Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

– in the House of Commons at 2:01 am on 15th March 2000.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:01 am, 15th March 2000

I beg to move,

That the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order 2000, which was laid before this House on 3rd March, be approved. Many principles behind the continuance order have been discussed in more than nine hours of debate today, and in many hours in Committee and on Second Reading of the Terrorism Bill. I shall therefore try not to detain the House for too long.

In an intervention on Third Reading of the Terrorism Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked about its compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998. It is right for me to tell the House our opinion of the compatibility of the continuance order with that Act.

The United Kingdom Government have had to enter a derogation from the 1998 Act because of the executive power for extensions of detention. That derogation arose from the case of Brogan, which came before the European Court. Apart from that derogation, I am satisfied that all the provisions that we want to renew tonight comply with convention rights.

We are considering the 1999 report on the operation of the prevention of terrorism Act by Mr. John Rowe QC, who has undertaken his usual thorough review of the provisions.

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

When will my right hon. Friend inform the Council of Europe that the derogation from the Human Rights Act 1998 no longer needs to apply to Britain?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We should be able to do that when the Terrorism Bill becomes law, if it is passed in another place. I hope that that will happen.

I should like to place on record my appreciation and thanks to Mr. Rowe for a further year's work in carefully and assiduously reviewing the operation of the provisions. To pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North made about human rights, in paragraph 21 of the report Mr. Rowe states that on many occasions, the person interviewed—police officers or others to whom the prevention of terrorism Act is relevant— volunteered, before I mentioned it, the question of the Human Rights Act, or breach of human rights. I learned that in many spheres there is active training going on about the elements of the Human Rights Act and human rights; and the general impression I received was that people are aware of the need to have in mind the Convention. Those remarks are encouraging.

Mr. Rowe's report is concerned with 1999. In those 12 months, we had great optimism over the Good Friday agreement and, towards the end of the year, considerable pessimism about its full implementation. Notwithstanding the fact that the ceasefire continued, seven deaths in Northern Ireland occurred as a consequence of terrorist violence. I ought to remind the House of two: in June, Elizabeth O'Neill was killed in her home by a pipe bomb thrown through the window and, almost exactly a year ago, Rosemary Nelson was murdered in an act of sheer brutality as she left her home in her car. Terrorist-related incidents also occurred on the mainland. In particular, I draw the House's attention to the siege of the Greek embassy in London last year.

The Home Office statistical bulletin on the operation of the prevention of terrorism legislation, which was published earlier this month, gives details of the use of those powers. In summary, 12 persons were detained in connection with Northern Irish terrorism during 1999—down from 20 the previous year—and 87 were detained in connection with international terrorism, up from 25 in 1998. The former powers to make exclusion orders were not used in 1999 and have now lapsed. That followed undertakings that I gave in opposition, which we have implemented in full in government. Of the 99 persons detained in 1999, 84 were charged with an offence. Extensions of detention were granted for eight persons, 437 persons were examined for more than an hour but not detained and 29 were charged with an offence. Mr. Rowe spells out in his report that he believes that the powers have been properly used and that they are needed for renewal.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

A matter on which Mr. Rowe reports is the operation of amendments to the prevention of terrorism legislation represented by the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998. His brief chapters 7 and 9 confirm that neither has been used. He makes no comment about that. Does the Home Secretary have a comment as to whether it is necessary for them to continue?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I suggest to the House that it does not always follow that the only proof of whether powers are needed is whether they are used. They can often have important deterrent value. That was part of the debate when the House considered that Act in September 1998. I believe that they are necessary for renewal, but the hon. Gentleman will know that they are replaced in the Terrorism Bill.

When the Terrorism Bill receives Royal Assent, as I hope that it will when it is passed by the other place, it will provide new, modernised counter-terrorism legislation proportionate to the threat that we face. However, it is vital that there is continuity and that the existing counter-terrorism powers remain available for the period before the Bill comes into force, pending the enactment and implementation of the new legislation through the renewal of the current legislation by the order.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 2:08 am, 15th March 2000

Many of the points that we would have expected to cover were dealt with at length when the Terrorism Bill was debated so it may please the House to know that I shall be brief.

I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to Mr. Rowe for his report, which convincingly argues that the provisions of the prevention of terrorism Act are needed for another year. The Conservative party, in opposition and in government, has never shirked its duty to take the toughest stand against terrorism and to give the police and the armed forces the powers that they need to protect the public. In that spirit, we fully support the report's conclusions and with them, therefore, the continuance of the Act.

The reasons given for the Act's continuance are compelling. In the past year, there have been substantial and welcome moves towards peace in the Province of Northern Ireland but, although the security situation in Northern Ireland has greatly improved, none of the main paramilitary organisations has even begun to decommission its illegally held arms and explosives. The capability of the paramilitaries therefore remains undiminished, and their organisations remain firmly intact. They retain huge arsenal of weapons, and continue to carry out shootings, beatings and mutilations and to exile people from their homes.

The Rowe report states that firearms, and ammunition, and bombing and explosive devices have been discovered, and this, among other things, is clear evidence that paramilitary groups have been making preparations to make violent attacks on the community. In the course of searches by security forces as many firearms have been found in 1999 as in 1998. While those groups maintain the capability and the infrastructure to perpetrate gross acts of terrorism, we must ensure that our police and security services have the powers that are necessary to combat them.

Acts of violence carried out by paramilitary groups are also still prevalent in the Province. The report states that through 1999 there has been continuing incidence of deaths, injury and damage to property, carried out by paramilitary groups. The findings of the report are borne out by figures given in reply to parliamentary questions. The Northern Ireland Office recently stated that there had been 225 shooting or bombing incidents in Northern Ireland during 1999, and figures supplied by the Government reveal that 2,400 persons have been injured as a result of terrorist attacks since the Good Friday agreement. During the same period, 49 deaths have been attributed to the security situation in Northern Ireland. The attack on an hotel in February and recent attempted attacks on Army bases in Northern Ireland remind us that the threat from terrorist groups has not gone away. Even with decommissioning by the main paramilitary groups, the dissidents opposed to the Good Friday agreement will retain their capacity for terror and destruction.

The Act, however, is not concerned solely with Northern Ireland. The Rowe report states that

in the international field, the threat to the United Kingdom of terrorism continues year by year. We need only read the history of terrorism on the international scene, written by Professor Wilkinson and contained in volume II of the report of Lord Lloyd's inquiry, to realise that the threat is still there.

The order gives special powers to the police and security services to deal with the threat of terrorism. They include provisions allowing for the admissibility of evidence from a police officer that a defendant belonged to a specified organisation, along with other powers which the Home Secretary has already set out and which I shall therefore not repeat.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

And this is a brief speech?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

It could become longer, if I were tempted.

Today the House has debated the Terrorism Bill, which will combine the existing emergency provisions Act and prevention of terrorism Act in a single piece of permanent UK-wide legislation. As I have said, we support the Bill; but if the Home Secretary speaks again—he does not seem much inclined to do so at the moment—he should give the House an assurance that the order contains all the provisions that it should contain.

I shall not be ungenerous enough to dwell on the error in the Home Office that allowed—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I have double-checked and sought assurances. I cannot be certain that there is not some glitch elsewhere in the small print, but I am assured that every section of the famous part IV—one bit of which was not brought into force last year—is being brought into force this year. The officials have staked their pensions on that.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I hope that the Home Secretary has staked his pension on it as well, as he has said that he will take personal responsibility for everything that happens in the Horne Office.

In view of that assurance, it only remains for me to regret that, when the Government were in opposition, they did not give us the support that we are rendering them tonight. Nevertheless, we consider it to be overwhelmingly in the interests of the security of Northern Ireland for us to render that support, despite the Government's rather ungenerous approach when they were in opposition.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:14 am, 15th March 2000

Mr. Rowe's report is particularly welcome. It is clear that he has done a thorough job in the past year, as he did before. We thank him for that.

It almost goes without saying that one of the benefits of the renewal process is that it has a reporting structure, so that we have the basis on which we can judge the appropriateness of continuing all the legislation. On the basis of the report and analysis, we, like the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), her party and the Government, can come to no conclusion other than that the present legislation should continue while Parliament is debating what legislation to put in its place. There are two reasons why it is vital that we do that.

First, as so often in the past quarter century, we are in a delicate period in the history of Northern Ireland. To take away the security that special legislation gives would be unsettling at the moment, when people are calling for a more settled and permanent solution. If the politics can deliver a settled arrangement with the devolved Assembly and the like, that will be all the more reason why it will not be necessary to have the exceptional powers in an Act such as the PTA.

Secondly, some of us have been here since 5 o'clock to debate the Government's proposed legislation to replace the prevention of terrorism legislation. We have our criticisms. They have been aired, but it would be inappropriate, when the Government have honoured their commitment a year ago to bring a Bill to the House that put legislation in a UK-wide context and that did not require annual renewal, for us then to say that it was right to take away the shield, the safeguard, that the order provides in the interim.

We hope that this will be the last occasion that we have to renew the prevention of terrorism legislation, with its exceptional and, in some ways, unfair powers. Whatever the necessity for anti-terrorism legislation, it would be better if there were a different Act of Parliament, so we hope that it is the last occasion.

Clearly, it would be inappropriate, not just in Northern Ireland but generally, to allow any of our citizens not to have the protection of some legislation, so the choice that we have tonight is stark. Put crudely, it is whether to continue with what we have, which has inadequacies, but which the report shows is working relatively well in providing security; or to have a few months with nothing at all.

We have opted for the first option, but the lesson of the exercise is that it is appropriate not just to have a report regularly to Parliament, but that Parliament should have the opportunity to decide whether and how to renew the legislation. I hope that the practice that we are going through on the PTA will be one that the Government adopt for the Terrorism Bill. At least once a Parliament the provisions should come back to Parliament for consideration on the basis of such a report.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 2:18 am, 15th March 2000

I do not intend to delay the House long, but it is incumbent on me to reply to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his action in changing the legislation. We voted against the PTA renewal orders because they contained provisions for internment without trial and for exclusion orders, both of which were contrary to human rights and caused considerable unfairness and unhappiness and considerable problems.

Exclusion orders set up people as targets in the areas in which they lived if they ventured outside their community. Internment without trial was one of the major things that helped to supply recruits to the Provisional IRA, so my right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on introducing an order that does not contain either of those provisions. It is good that he has done so, and that fact should be recorded. I have taken part in as many of these debates as anyone, and I am happy that this will be the last on the old legislation. Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), though, I should have hoped for scrutiny of the renewal of the forthcoming Terrorism Act on the Floor of the House every year.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order 2000, which was laid before this House on 3rd March, be approved.