HL Deb 11 March 2002 vol 632 cc533-5

Letter from Lord Gilbert to the Chairman of Committees As you know, I have had discussions with several senior members of the House, in addition to yourself, about the House's ability to make a useful contribution to the struggle against international terrorism. It seems to me quite extraordinary, considering the vast amount of experience at the disposal of the House, with respect to matters involving defence, intelligence, internal and external security, and foreign affairs, that we should not have a single committee considering these matters. The other place, which cannot call on anything like the experience and knowledge available to our House, has no fewer than three committees, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defence, which have been briefed by the Prime Minister on these matters. The Committee on Intelligence and Security, which was also briefed by the Prime Minister, counts only one member from our House in its membership. I would, therefore, be very grateful if you could invite the Liaison Committee, at its next meeting, to discuss the setting up of a Select Committee on, say, "Measures to Combat International Terrorism", or such other title as might seem appropriate to your committee, and endowing it with the wide terms of reference that it would clearly require. I have also talked about this idea with various back bench members from all parties in our House, and have encountered no resistance to, but rather enthusiasm for, the proposition. I would be very grateful for your kind attention to this suggestion. 14 February 2002

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I welcome the recommendation of the Liaison Committee that the whole question of religious offences and not merely the subject matter of the Religious Offences Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. This allows the Select Committee to take the broadest possible view, even though the Law Commission, when it examined the matter in 1985, included within its remit all religious offences then on the statute book. Those are the offences dealt with in my Bill. It may be that the Select Committee will wish to consider some new religious offences and its terms of reference will allow that if, in its wisdom, it so decides. I very much welcome the decision of the Liaison Committee and I look forward to its work.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for considering the proposal that I put to it. I am also grateful to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for the extremely courteous letter he wrote to me informing me of its decision.

Although no fewer than three committees in the House of Commons were briefed on this subject by the Prime Minister at the beginning of hostilities with elements in Afghanistan, not one of them is considering the whole range of issues that affect this country in terms of international terrorism. One of the committees is doing nothing about the subject whatever and the other two have on-going inquiries which touch only tangentially on the whole subject.

Is it not time that this House ceased to be inhibited by the fact that the other place may also be investigating certain subjects? There is a far higher degree of talent, intelligence and experience, particularly on these matters, in all parts of this House—it is not a matter for jest; it is extremely serious—than exists at the other end of the corridor. It is high time that we stood on our own two feet. We should not merely be saying, "Yes, we shall have a few crumbs which the other place is not looking at and examine that". I hope that the Liaison Committee will examine the matter—

A noble Lord


Lord Gilbert

My Lords, if the noble Lord thinks that it is nonsense, he should be prepared to get to his feet and say why. That is the attitude at the moment, and it is not good enough.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I strongly support the Liaison Committee's report. I understand the strength and vigour with which the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, argues his case. There are limited resources for conducting studies of this kind. It seems wise to pursue a part of the counter-terrorism Bill which—for reasons that we all understand—could not be proceeded with at the time but to which many minorities in this society had been looking forward. We strongly support the proposal to go ahead as urgently as possible with a Bill such as that introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

As to the other demand on the committee's resources—namely, the proposal for a communications committee—I commend the Liaison Committee on the wisdom that it has shown in proposing an experiment based on an ad hoc committee in an area peculiarly appropriate for consideration by this House, cutting as it does across several disciplines. It affords an opportunity to examine one of the most significant developing influences on politics in this country; namely, the inter-relationship between the political process and the media. I commend the committee's report to the House.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, in relation to the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I wholly support the committee's recommendations. I say that, having asserted at Second Reading that the Committee stage, were there to be one, should ensue on the Floor of the House and that the matter should not go to a Select Committee. I support in particular the recommendation which widens the scope in terms of religious offences without reference to criminalising religious hatred as the Bill does. I particularly welcome that in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. It is of great importance, in particular as regards the law on blasphemy. In my opinion, the Liaison Committee has come to entirely the right conclusion.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for their comments. I understand the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has expressed. However, there is so much expertise on so many subjects in this House that we could have 50 or 60 Select Committees based on it. The Liaison Committee has to prioritise the work that we do. That is what it has attempted to do in this case. I commend the report to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.