HL Deb 18 March 1999 vol 598 cc901-12

7.36 p. m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing this order in another place two evenings ago, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary took time to reflect upon the mixture of signs of optimism and violence that have characterised the 12-month period since the last debate extending the life of the prevention of terrorism Act; and I too would invite your Lordships to consider briefly with me some of the key events that have taken place this past year.

But perhaps I may first touch briefly on one other issue referred to by my right honourable friend in his opening remarks. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Government, in their consultation paper Legislation against Terrorism propose the introduction of permanent UK-wide counter-terrorism legislation which we hope will do away with the need for the annual renewal of temporary provisions, and so this debate may be one of the last annual debates on the renewal of the prevention of terrorism Act.

The proposal to introduce permanent counter-terrorist legislation recognises the sad but incontrovertible reality that even a lasting peace in Northern Ireland— something we all hope will be firmly established soon— would not remove the need for anti-terrorist provisions. Terrorism and the threat of terrorism from a range of fronts are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future. I intend to say more about our proposals for future legislation in closing. But now, if I may, I shall remind noble Lords of some of the significant events over the past year which form the context of this debate.

Not six weeks after the prevention of terrorism Act was renewed in 1998, the Good Friday agreement was signed. It was subsequently endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland and provides the means to take Northern Ireland on the road to lasting peace. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and many others on both sides of this House, and outside it, continue to work tirelessly with all the parties to achieve full implementation of the agreement and to see the executive established by the first anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

But the year has also brought savage reminders of the residual threat from renegade groups opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. The dreadful atrocity in Omagh on 15th August last year, which claimed the lives of 29 people and injured over 200 more, brought this home in the most appalling manner. And on Monday of this week we had a further terrible reminder of the depths to which such groups will stoop, with the murder in cold blood of Rosemary Nelson, the prominent human rights lawyer. Her death was "claimed" by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist splinter group opposed to the Belfast agreement. The proscription of this group—and, subject to parliamentary approval, its specification—was announced just two weeks ago.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary has invited the Chief Constable of Kent to oversee the inquiry into the death of Rosemary Nelson, demonstrating its commitment to a full and independent inquiry into this terrible crime. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in echoing the sentiments of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in conveying our sympathy to the family and friends of Rosemary Nelson particularly today, the day of her funeral. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that her death in these dreadful circumstances should serve only to strengthen our efforts to secure a lasting peace for Northern Ireland. Regrettably, I should also at this point remind your Lordships—if it is necessary to do so—that yesterday we were served another grim reminder of Northern Ireland's past with the murder of Frankie Curry in Belfast. There is little we should say about the brutality of an action such as this other than to condemn it in the most forceful terms possible.

The threat of international terrorism has also been with us this past year. The bombings, also in early August, of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with the loss of more than 250 lives, were a terrible and shocking illustration of the scale of indiscriminate violence international terrorists are prepared to unleash. The horrific events in the Yemen and, more recently, Uganda, which resulted in the deaths of four and eight tourists respectively, including seven British citizens, have further emphasised the global reach of international terror.

The Government's response to all this is two-fold. First, we do all we can in the international and domestic context to help establish peace and stability; and, secondly, we do all that we can with the police and security services to counter terrorism. The recall of Parliament in early September last year to enact the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 was an illustration of this twin approach. The Act strengthens our anti-terrorist laws against renegade Irish terrorist groups and our conspiracy laws in relation to terrorism and other crimes. The key to the prevention of terrorism is to ensure that the police and others have all the powers that they need to deter, disrupt and investigate. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the diligence, hard work and bravery of the police and the security forces in their efforts on our behalf.

Turning to the Act itself, I am grateful for the report prepared by the reviewer, John Rowe QC, which informs our debate today. I am pleased to say that Mr. Rowe has once again concluded that the powers available under the Act in 1998 were used appropriately and proportionately. I say "available under the Act" because, as your Lordships will recall, the exclusion powers were not included in last year's order and Mr. Rowe has not considered these powers in his report this year.

The order before us now does not contain exclusion powers. I do not propose to explain in detail this evening the reasons for this; they have been well rehearsed in the past. Suffice it to say that it has been the Government's long-standing view that exclusion orders are wrong on policy grounds and in any case have proved to be of limited utility. While the exclusion powers remain on the statute book they could be re-activated on security grounds. But I should remind your Lordships that our consultation paper on proposals for future legislation makes it clear that we do not envisage carrying these powers across into the new permanent anti-terrorist laws. Our ability under the Immigration Act 1971 to deport, or deny entry to, suspected international terrorists will remain unchanged.

To return to Mr. Rowe's report, it was heartening to read of the care that he found was taken in respect of the relatively small number of complaints received about the operation of the powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. We must never lose sight of the fact that the powers available under the Act are exceptional and must be exercised with integrity and diligence. If I may add a personal word of testimony, I should like to bear witness to the scrupulous care with which the powers have been used in my experience. I am very conscious of the exceptional nature of the powers when called upon to exercise them, as I am occasionally required to do when giving consideration to police requests to extend detention periods under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Noble Lords will recall that the specific anti-terrorist provisions in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which amended sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, also fall to be renewed for the first time in the order before the House today. Your Lordships may recall these measures mean that the opinion of a senior police officer is admissible in court as evidence of membership of proscribed and specified terrorist groups (that is, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA but, subject to parliamentary approval, not INLA); and courts may draw inferences from a suspect's refusal to answer questions during the course of an investigation into memberships of a proscribed and specified terrorist group. Noble Lords may recall that it is not possible under the legislation for a suspect to be convicted solely on the basis of inferences allowed under the Act or on the statement of a police officer alone.

As Mr. Rowe states in his report, so far there have not been any convictions in connection with these new provisions. But I am sure your Lordships will agree that that cannot be the sole criterion for judging their effectiveness. These measures were introduced as a targeted response to the small but very dangerous renegade groups whose aim is to bring down the Good Friday agreement and who have no regard for human life. The fact that similar action was taken simultaneously in the Irish Parliament sent a powerful signal of the total repudiation of the action of these groups and all that they stand for.

But the provisions offer more than a mere symbolic gesture. They exist to enable robust action to be taken against those who, in the face of the express wishes of the people of the island of Ireland, choose to support groups that do not observe total and unequivocal ceasefires. I am sure noble Lords will, like me, sincerely hope that support for these groups withers away, but if it does not, the strengthened provisions are there to assist in bringing these people to book.

That leads me to touch upon the observations that Mr. Rowe makes in Chapter 2 of his report about the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). He concludes that most of the measures in the Act do not raise possible issues of incompatibility. He is at pains to stress that, although it has been possible for individuals to bring cases to the European Commission of Human Rights since 1966—long before the Prevention of Terrorism Act first came into force—only two cases have been dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights in all this time and a violation was found in only one of those. Therefore, our ECHR record vis à vis the Prevention of Terrorism Act is good.

But Mr. Rowe raises concerns about the compatibility of the new provisions on membership enacted last year in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 with the ECHR, in particular Article 6 (the right to a fair trial). As was made clear when the 1998 Act was considered both here and in another place, the whole issue of compatibility was looked at extremely closely before publication of the Bill. We were then, and remain, satisfied that the provisions are compatible with the convention. Noble Lords can be assured that we would not have introduced this legislation in the form we did if we had believed it was incompatible with our obligations under the convention. But in the light of the remarks made by Mr. Rowe in his report we have looked at the issue again carefully. His arguments do not, however, cause us to change our position. This is therefore something on which we shall have to agree to differ, unless and until these questions are settled in the courts.

I mentioned that I would in closing say a few words about our proposals for new counter-terrorist legislation. As I reminded noble Lords at the outset, the Government issued its consultation paper Legislation Against Terrorism just before Christmas and invited responses by 16th March (Tuesday of this week). In that paper we argue that the range of terrorist threats which the United Kingdom faces, and may potentially face, creates a need for United Kingdom-wide anti-terrorist powers, even when lasting peace is established in Northern Ireland. We believe the time has come to put the necessary legislation on a permanent footing. We envisage legislation that is flexible enough to be able to respond to the ever-changing nature of terrorism, is effective and proportionate to the threat that the United Kingdom faces, protects the rights of individuals and complies with our international commitments. It is our sincere hope that by the time new legislation is introduced the threat from Irish terrorism will have diminished to the point where no additional special powers are necessary to combat it. But if the security situation suggests that some particular measures are needed, it is proposed that they would be included in a temporary additional section of the Act, subject, as is the Prevention of Terrorism Act now, to additional independent review and to Parliament's annual approval to their staying in force.

I do not intend to detail now the measures we have included in the document. As I made clear earlier, I hope that those noble Lords with a particular interest in these matters have been able to read and respond to the paper, which seeks to strike a balance between giving the police and other agencies the powers they need to fight terrorism and guarding the civil liberties of those affected by the exercise of these powers. However, we recognise that it is not an easy task to get the balance right; and we shall consider carefully all the responses we receive to our paper.

Returning, finally, to the focus of today's debate, the question before your Lordships is whether the Prevention of Terrorism Act should remain in force for a further 12 months. In this regard, the Government firmly endorse the conclusion of the Act's reviewer, John Rowe QC, that it should. It is vital that those engaged in the fight against terrorism have all the powers that they need. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Dubs.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for reminding the House with his usual clarity of the background to this order. It is interesting that it is mainly a Northern Ireland team playing tonight; and that the legislation is aimed at what is termed Irish terrorism. However, it is also essentially a Home Office matter relating to all types of terrorism. It is merely circumstances which lead to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, moving the order and my responding to it for the Opposition.

The Minister mentioned the brutal murder of Mrs Rosemary Nelson whose funeral took place today. Other than to say that it is a most evil and disgusting attack which left me feeling very bitter, I shall save my comments until next Monday when somewhat more relevant orders will be discussed. I welcome and agree with what the Minister said on the subject.

In the global context, we agree with the thrust of the consultation paper on legislation against terrorism mentioned by the Minister. The consultation paper recognises that terrorism is changing and that the legislation must also change. We look forward to comprehensive anti-terrorist legislation which will combat internal, external and overseas threats. As the Minister suggested, this may be the last time we debate this order. Does the noble Lord hope to be able to introduce a Bill in the next Session? There are obvious advantages in having (if one may put it this way) normal anti-terrorist legislation which would cover residual domestic terrorism and acts of international terrorism.

Order-making powers under primary legislation would enable the Government to take more draconian powers if necessary. The degree of parliamentary scrutiny and approval procedures would depend upon the nature of the powers sought. Those matters will be handled by my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley when the Bill appears before the House.

Future legislation will have to cater for all likely forms of terrorism in order to avoid having to rush through suitable but knee-jerk reaction primary legislation. The consultation paper covers electronic terrorism, although apprehending an electronic terrorist presents an obvious challenge. The risk from a nuclear, biological or chemical attack is well recognised in the paper and has already been seen in Japan. No doubt the officials at the Home Office and elsewhere will be undertaking brainstorming sessions to identify all other threats and ensure that they are covered by future legislation.

There is also the challenge of ensuring that the legislation does not infringe the ECHR which the Government have so thoughtfully incorporated into UK law. The Minister covered that point and the observation in Mr Rowe's report. The UK Government are quite good on this matter. Therefore we need not be overly worried.

All Parliament can do is to ensure that the legislative framework provides the necessary tools and safeguards for use by the police and security forces. We are highly indebted to them for their efforts in preventing and detecting terrorism wherever it arises and their integrity in using those powers. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to their efforts and the sacrifices that they have made.

Although we cannot guarantee the elimination of terrorism, we can take the necessary steps to prevent and react to terrorist acts. Mr Rowe's report makes clear that the powers have not been abused.

The renewal of the order is necessary to protect the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland from terrorist attacks. With that in mind, we are content with the order.

Lord McNally

My Lords, this debate is again as topical as the evening headlines on our television screens. No one has ever doubted the capacity of the men of evil to make headlines. I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, upon the death of Rosemary Nelson.

The approach of these Benches to terrorism legislation has always been somewhat akin to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons when Richard Rich advises expediency and More replies, "But where then do you hide when the wind of tyranny blows?".

We understand why the security services need special powers. But those powers have to be reluctantly given by Parliament in a free society. We believe that the legislation is necessary. We think that its renewal is necessary. We support it tonight. However, in considering legislation we must ensure that special powers for special circumstances remain just that and that unnecessary powers do not become permanent. For that reason, we welcome the constant parliamentary review of special powers.

I was interested to hear the Minister talk about the consolidation of counter terrorism measures into a single UK Act. The Minister stated that if extra powers were still retained they would be in an annex, subject to annual review. That is important. We on these Benches still regret the way in which the emergency legislation was brought before the House after the Omagh bomb. We do not believe that some of the international aspects were a genuine emergency and that Parliament was "bounced" in these matters. It is important philosophically to get the balance right between the need to counter terrorism and to underpin civil liberties. Under the pressure of terrorist threats, it is easy to have our civil liberties chipped away. For that reason, we support the Government's non-use of exclusion powers. We accept that there may be a case for comprehensive and permanent legislation. However, we give fair warning to the Minister that when that legislation comes forward, we shall be assiduous in checking it in terms of civil liberties.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Rowe earlier this year. I believe that we are fortunate in having a public servant of his quality and dedication willing to take on this work. The report was thorough and impressive. However, as the Minister noted, Mr Rowe makes a specific point about the human rights commitment that we have undertaken without recent human rights legislation. My colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would quarrel with some of the Government's judgments as regards whether the Acts are compatible with our human rights commitments.

The Minister gave us the Government's assurances based, I am sure, on fine legal advice, but I thought that the sting in the tail from Mr. Rowe was on page 47 of his conclusions. He stated: My analysis of the human rights situation in Chapter 2 does not in any way impair this conclusion"— the conclusion that the legislation had been used properly— that Chapter was intended to show what shape the future may take; and it is a future which is near at hand". That is what Ministers must take on board when looking at the new legislation which they are drafting. I do not believe that their confidence—I do not say complacency—that the legislation is compatible with human rights commitments will stand up to judicial tests, but we shall see.

The other aspect which stood out in Mr. Rowe's report appears at paragraph 114 on staffing. He states: I wish to make the point that staffing levels of port officers should not be allowed to fall". He points out that the number of immigration officers and other groups has, for cost or other reasons, been reduced. He concludes: Thus, a greater burden falls upon Special Branch officers. And I emphasise that there is as much need as ever for the presence of port officers, from the point of view of both terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland, and terrorism in the international field". The House needs to be assured by the Minister that that point made by Mr. Rowe has been taken on board and that the dreaded Treasury and budgetary constraints will not undermine the work of the security services which, as Mr. Rowe points out in the report, is extremely important at port of entry.

We will support the legislation tonight. The Minister gave a review of the present situation in Ireland, but perhaps I may make a personal comment. Your Lordships might gather that with a name like McNally my roots are in Ireland, although some four or five generations ago, from County Mayo. My Irishness was brought up to date by education by the Irish Christian Brothers, but I have never considered myself an ersatz Irishman, as do some Americans with Irish names. I am certainly proud of my Irish roots. The heavy burdens of my business forced me earlier this week to go to Cheltenham where I was reminded how many common interests the Irish and the English have in our history, culture, economy and sport.

The links between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have sometimes been painful, but sometimes they have been magnificent. With those roots and that background, I believe that the Good Friday agreement provides an opportunity to create something better, not just with the people of Northern Ireland but perhaps with the Council of the Isles, building on the co-operation and natural friendship between all our people.

The interesting aspect of the renewal of the Act, and the attitude of the people throughout the troubles, is that when civil societies, particularly those based on human rights, face terrorism the terrorists do not understand what makes democrats tick. We support the renewal of this legislation, but we do so on the basis of the old Spanish Civil War poem, We came not for glory, honours, medals or pay We came because with our open eyes we see no other way". We see no other way to combat the men of violence. We have no enthusiasm for legislation which restricts civil liberties. What we do have is enthusiasm for united resistance from all democrats to the men of violence because from that unity of purpose may come the circumstances which give peace a chance.

Lord Eames

My Lords, I welcome the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, introduced the debate tonight with his usual clarity and care. Not for the first time, as someone living and working in Northern Ireland, have I had occasion to thank him for the care in which he has exercised the office given to him. Tonight has been no exception.

I, too, regret that this legislation is necessary, but necessary it is. The balance to which the Minister alluded between the protection of democracy and allowing democracy to be a democracy is very narrow, as we know from our history. The terms of Mr. Rowe's report should be of some satisfaction to Her Majesty's Government in so far as it reassures us that in his opinion the exercise of what could be described by others as draconian legislation has been fair and above board.

Nevertheless, we must be very well aware that there are those who are only too ready to misuse the concept of civil liberties in criticism of the way in which a democracy attempts to protect itself. I am conscious that this is a very difficult argument to refute, particularly when it comes with consistency and is based on false information and propaganda. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity for Parliament to review this legislation at regular intervals, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, reminded us.

I also welcome, on behalf of those of us in Northern Ireland who seek the peace that so much of this is geared to produce, the fact that Her Majesty's Government are preparing a Bill to come before us at a future date. I personally would like to see the very word "emergency" eradicated from our dictionaries. We have memories of the arguments for and against the special powers Act in Northern Ireland and the opportunity which the existence of that legislation gave to those who wish to undermine our concept of democracy. Therefore, I hope that we shall live to see the day when legislation such as that before us tonight is totally unnecessary.

My mind goes back to the aftermath of the atrocity at Omagh in which the British and Irish Governments acted together to introduce legislation which would enable the forces of law and order to try to bring more speedily to justice those who have been responsible for that atrocity. The key to all this, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is the role of the courts and the fact that at times it is so immensely difficult to produce the necessary evidence to gain convictions. Nothing in the order, or in accompanying legislation, or in the Bill which will eventually come before us must be open to the interpretation by anyone that it is removing the priority given to the courts of our land and the need for evidence and witnesses which will allow convictions.

The fact that that has not happened as yet in the case of the aftermath to the atrocity at Omagh is something which we regret. It is also something which obviously must not be taken as any form of denial of the careful, combined work of the security forces north and south of the Irish border. We must welcome and encourage that co-operation.

The other aspect to which I wish to refer briefly is the fact that when we talk about terrorism we inevitably think of Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, explained, the legislation before us tonight is meant to extend the whole concept of the prevention of terrorism right across these islands. I hope and pray the day will come when we can debate legislation such as this without particular reference to my homeland. I hope the day will come when we can debate it in terms of what it does and does not do to a democracy free from the threat of the sort of things that we have seen in Lurgan in the past few days. I am glad that the Minister referred to the murder of Rosemary Nelson.

But we must not forget all the other Rosemary Nelsons. We must not forget all the other events which have scarred my native land and the land that was represented by some noble Lords this evening. I would beg that in consideration of this necessary legislation, we pay due attention to the fact that, at times, democracy demands legislation of this, nature. However, we should never be driven by the terrorists to a point where what this Parliament stands for in terms of the freedom of the individual and the nature of democracy is eroded to the extent that the terrorist has won. The ultimate victory of the terrorist—and I believe this was very much part of the Minister's thinking—will come when the whole concept of democracy is eroded to the extent that we are defending something in which we do not ourselves believe.

Therefore, I thank the Minister on behalf of many people in Northern Ireland for the care that he has shown in dealing with his various portfolios. In this instance, I thank him in particular for the clarity with which he has brought this very difficult subject before the House.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made, and the support expressed for the Government's proposal before the House this evening. I shall deal with some of the specific questions that have been asked.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, suggested that this would be the last time that the order would be renewed. I said that it would be one of the last occasions. We hope to introduce legislation at the earliest suitable opportunity, but it is too early to say yet whether that will be in the next Session.

The noble Earl referred also to the European Convention on Human Rights, as did the noble Lord, Lord McNally. As has been said, it is important that we take full account of our obligations under the ECHR in drafting any new and permanent legislation. I am happy to give the assurance that we shall certainly approach the new legislation in that light.

I do not believe that we can take that matter very much further this evening, in particular the doubts raised by John Rowe's report. We may differ a little as regards the emphasis given by that report and possibly by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The Government have taken their view after careful assessment of his report and all our obligations under the ECHR. When the legislation is brought forward, there will be ample opportunity to go into that in more detail.

More generally, in the speeches this evening we heard some useful and interesting comments about the proposed new legislation. It would not be sensible for me to respond in detail because we are talking about a consultation process that has just been concluded and which the Government will have to assess in detail before bringing forward their proposals. We shall certainly make sure that we take on board comments made in this short debate this evening to inform the Government's thinking about the new legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked me a specific question about staffing. By mat I take it that he meant staffing at the ports by special branch officers. Perhaps I may give him a few figures with the assurance that the Government are aware of the problem and they do not intend to weaken the strength of that provision at the ports. For 1996–97, there is a figure of 742; the following year, it was 797; the following year it was 897; and for the period 1999–2002, we are talking about a figure of 960. Therefore, if anything, the figure has increased in the past three years and will increase further. Therefore, the noble Lord can feel assured that we shall not neglect the need to have adequate protection at the ports in terms of the issue which he raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Eames, and other noble Lords referred to the balance between our need to have legislation which can deal with terrorism and the need to protect our civil liberties. As I said in my speech, it is clearly a balance which is important to bear in mind but not always easy to strike. However, we are seeking to do just that. If we go too far in the direction of having tough anti-terrorist legislation, that may detract from the value that we place on civil liberties. If we do that then, as the noble Lord said, that gives credence to the terrorists themselves. Therefore, we must make sure— and I use his words—that we have a democracy which is worth protecting and not one which we have undermined. We have certainly taken that point close to our hearts throughout our approach to the PTA and even more so in relation to the new legislation which we propose to bring forward.

I thank the noble Lord for his generous comments. I reciprocate by saying that I found his speech deeply moving and very important as it comes from detailed experience of having lived with that problem for many years. Some of us have seen it more at a distance than close to. Therefore, the views of anyone who has lived with the problem clearly command enormous respect. The Government certainly listen to such views.

In particular, I take to heart the noble Lord's hope, which we all share, that the day will come when Northern Ireland will not be the reason that we have anti-terrorist legislation; that Northern Ireland will have a period of prolonged peace with the terrorist problem going away; and we shall merely confine ourselves to me wider international aspects of terrorism. I hope that they go away also but, if anything, they seem to be becoming rather more serious. I gave several examples in my speech.

I repeat that I am grateful for the support that the House has shown for the Government proposals and I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.20 p. m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.17 to 8.20 p. m.]