Clause 1 — Encouragement of Terrorism
Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill — [1st Allotted Day]
John Denham (Southampton, Itchen, Labour)
Throughout this debate we need to focus our minds on the problem that we are trying to solve; otherwise, we shall get into an abstract debate about the legislation. Despite the argument that some right hon. and hon. Members have made that there is no case for any change in the law, I think that there is broad agreement across the Committee that there is a particular problem that we are anxious to tackle, and that if current legislation is not satisfactory, we need in principle to consider new legislation. That particular problem is the role played by those who are attempting as we speak to draw young people in this country into active involvement in terrorist activity of the sort that we saw in London in July. There is a reasonable case for saying that in practice we have found existing legislation inadequate to deal with that, and that we should introduce new legislation. I hope that the Government will today recognise the extent to which the willingness to consider new legislation is accepted on both sides of the Committee, and therefore accept the strength of criticism of the way in which they have gone about trying to legislate for that change.
There are a number of real problems with the legislation. At the end of the day, the test of it will be whether the number of young people in this country brought into terrorism is reduced by at least one. The test is not one of elegance or of accord with international treaties. We have some problems, because we know relatively little about the path that is followed by a person who ends up becoming a suicide bomber. We believe that the radical extremist preachers or agitators play a role in that process, but we are not quite clear what role they play and what other processes those young people undergo before becoming suicide bombers. One thing we do know, though, from the Home Office/Foreign Office assessment of young Muslims in extremism which was leaked a few months ago is that one of the motivating factors is a belief that our laws are not even-handed—that they are biased; that they betray double standards.
If we pass the Bill in its current form, to give any active encouragement directly or indirectly to, for example, the resistance in Chechnya—not all of those involved are the murderers of Beslan; a variety of groups are involved—would clearly be an offence. However, it would be perfectly legal in this country to stand up and say, "The problem with the Russians in Chechnya is that they haven't yet killed enough Chechens." There would be no bar on saying that or indeed on urging the Russian Government to kill more Chechens. That seems to represent a lack of symmetry in the law, which is uncomfortable.
That is not a debating point. Such an imbalance in the law is exactly what is exploited in every community. Every single one of us who has ever sat down with Muslims in our communities who are not terrorists has heard them say that the trouble is that there are double standards. The Government's decision to entrench those double standards further is very dangerous, as is the reliance on the Director of Public Prosecutions. We have all chucked around fantasy cases such as prosecution of the President of the United States, but the truth is that such cases will not arise. Cases will be brought only when the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney-General decides politically which type of agitation we wish to prosecute.
That is very different from the role played by another controversial Bill, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, under which, as Mr. Clarke was saying, we are asking law officers to set a threshold of seriousness below which trivial cases will not be prosecuted. This Bill is not about a threshold of seriousness. It is about asking the DPP or the Attorney-General to make a political choice about which type of encouragement to violence we wish to prosecute and which we do not. My concern is not so much how many cases will come before the courts, because there will be very few, if any, but the way in which that will be presented in the country by those who are trying to draw our young people into terrorist activity.
A case could be made for dropping the entire exercise of clause 1 and related clauses. I am reluctant to do that. I am persuaded that there is a case for setting some standard or limit on what can be said in these areas that is clearly and demonstrably supportable, but it must be based on the problem that we are trying to tackle and solve. That problem is not animal rights extremism or the Provisional IRA—we did not have the Act when the Provisional IRA was setting off bombs, but the Home Secretary retrospectively sought to use that as a justification for these clauses—but al-Qaeda's type of terrorism and in particular its wilful use of the slaughter of civilians as a tactic.
I shall not test your patience, Mr. Forth, by going into the debate that we will have tomorrow on the test of terrorism, but we have two problems with the clauses that we need to consider together: first, the threshold for prosecution is too low; and secondly, the definition of terrorism is too broad. The Government need to indicate clearly a willingness to deal with both those matters.
The case put by Mr. Grieve about qualifying an absolute dependence on intent with the concept of reckless indifference has quite a lot to commend it. There is a serious issue with an intent-only test failing to get prosecutions in circumstances where most people would think that that would be reasonable. I hope that the Government will indicate some willingness to look seriously at that. The case has been well made that if juries are capable of judging whether someone has shown encouragement or inducement, or has negligently encouraged terrorism, they do not need the guidance of the clause on the glorification of terrorism. Juries are capable of working it out for themselves or they are not.
We need to be clear that the test is not whether people like us are offended or scared by people whom we see interviewed on "Newsnight". That is not the test or the purpose of this legislation; it is whether we prevent any young people from being drawn into terrorism. My fear is that, as currently drafted, the clauses are likely to make things worse rather than better.