Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 26th October 2005.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:00 pm, 26th October 2005

I referred earlier to the support that I gave, openly and publicly, to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the early 1980s. Flawed though they were, that Government were a great deal better than the dictatorship that was overthrown by violence—violence that the Bill defines as terrorism.

My position explicitly acknowledges that the world is a messy and complicated place. Political violence arises in many circumstances, and we must understand each of them and respond accordingly. We used as a country to understand that to our fingertips. In many ways, the history of decolonisation is the history of fighters being turned into statesmen and the supporters of fighters being turned into members of political parties. As we know, it did not always work, but we knew that it had to be done. We had to win the arguments of engagement, of alternative ways of doing things.

It is much simpler to say, "We do not want to understand all the different situations. All we need to do is say that this is wrong." That is what the Bill seeks to do, but I have to say that such simplicity will not work. If the Bill had the limited objective of stopping indirect incitement—direct incitement is already covered—of people living in this country to take part in terrorist actions, here or abroad, that involve the deliberate targeting and indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, I would have no problem with it. I would have no problem with a Bill that drew the line where it needs to be drawn: between what the Home Secretary described today as indiscriminate terrorism, or what could be described as nihilism, and the much wider and more complicated set of political movements that sometimes use violence in various circumstances. But it does not do that, and I am worried that it betrays a profound misunderstanding of the problem.

I am hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for acknowledging in this debate, and beforehand in discussions, that we need to look at alternative definitions of terrorism, and we will doubtless return to this issue at greater length next week in Committee. However, I do not share the view, which he circulated to the Opposition spokesmen and to me in my role as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, that the other definitions on offer are no better than that in our legislation. First, there are significant differences between them. For example, there is a significant difference between the Council of the European Union framework decision, which uses phrases such as "seriously intimidating a population" and

"seriously . . . destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country", and our own legislation, which talks about

"serious violence against a person" and "serious damage to property". The threshold is much higher.

I am no international lawyer—in fact, I am not a lawyer of any sort, for which I regularly give thanks—but perhaps equally significant is UN Security Council resolution 1566, which clearly locates terrorism primarily in terms of action against civilians. It also refers to criminal acts in a way that, I suspect, excludes genuine liberation movements and genuine violence against oppression. We could also use wording such as the following:

"any action . . . that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act."

That passage comes not from any international agreement but from the report of the high-level working group that was prepared for the UN summit on its 60th anniversary last month.

Although such a definition would certainly catch the indiscriminate terrorist attacks on civilians of organisations such as Hamas, it would none the less draw the line in the right place. It would send a political message about exactly what it is that we are trying to tackle. It is a line that any reasonable person—including those in the Muslim community on whom we are relying to win the argument—cannot possibly be against, whatever they might think about the situation in Chechnya, the middle east or Kashmir. Killing civilians indiscriminately for political purposes is wrong, and that is where we need to set the argument. I hope that we can return to this issue in some detail next week, and build on what the Home Secretary has said today in order to deliver an improvement to this part of the Bill.

I agree with what Members in all parts of the House have said about intent, and I hope that we can deal with that issue. I shall largely leave aside the 90-day issue, given the limited time available, but with the right combination of procedural safeguards and a perhaps more realistic assessment of the time that the police genuinely need, we should be able to reach agreement on this issue. I look to next week's debates to provide such agreement.