HL Deb 20 March 2000 vol 611 cc81-8

7.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing this order in another place last week my right honourable friend the Home Secretary indicated that this could be the final debate on the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act if, as the Government hoped, it was replaced with a new Terrorism Bill to be debated in this House shortly. The proposal to replace the Act recognises the sad fact that even the establishment of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland does not entirely remove the threat of terrorism. But I do not propose to dwell too much on the proposed new legislation which noble Lords will soon have an opportunity to debate in detail. Instead, I shall concentrate on the renewal of the existing Act.

We must ensure that those in the front line against terrorism continue to have all the tools necessary to do their job effectively. The PTA is a critical part of that tool kit, and that is why it is essential for it to be renewed, probably for the last time, until, subject to parliamentary approval, new legislation can be brought into force.

I should first comment on the human rights aspect of the order. Noble Lords will recall that the Government undertook on 2nd November 1999 to ensure that where a draft order was subject to the affirmative resolution procedure the Minister moving the instrument would inform Parliament whether he or she was satisfied as to its compatibility with convention rights. This House will have expected my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and me to have given this matter very careful consideration. The question of human rights has been raised on many occasions in respect of this particular piece of legislation, not least in comments by members of the present Government while in opposition.

The mechanism for extending detention under Section 14 of the Act has caused most disquiet over the years. Detention can be for a period of only 48 hours unless the Secretary of State extends the period for anything up to a further five days on application by the police. In the case of Brogan this was found to be at odds with the requirement under Article 5.3 of the ECHR to bring a detainee promptly before a judge or other judicial power. The Brogan case led the UK Government to derogate from that requirement under Article 15.1 of the convention in respect of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. This was notified to the Council of Europe on 23rd December 1988.

Noble Lords will have the opportunity to note that the Terrorism Bill seeks to address this particular concern by requiring applications for extension of detention to be made to a judge, sheriff or designated magistrate, as the case may be. We believe that the judicial character of the hearing for an extension will fulfil the procedural requirements of the convention in relation to Article 5.3 and enable the removal of the derogation. In the meantime, the derogation continues to be necessary.

The House may also have been aware of judgments last year in the Divisional Court in respect of Sections 16A and 16B of the Act in the case of Kehilene and others. Noble Lords may recall that Section 16A makes it an offence to be in possession of an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that it is possessed for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, while Section 16B makes it art offence to collect or record any information which is of such a nature as is likely to be useful to terrorists, or to possess a record or document containing such information, unless the accused can show that he has lawful authority or reasonable excuse.

The Divisional Court held that both offences breached Article 6.2 of the ECHR because the reverse burden of proof provided for violated the presumption of innocence. But in the Judicial Committee of this House the Divisional Court's finding regarding Section 16A was not upheld, and proceedings in the case under Section 16B had meanwhile been discontinued.

The Government continue to believe that these offences are a proportionate response to the circumstances of the fight against terrorism. I hope that the House will understand if in the time available I restrict my detailed comments on the issue of ECHR compatibility to those provisions and I report that, like my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, I am satisfied that all of the provisions that we seek to renew tonight comply with convention rights.

Before I move away completely from discussion of ECHR issues I turn to the report on the operation of the Act in 1999 prepared by John Rowe, QC. As ever, I am indebted to him for the care and attention that has gone into the compilation of that report.

It is clear that Mr Rowe has sought deliberately in the course of his review to assess the degree of awareness of human rights issues. For example, at paragraph 21 he says: I asked questions to see how far [officials, departments and members of the security forces] were aware of the need to avoid arbitrariness, or the need to monitor regularly the exercise of the particular power. On many occasions the person himself or herself volunteered, before I mentioned it, the question of the HRA, or breach of human rights. I learned that in many spheres there is active training going on about the elements of the HRA and human rights; and the general impression I received was that people are aware of the need to have in mind the Convention". Like my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, I should say how encouraging I found those comments to be.

Now let me look at the events of the past 12 months. In the context of Northern Ireland it has been a period of mixed emotions. Full implementation of the Good Friday agreement has dominated the headlines. The year has been characterised by periods of immense optimism interspersed with the concern that the momentum generated by the signing of the agreement in April 1998 was slipping and the decision of the House and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to suspend the devolved institutions.

In respect of terrorism related to the affairs of Northern Ireland, 1999 witnessed a welcome reduction in terrorist activity both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. Even so, there were 124 shootings and 82 bombing incidents recorded in Northern Ireland; and there we see still tragic and unnecessary deaths. In all, seven people died in Northern Ireland in 1999 as a consequence of terrorist violence. Perhaps I may remind the House of two of those deaths. In June, Elizabeth O'Neill was killed in her home by a pipe bomb thrown through the window. And the House will, I am sure, recall the horror of the death, just over a year ago, of Rosemary Nelson, murdered in an act of sheer brutality as she left her home in her car. They are terrible reminders of a time all of us in this House and beyond wish so much to see relegated to the past. But they are reminders, too, of why we should not be distracted from the search for peace.

We need not look far either to be reminded of the threat international terrorism poses. Two explosions in the space of an hour in the centre of Madrid left an army officer dead and heralded the start of a new campaign of violence by the Basque separatist group, ETA, following the announcement in December of an end to its 14-month cease-fire. Further attacks, sadly, have since followed. The Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigade, has also recently resumed attacks.

These are not, of course, campaigns that will necessarily affect our shores, but the occupation early last year of the Greek Embassy in London, and similar types of demonstrations in Europe and further afield in support of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, show only too readily that terrorists do not recognise borders and will ply their trade wherever they can. We shall continue to play our role on the international stage and do our utmost to secure peace and stability, but it is equally important to have in place effective counter-terrorist measures to deter those who would seek to perpetrate terror and to assist those whose task it is to investigate their crimes.

Perhaps I may at this point remind noble Lords that only last month my right honourable friend the Home Secretary paid tribute, and rightly so, to the skill, patience and professionalism of Essex police in bringing to a successful conclusion a hijacking incident at Stansted. I am sure that noble Lords will share that sentiment.

I return now to the report prepared by Mr John Rowe QC which informs our debate today. Mr Rowe concludes that the powers in the PTA, including the powers of arrest, detention and stop and search, were used carefully, appropriately and proportionately in 1999. There are similar comments on the importance of port powers to the overall police effort, and he is satisfied that they have been used properly. This is very reassuring, and I am pleased to note his conclusion that they should remain in force.

I have noted in particular his comments on the security situation in Northern Ireland. I have already recognised that there are still those in Northern Ireland who remain wedded to the old ways of violence and intimidation; and, tragically, there has been evidence supporting his assertion that attacks on the community were in preparation. Only last week police in Northern Ireland discovered 500 pounds of explosives in a vehicle as a result of which four people have, I understand, been charged with offences related to the possession of explosives.

But we should not lose our sense of perspective. Politicians on all sides are striving to make politics work, to make those who advocate the use of violence realise the futility of their ways, and the overall level of violence remains far below that experienced prior to the main paramilitary cease-fires.

Looking at some of the other issues raised in Mr Rowe's report, I was pleased also to note the reference to the smaller number of complaints from the public about the operation of the Act in 1999. It is pleasing also that Mr Rowe felt able to comment on the apparent care that was taken when looking into those complaints.

In conclusion, while the Terrorism Bill to which I have referred will, I believe, provide new, modernised counter-terrorism legislation proportionate to the threat, we cannot in the meantime expect those fighting terrorism to do so without the present powers of the PTA. It is vital that we maintain continuity and that the existing powers remain available for the next few months through the renewal of the current legislation until new legislation is enacted and can be implemented. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

7.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order. It is clear from Mr Rowe's extremely clear report that it is right and necessary to extend the Prevention of Terrorism Act, as the order does, for a further 12 months. I join with the Minister in thanking Mr Rowe for his diligent and very thorough review of the workings of the various provisions.

As the Minister said, before long we shall debate at some length the new Terrorism Bill. Therefore I do not need to discuss much of the detail at too great a length at this point. However, I am satisfied both from Mr Rowe's report and my own observations that the threats from terrorism to our democracy and to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland and Great Britain remain real and dangerous.

The situation as regards Northern Ireland is not as bad as it has been at some periods over the past few decades, but the Minister referred rightly to the murders and beatings of recent months and the findings of explosives and other bomb-making equipment. Mr Rowe records that in his report, together with evidence of planning, preparation and training. This is no time to relax.

We all know, too, as Irish history tells us, that when in the past there has been a settlement there has also been, I think on every occasion, a break-away group of those who did not accept the terms agreed but carried on with violence. At present the Good Friday agreement has its problems, as we know. There is, therefore, double reason to continue the protection to our people, our society and democracy against both break-away groups and perhaps mainstream groups of terrorists. One can be very sure that if they thought that we had dropped our guard in the slightest, some would seek to take advantage of that apparent weakness.

I want to draw attention to three aspects of Mr Rowe's report. First, in Chapter 3 he records that the number of complaints against the usage of port powers—one of the most important powers in this legislation is" infinitesimally small". In a later paragraph he states that there were only 31 complaints resulting from 16,000 patrols in Northern Ireland. We can take comfort from those figures that the powers are not being misused but are being properly used.

The second matter concerns terrorists' finance. Since having responsibility for these matters in Northern Ireland, I have emphasised the importance of that aspect. Extortion and rackets form the basis of a high proportion of terrorist crime; that is terrorists of all opinions. Mr Rowe points out that in the past 12 months there have been an average of eight armed robberies a week in Northern Ireland. They are in addition to the counterfeiting, extortion and so forth, referred to in paragraph 36. That is an important aspect and it must receive great attention.

Finally, I was interested in Mr Rowe's comments in Chapter 5 on the international situation. In paragraph 41, he points out: Members of dissident and separatist groups reside here, or visit conspirators here, and especially raise money here. Our laws are liberal". Later, he states: Furthermore, the United Kingdom may be used as a base from which to make attacks elsewhere". That shows that not only is the Irish dimension addressed by these powers, but so is the international terrorist situation. The United Kingdom has important responsibilities for the preservation of democracy and the protection of our citizens in countries other than ours. We shall return to the matter during our debates on the Terrorism Bill, in particular Mr Rowe's points in Chapter 8 about the funding of international terrorism and the seizure of assets.

As regards this order, the Home Secretary assured another place that this year there are no gaps in it—there was previously an unfortunate gap—and that is a welcome reassurance. I am in no doubt about the need for the order and I believe that the House should support it.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cope, speaking as he does with experience of both the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office. In particular, I associate myself with his concluding remarks. When we debate the Terrorism Bill, which deals with broader issues, we must take into account the global nature of terrorism and the need to keep our domestic law as free as possible while recognising that there are those willing to use that freedom and liberal approach abusively in order to further their interests in foreign counties. That will be a big issue in our debates on that Bill.

As the Minister indicated, this is probably the last time we shall discuss this order in this form. My right honourable friend Alan Beith, in another place and at another time, described this legislation as a regrettable necessity. That remains our view.

A year ago we were much more optimistic. Sadly, our hope that the Good Friday agreement would quickly lead to normality proved over-optimistic. That does not mean that we should give up the efforts to further the process. As President Clinton reminded the main protagonists in Washington last week, it remains the best hope for this generation of achieving a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

But even if Northern Ireland takes its opportunity, it is clear that terrorism in the 21st century will know no frontiers. The Liberal Democrats see the need for the legislation and for the security services to protect our way of life from terrorist violence. But extremism cannot be fought and overcome unless democratic societies retain the support of their people. To do that, the security services and security legislation have to be kept under review and made subject to parliamentary accountability. So our first base is that democratic societies have a right and duty to protect themselves against the terrorists.

However, the powers which the state takes should be no more than sufficient to the task. I liked the Minister's phrase that they should be proportionate to the threat. If, in the fight against terrorism, we constrict our liberties and civil rights, we give a victory to the terrorists. Therefore, we on these Benches make no apology for saying that we will scrutinise anti-terrorist legislation with an eye to the implications for civil liberties and human rights.

Members on both Front Benches mentioned the report of J.J. Rowe QC. I have had the pleasure of meeting him; he is a most impressive public servant. That is reflected in the thoroughness of his report. Like the Minister, I was impressed by his assessment that he found care and fairness on the part of those exercising the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. He also stated that there was active training on the implications of the Human Rights Act and an awareness of the need to have in mind the convention when operating these powers. That is greatly reassuring for Parliament.

The Minister mentioned the decades of terrorism that we have had to endure. It is 25 years since my noble friend Lord Jenkins produced the first Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. Yet it is amazing how much terrorism has failed. No atrocity or outrage has moved opinion in Parliament or in the country to make us weaken our resolve as regards our commitments and duties in Northern Ireland. The issue in Northern Ireland is not British imperialism, but the ability and the capacity of the people of Northern Ireland to find a way to live one with another in peace. I am afraid that on that the jury is still out.

We note with approval that the Government have excluded internment without trial and exclusion orders from the measures before the House tonight. These are, I believe, genuine confidence-building measures against the background of the peace process. It would be even more reassuring to hope that the terrorist organisations had stood down on training and recruitment. Alas, that is not the finding of Mr Rowe in his report. He believes that training and recruitment continue. If that is the case, what we have is not a ceasefire and a peace process, but an armed truce.

The reality of terrorism was brought home to me by an article in this morning's Independent on the death of Tim Parry in Warrington seven years ago today. It stated: He has told the story a thousand times but there is still a rawness in Colin Parry's minute recollections of his 12 year-old son's last morning. 'I remember giving him a big squeeze', said Mr Parry. 'His head came up to here, beneath my chin. It fitted into you nicely". Father and son went their separate ways and by nightfall that Saturday 'a surgeon in his greens' was standing before Mr Parry, tipping a St Christopher chain and a watch out of an envelope. They were Tim's. It was the first confirmation that his son had been injured, let alone killed, by that 1993 IRA bomb attack on Warrington". In its starkness, it brings home the vile futility and wickedness of terrorism. The report goes on to explain that Warrington's response is today's opening of the Tim Parry/Jonathan Ball Young People's Centre. Jonathan Ball was a 3 year-old, also killed at Warrington.

Our response should be threefold: first, to continue to work for the peaceful resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere; secondly, to continue to resist terrorism and extremism; and, thirdly, to continue to protect civil and human rights. Only by resisting terrorism and protecting basic freedoms do we honour and keep faith with Tim Parry, Jonathan Ball and all the others who have been killed and maimed by terrorists over the years. These Benches support the renewal of this order.

8 P.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the support shown from the Opposition Benches by the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord McNally, for the renewal of the order. I, too, feel very moved by the description which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, repeated to us from the Independent newspaper. It reminds us in a timely way of why we need this legislation on the statute book and why we need the legislation that we shall bring forward later in this parliamentary Session. The discussions around that legislation will obviously be important because they will frame the way in which we tackle the threat of terrorism over the next years and decades.

I have no doubt that we shall continue to require that legislation. It is important and it provides our society and communities with the kind of protection that legislation has given over the past 25 years. I do not wish to go into great detail about what we shall bring forward. However, I believe that its importance lies in continuing the accountability to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred. It continues to demonstrate the Government's vigilance and the continued vigilance that extends, I believe, across the parties.

I hope that over time the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland will diminish further. Although the peace process may not be making the rapid progress that your Lordships' House would wish to see, there have been encouraging signs that the civilian population, quite understandably, retains its enthusiasm for peace, and that the activity of terrorists has continued to diminish. However, we need to be ever watchful. This legislation will enable us to do that within a framework of the law and of democratic accountability. That is the tradition to which we must adhere. For those reasons, I am grateful that this evening noble Lords have given their support to the legislation. I commend the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.3 to 8.35 p.m.]