HC Deb 11 December 1997 vol 302 cc1215-20

—In subsection (4) of section 9 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 the following paragraph shall be inserted— (bbb) an offence under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 including a scheduled offence within the meaning of section I of that Act;".'.—[Mr. Trimble.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.23 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am glad that we have an opportunity on Report to consider amending the Bill. It gives us a chance to put before the House several issues that we should have preferred to raise in Committee. Unfortunately, as things turned out, we were deprived of that opportunity. None the less, we now have a chance to do just that.

I appreciate that time is getting on and that hon. Members wish to move on to other matters, so I shall not dwell at great length on the points in the amendments. However, new clause 1 raises a very important issue to which we must pay some attention. I proceed in light of the assumption, which is clearly shared by the Government, that there is a continuing need for emergency law in Northern Ireland. That is clearly the case as the Government are extending the life of the legislation and providing for unified emergency legislation embodying both the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the prevention of terrorism Act.

I believe that the Government's judgment in that respect is correct and that there is a continuing need for emergency legislation. I believe that that need will become much more apparent in future months because I fear that the present lull in terrorism will not be much prolonged. Unfortunately, come the new year, I fear that we shall be dealing with some familiar problems.

One of the great difficulties that we face in combating terrorism is obtaining evidence for convictions. I should have thought that the Government would be extremely anxious to gather evidence for convictions. After all, in the Bill, the Government are removing from the statute book the power of detention or internment—measures to which Governments faced with terrorism have had recourse because of the absence of evidence and the consequent inability to obtain convictions. Therefore, the Government should be keen to gather evidence that supports convictions.

There is a source of evidence available that has not been used hitherto: evidence obtained from intercepted telephone communications. That is known in the United States as "wire-tap evidence". Such evidence is not admissible in the United Kingdom. I think that that is a mistake, and the intention of new clause 1 is to make wire-tap evidence admissible in cases that fall within the terms of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act.

Interestingly, this issue—which we have pursued over a number of years in the House—was considered by Lord Lloyd of Berwick in his inquiry into anti-terrorist legislation. In considering the arguments for and against the admissibility of wire-tap evidence, he made several points. I can do no better than to quote from one paragraph of his report. In dealing with the arguments in favour of an amendment of this nature, Lord Lloyd said: `The first and most obvious argument is that evidence of intercepted material is admissible to prove guilt in each of the countries which I have visited, and in every other country of which I have knowledge. The United Kingdom stands alone in excluding such material. Thus in the United States the use of intercept material in evidence is regarded as essential. In many instances, including high-profile cases involving the New York Mafia, convictions otherwise unobtainable have been secured by the use of intercept material. I put to officers of the FBI the suggestion that they were having second thoughts about the use of intercept material. I could find no support for this suggestion. In France I was told that intercept material has proved very valuable in terrorist cases. Thus, some 80 per cent. of the evidence against those suspected of involvement in the 1995 bombings is derived from intercept. Similarly, in Australia interception is regarded as an 'extremely valuable aid to criminal prosecution' …664 prosecutions for offences ranging from murder to serious fraud were based on intercepted material, nearly 500 of those prosecutions being for drug offences. Convictions were obtained in 87 per cent. of the cases. Often, when presented with the evidence of an intercept, the defendant pleads guilty.

I highlight the phrase: The United Kingdom stands alone in excluding such material. Why on earth does the United Kingdom impose that unique handicap on itself when dealing with serious crime, including offences of this nature? There is no sense in that whatever.

Indeed, not allowing intercepted telephone communications to be admitted in evidence is highly illogical, given that other intercepted conversations are admissible. If a bug is placed inside a house and a conversation is tape recorded or transmitted by some wireless device to somewhere else and recorded there, that intercepted conversation is admissible in evidence. People can be wired up with recording devices attached to their body, and the conversations that they have with other people are admissible.

A number of years ago the important offence of directing terrorist organisations was created under the emergency provisions legislation. Only two convictions have been obtained, one of which was as a result of people who were wired up speaking to a suspected leader of a paramilitary organisation, whose admission of involvement was recorded, and that evidence supported a conviction.

The argument is clear and, on the strength of it, Lord Lloyd was asked to consider permanent legislation in the event of terrorism in Northern Ireland being over. He recommended that such provisions should be introduced. I have not bothered to check, but I think that the previous Government, when they received Lord Lloyd's report, said that they would implement that provision. The legislation should be amended as I have suggested.

The only argument against such a provision of which I am aware is that, if such evidence were admissible, those involved in terrorism and smuggling would know the extent to which communications were intercepted. But people know that already, and in any case they still have to communicate; they cannot conduct their operations without communication.

Some people may be concerned about the implications of such a provision, but the new clause would not compel the Government to introduce wire-tap evidence: it would merely give them the power to do so. The intercepts would not have to be disclosed to the defence unless the prosecution thought it desirable to rely on such evidence. To that extent, it would be an enabling provision. It would end a serious anomaly: it is incredible that, alone in the civilised world, the United Kingdom does not make use of wire-tap evidence.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The hon. Gentleman has made some valid and strong points, to which I shall respond. However, in his opening remarks he said that we were dealing with amendments now rather than in Committee, and he referred obliquely to the way in which the Committee procedure had been handled. I want to say for the record that no amendments were tabled in Committee. If they had been tabled, we could have dealt with them in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time. I also remind the House that something like 12 hours were dedicated to the Bill in Committee. That is also worth putting on record.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether a Standing Committee on a non-urgent Bill has ever sat on the first day of its proceedings from 4.30 in the afternoon to 5 o'clock the following morning? Is not that an abuse of our procedures, and also why there was not time for amendments to be dealt with later in the Committee stage, as is usual? Is not that the point that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was making, and is not the Minister ashamed of himself? Would he be good enough to apologise to the House?

Mr. Ingram

I am not ashamed of myself, and an apology is not necessary. If hon. Members are interested in the history of the Bill, they should add up the amount of time Conservative Members spoke in the debate, and then judge the quality of their contributions against the time taken. If amendments had been tabled, we could have had much more substantial debates. I am not criticising the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but, as he said that we now have an opportunity to deal with amendments, it is important to point out that no amendments were tabled in Committee. The official Opposition did not table any amendments: they have tabled an amendment this evening. I was directing my comments at them, and if anyone should feel ashamed, it is the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who failed to carry out his responsibilities and provide proper and adequate opposition. Perhaps we are now getting that opposition.

Mr. MacKay

I do not want to detain the House unduly, but I asked the Minister a specific question. Can he recall the first sitting of a Standing Committee not starting until—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Perhaps I can help the hon. Member. We are discussing a new clause, which is a specific matter, and we should refer to that, not to the length of the Committee or what happened in Committee.

Mr. Ingram

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to deal with the helpful comments of the hon. Member for Upper Bann. If new clause 1 were enacted, it would allow evidence from intercepted material acquired under an Interception of Communications Act 1985 warrant to be adduced in court if it related to a scheduled offence within the terms of section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised this matter during the debate on counter-terrorism legislation on 30 October. He will recall that the Home Secretary referred to Lord Lloyd's proposals in respect of section 9 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985. In response to the hon. Gentleman, he said: The hon. Gentleman asked about Lord Lloyd's proposals in respect of section 9 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985. That is a complicated issue. Lord Lloyd sought to distinguish between interception evidence that arose in respect of a national security investigation—which he said should be adducible in evidence—and other interception evidence, from a customs, police or security service intercept, in respect of the investigation of a serious crime, which he said should not be adducible in court. That is one of the most complex of Lord Lloyd's recommendations. Many take the view that it is very difficult to draw the distinction in practice. There is much to be said on both sides of the argument about whether intercept evidence should be adducible in court".—[Official Report, 30 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 1032–33.] He went on to explain his proposals for dealing with this matter.

The hon. Gentleman gave a neat precis of Lord Lloyd's report. I am sure that he has gone through Lord Lloyd's examination of this matter, and agrees with me that it is extensive and detailed. Lord Lloyd weighed up the issues, and came down on one side. Rather than go through all the arguments, which would detain the House unnecessarily, I recommend that hon. Members read chapter 7 of the report, which will enable them to understand the detail and breadth of the arguments.

On 30 October, the Home Secretary said that the Government were considering this matter carefully. We understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue: it is important and must be considered with particular care in the context of Northern Ireland. I repeat that the hon. Member has made a strong case for his point of view.

Mr. Lembit öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I accept that the Government are hesitant about changing this part of the Bill at such a late stage, but does the Minister accept that he now has a good opportunity to make a change which, although it may appear to be a housekeeping change, would significantly strengthen the security forces' opportunities to bring terrorists to book in the courts?

Mr. Ingram

Such matters must be weighed in the balance, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is doing. I do not think that housekeeping is the right way in which to deal with such important issues, especially in the context of national security and the relative importance of the crimes whose perpetrators we seek to bring to book. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that the matter must be examined comprehensively. He went on to say that it would be premature to proceed as had been proposed in regard to the general issue, and I agree. I think that it would be wrong to introduce a straightforward housekeeping measure, or to act in any other specific way relating to Northern Ireland, given that my right hon. Friend is considering the position in relation to the interception regime as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Minister accept that the general view in Northern Ireland is that the measures in the Bill are confidence-building measures aimed at those whose compliance the Government seek, namely the terrorists? Would not the confidence of the ordinary decent citizen be built up if the new clause could serve as another weapon in the armoury of those who are attempting to enforce law and order? Would that not build up the confidence of the vast majority of peaceable citizens in both communities?

Mr. Ingram

I entirely reject the hon. and learned Gentleman's opening remarks. If we engaged in a discussion about the underlying philosophy and purpose of the Bill, and whether or not it is a confidence-building measure, we would spend considerable time—time that was available to us on Second Reading, which was cut short an hour and a half before it was due to end. I have no intention of going into the details, but I entirely reject the suggestion that the Bill was designed to appease terrorists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that, given the mood in Northern Ireland, the Bill would somehow build up confidence on the other side of the community. As I have tried to explain, we want to get the legislation right. It is complex legislation. It is right for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look at it in the context of the United Kingdom, and for us to ensure that it is robust enough to withstand detailed examination.

I ask the hon. Member for Upper Bann, and others who have spoken, to accept my assurances. We are undertaking an active and comprehensive examination. The last Government did not act, although they may have given an indication that they would; I cannot say whether they did, but it should be possible to verify whether they felt that action was necessary. They did not act because' they, too, thought that the proposals should be examined properly.

On the basis of my assurances, I ask the hon. Member for Upper Bann to withdraw his new clause. I will ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who will doubtless take full account of them. As he told the hon. Gentleman on 30 October, it is helpful to obtain the comments of those who have experience and knowledge of such matters.

Mr. Trimble

I shall try to be brief. I am afraid that I think the Minister made rather a meal of his response, especially in what he said at the beginning about the Committee. He knows that the Ulster Unionists were going to table amendments, and he knows that, in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) clearly stated that he was prolonging the proceedings only to enable amendments to be tabled. Rather than allowing that to happen, the Government unnecessarily prolonged the sitting until everyone was exhausted. That was unfortunate, but we now have an opportunity to consider the substance of these matters, and I think that we should take it.

5.45 pm

The Minister said one thing from which I draw sustenance: he advised hon. Members to read the relevant chapter of Lord Lloyd's report. I am confident that, if they do so, they, like me, will be convinced that evidence secured through wire tapping should be made admissible. Lord Lloyd recommended that it should be so only in cases involving national security, and that raises difficulties, to which the Home Secretary referred; but my new clause is much narrower. It deals purely with Northern Ireland terrorism, and does not give rise to the same evidential problems.

I echo what was said by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). The Government now have an opportunity to consider the matter seriously, and I ask them to take it. I realise that they have not had long to consider it so far—if it had been raised in Committee, they would have had more time—but they will now be able to consider and consult, because the Bill will go to another place, where amendments can be tabled.

The Minister can act in regard to wire-tap evidence relating to terrorist offences connected with Northern Ireland before doing so in regard to offences relating to other parts of the United Kingdom. That would give the security forces in Northern Ireland a valuable additional weapon, as well as sending a signal that the Government will take matters seriously if there is a resumption of violence. It is important for that message to be sent now, because the Government have said nothing so far about what they might do in the likely event of a resumption of violence. The fact that their current approach is all carrot and no stick sends the wrong signals to the community in general, and, indeed, to those who are involved in terrorism. I ask the Minister to reflect on that.

I do not intend to force the matter to a Division, because I am not sure that votes are terribly important in the House now, but it was necessary for the issue to be raised, and it is important for the Minister to consider it. I hope that that will happen.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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