HL Deb 10 March 1998 vol 587 cc196-206

9.5 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th February be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, last year my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that, so long as the terrorist threat remains and there is no lasting peace, we shall maintain and operate the powers in the PTA".

The Government are making efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement, by consent, in Northern Ireland. However, recent events not only in this country but worldwide underline the fact that there are those who want to use violent means for political purposes. That is why we seek today the renewal of the powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Only this morning an RUC station in Armagh came under mortar attack and last Tuesday two young men in Poyntzpass were murdered simply because one was a Roman Catholic and one was a Protestant, as far as one can detect any reason behind such cruelty.

In Great Britain during the election campaign there were attempts to disrupt the democratic process. There were bombs at Wilmslow railway station in March. In April there were two devices on the conjunction of the M1, M5 and M6. In April there was a small device at a junction box near Leeds station. There were two more small devices on 25th April under a pylon near the M6.

Since the renewal of the IRA ceasefire on 20th July, no more terrorist devices have been found in Great Britain. And there has been some success. Six men were convicted in July of conspiracy to cause explosions, and each sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment. Their intention was to knock out the electricity grid in London and the surrounding area. In December last year three men were sentenced to between 17 and 25 years for terrorist offences related to explosive finds. In each case the police and the Security Service worked carefully, imaginatively and co-operatively together and I pay tribute to their work.

In Northern Ireland in the period from last year's debate to 19th July 13 people were murdered. These included two RUC officers, Constables Graham and Taylor, who were shot dead while on foot patrol in Lurgan on 16th June. In the same period there were attacks and other forms of terrorist activity including 85 punishment attacks.

After the restoration of the PIRA ceasefire on 20th July the scale of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland diminished somewhat, but it has not ended. Billy Wright was murdered on 27th December last year. Since then there have been bomb attacks in Enniskillen, Moira and Portadown and 44 punishment attacks, and 14 murders committed by paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide. We cannot be deflected from our purpose, which is to seek a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

I have said on an earlier occasion—I believe that it is still true—that one does not need to be taken away from the general threat of international terrorism because of the particular problems of Northern Ireland. Thanks to the work of the police and security agencies, there has been no repetition here during the past year of the bombings carried out by international terrorism in the past. But there have been attacks elsewhere, notoriously in Luxor, Egypt, last year when 58 tourists were murdered senselessly. In Algeria thousands have died as a result of terrorists and their activities. During our presidency we are putting work forward in the European Union forum, and as part of our chairmanship of the G8 countries, countering terrorist fundraising and arms trafficking by terrorist organisations.

Under the Immigration Act 1971, the Home Secretary has power to exclude any foreign national if his or her presence is not conducive to the public good. Since becoming Home Secretary in May my right honourable friend has used that power 26 times. In 1997 12 people were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in connection with international terrorism, compared with two in 1996. Of those, criminal charges were laid in seven cases. The United Kingdom is therefore no safe haven for those who support or promote terrorism.

I turn briefly to the Act itself. I have indicated that we regard the Act as necessary and essential in the fight against terrorism. I am grateful for the report prepared by the reviewer, Mr. John Rowe, Queen's Counsel. It is a clear, independent scrutiny of the operation of the legislation. It was pleasing that he was able to conclude that the operation of the provisions was in accordance with the law.

His survey includes the power to stop and search individuals in specified areas for a limited period, to search vehicles for articles connected with terrorism, and to set up cordons and impose parking restrictions. Mr. Rowe states that those powers were exercised fairly and lawfully in 1997. He draws similar conclusions about the important operation of the sensitive powers to investigate terrorist finances.

Apart from air and sea ports, the arrest and detention powers were used in 1997 in Great Britain on about 30 occasions, and in Northern Ireland about 500 times. He says that they were used properly and fairly. The initial period of detention in Great Britain was extended on nine occasions, compared with 23 in 1996, and in Northern Ireland there were 72 extensions as against 48 in 1996.

Mr. Rowe recommends that the existing ports powers should be extended to take in all traffic to and from ports. We shall consider the recommendation in the context of the forthcoming consultation paper, to which I shall return in a moment.

We have long indicated that we believe that there is a strong case for introducing a judicial element to the current extension of detention process. Mr. Rowe supports such a move in principle although he points to the undesirable inconsistencies which would arise if a judicial element were introduced in Great Britain but not Northern Ireland. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, recommended as much in his inquiry into legislation against terrorism. This whole issue is important and we intend to cover it fully in the forthcoming consultation paper on permanent United Kingdom-wide counter-terrorism legislation, but until we have that legislation we cannot prudently leave the police without the existing power, which I recognise is an executive mechanism to extend detentions. The police need that present power for the period to which I referred.

I turn specifically to exclusion powers. Since 30th October last year when the Home Secretary announced the revocation of the 12 remaining exclusion orders, the Government have kept the issue of whether or not those powers should be renewed under close review. They have taken careful account, of course, of the security situation and other factors, including Mr. Rowe's views.

This Government have long opposed exclusion powers, both on policy grounds—in that they amount to a form of internal exile fundamentally undermining the integrity of the United Kingdom—and because of their limited utility. Nothing in the current security situation, nor any argument of policy, shakes us from the view that it is right for the powers to be lapsed and the order before the House achieves that end.

The views of Mr. Rowe on the matter have not lightly been set aside. He has argued for each of his five years as reviewer that the powers are useful and should be retained. It is not without precedent for the Government to take issue with a recommendation made by the independent reviewer. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, Mr. Rowe's predecessor, argued in 1987 that exclusion powers were "draconian" and should be removed from the statute book. But the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, decided that they should be retained. So there were differences of view.

These powers were already withering on the vine. No orders have been in force in Northern Ireland since February 1995. As for the mainland, no new orders were made in 1996 or 1997, leaving 22 in force when the Home Secretary came into office. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act exclusion powers are to be used only when they are judged to be expedient to prevent acts of terrorism. It is the Government's assessment that their use cannot currently be justified on that basis—and they do not therefore form part of the Act to be renewed this year.

The consultation paper is a document which offers a great opportunity. The Home Secretary announced in another place on 30th October last year that he and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intended shortly to present proposals for permanent United Kingdom-wide counter-terrorist legislation. We shall therefore put out a consultation paper which will draw upon the recent report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, on legislation against terrorism.

The noble and learned Lord was asked, of course, as part of his remit to consider the need for counter-terrorism legislation in the event of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. That has not yet been brought about. However, we cannot shelve consideration of his recommendations. Terrorism is not a temporary phenomenon anywhere in the world. The forthcoming paper will therefore set out proposals for permanent legislation to deal with the continuing threat from terrorism and the terrorist.

In the meantime, the police and the security forces must continue to have the powers they need to fight terrorism. Those powers are contained in the order. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th February be approved [25th Report front the Joint Committed].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

9.16 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, perhaps I may start by thanking the Minister for bringing the order before the House and for explaining it with such care and in such detail. From these Benches we welcome the order. We welcome it sadly—not because we wish in any way to oppose it; we fully support it. Our sadness results from the fact that it is so necessary. Casting my mind back I remember when I first came to this House, just a little under 20 years ago, seeing the then Prime Minister, now the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, walking casually from No. 10 to another place, escorted by someone whom I then presumed to be a mere private secretary.

Not long after that, following events such as the murder of Airey Neave, the Brighton bombing and all the unimaginable horrors that we have seen in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, it came about that Prime Ministers moving from A to B did so with a convoy of two or three cars; and even other Ministers moving more or less just across Whitehall had to be so escorted. We ought to bear in mind that it is a relatively recent phenomenon that we are experiencing. It is very sad and one which we hope our children and grandchildren will not have to experience. That is another matter and not for debate on this occasion.

I join with the Minister in paying tribute to the security services in Northern Ireland and the rest of the kingdom for all that they have done over the past 20 years or more in trying to deal with the problem of terrorism. I also join with the Minister in saying how sad it is that hopes raised are so often dashed—and dashed so recently by the horrific events at Poyntzpass. The noble Lord referred to further events, and to this morning's attack on a police station in Northern Ireland.

The simple point I wish to make before going on to ask one or two questions is that we accept that such orders are necessary. We on these Benches will always give our full support to the Government in their fight against terrorism. We will offer them our full support in prolonging the order just so long as it is necessary and so long as the Government themselves give the assurance that they will renew the legislation as and when it is appropriate. Perhaps they will assure us that they will only cease to renew it when there is so major a change in circumstances that such a step is justified.

I have one or two questions, some of which have been partially addressed by the Minister. I turn first to the exclusion orders and the comments made by Mr. John Rowe QC in his valuable report. I remember the noble Lord on behalf of the Government making the announcement in this House that his right honourable friend the Home Secretary intended to cease using exclusion orders. He made that announcement back in October. We, again, on these Benches accept that the orders are, as he put it, quoting the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, draconian. We must accept that we are not always entirely happy with their use. They are a severe measure, a form of internal exile. However, we accept that there can be very good security reasons for the retention of their use. That is a point Mr. Rowe made in his report. He made two comments. The first and most important was that he had seen no abuse of the use of the orders over the years. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. Mr. Rowe also made the point that the orders can on occasions be an effective weapon in the fight against terrorism.

I accept that what the Home Secretary receives from Mr. Rowe is merely advice. In the end it is for the Home Secretary himself to decide. I ask the Minister whether there would be circumstances in which his right honourable friend might consider making use of exclusion orders. Despite what the order achieves, he might consider whether it was possible to bring the measures back, should that be necessary in future years.

The second point I wish to make refers to the consultation document. We welcome the fact that consultation will come forward from the Government. We think it important that it should be brought forward in good time. I understand that the Home Secretary originally promised that the consultation should appear early in the new year. I believe that with some embarrassment the Home Secretary conceded in another place that March was possibly moving a little beyond early in the new year. I have some experience of these matters, having once announced, in my life in the Department for Social Security, that we would publish a document in the spring. I confess that when we published it in July we were edging a little beyond any possible definition of spring.

In response to queries about the consultation being published early in the new year, the Home Secretary said that he hoped it would be published within another two to three months. Can the Minister say a little more about that and whether he can urge his right honourable friend to ensure that it is published with as much expedition as possible? We on these Benches—and I imagine the same is true of noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches—would like to see the document as soon as possible.

My last point relates to the questions raised by my right honourable friend Sir Brian Mawhinney in another place relating to powers to deal with the financing of terrorism. It is accepted on all sides of the House and in all parts of the kingdom as being a matter of extreme importance. The Home Secretary said that he was not satisfied with the powers that he had at present to deal with such matters. I ask the Minister whether he can confirm that the problem will be addressed in the consultation paper when—and, I hope, it is soon—it comes before us and before the country.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, this order has to be renewed, first, to maintain the protection the Act affords to the people in the various services who put their lives at risk in the fight against terrorism and who, during the past year, have so successfully contained terrorism in Great Britain. Secondly, it is necessary to safeguard every citizen in Great Britain and Northern Ireland against terrorist attack.

It is the indiscriminate nature of terrorism which points up the evil. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, referred to the atrocity in Poyntzpass last Tuesday, when Philip Allen and Damien Trainor were lined up on the floor and shot through the back of the head. What sort of people are they who commit crimes of that nature? What sort of cause do they think they support? With such actions they besmirch the country that they profess to love.

I join with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in regretting that we need extraordinary powers which undermine the civil liberties of the citizens of this country. For example, we have powers of arrest and detention without warrant when a police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting merely that a person has some involvement in terrorism, without any specific offence having been committed; we have the extension of detention when at the moment there is no independent judicial intervention.

I welcome the statement of the Minister that the Government will look again at judicial participation. There is a distinction in the system of criminal justice between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain and there is no reason why judicial participation in the decision-making process as to whether to extend detention orders in order to protect civil liberties should not be introduced, at least in part.

Another power is that which allows the stopping and searching of vehicles and pedestrians, whether or not there are grounds for suspecting the presence of any articles which could be used for terrorism. There are port and border controls which can be operated simply on the hunch of a police officer. He can simply say, "I wish to find out whether this person has been involved in terrorism", and stop and search accordingly. As Mr. John Rowe points out in his report, the powers may well be in breach of the European Convention and, as it is now incorporated, in the Human Rights Bill.

Terrorists do not undermine civil liberties; they destroy them—for example, the ability of people to be able to live their lives as they choose, indeed to live at all. There should be no hiding place from the criminal process. The refusal yesterday of the German extradition request of Miss Roisin McAliskey by the Home Secretary requires examination. I have no access to the medical reports and have no reason to doubt that she is suffering from a serious condition and that the decision of the Home Secretary is a humane decision. But many people suffer from serious depression when on remand awaiting extradition or trial.

The reason given by the Home Secretary, as reported in the press, was that, because of her health, it was unjust and oppressive to return Miss McAliskey. So far as I am aware, that is unprecedented, certainly since the Extradition Act 1989. The circumstances in which it is unjust and oppressive are limited in Section 12(2) of that Act and none of those limitations apply in this case. On the other hand, by Section 12(1) the Secretary of State has an unfettered discretion and may make a political decision that it would be wrong to send a person back for trial.

If that was the true reason for the Home Secretary's action, then he should not have shrunk from saying so. I note that the German authorities have not been given the reasons for the refusal of the extradition request, though the European Convention, under Article 18, paragraph (2) requires that those reasons be given. If the Home Secretary had said that it was a political decision that he was taking and that Miss McAliskey was not being returned as a positive contribution to the peace process, I am sure that that would have been something the people of this country—of whatever political colour—could easily have accepted.

I welcome the Government's intention to consult widely on the implementation of United Kingdom-wide anti-terrorism legislation as set out in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. I hope that new legislation will be more limited in scope and will protect human rights better but will be precise and effective in its impact. I ask the Minister when he replies to what extent it is proposed that the consultation paper and the legislation to follow will take into account the Human Rights Bill and the impact that will have upon our law.

A review of this kind must target resources against funding and against organisation. One of the problems about terrorist organisations is that the bombing may stop but the structures for raising finance and for organising may remain. What one would like to see in any new legislation that is brought forward are positive measures aimed at preventing the funding and organisation of illegal organisations of this kind.

The Minister referred to the exclusion powers which we on these Benches are happy to agree should not be continued. They give entirely the wrong signal to outsiders that there is a division between the citizens of this country. We are all citizens of the United Kingdom. One of the privileges of citizenship is the ability to move freely between the various constituent parts of our country. People outside may well regard exclusion orders that have been made in the past as completely oppressive.

The Minister said that the Government will not be deflected from their fight against terrorism. I assure him that we on these Benches stand by this Government, as we stood by the previous government, in combating terrorism in whatever form it comes.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he agree that we are very much in the dark regarding the case of Miss McAliskey? We have neither seen the German evidence nor have we heard the case for the defence. Therefore, his strictures on the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary may perhaps be a little undeserved.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend for intervening but I do so in order to thank him for bringing forward this order. The House will be aware that after coming to this place in 1985 I attempted for a number of years to obtain a vote against the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I was unsuccessful in those endeavours because I could not even get a seconder.

There were two reasons for my seeking to vote against the Prevention of Terrorism Act. First, it was Labour Party policy at the time to oppose the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Secondly, it was my personal judgment that the draconian Act that was rushed through Parliament in 1974 as a result of the Birmingham pub bombings was a recruiting sergeant for terrorism rather than a mechanism to fight against terrorism. I am glad that the Government have seen fit not to renew the power for exclusion orders. That is one of the more objectionable features of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I am glad that that has happened. I hope that in future years the Government will feel confident enough to do away with the other draconian powers that are embodied within the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

I am very tempted to respond to the contribution from the Official Opposition and from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I must resist that temptation. We have already had an altercation in the House earlier this evening about asperity of language, which is one of the phrases that might be used. On that basis I shall not clash with the remarks that have been made. I can assure noble Lords that I could do that very effectively if tempted. In conclusion, I thank my noble friend for the changes that this Government have made in policy compared with the previous government and wish them well in their progressive developments in the future.

9.35 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed and in particular for the tone which underlay what the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Thomas of Gresford, said. I know that all parties, when there was a different government and different opposition, tried to work together to deal with these problems. When the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, was here for the government and I spoke for the Opposition, with the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, I believe that we adopted the stance which has been put forward tonight, which is of great importance.

As regards the particular questions, I confirm that Mr. Rowe said that there had been no abuse of the powers and that they had been used fairly and lawfully. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked about powers. As I indicated during questions on the Statement by the Home Secretary, which I repeated, the Home Secretary has emergency powers which he can retake and which would lapse if they were not approved by Parliament within 40 days. I can confirm to the House that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is quite right.

He is also quite right in assuming that the financing of terrorism will be a part of the review. I cannot give the noble Lord anything more precise about it within two to three months. That is for a number of reasons, not the usual ignoble ones that he used to rely on as he confessed a moment or two ago. The fact is that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have taken these matters very seriously. The Home Secretary, Dr. Mowlam, and I attended to give evidence before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, when we were in Opposition.

We are in delicate, shifting times at the moment and one does not want to rush forward with a consultation paper, for reasons which are too obvious to spell out. We are certainly mindful of the fact that we need to get a comprehensive review and not a paper that is capable of being distorted by a threat from one particular part of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked for specific reassurance that Human Rights Bill matters would be taken into account when we bring forward new legislation. I can give him that assurance because, on the basis of the Bill which he and his colleagues supported, the Minister who brings forward the new legislation will have to certify—I believe that this is a very important new step in our legislative procedures—whether or not the Bill is convention compliant.

He asked what sort of people committed these acts. The truth is that they are cruel, subtle, determined and sophisticated. Those are the people and the causes that we have to deal with. I stress that that situation is not limited to Northern Ireland.

There were one or two questions about Roisin McAliskey. I shall deal with them quite briefly. The Home Secretary did notify the German government to explain his decision, which does not reflect in any way on the fairness of the German legal system or on the quality of the extradition request. We have very good working relationships with our colleagues in Germany in the field of extradition and in international co-operation against terrorism. We are quite confident that this decision will not affect that relationship. The decision was not unprecedented. In fact, the Secretary of State has taken a similar decision, again on medical grounds, relating to an extradition request from the United States of America.

In respect of the medical evidence, there was medical evidence from doctors who had been responsible for Miss McAliskey's care since she was bailed to a London hospital and from a senior psychiatrist retained by the Home Office—I stress that—who spoke to her doctors and who interviewed her, and those reports were put before the Home Secretary. Miss McAliskey is entitled to client confidentiality and to medical confidentiality. Those documents are not, of course, publicly available.

I want to say plainly and unambiguously that the Home Secretary's decision was taken under extradition legislation. He is obliged to take an independent decision in each individual case. It would be quite wrong for political considerations to interfere with a decision on whether to order a particular person's return. I think it was the leader in the Evening Standard which said that the decision was one of courage. It was. It was an independent political decision which the Secretary of State took as part of his independent exercise of his powers under the relevant legislation. I have spent a moment or two on that case because noble Lords raised questions about it, bearing in mind its relevance and importance. On the basis of what I have said, I—

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, partly in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, perhaps I may stress that I am not making any comment upon the validity of the request for extradition in the particular case to which I have referred; nor am I questioning the Home Secretary's decision. I said that if it was on political grounds—indeed, a moment ago the noble Lord said that he had taken "an independent political decision"—he would have been entitled to say so. I accept, of course, what the Minister says now.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful. I was not in any sense reproaching the noble Lord for anything that he had said. Bearing in mind that a number of noble Lords had raised these questions, it seemed to me that the House was entitled to such explanation as I could give. What I said was that the Home Secretary took his "independent decision". That was not based on political considerations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before ten o'clock.