New Clause 45 — Limit on Period of Detention Without Charge of Suspected Terrorists

Part of Criminal Justice Bill — [3rd Alloted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 20th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South 6:30 pm, 20th May 2003

As Mr. Grieve says, this is quite a large power for the Government to seek, and they have done so at rather a late stage—I think that I got a telephone call the Friday before last—so my Committee and, indeed, the House have not been able to give the proposal the consideration that it perhaps needs, although the Home Secretary was very generous in making time available for an informal meeting to discuss this and one or two other last-minute additions to the Bill.

Although the Minister, for reasons that I perfectly understand, is not able to give hard examples of why the power is needed, I am able to give hard examples of how we got into the mess on terrorism some years ago. Let me say at the outset that I completely understand and accept that things have moved on light years since then, and I do not suggest that we are back there, but I am suggesting that I do not want the House to approve of things that might take us back in that general direction.

In the mid-1970s, there was a series of major terrorist offences on the British mainland—the M62 coach bombing, the bombings at Guildford and Woolwich and the Birmingham bombing—all of which occurred within 18 months of one another. In total, 18 people were convicted in connection with those bombings, and they were all sent away for very long periods. I think that I am right in saying—I say this off the top of my head—that 10 of those 18 people signed confessions in custody, explaining how they had carried out those bombings. In due course, all those confessions proved to be false. There is evidence that, in some cases—certainly, in the Guildford case and possibly in that of Judith Ward—those who took them knew that they were false when they were obtaining them.

In addition to the terrorist cases, there have been a number of other cases where people have been convicted of murder solely on the basis of confessions obtained in police custody, often with no other evidence whatever. One or two people convicted of murder on that basis in the 1970s or early 1980s are still in jail today.The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced in the mid-1980s because of all that, and it laid down a strict regime for how people should be treated in police custody. The same provisions have been gradually extended to terrorism legislation, as the Minister explained a moment ago. Although there is a complicated tangle of schedules and codes, by and large, the standards laid down for the treatment of suspects in custody are more or less the same, with one or two minor exceptions. For example, the length of time that a solicitor can be withheld from someone is 36 hours for serious criminal offences and 48 hours for terrorism. We want to keep it that way. It will not make it any easier to combat terrorism if people own up to things that they did not do, as that will have to be unravelled years later, apart from the fact that those who did carry out whatever the atrocity would get away with it.