Prevention of Terrorism Act

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th November 1991.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 12:00 am, 14th November 1991

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are the total number of residents of Northern Ireland who have been questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and (a) subsequently charged and (b) convicted or had an exclusion order placed upon them since 1974.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I regret that it is not possible to provide that information in the form requested.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

It is highly regrettable that the Minister cannot provide information that must be available to the police and to the Northern Ireland Office about the number of people in Northern Ireland who have been questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and subsequently charged and convicted. If the pattern in Northern Ireland is the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom, the Minister will know that the number of persons there subsequently convicted under the Act is very small. Many of us would like to know what happens to the information that is collected during questioning when there is no subsequent conviction. There is clearly a civil liberties aspect to what happens to that information.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If the information had been available in the form requested, I should have given it.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

Does my hon. Friend agree—unlike the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)—that the Prevention of Terrorism Act is exactly that: a measure to prevent terrorism? Its success is not necessarily based on the number of convictions; often, it is based on the number of assaults and atrocities that are prevented by the questioning of certain people. That is terribly important. The police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army save many lives by means of the Act.

It is not necessary to bring convictions every time, but it is necessary to prevent terrorism. Has the hon. Gentleman not got the message yet?

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I have certainly got the message. I entirely agree that the Act forms a vital part of the resources needed by the security forces to combat terrorism. I also share my hon. Friend's regret that not every hon. Member appears to understand that.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon , Newry and Armagh

Despite—or, perhaps, even because of—the horror of terrorism, we must protect and defend the integrity of the law and its enforcement. The Minister will be aware that, in 1989 and 1990, 726 complaints of ill treatment were made. I am allowing for the fact that, in a substantial number of cases, investigations could not be concluded, and many complaints were withdrawn. In some instances, I believe, spurious cases were cobbled together for propaganda purposes.

Is the Minister satisfied that not a single case was substantiated by the independent Police Complaints Commission, or does he share the scepticism of Lord Colville and others, who feel that nought out of 726 does not reflect the world that we in Northern Ireland inhabit?

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman has considerably broadened the original question. He knows—not least because he and I have discussed the matter on a number of occasions—that we take seriously people's right to register a complaint, and that complaints are investigated seriously. He also knows that the Government set considerable store by having in hand arrangements that will inspire confidence across the face of the community in the activities of the security forces and the RUC. We are constantly examining policy in that light.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced by a Government led by Lord Wilson? Is it not unfortunate that, since that time, some members of the Labour party have gone soft on terrorism?

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend has made his own point with extreme clarity.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

I, too, must express slight surprise at the Minister's inability to give the figures that were requested in the original question. Surely it would have been possible at least to give the number of people who had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the number of people subsequently charged.

If the Minister had given those figures, would they not have shown—especially those relating to the number convicted of terrorist offences—that, over the past decade, there has been a consistent and significant decline in the number of people convicted? Is not that a consequence of the increasing sophistication of terrorist ant-interrogation techniques, such as the ability to destroy forensic evidence? Does not that point to the need to give serious consideration to other methods of dealing with terrorism?

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I must repeat, however, that, if I had had the information in the form in which it was requested, I would have given it.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

The House will welcome the Minister's assurance about the protection of people when they are in custody, but unfortunately the Minister's perception is completely different from that of the community as a whole. Yesterday, when the Government were defending their postition at the United Nations in Geneva on interrogation procedures and denying that anything untoward was happening, settlements were being awarded in Belfast courts to people who had claimed that they had been assaulted in just those circumstances. Should not the Minister introduce video recording of all interrogations?

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman, uncharacteristically, made a statement which, on reflection, I think he will want to amend. It is not the perception of the whole community in Northern Ireland that the security forces behave in a way that is deliberately detrimental to the rights or interests of various people in the Province. It is important to get that correction—if he will allow me to use that word—on the record. Of course, it is necessary constantly to review policy and constantly to keep in the forefront of our thinking the need for the security forces and the police to have all the resources necessary to do the job that they do on behalf of all of us, the need for which has been so tragically illustrated again in the last 24 hours. At the same time, we must keep in mind the need for the security forces to do that job in a way which not only remains within the law but inspires confidence in the whole community.