HL Deb 30 October 1997 vol 582 cc1137-44

3.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the plans for permanent counter-terrorist legislation which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, in the past 25 years terrorism has exacted a terrible toll. Many have lost their lives. More than 3,000 people have died in Northern Ireland alone. Businesses have been destroyed. Substantial damage has been wrought on our towns and cities. The very infrastructure of our nation has been attacked.

"This is not just the result of Irish terrorism. International terrorists too have cost us dear. In the past 20 years there have been more than 80 international terrorist incidents in this country. No one here today will forget the shooting of WPC Fletcher outside the Libyan People's Bureau in St. James's Square, London in 1984 or the attack in 1988 on the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, when 270 people were killed by the blast. More recently, there have been the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and on Balfour House in 1994. Only last January letter bombs were sent to the London offices of an Arabic language newspaper which seriously injured two security guards.

"In combating this threat we owe an enormous debt to the vigilance of the police and the security forces. They have had many successes in capturing and prosecuting terrorist suspects. The convictions of six IRA terrorists at the Old Bailey last July are but the latest in a long line.

"In Northern Ireland there has of course been a very welcome change for the better. There, the IRA and a number of loyalist groups have declared ceasefires. Currently these are holding. Substantive talks between the parties have begun. There is real cause for optimism that a lasting peace may be achieved in Northern Ireland. A negotiated political settlement is, as we are all agreed, the only way forward.

"But the ceasefire in Northern Ireland and the possibility of achieving lasting peace there does not mean that we no longer need special legislation to investigate, to disrupt and to counter terrorism. There are extremists on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland who are opposed to the present ceasefire and who want the talks process to fail, as this morning's explosion in Londonderry shows. On the international front, there is ample evidence of the activities of terrorists, whether sponsored by unfriendly governments or acting in more or less organised groups. Some may commit acts of terrorism within the United Kingdom; or raise funds here; or otherwise use the United Kingdom as a base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in the world.

"In the face of such threats, we cannot—and we will not—drop our guard. Terrorists change their tactics all the time. Therefore we must remain vigilant at all times and ensure that the police and the security forces have the powers which they need.

"The current legislative framework for combating terrorism in the United Kingdom is contained principally in the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996. Both Acts represent the latest versions of emergency legislation first introduced in the early 1970s in response to the very serious attacks which had taken place within the United Kingdom. This legislation has been regarded by successive governments as exceptional but temporary, to be removed as soon as circumstances would allow.

"But 25 years of attacks and the continuing threat from terrorists make a mockery of the suggestion that legislation to combat terrorism can or should any longer be regarded as only temporary. What is needed is permanent legislation to deal with continuing threat from terrorism and the terrorist. I shall first explain the Government's intentions, in advance of new legislation, in relation to the exclusion powers in the 1989 Act.

"As the House well knows, the exclusion powers in the Prevention of Terrorism Act enable the Secretary of State to exclude from the whole of the United Kingdom, or a part thereof, anyone whom he is satisfied is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism in connection with the affairs of Northern Ireland. Unlike powers to exclude under the immigration Acts, these powers apply equally to British citizens as well as to the nationals of other states.

"In recognition of this, they have been used sparingly in recent years. Let me give the House the figures. In 1982 there were 248 orders in force. By 1994, just before the last ceasefire, the number had dropped to 74. During that ceasefire the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland revoked all the remaining 10 orders which he had made. No orders were made in 1996 or 1997 by my predecessor against anyone who had not been previously excluded despite the ending of the ceasefire. When I took office on 2nd May, the number had fallen to 22. For some years now, therefore, the power has been withering on the vine. During the past six months I have considered 12 cases as the law has required me to do. I have renewed two orders and either revoked or allowed to lapse another 10.

"As the House knows, this Government have long been opposed to these powers on the grounds that they were of limited utility and amount to a form of internal exile without trial—a view, I may say, shared by many. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, in his 1987 review of the legislation, urged that the powers which he described as draconian be removed. Others both at home and abroad have called for the same reforms. The powers have not only exposed the United Kingdom to severe criticism from our friends but they have also provided an easy argument for the apologists for terrorism to use against us.

"Taking into account the view of those who advise me on security matters, I can tell the House that I am minded, assuming the situation does not change, to allow the powers to lapse when the Act comes up for renewal next year. I can also tell the House that, in the light of the recent developments in Northern Ireland, I have come to the conclusion that at the present time the exercise of these powers is no longer expedient to prevent acts of terrorism in relation to each of the 12 cases in question. I have therefore today revoked the last 12 orders.

"In taking a fresh look at the whole of the legislation to see how it can be improved and strengthened, much of the groundwork has been done for us by the inquiry team led by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. The House will recall that he was asked in December 1995 to consider whether there would be a need for specific counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom in the event of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. His report was published in October last year. He concluded that there would be a continuing need for permanent United Kingdom-wide legislation. He made a number of detailed recommendations for changes: to the definition of terrorism, to the powers to proscribe terrorist organisations and to the powers of the police to investigate and arrest those suspected of terrorism. His report was, of course, predicated on there being a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. That desirable state of affairs has yet to be achieved. But this does not mean that we cannot consider his recommendations and, if appropriate, implement them in the interim.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I therefore intend to present proposals to replace both the current Acts with permanent United Kingdom-wide counter-terrorism legislation. We intend to publish these proposals in the form of a consultation paper early in the New Year. The paper will draw on, but not be constrained by, the most helpful analysis and recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. I hope that he will contribute further to our thinking.

"In the interim the police and the security forces must have the powers which they need to combat terrorism. I therefore intend to seek the agreement of this House in March next year to the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989. Similarly, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intends to renew the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. The current Emergency Provisions Act expires in August next year, so she will be bringing forward a Bill to extend its life and to make some amendments to it. The introduction of the Bill will follow later today.

"Terrorism is not now a temporary phenomenon anywhere in the world. We need a robust and clear set of powers which will enable the police, security forces and the courts to deal effectively with all forms of terrorism for the foreseeable future, with the flexibility to respond to emergencies should they arise.

"Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, the Government envisage that some existing powers will be confirmed and placed on a permanent footing, that some will be strengthened and that others will substantially be changed. For example, it has long been our view that there should be a judicial element in the extension of detention process. The aim will be a framework of laws which are both effective and proportionate to the threat.

"This Government will never drop their guard in the fight against terrorism."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for repeating the Statement. We also echo the last sentence of the Statement that, This Government will never drop their guard in the fight against terrorism". As long as the Government remain true to that belief and desire, we shall certainly support them in their activities.

I also pay tribute, as did the noble Lord in repeating the Statement, to all those who have suffered from the horrors of terrorism in both Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom over the past 25 years. Let it never be forgotten that it has affected people in all parts of the Kingdom and at all levels. My noble friend Lady Thatcher will remember with horror the experiences of some 13 years ago in Brighton. A later Cabinet suffered an attack only seven years ago. We live in a strange world where terrorism, which hardly existed 25 years ago, has left its mark on the whole of society.

Like the noble Lord, I pay tribute to all those in the police and security forces for all they have done over the past 25 years in combating the threat of terrorism. I too would like to emphasise the fact that they have had many successes in capturing and prosecuting terrorist suspects.

There are only one or two points that I wish to make at this stage as regards the Statement. As the noble Lord made quite clear, there will be a consultation period and a paper coming forward from the Government. We shall have a degree of time to debate it, as agreed by the usual channels, in a fuller manner later on.

But the noble Lord would expect me to comment on the idea that the power to make exclusion orders should lapse. As I understand it, the Prevention of Terrorism Act will be renewed next year, as he made clear, and it will come before both Houses in March to be renewed for a further year. Should there be some delay in the permanent legislation, I presume that there will be a commitment to renew the Act for a further year, and the year after and the year after should it be necessary. What I find alarming is that the power to make exclusion orders should be, as it were, unilaterally given up at a time when, although the Government are making considerable progress in Northern Ireland, it is still not clear that the ceasefire is permanent.

Will the noble Lord at least comment on whether he can see a case for retaining the power to make exclusion orders—whether his right honourable friend wishes to make use of them is another matter—until the ceasefire seems more permanent or at least until the new legislation is in place? There does not seem to be a case for, as I put it, unilaterally removing the provision at such an uncertain stage.

The second point I wish to make is about the consultation period. Can the noble Lord say when it will begin and how long it will continue? When does he think that he or his right honourable friend will be in a position to put legislation before the House and on what sort of timescale does he believe that that legislation will proceed? When can we hope to see that legislation on the statute book? That comes back to the earlier point that I made about the temporary legislation being renewed and whether that can be done for one year, two years or as long as necessary.

I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and, like him, I pay tribute to all those who have suffered and who have served in the fight against terrorism over the past 25 years.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I, too, welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has repeated the Statement. I intend to be extremely brief. The Government announced that there will be a consultation period followed by the introduction of permanent legislation. I believe that to be highly desirable, particularly in the light of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. It will also give Parliament the opportunity to consider the details of that legislation, which is quite impossible in the circumstances where we merely have a renewal order once a year which is, of course, unamendable.

Having said that, I thank the noble Lord. We shall reserve our position until we see the details of the Government's legislation.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am deeply grateful for the approach which has been adopted by both the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Lord, Lord Hams of Greenwich. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked whether there was danger in lapsing the powers. The powers having lapsed, if the Secretary of State comes to the conclusion that it is necessary to bring them back into force as a matter of urgency, I am happy to reassure your Lordships that the Act allows the Home Secretary to make an order reactivating the powers. There is the in-built mechanism in the Act that the order must then be confirmed by both Houses within 40 days or the powers will lapse again.

I entirely echo what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said about terrorism not being limited to a certain part of the United Kingdom. Perhaps one's mind is particularly put to that when one goes to the party conferences and realises, rather dismally, that in a mature, civilised democracy party conferences are unable to be held without the assistance of armed police and very heavy security. A further dismal consequence of terrorism is that we almost come to accept it without question.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, also asked about consultation, as did the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The intention is that we should have the consultation paper out in the early part of next year. The present thought is that a consultation period of about three months would be appropriate. We do not want the timescale to slip. On the other hand, we want the opportunity to have informed consultations with everyone who has a legitimate interest in these matters, bearing in mind the very useful basis provided by the Lloyd Report to which I referred earlier. It is not possible for me to speculate on the timescale for the introduction of a new Bill.

All that I can reiterate to your Lordships—I hope that this finds favour—is that this is something that we must build which must be capable of lasting a significant period of time. One of the problems historically has been that we have responded on a piecemeal basis, often entirely understandably and perhaps inevitably, to specific terrorist outrages. Legislation has often been introduced within a very short period of time. I have been a witness to that even in the five years that I have been a Member of your Lordships' House. That was inevitable and when we were in opposition we supported the Government while expressing reluctance. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, we want to bear in mind that this is not a limited problem; it is a global problem and we want to equip ourselves with the tools with which we can deal with this great vice of our time.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, the Government's approach is entirely appropriate and ought to command our support. At the risk of labouring the obvious, may I ask the Minister whether it is quite clear that on the day the Home Secretary decides that it is necessary, if unfortunately it should be, to reactivate the so-called "Temporary Act", he can reactivate it by signing an appropriate order which will operate immediately and continue for up to 40 days, during which time the Home Secretary will ask Parliament to support him in what he has done?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend is right. The Home Secretary has that power. I have referred to a mechanism in the Act which requires confirmation within 40 days. Failing such confirmation, the powers lapse. I entirely accept that the important point is that in the meantime the Secretary of State is entitled in law to make any exclusion orders which may be required.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, who has vast experience in these matters because otherwise he and I would have been able to picture terrorists reading about—and they can now view it on television—a lengthy debate on the introduction of replacement measures. It is good to know that the Government have retained the power to introduce measures immediately and without the need for further debate. I commend the decision to maintain the permanent powers, which is something that my colleagues and I have advocated for a long time. It will bring a great deal of satisfaction to people in all parts of the United Kingdom to see that the powers will be applied uniformly throughout the United Kingdom. Although it has been said that the main terrorist bodies are for the time being observing a ceasefire, the reality is that there is no shortage of what I might call "sub-contractors" to continue carrying out the evil deeds.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful for those comments from the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. Friends and colleagues in Northern Ireland have expressed the same view to me—that the powers should be United Kingdom-wide. I believe that the way forward is on the basis of consultation. There may be occasions when it is more prudent not to discuss on the Floor of your Lordships' House the thinking of the party of either the noble Lord, Lord Henley, or of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, or the thinking of any other interested party with legitimate concerns. I am always open to private consultations if any noble Lord thinks that that would be a wiser and safer course which is in the general public interest during the discussion period which is bound to be delicate and difficult.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on addressing this world-wide phenomenon in this manner. This country has for too long been considered a safe haven for terrorist organisations. Will the Minister please consider at the appropriate time those 30 organisations listed by the counter-terrorism section of the United States State Department and clarify whether, if it is ever considered or determined that they have a presence in the United Kingdom, a mechanism exists to deport those individuals whether or not they have applied for asylum in the UK?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the existence of designated organisations in the United States legislation is well known to my right honourable friend. One of the points of the consultation exercise is to identify precisely the problem of which the noble Viscount spoke; namely, international terrorist groups. We tend to think of international crime too narrowly and perhaps in the context of international drugs crime, which I know is a particular concern of the noble Viscount, but we have to be vigilant against prospective terrorist attacks apart from what we know about historical actuality. One of the purposes of the consultation exercise is to consult with law enforcement agencies overseas. Obviously, we are in close liaison with many friendly nations on this matter and we want to learn from the experience of others to see whether we can improve upon our present armoury of weapons.