HC Deb 23 June 1999 vol 333 cc1230-2 7.13 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a short business statement. Following the statement earlier today by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the business for tomorrow will now include, at the end of the Opposition day, a motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Revival of Parts IVA and IVB Order) 1999.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

In the light of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said earlier today, the Opposition support the change of business outlined by the Leader of the House to put right the deficiency described by the Home Secretary.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, as I know is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

When the order is debated tomorrow, could there be a statement about how, for nearly a month, people could not be arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist offence? That was known to the Home Office and to the Home Secretary for more than a month, yet nothing was done. That is a serious dereliction of duty. If a terrorist offence had been committed during that time, hon. Members can imagine what the consequences might have been: people could not have been arrested because such activities were not unlawful. The matter clearly needed to be dealt with urgently, and I understand that the order that has been produced—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. This is not the time to debate that issue. This is a business statement.

Mrs. Beckett

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to debate the order tomorrow, no doubt he will be able to do so. He has made the same point that he made earlier. Once the matter was drawn to his attention, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had a duty to seek legal advice—and that process is usually not short in duration. Secondly, as I understand it, it was pointed out in earlier exchanges today that there are other measures on the statute book to deal with the issues in question. These are specific provisions that are considered necessary, but we are not without protection if we do not deal with them. However, it is considered important—and the Government believe it is important—to bring the measures into effect as speedily as possible.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The serious point made by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) notwithstanding, the House recognises that the Government have responded speedily to the situation, have made a business statement as quickly as possible and are dealing with the matter at an early opportunity. We welcome that fact and look forward to the debate tomorrow.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising—as I hope do all hon. Members—that the Government could not anticipate that the House would be ready to deal with this matter so speedily. We are grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for being prepared to make an early change in the business.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Given the Government's response to the invitation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and I extended to the Home Secretary earlier this afternoon, it would be churlish of us not to welcome this change of heart. However, will the Leader of the House acknowledge that it is a change of heart, that this was not the Government's original intention and that the Government should have shown far greater urgency in restoring to the statute book measures that are needed to deal with these matters and which—contrary to what the right hon. Lady said a moment ago—are not covered precisely by the other existing offences? If they had been covered precisely by the other offences, there would have been no need to create these offences in the first place.

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I accept that the matters are not covered precisely. However, he will understand—I suspect better than many—the point that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made earlier today. We are not utterly without cover when it comes to such matters. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about a change of heart and the need for greater urgency. I remind him—I say this with respect; it is not a criticism—that he does not, perfectly understandably, spend a great deal of time considering the business of the House and other matters of such rather arcane detail.

It has been, and is, the consistent view of Opposition Members—I do not attack them for it; it is perfectly reasonable for them to hold such a view—that the Government should give proper notice of changes in business and that they should be respectful of the wishes and the will of the House. The Government have responded with as much alacrity as was conceivable to the signals from those on the Conservative Benches that they were prepared to make an early change in the business and to debate the matter with the utmost urgency. I do not think we can be blamed for that.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady will reconsider her response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). She said that we did not need to worry about the months that were lost because we "were covered"—those were her words—by other legislation. If we were covered by other legislation, why has the right hon. Lady come to the House now to urge us to deal with the matter urgently? Does she not understand that it does not take a month to obtain legal advice about such an issue? The Government have got it wrong and the right hon. Lady is the unfortunate person who must answer to the House because of it.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman seeks to put into my mouth words that I have not uttered. I reject those words. I did not say that there was no need to worry. I simply said that we were not utterly without statutory protection—which is the same point that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made earlier. The right hon. Gentleman knows that better than anyone.

It is perhaps not entirely within the best traditions of the House to take the attitude and approach that is being taken at the moment by those on the Conservative Benches, as if my right hon. Friend has been in some way grossly derelict in his duty. He is an extremely conscientious Minister and he is assiduous in his duty to the House and the honour that he pays to its traditions.

I do not think that my right hon. Friend should be criticised for not taking it for granted that the House would be prepared to do anything that the Government wished to restore the provisions to the statute book, at about 10 seconds' notice. Rather, he is to be congratulated on his readiness to recognise that the House might want further notice and on his ability to move speedily when it became clear that the House was prepared to accept the urgency of the matter.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

Can the right hon. Lady explain why the Home Secretary seemed to imply this afternoon that the matter needed to be remedied, but could be remedied in due course? There appeared to be no hurry whatever. How can it be that he has suddenly changed his mind? Will she accept that only pressure from my right hon. Friends and myself this afternoon has brought the urgency of the matter to the Government's mind?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I do not accept any of that, and my right hon. Friend did not give any indication that he thought that this was a matter of leisure and of lack of urgency. He paid proper respect to traditions, to the request for notice and to the understandings in the House that Members should have notice of what is being debated and that the consent of the House should not be taken for granted. In my view he should be given credit for that, not blamed for it.