Civil Contingencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:13 pm on 19th January 2004.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister, Shadow Minister (London) 9:13 pm, 19th January 2004

All hon. Members who have spoken appreciate that the Bill envisages something that no one in public life wishes to contemplate—that there should be an emergency of such dire extent that this country would effectively find itself on a war footing. Nevertheless, it is right that Conservative Members have expressed grave concerns. Those concerns should be aired on the Floor of the House, and again in Committee. We must ask precisely how and in what circumstances the Government—any UK Government—would seek to exercise the draconian powers envisaged.

The Minister, in opening the debate, gave a superficially emollient account and analysis, referring to flooding, and the fact that much relevant legislation dates back to the 1920s. Several Members on both sides referred to the safeguards of the triple lock, but at the front of my mind is a desire to see and understand the mechanism that ensures that protections and safeguards within that triple lock will be properly enforced. It seems to me that too much faith is being placed in Ministers doing the right thing, not just in this Government but in future Governments.

My position as Member of Parliament for Cities of London and Westminster means that I am especially concerned about the Bill, not least because my constituency is the most likely of the 659 to be affected by the nightmare scenario that we are considering. The City of London has contingency plans, and regular rescue efforts have been practised not only since 11 September 2001, but previously. The Metropolitan police have worked with the City of London police and various other central London agencies. The capital as a whole is widely believed to be a leading terrorist target.

At times of great national crisis, the rights of the individual must be defended with especial vigour. Members of Parliament owe it to all our constituents—the people who send us to this place—to uphold their freedoms. Several hon. Members presented a historical analysis and I shall not repeat their more eloquent words. Clearly, the history of this place goes back many centuries and we must defend individuals' rights.

The breadth of the powers in the measure is breathtaking. We must keep the closest watch on the element of the Government's anti-terror legislation that we are considering. It is genuinely worrying that the Home Office is tempted to give itself more and more powers under the pretext of protecting the public. We must always remember that this nation is a famous haven for freedom and free speech. There is a suspicion that we are taking a further step down the road to undermining that freedom. It is hard to suppress that suspicion when one examines the Bill.

Expanding state control is accepted in a time of war, but we should be most reluctant to provide the police and other Government agencies with carte blanche, not least since the Bill is likely to be used as a precedent for all manner of other civil contingency arrangements.

This is neither the place nor the time to analyse the specifics. Indeed, several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Mr. Cash, have already done that, in what one might describe as tortuous detail. However, we need firmly to define "emergency" and "serious damage" in clause 1, and all the powers of requisition and confiscation of property and land—which can occur with or without compensation—as well the police powers to quarantine perhaps thousands of people indefinitely under clause 21(3).

I have discussed the matter with several leading policemen in my constituency, including the borough commander of Westminster this morning, and several superintendents in places such as Soho and Covent Garden. They were open and honest enough to express the concerns that they would feel as individuals even if, as police, they understood the importance of new powers such as those in the Bill.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain in Committee, if not in her winding-up speech, the reason for confusion about the devolved Administrations, which clause 28 covers. Why, for example, do not the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority have the same powers as those envisaged for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly? To pick up a point that Mr. Allan made, I am interested in the way in which local government, especially if we have large-scale regional government in the north of England, will play its part in ensuring that the Bill is joined up and well thought through.

Vital principles are at stake, and I shall consider them briefly. My personal background plays an important part in my deliberations on all measures, and I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members. My mother's side of the family hails from Germany and my German grandfather's experience was one of the things that drove me into political life. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, and, like many articulate and educated Germans of his generation, he eschewed involvement in politics. It was at that juncture that Germany saw the rise of extremism under Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Government—who, we must never forget, were democratically elected in 1933. Over the following 18 months, they then systematically put on to the statute book through legal process a set of laws that effectively created a legal dictatorship. Under National Socialism, everything was done by the book, including the ruthless suppression of individual rights and responsibilities—all in the name of a higher collective authority.

I am not suggesting that what is being proposed today is at all similar. None the less, it is right that individual Members of Parliament alert the state, and, more importantly, the Executive, to these grave concerns. I am often reminded of my great German political hero, Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor, who, as mayor of Cologne, was a leading local politician during the 1920s and 1930s. When he became Chancellor, he recognised a worrying precedent in the way in which individual rights had been suppressed by the power of the state. We should not exaggerate that point when dealing with this Bill, but it is terrifying to see some of the powers that it envisages.

I also believe that certain economic freedoms and property rights, which we perhaps take a little too much for granted, are under threat from the Bill, which provides for the

"requisition or confiscation of property (with or without compensation)".

To read those words on any Bill before the House brings terror to my heart, because the notion of private property ownership is the single most important guarantee of many of the freedoms that we enjoy.

I appreciate that time is tight, and I know that my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger wishes to say a few words. I hope that in addition to putting this legislation on to the statute book—it will inevitably be given a Second Reading tonight—we shall rely not only on more regulation and legislation in this regard but on what I might call the spirit of the blitz. We must be able to rely on the good will of all our citizens, and not just on the power of the state to ensure that certain protections and contingencies are put into place in the event of the kind of disaster that we foresee. There is little doubt that we live in dangerous times—but we should not allow the wholesale surrender of many of the freedoms that are close to the hearts of many of us here.