HL Deb 09 February 2005 vol 669 cc872-9

7.45 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 January be approved [7th Report, from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order, which was laid in the House on 20 January 2004, renews for a further 12 months the vast majority of the Part VII provisions of the Terrorism Act. The Part VII provisions are specifically designed to deal with the ongoing security situation in Northern Ireland. They are temporary measures because the Government are fully committed to the removal of all special provisions when the prevailing security environment allows.

Regrettably, the return to a normal security situation has not yet been achieved. Undoubtedly, there has been substantial progress for the 10 past years. The ceasefires remain in place, and 2004 saw the lowest number of paramilitary murders since 1969. The Government have responded to that with troop levels now at their lowest since 1970, while the number of bases and installations that they occupy is down from 105 to 64.

Sadly, however, we are far from the normality that all Northern Ireland craves. The IMC second report on paramilitary activity, which was published in November 2004, concluded that paramilitary violence in the form of murder, shooting and assaults remained at a disturbingly high level. There has also been continued evidence of paramilitary involvement in serious organised crime; not least, the Northern Bank incident which involved kidnapping and hostage-taking as well as robbery.

Recent weeks have seen the use of incendiary devices by dissident republicans and a series of attacks on property and individuals as part of an apparent loyalist feud. Sadly, the overall picture is clear. Paramilitary activity continues and, with it, the threat to the lives of our citizens. The Government will not compromise on their duty to protect their citizens from that threat, nor will they shirk their responsibility to apprehend those whose actions give rise to it. It is the Government's assessment that in light of the current security situation, the provisions in Part VII remain necessary and proportionate and, thus, must be renewed.

As part of our commitment to the ultimate removal of Part VII, the Government keep their provisions under constant review. Each provision is examined individually to see whether it is necessary in the prevailing security environment. Each year, a report on the operation of the Act is prepared by an independent reviewer—the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. His 2004 report is, as ever, insightful, challenging and objective. The report receives the most serious consideration from the Government and plays an important role in informing these debates.

As noble Lords may have noted from the draft order, the Government have determined that this year Section 67(3) and (4) and Sections 70 and 71 may safely lapse. I will deal with them in turn. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, again recommended the lapsing of Section 67(3) in his 2004 report. His view is that the special bail provisions have a negligible effect because judges are obliged to ensure that their decisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2004 the Government carried out a wide-ranging consultation and have come to the same conclusion. Therefore, we are not seeking its renewal; nor the renewal of Section 67(4), the lapse of which is consequential on that of Section 67(3).

Sections 70 and 71 will also lapse. These provisions allow the Secretary of State to direct that young persons charged with scheduled offences could be held in a prison or other place while on remand. Developments in the youth justice system have rendered Sections 70 and 71 obsolete. Young persons charged with scheduled offences will now be accommodated at Hydebank Wood or the refurbished juvenile justice centres, so the sections are no longer necessary.

There are two further issues that I should like to address. First, in his 2004 report the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, strongly recommended the repeal of Section 108. This provision allows for the opinion of a senior police officer to be considered admissible for a Section 11 or membership charge. The Government remain of the view that this provision has utility and should be fully tested. Relevant cases remain within the criminal justice system. They have therefore decided to retain the provision. Nevertheless, the arguments raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, merit careful consideration and will be examined closely as part of our review of Part VII powers.

Secondly, as noble Lords may be aware, the Part VII provisions contain a sunset clause which means that they will expire in February 2006. The decision to include such a clause was made in the hope that by this time Northern Ireland would have returned to a normal security environment. Regrettably, as the November IMC report indicated, that point has not yet been reached. The Government will consider carefully over the coming months whether and in what form the Part VII provisions should continue after February 2006. I should make it clear, however, that any extension would occur only if it was justified by the prevailing security situation.

The Government renew these provisions with sadness. They retain them only as a necessary and proportionate response to the continuing terrorist threat. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

7.52 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for setting out the terms of the order. It is not my intention to follow her in going through the details of the order. We are reassured by her assurance that these are kept continually under review. Suffice it to say that, like the Government, we consider the provisions contained in Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000 to be regrettable but absolutely essential in the continuing fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness has reminded us that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who independently reviews this part of the Act, agrees that the main provisions remain necessary. The measures in Part VII follow closely the old Northern Ireland emergency provisions Acts and the emergency legislation passed following the Omagh bombing. My party, whether in government or in opposition, has never shirked from backing essential anti-terrorism measures.

Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000 is of course the only part of the Act that needs to be renewed on an annual basis. That was based on the hope that, by now, as a result of the Belfast agreement, the security situation in Northern Ireland would be relatively normal and that many, if not all, of these provisions would be allowed to lapse. Like all noble Lords, I look forward to a time when they really are no longer needed. Sadly, that is not the case today—nor, I might add, in the foreseeable future.

Next year, as the noble Baroness has reminded us, this part of the Act will lapse altogether and primary legislation will be required to re-enact it. It gives me no pleasure to say that I have little doubt that such legislation will be before your Lordships' House within the next year.

The reasons are clear. Nearly seven years on from the Belfast agreement, terrorist activity continues to blight society in so many parts of Northern Ireland. The promise to move away from paramilitarism to what the agreement calls "exclusively democratic and peaceful means" has not been kept.

Despite the fact that the Provisional IRA maintains its own tightly defined "cessation of military operations", and the statement issued last November by the UDA signalling its future peaceful intent, the reality is that all the main terrorist organisations, republican and loyalist, remain armed and active. There is no doubt too that dissident republicans still pose a significant threat.

One only has to read the reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission for confirmation of all this. We await the publication of the commission's fourth report tomorrow without, sadly, any great expectation that it will point to a significant change in the overall situation. Indeed, since the Independent Monitoring Commission last reported in November, we have had the IRA's involvement in the £26.5 million bank heist in Belfast, to which the noble Baroness has referred, planned at the same time as the Sinn Fein leadership was trying to negotiate its way hack into the government of Northern Ireland.

All mainstream democratic parties in these islands, the Chief Constable and the Garda Commissioner, and the United States Administration, accept that the IRA was responsible for the robbery. They are clear that the Sinn Fein leadership must have known about plans for the robbery. The response of the IRA and the Sinn Fein leadership is to be in denial of their own actions.

Last week, the IRA issued a statement saying that its patience had been "tried to the limit" and that it was now withdrawing its December offer to, put all weapons beyond use", and to move into what it called a "new mode". In other words, as one commentator in Belfast put it, the IRA was, withdrawing the offer to do something it was already refusing to do anyway". This was quickly followed by another statement telling the Government not to underestimate the seriousness of the previous day's statement. As a result there is now a good deal of speculation over the future direction of the Provisional IRA and whether it is considering a return to violence.

If all this is an attempt on the part of the republican movement to threaten and bully both the British and Irish Governments, I urge them both to stand firm. As my noble friend Lord Glentoran said in the debate last week, they should not budge one inch from the principle that there can be no place in government for Sinn Fein while that party remains linked with armed terrorist gangs. They should press ahead with genuinely democratic parties and examine ways of making direct rule more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. Instead, they should use all the resources at their disposal to stamp down on terrorism and other forms of criminal activity being carried out by the paramilitary groups—republican and loyalist alike.

There should certainly be no question of offering terrorist groups millions of pounds of taxpayers' money for the so-called retraining of its members, as the Prime Minister's chief of staff reportedly did recently in respect of the UDA. Nor, given the current uncertainties, should there be any question of further reductions in security or of implementing the Sinn Fein wish-list in the 2003 Joint Declaration that includes so-called "on-the-run" terrorists.

In both Northern Ireland and the Republic there are far too many people, and too many organisations, arrogantly strutting around as if they are above the law, administering their own form of barbaric justice within their communities. The latest version, in which victims' hands are tied together before being shot through, has been dubbed the "Padre Pio". It is both gruesome and sickeningly offensive to all Roman Catholics. These people create misery for the largely working-class, vulnerable people they claim to represent. They rake in millions through organised crime and they are the main barrier to the peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland all of us want to see. They need to be met with the full force of the law, and if the law is inadequate, we should have no hesitation in looking at ways of strengthening it.

I applaud the work done by the police, the Armed Forces and other agencies such as the Organised Crime Task Force and the Assets Recovery Agency to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland. They all deserve our fullest support. This order gives for a further year powers that the police and the Armed Forces in particular need to protect the whole community. We have no hesitation in giving it our hacking.

8 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for giving us an account of the order. The first thing to say about the order is that we are not where we wanted to be. We have the report on the operation of the Terrorism Act and I am glad that it has been taken seriously. Several of the points raised in it in terms of changes have been acknowledged by the noble Baroness.

I feel that my voice is rationed at the moment, but I want to comment on the report because my noble friend Lord Carlile has set out at paragraph 2.9 where he believes matters stand in Northern Ireland. The report states: From the evidence provided to me it appears that again in 2004 there were several incidents involving acts of terrorism that demonstrated a continuing danger from sophisticated terrorist crime. There were also numerous serious criminal offences of a non-terrorist nature in which there appears to have been or may well have been a strong terrorist link. It continues: There has been a real reduction in cross-sectarian attacks, though a level of intimidation remains and is of serious concern. There continues inter-necine violence within some loyalist paramilitary groups, and intimidation within parts of the republican community against Catholics who participate in civil institutions established as part of the Good Friday Agreement".

As I have said, we are not where we want to be. In Northern Ireland it is often two or three steps forward and one or two back. We seem to be going back at the moment because of the bank robbery and the IRA saying, "We are not giving up our weapons; we have withdrawn that offer". It is clearly a serious position.

However, we understand that we still have got the ceasefire. My noble friend Lord Carlile expresses serious concerns about intimidation. I do not think that all this intimidation and criminal activity equates with a ceasefire. The IRA having withdrawn from its position, to what extent are the Government able to put pressure on paramilitary groups to diminish their activities? If they are on ceasefire such matters should be constantly diminished so that they become nil. To what extent are the Government able to ensure that?

We on these Benches support the continuance of the order.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in producing, once more, his excellent report. As always, he has considered each aspect of Part VII individually and concluded, wisely, that it is necessary to continue the vast majority of its provisions, with which we agree.

As noble Lords have noted, Part VII is due to lapse this time next year. Since the Terrorism Act was passed, Parliament has had to consider the renewal of Part VII annually, and yet on no such occasion has anyone suggested that the situation in Northern Ireland has changed so much that the provisions of Part VII would soon become unnecessary. At no time since he began to review the implementation of Part VII has the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, indicated that Northern Ireland is reaching the point when these provisions will no longer be required.

Utopia is not just round the corner. We are no closer to reaching a "normal" security situation in Northern Ireland than we were in 2001 or in any other year since then. Do the Government really believe that when February comes round again next year we will somehow have moved so far forward in a political process—a political process that has seen the Assembly suspended since September 2002—that Part VII can be dispensed with without a second thought? Have the Government thought that far ahead?

Perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness of the assessment expressed by the former Minister of State, Jane Kennedy, when Part VII was up for renewal this time last year. She said: There is reason to be optimistic about the current situation. Our overall judgement is that the ceasefires of the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force remain in place. Troop numbers are at their lowest level since 1970 and the Army has closed, demolished or vacated 51 of the 105 bases and installations that it occupied at the time of the 1999 PIRA ceasefire". One year later, are the Government still as optimistic? I really do not see how they could be.

As the Minister has alluded to, the IRA is the only suspect in a police investigation into December's heist of ¦26 million from the Northern Bank. In the last year, three IRA men were convicted of training FARC terrorists in Colombia; the Irish Prime Minister has also publicly linked the IRA to several other recent robberies; and the IRA is also believed to have been behind last week's murder in south Belfast.

Other noble Lords have alluded to the fact that the IRA is known to be carrying out even more gruesome and sickening forms of punishment beatings—shooting the victims through both palms while their hands are held and tied together as if in prayer.

To top it all, 2005 had barely begun when the IRA issued two threatening statements within 24 hours of each other—one withdrawing the organisation's offer to put its weapons beyond use and the other warning both Governments not to underestimate the seriousness of the current state of the peace process. Do the Government really believe that such activities will stop suddenly; that everything will be "back to normal" in 12 months and that the IRA will simply disappear?

Do the Government still believe that the IRA's ceasefire is still in place? According to the definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act itself, the Provisional IRA is still clearly engaged in terrorism. The organisation's threat is, designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public". And the threat is made, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause". As my colleague, David Burnside, said in another place when this legislation was discussed on Monday, the Government should now do what is required of them under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and specify the Provisional IRA.

The Government cannot rest on their laurels. The renewal of Part VII is good and necessary, but there must also be a political will, and a political courage, to confront Sinn Fein/IRA as a terrorist organisation. Why are the Government continuing to appease an armed terrorist organisation which threatens the democratic process in Northern Ireland and continues to be fully engaged in acts of crime and brutality? Is it not time that the Government stood up to Sinn Fein/IRA and accepted that an inclusive Executive is just not possible in the current climate?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I share the disappointment that we have to renew this order this evening. In our debate last week we went over many of the wider political issues which have been raised this evening, but I would like to reiterate a couple of points.

I believe that all noble Lords who spoke, and in particular the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, were concerned about the activities of the IRA and the link between Sinn Fein and the IRA. May I repeat what I said last week and the robust message which was given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister when he told the Sinn Fein leadership at their meeting that the IRA must end all paramilitary and criminal activity? That remains the position and it will continue to be the Government's position.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, was concerned about the issue of accountability, which we also discussed during last week's debate. That is very important indeed, particularly in the context of continuing direct rule. It is one of the issues at which we are looking. A number of proposals have been made in that regard. I agree with the noble Viscount that the Armed Forces, the police and others require our continued support.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, raised the question of putting pressure on paramilitary groups to diminish their activities. Obviously one aspect of that is the work being done by the police, the Armed Forces and others in Northern Ireland. But the other aspect is the clear political message which is being sent in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, raised questions about the ceasefire. It is our view that the ceasefire remains in place. It is not an easy judgment to make, but it is our feeling that we must continue to judge these matters in the round. The Chief Constable said in his statement last week that the provisional IRA has the capability and capacity. On our current assessment we do not believe that it has the intent. But we shall constantly review that.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State can specify groups which he believes are, first, concerned in promoting or encouraging terrorism; and secondly, have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. There are further mechanisms in the form of the IMC which was established to monitor any continuing activity by paramilitary groups. I cannot pre-empt the report which the IMC is due to make tomorrow, but I can assure the House that we shall look at these issues again in the light of that report. I hope that we can now agree the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.