Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 26th October 2005.

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Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs 3:10 pm, 26th October 2005

In Committee, we shall want to look at the whole question of intent and when I talk about the indirect incitement provisions I want to look at how both intent and likelihood are built in, so I shall address those points when I get to that section of my speech.

I want to deal with some of the measures that we support. First, we have long argued that acts preparatory to terrorism should be a criminal offence. We argued that when the Newton committee reported and when we were dealing with derogations from the European convention on human rights. We said that such an offence was a better way of getting suspects into court than holding them without charge. The provisions on acts preparatory have a clear level of intent built into them and that principle should run through the whole Bill.

Secondly, we very much support the creation of a new offence of training for terrorism, although I want to flag up one concern. The Bill also includes an offence of attending a place used for terrorist training. It would be nonsense if, for example, journalists who attended a place of training as part of their investigative work fell foul of such an offence. We need to tidy that up in Committee.

Thirdly, and more problematically, we support the idea of creating an offence of indirect incitement to terrorism. We support it because there will be occasions when people with some influence will be able to use either written or spoken language with the clear intention of encouraging others to commit a terrorist attack. That should be an offence in this country. The problem is that the clause, and the criminality of the statement, depend on the interpretation of a third party, not the statements themselves or the intentions of a publisher. It depends very much not on what somebody says but on how other people react to what they say. We have concerns about the provision, but we broadly support it.

It would be extremely helpful if some safeguards could be included. At present, the offence is modelled on the proposal of the Council of Europe convention on the prevention of terrorism, which was signed earlier this year. Under that convention, there are two key safeguards: first, incitement must be intentional and, secondly, there must be the likelihood of a terrorist attack as a result. As we explore the matter in the next couple of weeks, it would be helpful if we could move back towards that model and build into the Bill those sensible twin safeguards that are already enshrined in the European convention on the prevention of terrorism.

As I said, those matters have our broad support, but before I address our key difficulty with the Bill, I want to touch on the definition of terrorism itself. We have debated the way in which we define terrorism and it is my general view that the current definition is too wide. The Home Secretary helpfully wrote a note to the shadow Home Secretary and me yesterday in which he outlined his arguments for why—bluntly—he thinks that that definition is probably the best one in town and we should thus probably try to stick with it. He said that the definition was very close to that drawn up by the EU in 2002, but I am worried that there is an important difference between the Home Secretary's definition and that of the EU.

Under the Home Secretary's definition, there could be circumstances in which animal rights groups and groups such as Greenpeace fall foul of terrorist legislation, as he acknowledged in one of his recent Select Committee appearances. The EU definition includes the phrase:

"extensive destruction . . . likely to endanger human life".

Tagging on that additional phrase is helpful by making an attack on property or a field a separate issue. The EU phrase would clearly add an extra layer to the definition that would give confidence to people like me who are worried that the definition of terrorism being used is too broad. I am not suggesting that it would be easy to redefine terrorism, but the small EU addition would go some way towards improving our definition of terrorism, which we would all like to see better defined.

I turn to our major concern, which the shadow Home Secretary outlined in detail: the provisions of clause 23. Why is the question of holding suspects for such a long time a key principle for this party? Article 40 of Magna Carta says:

"to no man will we deny or delay justice or right".

That has been an established principle of our criminal justice system for some 800 years. That principle of liberty has been adopted across the globe. Indeed, article 40 of Magna Carta is the forerunner of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which says that

"everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time".

To put it simply, as long as we have had justice in this country, that principle has been at the heart of it.