HL Deb 08 February 1977 vol 379 cc1109-36

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The legislation controlling the manufacture, distribution and use of commercial explosives is the Explosive Substance Act 1875. That Act was passed in an age when the widespread use of explosives by minorities for the purposes of terrorism was hardly thought of. It was designed as a safety, and not as a security, measure. There is now a very strong case indeed for rewriting the Act with equal emphasis on safety and security. This Bill does not attempt to do that; it is a very modest first step, but if the principles in it are acceptable, it will be an important move in that it will make it a little more difficult for evil men to procure detonators.

It is the detonator which is the key to an explosion—no detonator, no explosion. It is as simple as that. Nowadays it is reasonably easy to manufacture explosives by mixing oil and fertiliser, and there are many people in the island of Ireland who are extremely good at doing this. Equally, however, any who have tried to manufacture and improvise detonators have found it very difficult, and many have met the well-deserved fate of death and destruction.

It was encouraging to me to see the Convention to Suppress Terrorism being so largely supported because that is official recognition by our Community that we are all interdependent—that a terrorist campaign in one country is an attack on every member of our Community. Nuclear war is now unthinkable, and indeed conventional war is unthinkable because it would inevitably lead to nuclear war. It is left to the terrorist to try to conquer our will to defend our civilisation and our way of life. Indeed, I find it very sad that one of the front line Governments, the Dublin Government, have found it impossible to put their own house in order so that they could sign that Convention. They would stand in a much stronger position if they could put their house in order so that that could be done.

The United Kingdom is the country most under attack and we must give a lead in our legislation to deal with terrorism and all that goes with it. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland emphasised a few days ago how terrorists were attempting to prevent investment in the Province and to disrupt the commercial life of the Province. I wish at this point to pay a personal tribute to my friend Jeffrey Agate, who was murdered last week. Indeed, only last week he told my noble friend Lord Faulkner, who I hope will soon be introduced into your Lordships' House, that he had found that he was becoming more Ulster than an Ulsterman and that he was very proud of it indeed. Our Province has suffered very greatly indeed from the loss of a man of his stature in industry.

In considering the destruction which has been caused, I will not give the House a long list of statistics. In 1976 the cost of fire damage in Northern Ireland was £44 million, and the number of detonators used or recovered by terrorists was 3,600. In 1975 it was £13 million with 960 detonators recovered. If one then takes the figure of the damage caused per bang—that is, per detonator exploded successfully—one arrives at the sum of about £200,000 per explosion. There is, therefore, a very strong financial incentive to the Government to control detonators, let alone the incentive of the appalling death, destruction and injury to ordinary people.

There is a further reason why we must pass legislation to remedy any deficiency in the law. It is vital to demonstrate the will of the Government to win so that ordinary peace-loving people know that the Government have the determination to win. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn, is not here today; he very much regrets having had to go abroad. He is a man of great authority and wisdom and has been a director of an explosives company for 30 years. He is also a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Mining Engineers and in writing to me he said: The control of detonators is far from sufficient in this country, let alone others. The possession of a detonator without authority must be made a criminal offence. If ever anything needs control, it is the issue of detonators. He wrote more, but that is the real point of what he said.

In this Bill we have two aims. The first is to make mandatory and to extend an existing overt geographical marking at the point of manufacture, and the second is to make mandatory the keeping of detailed and accurate records of what happens to those detonators throughout their distribution and use. At present it is quite common for management purposes—all the best managed quarries and organisations do so—to keep records, but it is not mandatory. I believe that practically nobody realises that to hold detonators does not require the keeping of accurate records. It is extraordinary that this has not been required by law; but if it is not made mandatory how else can we make people report losses, and how else can we tell the size of those losses? Only the other day 34 detonators were found near a quarry close to my home. There was nothing necessarily evil about that; those detonators were just lying around. If there had been accurate accounts kept and the prospect of a thumping, heavy fine, they would either have been reported as being lost or they would not have been lost in the first place.

Almost at the beginning of the troubles, from 1969 onwards, the Northern Ireland Government, of which I had the honour to be a member, tried to persuade various Governments, Conservative and Socialist, to introduce the marking of detonators and to see that records of their distribution were kept. In 1971 we reached a real British compromise. The sole manufacturers of detonators in this country agreed to add a punch marking. Now, a detonator is a very small thing—about half the size of a "biro" pen—and it was agreed that a detonator destined for Northern Ireland should have one punch mark and a detonator destined for the Irish Republic should have two. But the detonators which were to go to Great Britain and those which were to go to the rest of the world—for the company which makes these detonators is a worldwide company—were to have no marks at all. If it was right to mark the detonators destined for the North and South of Ireland in a way that would help the Security Forces, it was, in all conscience, right to mark the detonators destined for the other markets.

Of all detonators used by terrorists, 98 per cent. have been made by that factory in Ardeer. Only 2 per cent. of those detonators are foreign. Since the marking began—this is the first point in time at which one can get any guide—22 per cent. of the detonators used by terrorists were destined for the Irish Republic, from which they were grabbed by the terrorists and sent up to the North of Ireland. One per cent. came from the North of Ireland. But—and this is the most important figure—75 per cent. had no markings. One had to assume in the first place that these detonators might be old stock but they are certainly not old stock now. So 75 per cent. of the detonators used by terrorists could easily come from Great Britain. They do not because they are coming in from the rest of the world and coming illegally into the hands of the terrorists.

Surely the Government can see that if it helped the Forces, helped our police and helped our Army to have the detonators marked with one dot for the North of Ireland and two dots for the South, it must be right to mark for Great Britain as one market and for the rest of the world as well. It is inconceivable to me that this has not been done. Nobody can tell me that it is a matter of expense. Maybe the factory which makes the detonators will say that it cannot decide how many it is making for each market. The market research that the firm does is extremely accurate and I simply cannot see that this cannot be done. More than that, if the Government had to re-equip the factory, one detonator going off in Northern Ireland could cause £200,000 worth of damage: I do not think that the books will balance unless this marking is done.

Ideally, we should redesign the detonators and I am told that that could perfectly easily be done but it would mean a major re-equipment of the industry. There are plenty of ideas but merely, at this particular moment, some inertia which cannot be got over, and that would be well beyond the scope of the present Bill. However, I believe that there is an urgent need for this to be done because we are moving into the age of violence as a method of achieving political change.

The Bill is simple. I do not intend to go through it in detail. Clause 1 deals with the marking of detonators and, following that, with the question of the markings—(a) for Great Britain, (b) for Northern Ireland, (c) for the Republic of Ireland and (d) for elsewhere. Clause 2 deals with the question of keeping proper records. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, is no longer here but I wondered when she was talking about keeping a record for graveyards whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was paying attention because I should have thought that it would be better to keep the graveyards clear of some graves by stopping detonators getting into the hands of evil men. Clause 3 deals with the inspection of records and Clause 4 with offences against Clauses 2 and 3. Clause 5 covers offences by bodies corporate and Clause 6 is the interpretation clause. Clause 7 is the Short Title of the Bill. Also, this is a United Kingdom Bill, not a Northern Ireland Bill, because the problem is affecting the whole of the United Kingdom.

If we in this country can put our house in order, we can then go to our allies in NATO and other parts of the world with clean hands and can ask them to follow suit. I have been led to believe that there are many countries which are only too willing to follow our lead in this matter. Over the years, I have been very closely involved with the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary at all levels and all agree that this Bill would help them in their job. I am delighted to see in the Gallery today a very gallant gentleman indeed in the person of George Styles GC, whose leadership and inspiration has played such a part in our fight in Northern Ireland. He and his colleagues have lost 18 people killed by detonators that went off in bombs that they were trying to defuse. In asking your Lordships to approve the Bill, I want you to remember that the Army wants it, Lord Arwyn wants it——


My Lords, I apologise for intervening but the noble Viscount is giving an impression of the view of the Army. I am not quite clear whether he is proposing to give any indication of whose behalf he is speaking on at the moment.


My Lords, I withdraw that absolutely. Many in the Army want it. When thinking about this, I want your Lordships to think not only of the financial damage which is done by explosions, not only of the victims who are killed and mauled, but especially of those very brave men in the Bomb Squad. Think of them as they walk towards that bomb. It is our duty to help them. and they are convinced that this will help. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Brookeborough.)

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, the danger which my noble friend's Bill seeks to remedy is that there is no legislation which specifically covers the security aspect of the sale of detonators. As I understand the law, there is no mandatory marking system, no comprehensive accounting system and no absolute obligation to report a loss. Therefore, if a detonator is discovered at the scene of a terrorist crime there is no readily available evidence that can be deduced from the detonator itself by which the police can trace the course of that detonator from its origin to its final destination. If I am right in that assumption, I believe that two questions arise: first, could legislation improve this situation and secondly, would such legislation be practicable?

As to the first question, we have just listened to my noble friend very ably setting out the case for his Bill. The facts as he presented them certainly speak for themselves. Despite the inroads that the Security Forces have made into the operations of the IRA, especially in South Armagh, terrorism, counted in terms of destruction and damage, still continues. My noble friend gave some statistics of the sort of damage that explosions have been causing in Northern Ireland in the past. Those sort of explosions have taken an increasing toll of persons and property. Payments under the Criminal Injuries to Persons Compensation Act 1971 total over £21 million for the period 1969/1976 and payments under the Criminal Injuries to Property Compensation Act 1968 are running at double that figure if we only take the last three years. Also, there must be large amounts outstanding pending any further claims at the present time.

I believe that any member of the general public reading the statistics of damage done to property and to people in Northern Ireland would conclude that every measure which is possible to combat this menace must be taken. With the Oxford Street bombings of only some 10 days ago fresh in our minds, I believe that we would reach a similar conclusion so far as Great Britain as a whole is concerned. It is worth noting that, as my noble friend said in his speech, this Bill extends to the United Kingdom as a whole. I am certain that the Government, too, are determined to prevent terrorist outrages. It is to their credit that they now have had on the Statute Book for nearly two years the Prevention of Terrorism Act and of course the Emergency Provisions Act for Northern Ireland has been on the Statute Book for over three years. But although both those Acts are designed to prevent terrorism and to bring the terrorist to justice, neither of those Acts deals with the problem of discovering the source of supply of explosive materials used for terrorism.

In the context of the Bill I think that it is significant that the finds of explosives were almost double in 1976, compared with 1975, and it is even more significant if one takes only the first three-quarters of 1976, which is the only period of time I was able to find for that year for which statistics were available in Hansard of the House of Commons. The number of bombs which were neutralised in Northern Ireland during the first three-quarters of last year totalled 354 compared with a total of 236 for 1975. So as the years of terrorism in Northern Ireland sharpen police methods and increase the experience of the Security Forces, so the success rate in terms of explosions prevented climbs; and because the detonator, which after all is relatively cheap and is the key to any explosion, is discovered presumably at the scene of the crime, so it follows that if only one could find the way in which the detonator came into terrorist hands, then surely a vital link in the terrorist's supply line could be broken. As I understand it, this is exactly what my noble friend's Bill is setting out to achieve. The Bill requires a marking system to identify the source of a particular detonator and introduces a mandatory records system to trace the movement of a detonator.

However, there remains the second question: Is such legislation practicable? The only manufacturer of detonators in the United Kingdom, is, I believe, ICI. I understand that the total of detonators from this source is about 70 million individual detonators per year, of some 1,100 different types. I also understand that it is possible for the makers, using their own computer records system and identifying the type of detonator, to know in most cases, but not in all, the original destination of a particular detonator.

Under the Bill it will be for the Secretary of State to make regulations for marking, and the question which I think we must answer is: would a marking system be an advance on present practice so far as tracing a detonator from manufacturer to final user is concerned? All that I should like to add to what my noble friend has said at this stage of the Bill is that it would seem to me that, if regulations were to require a different mark on each of 70 million detonators—and this is an assumption which has been drawn by some people from reading the Bill—I think this would be impossible. If detonators were to be marked according to the individual original consignee, this again would be very difficult, particularly because it must often be unknown who is to purchase a batch of detonators until after they have been manufactured.

But if, as I understood my noble friend to indicate, what would be intended at the very least is that detonators for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain were to be marked in different ways, then I would agree with him that I can see very little difficulty in that. If (which was my assumption from reading the Bill) the kind of marking envisaged would be for comparatively large batches—say 5,000 at a time—then again I should have thought that Clause 1 of the Bill would be a practicable proposition. The advantage gained from that kind of marking would be that if a detonator thus marked were to be recovered, it would be possible for the manufacturer to say with absolute certainty that it was sold to one of, let us say, six original purchasers, and so by the use of police methods the first link in the chain of supply could fairly swiftly be established.

Here, as I see it, the importance of the keeping of records provided for by Clause 2 comes in, and I should have thought that there is very little practical problem here. After all, farmers (of whom I am one) who keep stock are subject to regulations concerning records of stock bought, kept and moved, and farmers' records have to be available, as is similarly the case under the Bill, for inspection.

Having said that, let us realise that the problem is the comparatively small detonators, doing a proportionately enormous amount of damage, which fall into terrorist hands. I think that my noble friend's Bill is rightly confining itself to the detonator which is necessary to cause an explosion and which would be far more reliable if a terrorist could only get hold of a commercial one to employ it, as is sometimes shown—as my noble friend said in an aside—when terrorists end their own lives while handling their own explosive materials.

Obviously explosives can fall into terrorist hands in a variety of ways. It may be through theft. I realise that the annual reports of Her Majesty's Inspector of Explosives have in the past included statistics of thefts. But so far as I know, there is no mandatory requirement to report losses, and, if I am correct in my assumption, I should have thought that it ought to have been spelled out in the Bill for it to be mandatory for any explosive store or for any holder of a police certificate.

I suppose that the way that a terrorist would be most inclined to lay hands on detonators would be to persuade another person using explosives to pass some of them to him while pretending that the detonator and any other explosives had in fact been used to cause an explosion. I am bound to admit that I do not think that any legislation at all could prevent practices of that kind, except that the Prevention of Terrorism Act makes such unpleasant characters move furtively and carefully when they go about their wicked work.

There is of course a further line of supply, to which my noble friend Lord Brookeborough referred, and that is from the Republic of Ireland. Co-operation between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic has been an increasingly welcome aspect of the campaign against terrorism over the last few years, and all I would say here is that if legislation on this subject for the United Kingdom would enable and encourage the Government of the Republic to tighten up their own precautions against the illegal ownership and use of explosives, then I think that on that ground alone my noble friend's Bill would be well worth while.

I believe that the Bill should go to a Committee stage, if for no other reason than that it is relevant to the economic problems of Northern Ireland. After all, terrorist outrages claim their price, not only in terms of lives lost and property destroyed, but in less readily identifiable ways. Any overseas firm thinking of investing in new plant in Northern Ireland will hesitate if suddenly the directors of the firm hear that there has been widespread destruction near to the site which they have earmarked. The Northern Ireland tourist trade has suffered grievously from terrorism in the last few years. Each time a factory or a shop is wrecked it is another blow to employment prospects in a country where unemployment is already far too high.

I admit that no legislation on this subject was brought forward between 1972 and 1974 by the then Conservative Government, but I am aware that the problems with which the Bill attempts to deal have been studied in the past. If I may put it openly, my reservation is whether a marking system can be devised which would not be unduly onerous for the manufacturer, and yet would be effective, and incidentally I think that consideraton in the Bill would need to be given to the same marking system applying to any detonators imported from abroad. However, I hope that the Government will agree that the Bill should be discussed in Committee, because if the right answers to the requirement of Clause 1 can be found, I think the Bill could indeed be a step in the right direction.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, in seeking to support a Second Reading for the Bill I have no interest to declare other than one that I think I share with every Member of your Lordships' House: that is, a concern that we should do anything that is possible and proper to restore peace to Northern Ireland; and, if I may, I would add my respectful tribute to all that Jeffrey Agate did for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, if this Bill were to pass into law—and I hope that substantially it will—it would not of itself stop the use of explosives for wrongful purposes. As with so many of Northern Ireland's grave and tragic problems, there is no immediate solution. There is no course of action, however costly, painful, inconvenient or what you will, which, if it were put into effect, would cure the matter once and for all. But a Bill such as this would be a step on the long, hard road; and anything that can be done to prevent the use for improper purposes of an article of commerce which has its proper uses but which must be used under control, should be done to secure the i greater good to the greater number regardless of possible inconvenience, additional cost to manufacturers and so on.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that the aim of this Bill is commendable, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, commended its aim while expressing doubts as to its practicability—doubts which, with respect, I do not entirely share. I think that the Bill is plain enough in what it proposes about marking. I do not think that it intends that the manufacturers should mark for individual consumers, however large those consumers may be; but it does intend that manufacturers should be under an obligation to mark ineradicably detonators which are sent to respective areas. I would doubt very much whether a manufacturer in a near-monopoly position would be unable to mark ineradicably large consignments which he knows will be sent to a particular part of the world. But it is possible that there is an imperfection in the Bill as it stands at present because, while it requires detonators to be marked to show ineradicably the area of intended use, I do not see any provision in the Bill requiring the manufacturer to send the detonator, so marked, to that area. Once he has complied with the obligation to mark, there does not seem to be anything to limit his right to send it where he will. If I am right in that, that is something which is probably easily enough cured at a later stage in the progress of the Bill.

I think your Lordships will probably want to be convinced also that, the life history of every detonator having been clearly recorded from manufacturer to last legitimate user, the combined effect of the regulations which are to be made by the Secretary of State under the Bill, and such legislation as is already on the Statute Book, will suffice to show any failure to limit the use of detonators to proper purposes. Indeed, it seems from what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that your Lordships will not be readily satisfied on that point because it does not seem that there is any legal requirement on the part of the last legitimate user to show to what use he put the detonators, much less to account for any that he has lost or had stolen from him; and that, surely, is a most alarming gap in our legislation.

I would think, with respect, that something even so small as half the size of a biro pen could be marked, without any great difficulty or cost on the part of the manufacturer. If one threatened to prevent the manufacturer from putting on a detonator any mark to show by whom it was manufactured, I would be surprised if he did not immediately rise in protest and bring to your Lordships' House the greatest of complaints; and that, presumably, is a mark which is larger, more costly and more difficult to put on something the size of half a biro pen than the four small marks that the noble Viscount's Bill proposes. My Lords, even if this Bill passes into law and is complied with, there will be detonators lawfully used in this country that are not so marked, because those are detonators that will come from outside the United Kingdom; but if, as the noble Viscount said, we give a lead, we may at least hope that others will follow, and if we do not give a lead then we may be sure that they will not be bothered to do anything about it at all.

My Lords, in this matter, as in so many Northern Ireland matters, let not the best be the enemy of the good. So often it is said, when something is proposed, that there are reasons against it, that there is no universal demand for it, that somebody has not been consulted about it or—most lamentable of all—that somebody did not think of it first. So often tragedy could have been averted if what could have been done had been done but was not done because it was thought that there was something better to do. If a Bill along the lines of the Bill to which your Lord ships are asked to give a Second Reading today, even if it be quite substantially amended, passes into law and it makes more difficult the task of any evil man seeking to use explosives for wrongful purposes, or makes a little easier the task of the Security Forces in apprehending anyone who has used explosives for a wrongful purpose, then surely the Bill will be well worth its place on the Statute Book.


My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but I shall be short. Of course there are imperfections in the proposed Bill, but I hope it will get its Second Reading and will be corrected in detail at Committee stage. It is not a question of safety and health at work, it is a question of life or death; and if by any little extra trouble or by any slightly extra cost we can save life, it must be worth while. I commend the Bill.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, while it is in my memory perhaps I could put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, because I thought his was a rather significant intervention in the terms of the general impression it would leave. He interrupted my noble friend in his speech, when my noble friend said that the Army wanted it, to put the question: Had he any authority for saying that the Army wanted it? My noble friend had to reply that he had no full authority from the Army but he knew that many in the Army shared his view on this. I wonder whether, in order to put the thing absolutely right—because it is rather important—the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is in a position to say authoritatively, when he replies, that the Army do not want it. Has it been examined by the Army to the point where we are going against the advice of our experts in this field? I think it is rather important. If neither has the authority to say that the Army is either for it or against it, then at any rate we will not have left the impression that I was left with marginally, in view of the question that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, put to my noble friend.

I do not think this is a question only of Northern Ireland. It is understandable that it should have been brought to our attention by someone who is a part of Ulster and that it should be supported by the noble Lord, Lord Grey, whose record in that area is so famous and well known. But this is a matter for the civilised world, really. It is quite clear that we are now living in a world where terrorism is rearing its head on almost every street corner, often for the most flippant of reasons, and that the detonator, connected with easily-made explosives, is the thing which is causing most of the damage. This is a matter where somebody ought to be giving a lead in view of the fact that we are now living in a world where this danger is lurking around every corner. I should have thought that the British Government should be the one to give the lead. Certainly, they can give the lead; for while I have said that it was not a purely Northern Ireland matter, the problems that we are facing there give us the right to say that we are talking from knowledge and experience. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will be pressed to give some encouragement. It is absolutely clear, without taking a Gallup Poll or a referendum, that if the British Government at this moment said that they were prepared to support this Bill or one like it, this Bill would become a Statute. There is no doubt that both Houses would pass it with alacrity. All that is necessary is the authoritative lead of the Government of the day. I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, when replying will not treat this in any way as a normal technical matter. I am sure he will treat it in the knowledge that we are at the beginning of something which, unless stopped, will grow to quite terrible and disastrous proportions affecting the whole of the civilised world.

I was interested in the fact that my noble friend Lord Belstead cast some doubt on whether the experts at ICI, for example, who manufacture most of the detonators, would find it technically possible. I am convinced that if a mandatory instruction v/ere placed on the Statute Book, ICI would have an answer—an answer which would not interfere unduly with their present processes and an answer which. I am convinced, would go a long way towards meeting the practical terms as laid down in my noble friend's Bill.

On the technical side I should like to add further comment on the view of the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn. In case it is not generally known, I may say that Lord Arwyn is the only Member of either House who is a technical director of an explosives company. He held that post for something like 30 years. He is also, I think, a chartered Fellow of the Institute of Mining Engineers. With that vast experience, he has said categorically in a letter sent to my noble friend which I have in my hand, I will certainly support a Bill to control detonators". If the terms of the Bill presented by my noble friend is one way—and, I should have thought, a practical way—of giving effect to the views that the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn, has sent to this House, it would need a lot of words from laymen outside the industry to undermine the confident assertion made by Lord Arwyn that detonators ought to be subject to some kind of control.

I do not think that the cost comes into this. I would not tie myself to any particular identification markings. I would say that if the people who manufacture these things are told that they have to produce some kind of identification to indicate who manufactured them in the first place, and if the way in which it is done is left to the firms to devise, then I should have thought that they would find a practical way of doing it. A cost of £1 million or £2 million or £3 million does not enter into it, if you put that alongside the damage being done not only to property but to society itself and the danger engulfing everybody. We may talk about this in rather subdued tones in this House and may have control of our emotions; but, deep down, the whole of the civilised world is becoming absolutely terrified of the consequences of terrorism in the world. It was recognised first in all its viciousness in Northern Ireland, but throughout the world that example seems now to be copied. While we cannot identify every aspect of this terror, we have now got to the point where it can be minimised if the control of detonators is so arranged that people cannot have them without it being recognised from whom they are getting them.

While one could go on being emotional—and it is an emotional subject—the hard facts of today are that Governments, not only of this country but of any country in the world, who are not prepared to do something or even attempt to do something to counter these growing dangers are neglecting their duty to posterity. I feel that we in this country, which has given a lead in so many fields, because of our experience not only in Ulster but of similar terrorism throughout the world, are in a position to give a lead, and we ought to do so.

While there is a fairly flimsy House at this hour, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has instructions and the agreement of his colleagues to give a positive answer to this. We do not want to be fobbed off with costs. But by all means say what it costs and then leave it to both Houses, in view of the value that we obtain from it, to decide whether we are prepared to pay that cost. We do not want to be fobbed off with talk about it being technically not possible. It is technically possible. One can read of cases where the manufacturing sources of stockings and shirts—and there are many more millions of them than there are detonators—can be identified in forensic examinations. The technical problems can be overcome if the desire to overcome them is there. While I have a normal resentment at the Government interfering and wanting to give instructions as to how people should run their show, this is one instance where the Government ought to assert their authority and ought to speak for the nation to see that these instructions are given.

I thought my noble friend Lord Belstead suggested, or may have given the impression, that there is some doubt whether this Bill would go to a Committee. I should not have thought there was any doubt about that. You have only to pick up the Bill and a Second Reading case is made. Whether or not there are other reasons why it could not go through the examination of a Committee, I do not know; but I feel that there is no doubt that this will go to a Committee and will have the examination to see whether these technical matters are greater than have been envisaged. I believe that we ought to get on with it in the confidence that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will give a lead not only to this country but also to all other countries who are sharing this terror. I hope that he will not give us "low-voltage" reasons for doing nothing at a time when it is our duty to do something or to attempt to do so. It is in the hope that he is going to do that that I support my noble friend Lord Brookeborough in presenting this Bill for Second Reading.

7.19 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I ask a question? My noble friend Lord Belstead said that he thought there would be a difficulty regarding detonators manufactured outside this country and imported into it. That is easy to cure. Simply ban the import of detonators into this country from abroad. I agree with my noble friend behind me. have had a factory. It is nonsense to say that detonators manufactured in this country cannot be marked. A .22 cartridge, which is far smaller than a detonator, is marked. Of course you can put marks on a detonator. I have never heard such nonsense—and it would be at a negligible cost. I would press the Government to consider this matter very seriously, to ban the importation of detonators into this country, and to insist on detonators manufactured in this country being marked.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, this is a serious matter and certainly requires a serious speech from me. I respond at once to the appeal from the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, that I should not attempt—to use the words he employed—to fob the House off with either technical arguments or with the grounds of cost. This is a matter of such importance that one has to demonstrate the merits of the Government's own position in this matter with great care, and I hope that I will do that. Certainly if the noble Viscount's Bill was right in itself no arguments of cost would really hold a great deal of water. The question is, is the noble Viscount's Bill necessary and therefore is it desirable? That is the basis of the speech that I propose to make this evening.

The noble Viscount indicated that it was the intention of his Bill to bring forward proposals which would hamper terrorists and help the police and security authorities generally to combat them. I am sure that the whole House shares this view and the Government have given the greatest priority to it, not merely in the aftermath of various incidents of terrorism to which we have been subjected, but equally in the periods when apparent lulls in Great Britain have led some to suggest that precautions might be relaxed. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he will not hesitate to introduce whatever measures may be necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, pointed out that on this particular matter the Government acted with great despatch, with the support of both Houses, when it was necessary to put through with great speed the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Therefore I do not think anybody will seriously maintain that if the Government—any Government—face a situation of this degree of seriousness, they would not act with great speed, if they were persuaded that action was necessary, to deal with a particular situation.

However, the point that we have to address our minds to this evening is whether any new measures which may be put forward are useful, and whether they improve the controls and powers which we already have. Therefore it is necessary to examine carefully the proposals which appear in the noble Viscount's Bill and to ensure they are aimed at the right targets, and whether if put on to the Statute Book they would be a useful addition to the powers that already exist.

The Bill provides for all detonators to be marked at the point of manufacture with a "destination mark" indicating whether the detonator is intended for use in Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere. The Bill also provides for the keeping of records of subsequent movements of detonators, which should be open to inspection by an appointed person and for penalties for failing to comply with the provisions of the Bill. The noble Viscount has indicated that his reasons for introducing this measure are that the existing legislation under which explosives are controlled at the moment is thought to be unsatisfactory because it is old and concerned with safety rather than security; that there is no existing requirement for records of transfers of explosive materials, including detonators, to be kept; and that because there is no proper system of recording and marking, we do not know where the detonators used by terrorists in Great Britain originate. I hope to be able to explain to the House that the proposals in the Bill, although undoubtedly well-intentioned, are not necessary——


Would the noble Lord give way? My Lords, I was not so worried at this particular point in time about the detonators used in Great Britain. What I was worried about were the detonators used by the terrorists.


My Lords, I assume that the noble Viscount is worried—as we all are—by the problems of detonators which may be used by terrorists operating in Great Britain.


In the United Kingdom.


Of course in the United Kingdom, but obviously, perfectly properly, on this side of the Irish Channel as well as the other.

Perhaps I may begin by giving some indication of the existing powers. Detonators are subject to the controls over the manufacture, storage and acquisition of explosives. These controls are set out in the Explosives Acts 1875 and 1923 and orders made under the Acts, and in the Control of Explosives Order 1953 made under the Emergency Laws (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1953. The controls are aimed both at the premises in which detonators may be kept and at the person who may keep them. A licensing system governing the manufacture and storage of explosives is operated by the Health and Safety Executive and by local authorities. It is an offence to sell or to transfer ownership of detonators to anyone who does not hold an appropriate licence or a police certificate stating that he is a fit person to keep explosives. I understand that licensees of factories and magazines report losses immediately to the police and to H.M. Inspectorate of Explosives.

On this point, I must say one thing to the noble Viscount, because one of his anxieties is what happens to detonators which are destined for use in Great Britain. We have already dealt with the problem of detonators which are going to be used either in the Republic or Northern Ireland. Since one of my principal responsibilities in the Home Office is for the police, over the whole period I have been at the Department—which is the past three years or so—I have discussed this matter with chief constables in England and Wales. I must tell the noble Viscount bluntly that I have met no chief constable who has not indicated to me first of all the care and attention which is devoted by the police in this country to any suggestion that there has been a loss of explosives from some site in the area of the police force concerned. Certainly, for very obvious reasons, a great deal of police attention has been directed towards dealing with this problem.

There are similar arrangements between the holders of police certificates and the police. These arrangements are working satisfactorily in our judgment, but we will certainly consider whether these arrangements can, with advantage, be made statutory by regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The noble Viscount, Lord Monckton of Brenchley, said that this was not a question of health or safety. To be absolutely blunt, it is a matter of safety; but what matters is not the name of the Act which we would use; what we are concerned about—as I am sure the noble Viscount is—is the substance of the matter: whether we have a regulation-making power to deal with this problem. We do have that regulation-making power and can use it if we consider it necessary to do so.

Under the Control of Explosives Order 1953 all holders of police certificates must also keep records of all transfers, by sale or otherwise, of detonators either to or from their possession. These records must include information about the date of transfer, the nature and quantity of detonators involved, and the name and address of the transferor or transferee as the case may be. These records, which must be kept for a period of five years, are open to inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives, a police officer or a local authority officer. Licensees of explosives factories and magazines are exempt from these provisions, but I understand that they keep records which are inspected by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives. I have no reason to believe that these arrangements have caused any concern, but I am now considering whether there are any grounds for removing this exemption.

It is right, of course, that due attention should be paid to safety in the legislation relating to explosives, but it is absolutely essential, in the light of the situation which has been referred to today, that security regulations are taken fully into account. Premises where explosives, including detonators, are made and kept are inspected by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives or by the local authorities, and the police are always consulted about security considerations. All aspects of the security of explosives are kept under review—they have to be, in the present situation—and security controls will be introduced if necessary, again under the powers which exist under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The situation in Northern Ireland so far as control of explosives is concerned is rather different. Detonators are not manufactured in Northern Ireland and all supplies in fact come from Great Britain. Once inside Northern Ireland, they may be moved only under a police escort and they may be stored only in magazines or stores with a special licence over which the police exercise close supervisory control. At the point of use, only licensed shot-firers may use them, and then only under direct police supervision. Any detonators not used following a blasting operation must be destroyed on the spot, also under direct police supervision. A record must be kept by the user of the use or disposal of any detonators acquired immediately, showing up any losses to the supervising police officer.

That is a formidable structure of control, and one which the Security Forces regard as highly effective. The noble Viscount, together with other speakers, referred to the very unhappy fact that the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn, has not been able to join us today. It is certainly unfortunate, I agree, for the reasons which have been set out already. The noble Viscount appeared to suggest—if I have misinterpreted him I should like to apologise in advance to the noble Viscount and also to the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn—that there was a belief that the unlawful possession of detonators was not a criminal offence in this country; but I must point out to your Lordships that it is indeed a very serious offence, under Section 4 of the Explosive Substances Act 1883, to possess explosives, including detonators. I would repeat that it includes the possession of detonators, in circumstances giving rise to the reasonable suspicion that he has it for an unlawful object. That is the statutory offence. The penalty on conviction is 14 years' imprisonment.

That seems to me a fairly substantial penalty which exists in our armoury for dealing with a person who is caught with detonators in his possession in the circumstances which I have outlined. That is already part of the law of this country. I am saying that there is here a quite substantial offence and that, if it were thought appropriate by the prosecuting authorities to do so, they would bring charges. Inevitably, they might bring charges under some other Act; it would depend on the circumstances of the case.

I have made it clear that the existing statutory controls already cover a substantial number of the proposals in the Bill of the noble Viscount which relate to the keeping of records. There is already a marking system, which has been referred to already, under which detonators made in Great Britain bear one of two markings, indicating whether they are destined for use in Northern Ireland or in the Republic. That system has been very helpful in producing evidence about the source of detonators used by terrorists in Great Britain. It has not been found necessary to make that scheme statutory but, again, that can be done, if thought necessary or desirable, under the powers already provided in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The noble Viscount said, and indeed there is substance in the point, that quite a significant number of unmarked detonators had been found; namely, not those which have gone either to Northern Ireland or to the Republic. The noble Viscount is absolutely right but, if he will forgive my saying so, he seemed to imply that most of them had come from Great Britain because it was unlikely—I would not say unthinkable—that many of them would have been manufactured at a time before the marking system came into operation. With great respect to the noble Viscount, a very high proportion of those detonators—though we certainly have not analysed every one—were manufactured, to the best of our belief, before the marking system came into operation. Some of those which have been recovered by the security authorities were manufactured in the 1920s, which would give an indication of the age of many of the detonators used by some of the people involved in acts of terrorism. I am afraid there are a very large number of detonators around, many of them manufactured a substantial number of years ago.

In the present situation with which we are confronted, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain, the Government are obviously in close and constant contact with our security advisers over the whole range of the problems which are caused by the terrorists. However, I must say quite directly in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, that I am not aware of any support from responsible authorities for the provisions of this Bill. That includes what I may describe as the security advisers who are available to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and I am speaking also on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. For the reasons I have indicated, they consider, and Ministers consider, that the powers which are already available to us are adequate to deal with the very real problem with which we are confronted at the moment. There is no disposition on our part to minimise the problem. Indeed, nobody who has had to deal over the last few years with the scale of terrorism we have seen on this side of the Irish Channel alone could possibly minimise the problem. That is not the issue. The issue we have to face is: are extra powers of the kind which are outlined in this Bill essential? Would it be right to proceed in the way which the noble Viscount is suggesting in this Bill? Also, if it is necessary to make use of some of the powers suggested, is it not better to use regulation-making powers which already exist under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

The problem with which I must deal directly is not that or inertia, as the noble Viscount suggested. There is no inertia among Ministers or their advisers who have to grapple with these problems, and I am sure that on reflection the noble Viscount would agree with me. The fact is that the noble Viscount's proposals provide for measures to mark the total number of detonators made in Great Britain which is of the order, in some years, of 70 million and, in other years, something like 100 million. Yet the problem which arises at the moment arises primarily from the less than 1 million detonators made in Great Britain for use in the Republic of Ireland. That is the central issue we are facing at the moment. That is the source of a large proportion of the detonators used by terrorists, and I must emphasise that those detonators are already marked. Therefore this Bill would in no way affect that situation, because the detonators are marked if they go to the Republic of Ireland. Surely in this situation the right course is to concentrate our efforts on this relatively small, but obviously highly important category, which we have reason to believe is the main source of this problem, rather than to dissipate our effort across the whole range of production.

I must emphasise that we are in constant contact with the Irish Government on the whole question of the security of explosives and detonators in Ireland, and their attitude continues to be most helpful. I myself, speaking again on the basis of the nearly three years in which I have held my present office, believe that over that period the improvement in day-to-day working relations between the police forces on this side of the Irish Channel and on the other has been immeasurable, and there has also been a most notable improvement in the co-operation in this area of the control of explosives. It is only right to say that because of some of the implied criticisms which have been voiced.

I should like to repeat this, so that there is no possible ground for misunderstanding the true situation. The threat from terrorism remains so serious that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary would not hesitate for a moment to take any measure which would be helpful in preventing terrorist outrages, or in detecting those responsible for them. The noble Viscount spoke movingly about the brave men who have worked in the bomb squad, and he was quite right to do so. I can remember, not so long ago, going late at night to Kensington Church Street where a bomb officer attached to the Metropolitan Police had been killed, and certainly after an experience of that kind I would not hesitate in any way whatever to give additional powers to the security authorities, particularly if it would in any way help the brave men who are doing this highly dangerous work, if in some way the Government believed that they are going to be in a better position to do their job. But the reality of the situation is that powers exist, and we do not believe that powers of the kind outlined in this Bill are necessary. Certainly, to take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grey of Naunton, inconvenience and cost could not conceivably be arguments which would stand in the way of taking action of this kind, if it was necessary—of course not.

The evidence is clear. The bulk of detonators and explosive material comes here from the Republic of Ireland, and I therefore believe, as do my colleagues, that our energies and efforts should be concentrated in trying to prevent this traffic. That in itself is a formidable task. I can assure the House that all material recovered from terrorist outrages—whether the bomb explodes or does not explode—is meticulously examined so that the maximum information can be obtained. Should the evidence from these finds, or any other information which reaches my right honourable friend, suggest that further controls over materials for use in Great Britain would help in detecting or preventing terrorism, I can assure the House that the necessary measures will be introduced.

I do not believe, however, that we should be tempted to introduce controls which we are not convinced would serve a useful purpose, merely in order to demonstrate to the public that the Government are doing something. Our measures should be genuinely designed for effectiveness, rather than as gestures. If, at any time, it proves necessary to introduce these stricter controls, action can be taken under existing legislation. As I have indicated, on two points we are looking to see whether some further regulation is necessary. For the reasons that I have indicated, though I wholly understand and applaud the motives of the noble Viscount in bringing forward this measure, I repeat that the Bill before us is not in our judgment necessary, and for that reason not desirable.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, I rise very much in sorrow, because I feel that the Government do not appreciate the true seriousness of the situation. The noble Lord said that all is satisfactory so far as the accountancy is concerned, but, if I understood him correctly—and I may not have done so—he specifically did not say that it was mandatory to report any loss. All he said was that in the experience of the country losses had been reported. But the ones that are not reported are the ones that appear to matter.

He agreed that the marking of detonators for the North and the South of Ireland had been a help. Some day, the supply of old detonators must run out, and at present the number of unmarked detonators coming to hand is at the same level as in 1971 when the marks were first put in. So, in my view, that means that we should get down to marking them as quickly as possible, because if terrorism goes on at this rate we will very shortly get on to the most modern manufactured detonators.

The noble Lord seemed to say that the detonators that were being used and recovered all came from the South of Ireland, but in fact 75 per cent. are still unmarked. Twenty-two per cent. only come from the marked area—those that have been destined for Northern Ireland—and I believe that the noble Lord made an incontrovertible case for marking detonators as required by the Bill. He mentioned that there were between 70 million and 110 million detonators made in any one year; but it is the first detonator that kills, and only 3,600 were used by the terrorists last year with only 1,000 the year before.

The noble Lord said something which I felt was very sad, that the Government feel satisfied that they do not have to do something just in order to make it look as though they are in fact doing something. I believe that we have to convince our peace-loving population that we are doing something. This is not a question of health at work; this is a question of security. I believe it would convince our people that the Government really meant business if the name was changed, because the outside appearance of the Government's determination plays a major part in winning against terrorist attacks.


My Lords, I do not want to be unjust to the noble Viscount, but is he suggesting that even if the Government take the view that these powers are not necessary, they should do this for, as it were, wider public relations purposes? Is that the argument that he is putting to the House?


No, my Lords. The Minister was apparently saying that there was no need to do something just for cosmetic purposes. What I am saying is that in a conventional war you can capture land and property, but in a terrorist war you have to capture the minds; and to do that you must have an approach which demonstrates the determination of the Government to beat the terrorist. So I should very much like the House to send this Bill to a Committee stage. I have had reservations expressed about it by the Council of Shipping, as to their responsibility as carriers; and the noble Lord, Lord Grey, pointed out some omissions which can easily be repaired by amendment in Committee.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.