HL Deb 21 March 1978 vol 389 cc1686-96

2.56 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich) rose to move, That the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 (Continuance) Order 1978, laid before the House on 23rd February, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to continue in operation, for a further period of 12 months, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976. The Act is due to lapse, unless renewed, on 24th March.

Ever since these temporary powers were first enacted in 1974, Parliament has rightly expected that the renewal debate should include an "annual report" of the extent to which the Act has been used. For the convenience of the House, I shall therefore follow this practice, and describe the use made of the Act in the year up to 1st March, giving figures since 1974. Under Part II of the 1976 Act, my right honourable friend may sign an exclusion order where he is satisfied that someone is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, or is attempting, or may attempt, to enter the country for that purpose. In total, 120 exclusion orders have now been made, and 25 of these were made in the year since I last reported on these matters.

These are executive, non-judicial powers, and the Act therefore provides the safeguard of a right to make representations to an independent adviser. When a person is served with an exclusion order, his right to make these representations, and to have an interview with an adviser, is fully explained to him. Altogether, 22 people against whom exclusion orders have been made (including three in the last year) have taken up their right to make representations against the order. Six of the 22 orders were revoked by my right honourable friend or his predecessor, following reconsideration of the case as the Act requires. Three people made representations this year, and one order was enforced and one revoked. The third order is still under consideration.

Next, I shall deal with the numbers of people removed under exclusion orders. A total of 105 people (24 in the last year) have been removed—of these, 81 in total (23 in the last year) to Northern Ireland, and 24 in total (one in the last year) to the Republic of Ireland.

I mentioned the advisers under the Act and my right honourable friend made clear in another place how grateful he was to them for the work which they have done. Since 1974, the two advisers have been the noble Lord, Lord Alport, and Mr. Ronald Waterhouse, QC. Mr. Waterhouse has recently stood down on his appointment as a High Court Judge. It is only right to take the opportunity on this occasion to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for the very considerable amount of work that he has done in this exceptionally difficult area.

The powers which the police have under this Act include powers of arrest and detention both inland and at the ports. Section 12 of the Act enables the police to detain a person who is reasonably suspected either of having committed an offence under the Act, or of being concerned in terrorism. They can detain a person under their own authority for up to 48 hours, but if they believe that they will need more time for their inquiries, they can ask my right honourable friend to extend the period of detention for up to another five days. The police have detained a total of 939 people (143 during the last year) under Section 12. In 277 cases (27 during the last year) my right honourable friend and his predecessor have authorised extensions of detention.

Apart from the power to detain under Section 12, the police also have the powers given to them at ports. All passengers travelling through ports are liable to examination, but we should recognise how few people are detained for further examination. A total of 2,191 people (554 in the last year) have been so detained. This is only a tiny fraction of the total travelling public. The number of passengers passing through the major ports dealing with traffic to and from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 1977 was nearly 4 million. Of these, only 308 were detained.

I turn now to charges for offences under the Acts—this means offences created specifically in the legislation itself. Twenty-one people in total (8 in the past year) have been charged with offences under the Acts, such as soliciting or giving money in connection with acts of terrorism, failing to disclose information relating to acts of terrorism, or seeking to enter part of the United Kingdom from which a person had been excluded. A total of 118 people (20 in the past year) have been charged with substantive offences in Great Britain after they had been detained under the Acts. These charges include murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to cause explosions, the unlawful possession of explosives and offences under the Firearms Act.

That is my report on the year's activity. I should now like to move to our reasons for asking Parliament to renew the operation of the Act for a further period of 12 months. My right honourable friend has the responsibility for deciding whether the threat to the mainland of Great Britain from Irish terrorism is likely to continue throughout that period. These matters are kept under constant scrutiny, and my right honourable friend and I consider with the greatest care all the information available. The House will appreciate that I cannot go into a great deal of detail here, but, as my right honourable friend mentioned in another place, three factors have been taken into account in these matters.

The first is the understanding which my right honourable friend has formed, in close touch with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, of events in Northern Ireland. We are quite clear that we shall need legislation in Great Britain as long as there is IRA violence. The second is the advice we receive from senior levels in the police with whom we stay in the closest touch on these matters.

Thirdly, there is the evidence we have of the efforts the Provisional IRA have made in the last year to bring arms and explosives into Great Britain. I have reported to the House before on the events of last August but it may be helpful to remind noble Lords of their significance. A discovery in Dublin revealed a comprehensive set of equipment for an IRA terrorist group. It was established beyond doubt that this equipment was ready for shipment to Great Britain. The police know the exact area in the Home Counties where the consignment was to have been collected. The contents make very sombre reading. There were some 230 lbs. of explosives. A skilled terrorist can, with only two or three lbs. of explosives, kill several people and injure many scores. There were also 96 cassette incendiary devices, bomb-making materials, and a number of firearms with ammunition. It was a formidable collection of material, sufficient for an IRA group of four or five people to create untold havoc in this country. I do not think we can contemplate dropping preventive and deterrent measures of this kind as long as there is evidence that the IRA threat continues.

A review of the Act is now being carried out by my noble friend Lord Shackleton. Before announcing the review, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary considered carefully a number of ways in which he could give reassurance and information about the operation of the Act. He wanted to invoke the advice of an independent person of high standing. He decided on a review with these terms of reference: Accepting the continuing need for legislation, to assess the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts 1974 and 1976, with particular regard to the effectiveness of this legislation and its effect on the liberties of the subject, and to report.

The review, which started last December, extends to the whole of the United Kingdom. I am sure the whole House will agree how fortunate we are that my noble friend Lord Shackleton has agreed to carry out this difficult and challenging task. As my right honourable friend has made clear, the way in which my noble friend carries out this review is a matter entirely for him. It is at this stage difficult to say when his report is likely to be published, but certainly we look forward to receiving it in due course. The 12-month renewal period need not delay the implementation of any administrative changes my noble friend may recommend which seem to him appropriate. So there is a great deal of flexibility here, which I hope will reassure any noble Lords who may have misgivings about supporting a renewal now for a period of 12 months.

In conclusion, I would ask the House to consider carefully what I have said about the extent of the current IRA threat. We are in no doubt about the value of the Act, and I believe that the public would rightly condemn us if we allowed the Act to lapse before it was safe to do so, even if we did not have, as we do have, the deadly proof I have described that the IRA have not given up their plans for violence here. In these circumstances, renewal seems to the Government to be a regrettable necessity, and I ask the House to support the Government in this view.

Moved, That the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 (Continuance) Order 1978, laid before the House on 23rd February, be approved.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his account of the way in which the Act has operated, particularly over the last 12 months, and of the reasons behind the draft order which is now before your Lordships. One is always apprehensive about a law which may be said to affect our civil liberties, and there is no doubt that this Act does just that. It is right, I think, that the Government should have to come to Parliament from time to time to justify these exceptional powers which they have been granted under the terms of the Act.

I suppose that, until the New Year, one might have been forgiven for assuming that violence might have been on the wane, certainly in Northern Ireland, or at any rate that the number of attacks on innocent and defenceless members of the public seemed to be on the decrease. But recent events in Northern Ireland cannot give one any room for optimism, and they have certainly refuted any idea that the terrorists had become either a spent force or that they may have turned their activities to more peaceful methods of expressing their point of view. Equally, I suggest it would be dangerous to be complacent about the situation in England so far as terrorism is concerned.

In the circumstances, I have no doubt that noble Lords, at any rate from these Benches, will agree that the Government are right to be vigilant to prevent acts of terrorism and that this Act, in effect, is a means of doing just what it says, that is, to prevent acts of terrorism. In the circumstances, the liberties of the subject will have to be sublimated to the overriding need for preventing these wicked acts of senseless violence from taking place.

One is interested in the figures, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, related them, and is happy to note that the number of people who are affected by this Act is comparatively small. I was equally interested to learn of the setting-up of the inquiry by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. But I think that one is entitled to inquire purely because the Government are asking for 12 months' extension, whether in the circumstances it is necessary to ask for that period. Presumably the Home Secretary must have some doubt in his mind—I shall not say that he is uneasy—as to the workings of the Act; otherwise, he would not have set up the inquiry. It cannot, I suggest, be done merely to have a cosmetic effect on those who have civil liberties dear to their hearts. In the circumstances, is the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, being assisted, or is it a one-man committee, if a committee can ever be one man? Secondly, how long has the inquiry been going, and can the noble Lord give any indication as to when this report is likely to be ready for consideration by the House; if, indeed, the Government intend to publish it in time for the House to debate it, which, hopefully, will happen before the long Recess.

Thirdly, if Section 14 allows considerable amendment to the powers under the Act to be made by Affirmative Resolution, why is it necessary to have a 12 months' provision at this moment of time? These questions do not come out of any sense of carping criticism of the Government. I am quite sure that all noble Lords will support the Government in what they are trying to do. But one has to acknowledge the fact that this Act represents a fairly draconian measure, which affects people in their ordinary, everyday lives and particularly their legal rights, if they happen to fall foul of the police. We must be certain that the Government have their priorities right, and are looking at this matter in the proper manner.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to support this Motion, although we do so with considerable reluctance. It is, I hope and expect, a reluctance which is shared by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The reason is that these measures constitute a very serious diminution of civil liberties, and they could be justified only if there were a real threat to the safety of the Realm. We accept what is said, that that threat still exists, and we are therefore prepared to support this Motion on this occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, will not be surprised if I indicate that, on the next occasion when renewal is sought, we shall of course wish to examine the detailed provisions of this measure, in the light of the recommendations that will be made by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton.

The only other observation I would make is this. There is no more beastly method of indiscriminately maiming innocent civilians than the kind of delayed action explosive which is the common weapon used by the IRA in this country. It is not only beastly; it is also a thoroughly cowardly weapon, because it is easy to manufacture and is easy to put into place, and all that the terrorist then has to do is to run away and await the consequences. It appears, on the face of it, that detection would be improbable. But I ought perhaps to say that, having appeared in a number of cases where these people have been involved, I am lost in admiration of the painstaking, careful and, very often, brilliant detection by our police force which has enabled so many of these terrorists, against all the odds, to be brought to justice. On this occasion, we support the Motion.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me for intervening at this stage. I do not think that anyone at all in the House, who realises what is happening nowadays so far as terrorism—not only in Ireland, but throughout the world—is concerned, will deny that such measures as can be taken to prevent terrorism, in spite of all our feelings about civil liberties, are essential at the present time. I just want to ask my noble friend whether, in pursuing this method of dealing with terrorism, investigations are made with regard to other international terrorist organisations, it being believed—and I think correctly believed—that there are contacts between the IRA and other terrorist organisations. It is very important that there are such investigations, so that if there happen to come into this country people who are in contact with the IRA and like organisations, they can be dealt with under the Act or in some similar manner.

I make this point, because I think that unless we cope with the question of terrorism throughout the world, and the various contacts between terrorist organisations in one place and another, we shall find ourselves in a world of chaos, which will undoubtedly result in terrorism becoming the main factor in deciding certain issues. I hope that I am not in any way deviating from the purpose of this order if I ask my noble friend to take that matter into consideration; and perhaps my noble friend Lord Shackleton, who will be dealing with the position in his report, might give some consideration to this point.

3.18 p.m.

Lord O'NEILL of the MAINE

My Lords, may I just add a few words? Naturally we all regret the necessity for these measures, but I hope noble Lords will appreciate that the only alternative—and a very poor alternative it would be—would be to have massive security, such as we have to put up with in Northern Ireland. That would mean that anybody going into a shop would be searched from head to foot, and that it would be quite impossible to leave a bag at a railway station, or anything of that kind; and anybody who has qualms must appreciate that, in a sense, that would be an interference with civil liberties. Therefore, so long as this problem exists, I fear that these measures are necessary, and I am only too delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is looking into the details of this matter.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to all four noble Lords who have welcomed this Motion today. I begin by saying that I very much agree with what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield. It is absolutely right to have this annual renewal debate. As he said, these are exceptional powers. This was recognised when Parliament enacted this legislation in 1974, and on that occasion we came forward with the proposal that this legislation should be reviewed by both Houses of Parliament at 12 months' intervals, which has been our practice since then. There are these two fairly substantial powers: first, the power to make an exclusion order; and, secondly, the power to have a period of detention at a port, or, indeed, a person can be arrested and detained inland. I have given some indication to the House of the scale on which these powers are used.

The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, asked whether it was necessary to renew these powers for a full period of 12 months, given the fact that my noble friend is conducting his inquiry at the moment. The Government considered the matter but came to the conclusion that such was the scale of the continued threat that it was absolutely right to maintain these powers for the full period of 12 months. The noble Earl also asked when my noble friend began his inquiry. He began his work last December. I was also asked by the noble Earl whether my noble friend is receiving any assistance. He is indeed receiving assistance from both Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary for England and Wales and Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Scotland, so my noble friend has a very substantial amount of police advice at his disposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, also welcomed the extension of these powers for the full period of 12 months. I take entirely the noble Lord's point. The House will want to look at the matter with some care when it receives the report of my noble friend Lord Shackleton. This can be done either when we discuss the matter in 12 months' time or at some time between now and then.

My noble friend Lord Janner raised the question of other terrorist organisations. As we know from very recent experience, there has been a formidable growth in international terrorism. These powers were sought by the Government to deal with the particular problem of IRA terrorism, and the exclusion order powers relate entirely to the Irish situation. My noble friend is quite right when he says that it would be the height of folly to ignore the other terrorist threats to which we could be subjected, and I can certainly assure him that the police devote a very substantial amount of time and resources to dealing with this particular problem.

I repeat that I am very grateful for the general support which the House has given to these powers. I remember asking the House to agree to these exceptional powers in the aftermath of the Birmingham bombings at the end of 1974. I do not believe that there has been any clear evidence that these powers have been seriously misused, but I think that we shall all be relieved to have the view of my noble friend, who brings to this matter a clear, a forceful and an independent judgment, when he has concluded his review.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I say that I do not want him to think that I was asking that this Act should deal with all acts of terrorism. I was speaking about this Act being utilised for the purpose of accomplices who are collaborating with the IRA. That was the point which I was trying to make. However, I agree entirely with my noble friend that the question of terrorism has to be dealt with and is being dealt with in other directions.


My Lords, all I would say to my noble friend is that if accomplices are directly involved with members of the IRA, they will be caught by the Statute.

On Question, Motion agreed to.