Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:16 pm on 15th February 2006.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 6:16 pm, 15th February 2006

I begin by protecting myself against allegations that I might be regarded as soft on terrorism if I query the order. I am sure that we face a continuing and serious threat of terrorism, and I do not think that anyone in this House can guarantee that we will not experience again attacks on the scale of the ones seen on 7 July, or even worse. We all hope that we will not, but plainly it is one of the first duties of Government to be vigilant against that danger.

I accept that the people who pose that threat cannot always be dealt with by the ordinary process of the criminal law. I have never queried the fact that, in certain circumstances, one has to anticipate the dangers that such people might create and take preventive measures. I also accept that one cannot always resolve such cases by producing criminal charges to be considered by a jury in the ordinary, open process that, in normal circumstances, everyone in this country cherishes.

I do not think that any significant opponents of the Act on which control orders are based challenged either of those propositions when the Government got into so much trouble. The Government are now in trouble for failing to explain why, for several years, no prosecution took place of a man who has just been convicted under a 19th century law when he was parading up and down the country plainly inciting violence—but the case of Abu Hamza lies outside the scope of this debate, so I shall not dwell on it.

Let me remind the House of the circumstances in which the 2005 Act was passed, which gave rise to the need for the order before the House tonight. The Government were in a state of acute crisis when they produced that legislation and they came within a whisker of losing the entire Bill because they could not persuade the House of Lords, certainly, and a substantial body of opinion in this House that they were entitled to have control orders in the form that they preferred.

The legislation aroused great public concern—it was the dominant political issue of the day. There was a great crisis, with the Prime Minister's views on how Parliament should be handled and how the matter should be resolved clearly in conflict with the views of his then new Home Secretary. The public were aware that, for the first time, the Government were proposing that someone in this country should be deprived of their liberty, or have substantial constraints put on their liberty, on the order of a politician—the Secretary of State—and not of a judge. It was a dramatic change to all our traditions. I am not criticising the Home Secretary, who is a distinguished holder of his post and whom I hold in regard, but a fundamental principle was being changed in the proposal that a politician, not a judge, should be able to deprive a person of their liberty.

On the question whether there would be any judicial review the Government resisted even the involvement of a judge, and a modest system was then put in place. Finally, there was tremendous debate in both Houses about the standards that were set for the Secretary of State before he could use his powers. The Bill, alas, was eventually accepted on the basis that under non-derogating orders it was necessary only for the Secretary of State to have reasonable suspicion of someone who was subject to those orders. There was no requirement that he should be certain that he had the right person and there was no balance of probabilities to assess whether someone was probably responsible or had threatened to do things of concern. It was merely sufficient for the Secretary of State to have reasonable suspicion about someone and for the threat to be so grave that the powers should be used.

That was the nature of the crisis facing the Government. I do not believe that the Bill would have survived the process to which we give the absurd name of "ping-pong" if the Government had not said that they would legislate in the near future so that Parliament could address all those matters. The procedure was rushed, as Mr. Carmichael reminded us—proceedings on the Bill took two and a half weeks from start to finish, and it was drastically rewritten—and we were promised a repeat of the legislative process in spring 2006 in which the principle of control orders and many other things in the measure could be addressed. That undertaking has not been honoured.

There is all-party agreement because of the arguments about 7 July which, I am afraid, did not change anything. It was exactly the kind of thing that we had discussed, arguing about how best we could defend ourselves against such an eventuality. May I suggest to Opposition spokesmen that the constant allegations that we are soft on terrorism may have begun to have an effect if they result in our raising these important matters? Everyone retreated—it is no good one or two hon. Members saying that we should have held the Government to the spring 2006 arrangement and that we should have had a proper Bill and a proper debate. Instead, we have the order, which was trailed during those debates. Some people including, I believe, myself—I am not sure, as I have not read the debate recently—predicted that the offer of renewal within 12 months and early legislation would be reduced to a routine debate in which only a few Members would participate and in which the motion would go through on the nod. Twelve months ago, both Houses were full of hundreds of Members consumed with passion for the great issue of civil liberty, saying that the Government of the day should not have their way unless we were satisfied that a British citizen's fundamental rights were safe. The number of Members in the Chamber today scarcely reaches double figures, and the debate, which is restricted to an hour and a half, is being held on the eve of a recess. The vast majority of hon. Members are well on their way to wherever they will spend the weekend.