Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 26th October 2005.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Labour, Oldham West and Royton 4:22 pm, 26th October 2005

That only confirms my point. The Bill is intended to deal with the problem of acts of terrorism, such as those which the country faced on 7 July. For it to be used in this much wider way is not sanctified, and it is for us here in Parliament to make that clear. However, those who might be affected include not only animal rights protesters, but those protesting against a revival of civil nuclear power, the replacement of Trident or genetically modified crops. It is no answer to say that prosecution could be pursued only with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. We should oppose the provisions because such catch-all legislation undermines the legitimacy of our anti-terror efforts precisely when we need to build a consensus around them. We should also oppose the insidious switch from defence of the state to defence of property—or whatever the prevailing ideology of the Government of the time happens to be—that is apparent in the Bill.

The fourth test is whether the Bill will undermine the rights and liberties of the free society that it is purportedly designed to protect. Everyone agrees that the balance between liberty and security is a difficult issue. By far the most contentious issue, as we have heard this afternoon, is the proposal that terrorist suspects should be detained for up to three months. That is more than 20 times the pre-charge detention limit for murder. It would allow the equivalent of a six-month custodial sentence without a charge being brought. Apart from the breach of the habeas corpus principles and article 5 of the convention on human rights—I disagree with the Home Secretary on that point—it is difficult to believe that the provision is really necessary. The Association of Chief Police Officers says that it is needed because of the potentially huge amount of material and the possible involvement of several jurisdictions, but the same argument applies to much white collar fraud, for which pre-trial detention is limited to only four days, or one twenty-fifth of the time proposed in the Bill.

An interesting Foreign and Commonwealth Office document, which has not been mentioned today, makes comparisons between the proposals in the Bill and existing practice in other countries. In almost every case, they have a much shorter pre-charge detention limit than that proposed. Most terrorist arrests will usually follow months of previous investigations, which would allow large amounts of evidence to be compiled. If, occasionally, that were not so—if an event had happened that the police were not expecting—a much better compromise would be for a suspect to be charged under existing legislation and further charges added later, if appropriate. If that requires changes to the PACE code, so be it. The 90-day provision is the most serious in the Bill and it must be addressed.

A fifth test is whether the Bill will alienate those sections of the population whose support is vital to isolate and defeat the supporters of terrorism. In that context, any measures that cause Muslims to be treated unfairly—or to perceive themselves as being treated unfairly—would be counter-productive. Legislation that is too widely drawn, like this Bill, might well make Muslims who strongly condemn attacks very wary of contacting the police and volunteering crucial information. They might feel that their legitimate but critical views of middle east policy would make them vulnerable to prosecution. Equally, the banning of organisations that do not advocate terrorism, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir—however objectionable their views are—would drive them underground and make intelligence gathering more difficult. The Bill is not acceptable on that score either.

My sixth and last point is somewhat wider, but essential. Does the policy behind the Bill take account of the wider underlying causes of terrorism and seek to redress them? That question goes a long way beyond a Home Office Bill, but it is a crucial component of our whole approach to terrorism. While in the short term we should certainly take all reasonable steps to protect our own security, we should never lose sight of the fact that one of the major roots of terrorism is the widespread perception of a fundamentally unjust and untenable political situation in the middle east. That recruiting ground for terrorism and al-Qaeda will be removed only when we have a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, the creation of a viable Palestinian state and a reorienting of the fundamental—