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

The hon. Gentleman's arithmetic is better than that of the Government Chief Whip, although hers has improved.

I therefore have severe doubts about whether we have moved further forward. The Minister kindly thanked the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights for its work. It could only look at the order after it was announced on 2 February, and we are grateful that it has produced a report on the renewal of control orders in the very short time that it was given. Besides considering derogation from the European convention and so on, it touched on the way in which control orders work and their fundamental nature, as hon. Members have said. Page 4 of the report says:

"The Committee's overall conclusion on this matter is that it has significant concerns about whether, in the absence of sufficient safeguards, this regime of control orders is compatible with the rule of law and with well-established principles governing the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary."

The Committee complained—I quote from page 9—that

"Instead of detailed debate and scrutiny of a Bill there will now be a single debate in each House with no opportunity to amend the legislation".

That refers to the present debate. The Committee argued strongly against the renewal of the legislation unless Parliament had time to debate it.

That underlines the fact that the matter must not be allowed to be buried. It is a feature of modern politics that the agenda moves on. What is an issue of great principle upon which the political futures of Ministers and the stability of Governments depend may last for a week while it takes the headlines, and it returns only if some event or some whim of the media brings it back again. If we are not careful, we are in danger of the tremendous near-constitutional crises of 12 months ago being reduced to renewal orders such as this 12 months later and steadily becoming part of the routine background of politics and our law, where what we all thought were great principles 12 months ago are regarded as silly and fuddy-duddy and will never again be revisited.

We are told that there will be a consolidating Bill early in 2007. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about that. It would be utterly shameful if for any reason that timetable slipped. I take it from everything that the Minister of State said that that Bill will address in principle the content of the legislation. She implied strongly that that was the case.

Consolidating legislation normally just puts together existing Acts of Parliament. It is out of order to start challenging the content of a consolidating Bill on its merits. I have not served on one of those Committees for very many years, but my recollection of the Committee stage of a consolidating Bill is that one is in order if one queries whether it is correctly being consolidated and correctly being restated, but to query whether the measure should ever have been passed in the first place is completely out of order.

I trust that the word "consolidating" is not being used in its strict sense, and that the Minister will be able to reassure us that what she means is that in 2007 a Bill will be introduced covering the entire scope of our exceptional terrorism legislation and that it will be redrafted in the light of experience, so giving the House and the other place an opportunity to consider and amend it. Because of the rushed Bill 12 months ago and because of today's debate, neither House has ever had a chance to consider properly and at length the principles of control orders and of whether a politician should be allowed to deprive someone of his liberty without a trial and without that person having any opportunity of knowing exactly what is the basis of the charges that are being made against him.

I hope we will get the reassurance that the timetable will not slip again and that we will have a proper debate on the fundamentals. My major fear, which I have already expressed, but it is the most important feeling I have and the reason that I come along to take part in the debate again, is that these matters cease to be a crisis, become routine and then the use of them grows.

The first of the extraordinary pieces of legislation that the Government introduced in this field was in 2001 and has already led to the most extraordinary uses. We accept that vast numbers of people are being stopped and searched under anti-terrorism legislation, far beyond anything we ever expected. A heckler at a party conference was detained under anti-terrorism legislation because he upset the Foreign Secretary, and a lady reading a document at the cenotaph with a list of names was arrested—anybody, it seems, but somebody waving a placard demanding death for those who defame their religion, is getting arrested quite causally under some of the provisions.

Control orders are a more serious matter. At present only nine people are subject to them. One is a British citizen, which gives rise to the question whether the orders are being used in a discriminatory fashion. If this House gets relaxed about control orders and we stop hearing concern about the underlying principles, how quickly will that number grow? How long will it be before 50 people are held for one reason or another and scrutinised more or less adequately? Quite a lot of people may be deprived of their fundamental liberty to know what they have been charged with. What chance will they have of challenging such an allegation, satisfying a judge of their innocence and not being subject to a decision made by a political officeholder who has been given far too many powers by Parliament?

If those powers are left on the statute book, someone will abuse them one day. The current Home Secretary is extremely conscientious and would not abuse any of the powers that his office gives him. However, the legislation is there for the future, and who knows what future Home Secretaries will do if we become complacent about the legislation, which in my personal opinion we should never have passed in the first place.