Orders of the Day — Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 26th October 2005.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 5:40 pm, 26th October 2005

Mr. Wareing suggested that the Home Secretary was trying to show with this Bill that he was macho. I believe that it was Mae West who said that, in her experience, men who were macho were not up to mucho, but I think that I can be fairer than that to the right hon. Gentleman.

I fear that I am in danger of fitting the description given by Mr. Mullin, and of being the third hon. Member to speak in this debate to express explicit sympathy for the Home Secretary. I find myself in a great deal of agreement with my hon. Friend Mr. Cash, and with Mr. Robinson, who speaks on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party. He has as much experience of these matters as anyone in the House, and we should listen to the sentiments that he expresses.

That is not to say that we need not be vigilant in considering this Bill, which has been proposed in response to extreme events. We must always be vigilant in respect of legislation conceived in those circumstances. Moreover, the Bill comes hard on the heels of other terrorism legislation that may affect civil liberties, and we must also take into account the deeply flawed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords at present. All of that combines to give this Government a somewhat dubious record on civil liberties. Yet I find that, this evening, I will be passing through the same Lobby as those hon. Members who support the Government. That is because I think that, on the whole, this Bill is worth having, although it clearly needs a great deal of scrutiny. Two of its provisions, in particular, will need to be changed.

Questions have been asked as to whether all of the Bill is necessary, or whether it is merely a repetition of existing offences. However, I find it hard to see any objection in principle to spelling out the law in relation to the preparation of terrorist acts, to training for terrorism acts, and to the attendance at a place used for terrorist training. Those offences need to be spelled out.

I very much welcome the proposals for the proscription of terrorist organisations. I strongly agree with the general sentiments expressed by Mr. Denham, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He made the valuable and powerful point that there are many things besides passing legislation that we must do to reach out to the hearts and minds of those communities in this country that we need to influence. I disagree with him, however, in respect of Hizb ut-Tahrir. That organisation is more than just a vehicle for eccentric views at the extreme of the political spectrum. Throughout Europe, it has a record of publishing vicious and violent—and often violently anti-Semitic—propaganda. From time to time, it may seek to cloak itself in the guise of peaceful debate, but at other times it expresses hateful and hurtful opinions.

I want to turn briefly to two aspects of the Bill that have attracted particular attention. Some of the problems associated with the offence of glorifying terrorism in clause 1—it was originally clause 2—have been ironed out as a result of the welcome concession that the Home Secretary has made, particularly in respect of the need for intent in the offence. Much more needs to be done, however, and matters as they stand are not satisfactory. That much was demonstrated by the interventions in the right hon. Gentleman's speech from hon. Members of all parties.

We understand what the Home Secretary is trying to get at with the proposed offence but, although he may hit that particular target, I am afraid that he may hit too many other targets as well. In seeking to address the problem that he has identified, he is in danger of criminalising statements that should be part of normal political debate. For example, the right hon. Gentleman was not able to deal satisfactorily with suggestions from various hon. Members that expressions of opinion about Zimbabwe or North Korea, railway lines in Burma or statues in Uzbekistan would be criminalised by the Bill. That needs to be looked at again.

Following the interventions that he accepted, the Home Secretary's final position was that he hoped that the provision would not have the effect that had been described, but I do not see why that should be so. For me, it remains possible that expressions of opinion of the type that I have described would be caught by the Bill. Therefore, I hope that there will be some movement in that respect.

I turn next to the length of detention before charge—a very serious feature of the Bill, which we need to deal with very seriously. When the anti-terrorist branch of the Metropolitan police makes a request for an extension of the period of detention permitted before charge, we must give it serious and sympathetic consideration. It is not a question of our doing automatically what the police request of us. The fact that the police have made such a request is surely not a reason for turning it down out of hand, and we must give it serious consideration.

We are all aware of the fact that grave issues of public safety are at stake, as the letter from Mr. Hayman makes clear. We have to accept that we are facing a terrorist threat of a different order from that in the past—a threat which can have appalling consequences—and we must listen to the police when they tell us that they need therefore to intervene earlier to protect the public.

Against that background we must give the proposals serious consideration. We should remember that Lord Carlile has broadly given them his approval, but we should also remember that a massive extension of the present maximum is proposed, that the present maximum was itself a very substantial increase—a doubling—on the previous limit, and that that increase was allowed only as recently as January last year.

As others have rightly pointed out, when the change from seven to 14 days' detention without charge was made, all the matters that Mr. Hayman mentioned in his letter must have been apparent. The police must have been aware of these matters; we should have been aware of these matters. There is nothing in the letter that tells us something about international terrorism of which we were not aware when the previous legislation was passed. We must have known about those matters then, and we should take that into account as well.

Although in balancing liberty against public safety I am not prepared without hearing more to concede what the police are asking for, I am certainly not prepared to turn their request down out of hand. I therefore hope that we shall give the matter very serious consideration in Committee and try to do the best that we can to balance public safety against the fundamental civil liberty of not being detained for an unreasonable length of time without charge.

I am not convinced by the course proposed by Mr. Oaten on behalf of the Liberal Democrats—that of charging the person concerned with a lesser charge and then questioning them—because I fail to see just how many of the rights of the accused person would be preserved. The person would definitely face a lesser charge, and may face a more serious charge later. In the meantime the police could continue to question him. All the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg about questioning someone for a long time when they are held in detention not knowing their ultimate fate must apply with as much force to the hon. Gentleman's proposal as they do to the Government's. I recoil from the concept of charging someone with a lesser charge rather than the full charge; they should face the full charge at the earliest possible opportunity. So, there are problems with those provisions.

Problems also arise from the operation of the Bail Act 1976. When a person is charged, they are brought before a court, as is their right, but from the point of view of bail the court will deal with them with the lesser charge in mind, and the decision on bail may well go in the person's favour when the police are still investigating them for very serious matters. So I do not think that the hon. Member for Winchester has the answer; he needs to do more thinking.

We all need to approach this issue seriously and to give it very serious consideration. We should not adopt inflexible attitudes at this point. We should be prepared to make concessions on all sides and to strive for a spirit of consensus; to listen carefully to the reasoned arguments on both sides; and to give very serious consideration to our duty both to defend civil liberties and to protect our fellow citizens and ensure public safety.