HL Deb 15 February 2001 vol 622 cc398-401

7.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Lord Bach) rose to move, That the draft rules laid before the House on 13th December 2000 be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will remember well the Terrorism Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 20th July last year. My noble friend Lord Bassam confirmed in a Written Answer earlier today that the Act will be brought into force next Monday, 19th February, replacing the current separate and temporary legislation on terrorism for Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The new Terrorism Act will deliver permanent United Kingdom-wide legislation, which the Government believe will be effective and proportionate to the threat that the United Kingdom faces—and may face—from all forms of terrorism.

Part II of the Act gives the Secretary of State power to proscribe organisations "concerned in terrorism" and it includes some specific offences related to the activities of a proscribed organisation. The proscription regime to be established by the new Act differs from the provision in existing legislation. In particular, the Act will apply throughout the whole of the United Kingdom rather than be limited to Northern Ireland or Great Britain. In addition, the Act provides for the proscription of organisations concerned in international or domestic terrorism, rather than just those concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland.

For the first time, the Act will enable a proscribed organisation, or any person affected by the proscription of an organisation, to make application to the Secretary of State for deproscription—at any time. If that application is refused, the Act provides for an appeal to a new independent tribunal; namely, the proscribed organisations appeal commission. By virtue of Section 5(3) of the Act, the commission will consider any refusals to deproscribe in the light of judicial review principles. The Act also provides for further appeal from a decision of the commission on a question of law.

The Government are confident that these arrangements are sufficient to ensure an effective remedy is available to those concerned. Schedule 3 to the Act provides for the establishment of the commission. This will comprise members, including a chairman, appointed by the Lord Chancellor. Each sitting of the commission will comprise three members, one of whom must hold, or have held, high judicial office.

The draft rules governing the commission procedures are the subject of our debate this evening. Perhaps I may briefly draw noble Lords' attention to the following provisions. First, under Rule 7, organisations or individuals will have 42 days within which to serve notice of an appeal on the commission. This deadline takes account of the fact that a proscribed organisation may be based overseas. However, in special circumstances, the commission may accept a notice of appeal after the due date.

Secondly, under Rule 9, the commission shall designate a person to conduct proceedings on behalf of an organisation making the appeal. Thirdly, where the commission considers it necessary, appeals may be heard in the absence of the appellant and his representative (Rule 21). That will be necessary mainly where the Secretary of State has objected to disclosure of certain material to the appellant. In such cases, the Attorney-General will, under Rule 10, appoint a "special advocate" to represent the interests of the appellant. This is in order to protect the rights of the appellant, without compromising any sensitive information that might form part of the Secretary of State's opposition to the appeal.

The special advocate represents the interests of the appellant by making submissions to the commission in any proceedings from which the appellant or his representative are excluded; cross-examining witnesses in any such proceedings; making submissions to the commission in any part of the proceedings from which the appellant and his representative are not excluded at the invitation of the commission; and making written submissions to the commission.

Under Rule 14, the commission will have the power to consolidate or hear together two or more appeals where the same questions of law or fact arise or it is otherwise desirable. This is to prevent the possibility of a number of separate but essentially similar appeals being mounted at the same time by persons affected by the proscription of an organisation.

In my view these rules are compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft rules laid before the House on 13th December 2000 be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bach.)

Lord McNally

My Lords, these Benches give support to the draft rules now before us, especially because their application is UK-wide. We have long believed that the partitioning of anti-terrorism measures between various parties of the United Kingdom is unhealthy. It is only right that our citizens should be treated by a common law. It is also right that we build protection into our law, even for those who would appear to be seeking to destroy or damage our society. Indeed, that is a mark of a civilised society. We discussed various guarantees last week for those accused of terrorism. I should have thought that a man from Mars might be amazed that Parliament should take such meticulous care in protecting the rights of the accused, especially when that person could be part of an organisation that is actually trying to bring down the state. As I said, it is a mark of a free and democratic society that we put such provisions into our law.

I have but one concern with these measures. In dealing with wider international proscriptions it is important to get the balance right. Such powers should not be used simply because organisations or individuals in this country are doing things that regimes abroad do not like if those activities are perfectly legal in terms of the United Kingdom. For example, there are countries where the saying of rude things about the head of state or the head of government is a punishable offence, whereas that is not so in this country. There is a danger that we may become over-zealous in trying to curb organisations. However, we would not want the United Kingdom to become a safe haven for terrorists attacking countries abroad. I appreciate that there is a balance to be struck in the use of such powers; but we need to have that balance.

In Committee in another place, I noticed that questions were raised about the commission and its composition; indeed, questions that remain to be answered. Can the Minister say how soon this commission will be appointed and tell us when we shall know names? Further, can he explain the procedure whereby 10 of the members of the commission will be appointed by open competition and will not necessarily be legally qualified? Perhaps the noble Lord can expand a little on how the commission will be established, and tell us what kind of time-scale is involved.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we also support these draft rules. I can only echo the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the setting up of the commission.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Viscount for their support. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, emphasised how important it is for a free society to ensure that elements of it who are perhaps the most unpopular—sometimes for good reason—are protected, as is everyone else by the rule of law. That is what we have sought to do both in the Act and by way of these draft rules. We have tried to maintain the appropriate balance between protecting society and protecting the rights of even the most evil people.

As regards when the commission's membership will be announced, I am afraid that I shall have to resort to the words that noble Lords will have heard many times from this Dispatch Box and, I suspect, from many governments: the names of those sitting on the commission will be announced in due course. However—and more importantly for the moment—the way that the composition of the commission will be established in any given case is as follows. One member of a three-person tribunal (such tribunals will consist of three people) must either hold, or have held, high judicial office. That is the only requirement as far as concerns the three members.

It is the intention that there will also be one other legally-qualified person and one "specialist" member present at each hearing. As for the question of who would qualify as that specialist member—people are now applying to become members of the commission—I can tell noble Lords that the advertisement for such applications specifies that that person should have extensive experience in one or more of the following areas: first, political or social sciences or other relevant areas of legal academic study; secondly, the Armed Forces, police or national security services; and, thirdly, the Diplomatic or Home Civil Service. Of course, legally qualified applicants must be barristers or solicitors with at least seven years' standing on 1st November last year. I hope that those comments are helpful. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.