Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:13 am on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West 12:13 am, 26th June 1985

The time available for this debate is relatively brief. That is a consequence of the manner in which the Government have tabled their business, so I assume that that is what they intended. One consequence, which may not greatly trouble the Government, is that my contribution to this debate must be brief. That is made easier because on successive occasions over the past two years I have had the opportunity to expound in some detail the Opposition's views on the emergency provisions Act, and anything I say on the subject tonight will be in the nature of repetition.

It was kind of the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) to regret that in an earlier debate I did not repeat in detail what I had said on previous occasions. I do not propose to do so in this debate either. If he was not in attendance on any of the occasions when I said it, I can direct his attention to the Official Report. This will not be an extended contribution, but since the Opposition propose to divide the House on the motion I owe it to hon. Members to offer a brief statement on our position.

In an earlier debate today I spent some time repeating what I have said on many occasions and what perhaps hardly required saying—that there is no issue between any of the parties in the House, certainly not between the Government and the official Opposition, on our attitude to violence. We all wholly condemn the unlawful use of violence in the pursuit of any political objective, whether in 1920 or in 1985. The question is how people can most effectively be protected from that violence.

In an earlier debate I referred in passing to two questions: how can we remove the economic and social grievances which provide a recruiting ground, particularly among the young, for paramilitaries of either persuasion; and how can we resolve the political issues that give rise to such a sick and distorted sense of mission and isolate the men of violence?

In this debate I want to pose a third question. How can we ensure that the measures that we take to safeguard law and order are effective and not counterproductive?

Our anxieties about the emergency provisions Act are on three matters and I shall do no more than refer to them because I have developed them all on previous occasions.

The first question in our minds is whether the powers are necessary to enable those who have to enforce the law to do their job. The right hon. Gentleman said in somewhat sweeping terms that he would be amazed if anyone could doubt the proposition. I have ventured in the past to doubt the proposition and I have given my reasons in detail. I only say tonight that we recognise, as we have always done, that we charge those who have to enforce the law with a difficult and frequently dangerous duty, and we owe them support in the discharge of that duty. But to offer them powers which are not necessary is not an effective way of giving them that support. It is quite the reverse. To do so is to create unnecessary problems, for reasons to which I shall refer in a moment.

I noticed yesterday that the Home Secretary was anxious to emphasise that in discovering the recent plot the police availed themselves of certain powers in the Prevention of Terrorism Act. We may be told more about that at a later date. But he never suggested that the powers in the emergency provisions Act assisted them in any way, and it is difficult to see how they could have done.

The very name of the Act that we are considering today emphasises that these are powers which were taken because the authorities were facing an emergency. They recognised—quite rightly—that it was not be regarded as a normal way of conducting our affairs. I hope we all agree that we ought not to let ourselves be coerced by men of violence into departing more than is essential from our normal way of life, or they will have achieved their objective.

In the course of the debate on the Baker report on 20 December 1984, the right hon. Gentleman said, and he said it again today, that he had considered section 12 of the Act, which permits detention without trial. That provision has not been used since 1975, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) announced that he would no longer avail himself of it. The Secretary of State had been asked—and he has obviously directed his mind to it again tonight—why, if it was never used, it was allowed to remain on the statute book. His answer, as I understand it, is that a situation might occur, perhaps when Parliament was in recess, when he might feel a need to use it.

I do not believe that that is a proper approach to emergency powers in a free community, when we have these powers not because they have been shown to be necessary but lest they might become necessary at some hypothetical time in the future. I could go through the powers one by one, as I have done in the past, and show that there are other powers available to the authorities to do what they may wish to do. I cannot do that tonight, for obvious reasons.

Our second anxiety about the Act is that it is literally counterproductive. The Secretary of State quite rightly emphasised that the law can be upheld only by lawful methods. The most effective way to combat crime of any sort is to ensure that the community believes that the legal system and those who enforce it are not only lawful but manifestly fair and that they protect the legitimate interests of all law-abiding sections of the community. Then, indeed, they will support the police, provide information, offer themselves as witnesses and express their disapproval of those who break the law.

That is not the case in Northern Ireland at the present time. An opinion poll published in the Belfast Telegraph on 6 February showed that nearly two thirds of the Catholic community believed that the legal system was unfair. Of course, some things are perceived as unfair because they manifestly are unfair. That is true of some practices associated with what have come to be called the supergrass trials. But again, I have elaborated on that in the past and in this limited debate it would not be fair to others who wish to speak if I repeated it.

I wish to emphasise only two things. It makes no contribution to dealing with paramilitaries to convict the wrong people. Not only illegality but unfairness in any system which depends upon public co-operation is counterproductive. Those who invoke Satan to cast out Satan are to be condemned not only for moral reasons but because it simply does not work.

Our final reason for opposing the order is that after 15 months the Government have still not implemented even the limited amendments to the law which Sir George Baker recommended as necessary. In the debate on the renewal order on 5 July last year, I sketched the history of the anxieties that had been expressed about the Act, the somewhat belated announcement of the inquiry and the further delayed appointment of Sir George Baker. Sir George worked with commendable energy and expedition to report in March 1984. His recommendations were not so radical as some of us might have hoped, but his report seems to have shared the fate of so many reports. It was welcomed, tributes were paid to Sir George, but there was a certain lack of urgency in implementing his recommendations. Of course, I welcome the fact that today the right hon. Gentleman has offered us his reactions, but I am bound to say that what he said hardly allayed our anxieties. It will require more than that to change our view. This is not the occasion to react in detail to what he said, but today we are considering the Act in its unamended form.

I have no doubt that I shall be taken to task by those holding a whole spectrum of various views because I have made no mention of matters which they believe to be important. Silence does not imply a lack of concern; I am simply conscious that there are hon. Members in the Chamber who were not able to contribute to the earlier debate, and this debate has only limited time. I have given this explanation only lest our reasons be misrepresented; lest it be suggested that the Opposition are insufficiently concerned with law enforcement. Any lack of concern is not ours. Those who have demonstrated a lack of concern are those who have reacted so tardily to the Baker report and those who have denied us adequate time to debate this motion tonight.