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The Matter will be Debated in the House

Note; Please click here for an urgent updated Action Alert by the Free Babar Ahmed campaign.

When considering the impact that not debating the Ahmad petition could potentially have, we should bear the words of Prime Minister Cameron in mind, that the matter should be debated, “whether we like it or not”.
In a House of Commons debate around the government’s e-petitions initiative, UK Prime Minister David Cameron chose to speak of it in terms that related to empowering the public. On 11 August 2011, the Prime Minister said,
“One of the points of the new e-petitions website is to make sure that if a certain level of signatures is reached, the matter will be debated in the House, whether we like it or not. That is an important way of empowering people”
For the past three months, the family of Babar Ahmad has been rallying various communities in the UK to sign such an e-petition to have Mr Ahmad’s case debated in the House of Commons as a full parliamentary debate. The government’s requirement was that 100,000 British citizens or residents should sign the petition in order for the matter to be debated…no simple task. By the time the three month period had come to a close, the family’s campaign had managed to secure 140,000 signatures, the third highest number of signatures for any petition at the time.
Despite the statements made by David Cameron about empowering the British public, the debate regarding Mr Ahmad’s petition has been sidelined by the backbench committee in charge of putting forward matters of debate to Parliament. The reason they have quoted, is that there simply is not enough time to accommodate such a debate. It is, however, quite difficult to accept that there is not something more nefarious at play.
On 1 November 2011, Dominic Raab requested a debate in the main chamber on the issue of extradition in general. Mr Raab had cross-party parliamentary support, from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Home Affairs Select Committee, from 80 members of parliament who had signed an early day motion and he further mentioned that at the time 70,000 individuals had signed the petition for Babar Ahmad. Despite such support for debating the issue, he was told that they would only give time to an e-petition that had crossed the 100,000 mark on fuel prices, as there was public support for such a debate.
As the momentum for the Babar Ahmad petition began to increase, the manner in which it was being perceived by those in government also began to change. On the same night that Mr Raab requested the debate, the Babar Ahmad petition crossed the 100,000 mark only for the government to begin backtracking by saying that the intention of the e-petitions system, was never to debate all the petitions that succeeded, but only to gauge the public’s sentiment of a matter – it was always up to the backbench committee to determine whether or not a full debate would be tabled. When the leader of the Commons, David Heath, was asked about this, his response was,
“That was never our intention for the petition site. It is a mechanism for allowing members of the public to express an interest in a matter, and it is for the Backbench Business Committee, which has the time available, to consider that.”
Out of all of the petitions that crossed the 100,000 mark, only two debates have not been tabled for a full debate, that related to the rioters and that of Mr Ahmad – the difference being that it was accepted that the public were interested in a full debate regarding the rioters, and so it was subsequently tabled.
Further, in what turned out to be other evidence of the government’s desire not to debate this matter, Sir George Young, leader of the House, attempted on at least two occasions to have the entire e-petition thrown out on grounds that the matter was sub judice (under judgment of the court). That was the entire point, Babar Ahmad has been incarcerated for 7 years without charge or trial, so the matter could not have been sub judice as there were no legal proceedings to impact on.
What has been suggested by George Young, is that the petition should be relegated to Westminster Hall where those MPs interested in taking part in a debate, should be able to do so. The problem with such a position, is that such a debate could have been arranged anyway – the entire point of the e-petition system was to give the public the opportunity to have a matter debated by the main hall of Parliament. This is a matter that should be addressed properly by the full host of MPs, especially considering the impact that it has on the very concept of justice for those living in the UK.
Whatever conspiracy theories the public may have in relation to the reasons why this particular e-petition was not scheduled for debate has become irrelevant. There is a much more important aspect to all of this that needs to be considered, and that is in relation to the alienation of those who have attempted, in some cases for the first time, to engage in mainstream politics. The promise of a specific action at the end of the hard work carried out by a variety of communities around the UK, has led to gross dissatisfaction as the concerns of the public have not been met.
During the course of the campaign, I recall having to answer hundreds of individuals who were concerned about the issue, but also worried at the same time about giving their details on a government website. In the climate of fear that we live in, the public has become scared to put their head above the parapet, in the worry that somehow by standing up for a just cause, they will be seen as anti-government. This campaign was one of the best examples of how broad support could be raised over basic human rights, particularly from the Muslim community who have traditionally felt disenfranchised.
The decision by the government to not table a discussion about Babar Ahmad, despite the 140,000 signatures, is completely the wrong message for communities that already feel that their voice is not heard within the mainstream. The brilliant and efficient campaign carried out over the entirety of the UK resulted in a target to be achieved, only for those concerned to be told that the matter was not significant enough to tabled. This will only feed the idea, that Muslims in particular, are not welcome to have a say about what concerns them in modern day Britain.
Of particular note in relation to the e-petitions, is the accommodation that has been given to a petition that succeeded in gaining the 100,000 required signatures, after that of the Babar Ahmad’s. The ‘No to 70 million’ immigration e-petition has been tabled for the new year already, despite having 20,000 less signatures than the Babar Ahmad petition at the time of writing this article. When considering the impact that not debating the Ahmad petition could potentially have, we should bear the words of Prime Minister Cameron in mind, that the matter should be debated, “whether we like it or not”.

 Notes: For an updated action alert please visit
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About Asim Qureshi

Dr Asim Qureshi is a Human Rights Lawyer and is Co-DIrector of CAGE UK (previously known as Cageprisoners) where he works as the senior researcher. Asim has led investigations into Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, Sudan, Sweden, USA and around the UK. With his team of researchers, he has written and published many reports exposing the use of unlawful detention, rendition, and torture in the 'war on terror'. He is also the author of the book, "Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance". The work analyses the global detention policies in the 'War on Terror' post 11th September 2001 and the impact on those most affected.

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