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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:01 am on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell , Middlesbrough 1:01 am, 26th June 1985

This has been a short but cogent debate, with speeches by the Secretary of State and two former Secretaries of State. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) contributed, as did the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who has followed these issues closely.

We discuss this issue in the context of the emergency provisions legislation and the Diplock courts. The hon. Member for Epping Forest referred to yesterday's remarks by the Leader of the Opposition. My right hon. Friend stated clearly to the House the satisfaction of Labour Members at the remarkable success of the police against the IRA, and he was right to say that the whole nation has cause to be grateful.

The debate tonight, however, is not about police work but about the renewal of the Act, the legislative framework of which provides for the Diplock courts. The Act abolishes jury trials for scheduled offences. The Secretary of State tonight expressed his concern about such issues and it is clear that we are not far apart on them. He said that the ultimate aim must be the restoration of jury trials for all types of offences, though he accepts that it is not possible to achieve that in present conditions.

The right hon. Gentleman accepts many other recommendations in the Baker report, and my hon. Friends and I have consistently pressed him on those matters because among the provisions of the Act that particularly concern us is section 8, which deals with the admissibility of confessions, confessions which would not be admissible in courts in Great Britain. The right hon. Gentleman took on board the criticisms that we have been making—and which the Baker report made—about section 11 of the Act, which deals with the holding of a suspect for 72 hours without charge. The right hon. Gentleman said that that would be repealed.

It is clear, as I say, that there is not a great divide between my hon. Friends and the right hon. Gentleman on the issue of terrorism—the need to protect the people from terrorists and to combat terrorism wherever it may occur. However, we have consistently shown our concern about the Diplock courts situation, linked as it is to a supergrass system of evidence. Such a situation is abhorrent to lawyers and jurists in Britain and elsewhere, and it is right that we should constantly draw attention to the threat to civil liberties and civil rights in Northern Ireland. Opposition Members are not prepared to see the erosion of those liberties and rights beyond what is necessary and justified.

The Secretary of State mentioned the field trials in England and Wales into the practicability and effectiveness of time limits. He said the same thing to the House six months ago on 21 December. We have not advanced on that issue. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have been told by the Home Secretary how the field trials were progressing and that he would share the conclusions with the House. He has not done that.

The Secretary of State has said that he wishes to bring forward the necessary legislation that will modify the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. We welcome that decision, but again he has given no date. He has simply said that he will do so within the lifetime of the present Parliament. Meanwhile, we are afraid that innocent people will be the victims of such tardiness. We are dealing not with convicted terrorists but with those whose civil rights have been taken from them.

The Secretary of State mentioned section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act on bail applications and said that it would be recast. He said that section 2(4) of the Act would be repealed. We welcome his decision. We welcome also his thoughts on those parts of the Baker report that he is prepared to accept. We want to examine that report carefully and to ascertain whether he can go further. We want to debate that issue and to have it put into context. We have consistently stated to the House and to the country generally that we oppose terrorism wherever we find it.