.

Labour also condemned the revelations. Defence spokesperson Nia Griffith said: “This policy appears to contradict the position taken by successive governments that the UK opposes torture in all circumstances.”

Ms Mordaunt also came under fire over a long-standing demand for a judicial inquiry into past British complicity in torture, following the Abdel Hakim Belhaj scandal.

Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, pointed out the government had promised to respond within 60 days when the call was made last July – which was 323 days ago.

The cabinet office‘s “consolidated guidance” on passing intelligence relating to detainees states the UK does “not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose”.

But the internal MoD document, seen by The Times, states this can be overridden if “ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.

The document also includes powers for ministers to “pre-approve” intelligence-sharing about named individuals whose whereabouts are unknown – even though that may be crucial in determining the risk of torture.

Ms Mordaunt said: “The prime minister has asked the commissioner to review the government’s consolidated guidance and submit proposals for how it could be improved.

“Once it has done so, and the government has had a chance to consider them – and I anticipate this will be a matter of weeks – the MoD will review its internal guidance and, as necessary in the light, of any updated guidance that is published.”

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