HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc80-4
Mr. Dowd

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 30, line 17, leave out 'forty-eight' and insert 'six'.

I am in something of a more embarrassing position than usual, although I am used to being in embarrassing positions, as my good and absent friend, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) was supposed to move this amendment. Given our earlier discussion on amendment No. 1, I think that we all know the essence of amendment No. 4. We know the background and the reasoning for the amendment and, in view of that, I shall say no more at this stage.

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) and, in the spirit of his remarks, I shall be as brief as I can.

I want to give a practical example of how the power referred to in clause 46 would be used. It is entirely relevant to the situation that we are facing in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The example is this: a group of terrorists plan to leave Northern Ireland and to plant a bomb in London. They choose to travel separately to Great Britain using a variety of different air and sea ports. The police get intelligence of the operation and an examining officer at Belfast airport successfully arrests one of the members of the gang under the prevention of terrorism Act. In such a situation, the police could take the view that it was important to delay the right of notification for up to 48 hours so as not to alert the other terrorists, either directly or through a third party. Those 48 hours might be absolutely vital in enabling the police to foil the terrorists, where a period of six hours would not do.

Terrorists are sophisticated and plan their operations over a period of time and with great care. Mr. John Rowe sets out in appendix N of his report the number of requests to delay the right. The figures show that the police use the power only rarely—when it is needed. I can advise the House that there were 22 delays in 1994 and none in 1995.

I hope that the House will agree, particularly in the light of that example, that the reasons for delay set out in subsection (8) of the clause are reasonable. The Government fully believe that the right should not be delayed unnecessarily and the statistics confirm that the powers are used only when there is a genuine need.

Furthermore, the Bill sets out—as does the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—the grounds on which a delay may be authorised. These are not, therefore, blanket provisions. The grounds are carefully and clearly set out in the clause and I urge the House to reject the amendment.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Events have perhaps contrived to leave us a wee bit in the dark about developments that have taken place. The Minister made no mention of the Murray case in his contribution. Surely that leaves a lot to be desired. It was worthy of some comment, particularly about how the Government are going to handle that case. As a non-lawyer, I would say that it is a new legal situation.

I shall briefly outline the reasons why I spoke in support of such an amendment in Committee. As I said there—I make no apology for repeating it—it is hard, or more probably impossible, for someone from the mainland of the United Kingdom to put himself into the position of the people of both communities in Northern Ireland. They have had to live with the situation as we have known it for the past 25 years, so I am always diffident about commenting on it. However, hon. Members are here to say how they see life and to lay their experiences before the House.

In our part of the United Kingdom, if a young person goes missing—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) mentioned this—and we have no word of him or her, we can go to the police. In fact, it is more likely that the police will contact us. People can vanish in Northern Ireland without their relatives being informed. Detainees are held, in effect, incommunicado and their relatives are left in a state. I know how I would feel if one of my sons were in that position. In such a situation, parents in Northern Ireland must experience aggravation, concern and anxiety.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson), relating how some of his constituents sometimes get into bother with the police, made the point that, as many people in Govan say, "The police wouldn't have lifted you if you hadn't done anything." We must always bear in mind the fact that just because someone has been arrested does not mean that he is guilty. There is the due process of the law, and we certainly must go along with it.

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I believe that the police should have that power of arrest, but holding people incommunicado for 48 hours goes against the grain. In the debate, the Minister—it is probably the only issue on which I remonstrated with him in Committee—used current examples to justify Government policy. Surely the reverse of that practice is to say, if we did not have those three incidents we should just do away with the emergency provisions Acts. Of course we should not do that, because we must deal with life as it is.

In the case that he outlined, the Minister implied—he can deny it if I have it wrong—that a solicitor would give information to one party that someone had been apprehended by the police, and thus warn that party. That is the implication of what he said, but I must remind him—I shall not go into too much detail in deference to all the people concerned—that careless accusations against legal professionals in Northern Ireland have already led to tragic and serious consequences. I hope that no accusations of that type will be made tonight.

The Minister is surely aware of the Murray case and must realise that it represents some change. After the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, violent paramilitary suspects in Northern Ireland can now expect greater access to solicitors during interrogation. According to the judgment, the United Kingdom breached paragraph 3C of article 6 because Mr. Murray did not have access to a solicitor. That theme springs up again. One of the themes that I and other members of the Committee pursued was how these laws affect the United Kingdom's image, credibility and reputation for justice abroad. We now have a serious legal ruling that that practice was a breach of the European convention on human rights.

The judgment surely merits a response from the Minister as to how the Government will react to it. It is very hard to believe that the Minister is stonewalling and saying that, despite that ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, there will be no change in the Government's position. In view of the genuine pleas of the public and of all members on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, that the United Kingdom should have a reputation as a place where justice is done and seen to be done and that we should not have lower standards of justice than elsewhere, which would only feed the paranoia of those who try to justify violence, I ask the Minister to respond to the new facts of the Murray case.

Mr. Worthington

I entered the Chamber to hear the Minister utter the dreaded words, "We reject the amendment." I suggest that he has rejected the amendment as it is written rather than considering its intention.

The amendment relates to the Murray case. The Minister threw us by discussing that case under a part of the Bill to which it is not relevant rather than at this point, where it is directly relevant. I ask him to address that issue because I was quite encouraged by his words at the beginning of the debate.

I thank the Minister for his letter to me in response to my query about how Her Majesty's Government would respond to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The Minister is absolutely right to say that the Court's judgment was by no means a blanket condemnation of the British Government's case. By 12 votes to seven, the European Court decided To deny access to a lawyer for the first 48 hours of police questioning in a situation where the rights of the defence may well be irretrievably damaged is—whatever the justification for such denial—incompatible with the rights of the accused under article 6. That is what causes the Government difficulty.

I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister would agree that it is very important for a country with our position in the world—as a member of the Security Council of the United Nations, in particular, and as a backer of international organisations—to be seen to respond to such judgments. Our voice would otherwise be lessened when urging other Governments to behave in a judicially appropriate manner.

I was encouraged by the Minister's earlier response and his letter to me about the Murray judgment, in which he said: We are considering what measures might be necessary"— I tentatively suggest that the question is not what measures might be necessary but what measures are necessary— to bring law and practice into line with the requirements of Convention as set out by the Court in this case. That is a problem for this, or any, Government, because we want to ensure compatibility between law, practice and the requirements of the convention.

As the Murray judgment was delivered only in the period between the end of the Bill's Committee stage and Report, we shall not be unreasonable and expect the Government fully to declare their position. However, the Bill is primary legislation, into which the Government must inject a change. They will miss an opportunity if, during the Bill's passage—it will now have to be done in the Lords—they do not amend the Bill to bring this country's practice into line with the convention. I hope that the Minister will accept that statement.

Such an amendment would not apply to an enormous number of cases, because one of the encouraging recent developments is that, of 180 requests in relation to scheduled offences between the period October to December 1994, only four suspects were denied immediate access, and I doubt whether any of them was denied access for 48 hours. It is therefore a relatively small problem to solve. One doubts whether law enforcement agencies would be at all inhibited were we to accept the judgment of the European Court. I hope that the Minister can say encouraging words to us about what is to happen to the Murray judgment during the Bill's remaining stages.

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington).

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) implied that my earlier remarks may well reflect on the involvement of solicitors in such matters. I can give him the assurance in the House that I never make any such remarks about solicitors. I am surrounded in the House by learned Members, and I know better than to comment on their professional conduct or behaviour. The inference, if any, that could be taken from my illustration, was clear: terrorism is an evil activity. The means by which terrorists obtain information, intimidate, threaten and bully are many and varied. In those very few cases where the power is exercised, it is often exercised because life may be saved. I gave an illustration of that process that was entirely pertinent to the state of peace and tranquillity in London at this very moment. I know that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.

I had earlier referred on the Floor of the House to the Murray case, and I say to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie that the only point against the Government in the decision concerned Murray in the sense that the drawing of inferences from the defendant's silence during interview could not be used before the defendant had seen his solicitor. It is a subtle judgment that requires careful analysis, and it raises implications. I have said that the Government intend to take it away and study it, to comply with its obligations and to do what is appropriate and necessary to bring our obligations into line with the judgment. That has always been the Government's position, and we shall do that.

For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Dowd

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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