Part of Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 15th March 2000.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 1:33 pm, 15th March 2000

I begin with the less controversial matters and thank the Ministers for courteously dealing with these matters in Committee and afterwards, and for the help that their officials have given in providing information. That was much appreciated.

The debate has been appreciated by all right hon. and hon. Members, from all parties. Points were made and answered—we did not just play to each other in a series of monologues. Where we differed, we differed, but at least we tested the opinion of others. I join the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) in thanking those who briefed the Committee generally and individual members personally. I thank Liberty, which is based in my constituency, for its assistance, not least on an amendment on a crucial matter. I also thank the two Northern Ireland organisations, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Human Rights Commission.

That leads me to the more controversial element of my remarks. The chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission judged at the end of our proceedings—up to yesterday—that the Bill was seriously flawed. The commission is the one human rights body in the United Kingdom that we have set up to give statutory advice to Parliament and to public authorities. If it tells us that we are doing the wrong thing, we should listen carefully.

On Second Reading, my colleagues and I made it clear that we support the idea of a United Kingdom-wide Bill, rather than a partial UK Bill, and a Bill that would get rid of exclusion orders. This Bill does that. However, we said that we did not support the idea of a Bill that could not return to the House for further consideration once it was on the statute book. There is a difference between permanent legislation and legislation that contains no power of review. One can have the permanent framework, but with a power of review. It is a serious defect that the Bill does not have that.

After Second Reading, which we supported because we support the principle of a Terrorism Bill, we suggested having a Special Standing Committee to consider and take evidence on some of the difficult issues—we have now suggested that twice this year, but we do not do it to be tokenism. Tonight's debate has vindicated the wisdom of that proposal. The key issue in the Bill is how one defines terrorism. Clearly, a huge amount of work remains to be done to achieve a definition that would meet with the agreement of large numbers of people in the House and outside it, if that can be achieved. A Special Standing Committee might have been able to make some progress on that matter, but we did not have one. It was left to the debate in Committee.

One of the fundamental flaws that remains in the Bill is the fact that the definition of terrorism is extremely wide and is not targeted. Large groups of people whom we have never contemplated as terrorists may well be caught within it.

Another area of concern is that excessive powers are given to Ministers and the authorities and cannot be reviewed. A further recurrent problem is that far too often the Bill does not uphold the normal legal rights of individuals. Only an hour ago, we debated the reverse burden of proof—defendants have to prove that they are not guilty to establish their innocence.

Our conclusion is that the Bill has not been amended as it badly needed to be, and that it will not be fit for the statute book when it leaves this House—if Third Reading is agreed to—in that it will not sufficiently uphold liberties and does not get the balance right. We had to make the straightforward, but difficult decision whether to continue to support the Bill or to force a vote. We decided collectively that we could not support the Bill as it stands. It has not made the progress that it ought to have made and the other place will have much work to do on it—in particular on the legal aspects and the civil and criminal justice processes—to put it right.

However, as it is important that we have UK-wide legislation on terrorism and because the Bill contains some good provisions, we will not go into the Lobby against the Government tonight—[Interruption.] Nearly all my colleagues have been here all evening and have voted many times against specific provisions of the Bill.

The Bill does not have our support as it needs to be amended significantly. Unless we amend it, it will not get the balance right and the state will end up with excessive powers against the citizen. I hope that the good will and good faith of Ministers will ensure that the work that needs to be done where we and they have said that the Bill is defective, can be done. Above all, if we are to have a Terrorism Bill on the statute book for the whole of the United Kingdom, I hope that we can define terrorism correctly. We regret that we have not made more progress in the three months that the Bill has been in this place.