Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 28th February 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 12:00 pm, 28th February 2019

One of the few joys of being in the Opposition is that, unlike the Minister, I do not have to repeat the names of organisations and locations. I thank the Minister for her explanation of the purpose and meaning of this order. It was discussed in the Commons on Tuesday, following which it was approved without a Division. We did not oppose it, and that will be our position today in your Lordships’ House.

Ever since the Terrorism Act 2000, no proscription order brought forward by any Government has been opposed by the official Opposition, and that is not about to change. Seventy-four international terrorist organisations are now proscribed under the Act. As the Minister said, it is intended that this order will come into effect tomorrow. The Minister referred to the organisations and groupings that will be proscribed under the order. Two have been established in the last two years or so, and carry out their attacks and atrocities in specific areas of Africa. The third is Hezbollah, which has been around for rather longer, nearly 40 years. The then Labour Government proscribed Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation in 2001, and its whole military apparatus, including the Jihad Council, was proscribed in 2008.

In her letter of 25 February, the Minister said:

“Hezbollah, as a political entity in Lebanon has won votes in legitimate elections, and forms part of the Lebanese Government. It has the largest non-state military force in the country”.

The effect of this order is to proscribe the political as well as the military wing of Hezbollah, and thus proscribe the organisation in its entirety.

I have a few questions to raise with the Government about the order, and about what has led to it being brought forward today. Just 13 months ago, in a Commons debate, the Security Minister was resisting arguments for proscribing Hezbollah in its entirety—resisting what the Government are seeking to do through this order today.

The Security Minister—he is still the Security Minister—said in that debate:

“Hezbollah also represents Lebanon’s Shi’a community and, over time, has gained significant support from that community. Hezbollah provides social and political functions in Lebanon. As a major political group and the largest non-state military force in the country, Hezbollah clearly plays an important role in Lebanon … I have heard from many Members today that Hezbollah’s military and political wings are indivisible, joined at the hip and centrally led. That is not … the view of every country. Australia, New Zealand and the EU take a different view”.

He went on, just 13 months ago, to say that,

“it is difficult to separate Hezbollah from the state of Lebanon. Hezbollah is in the Parliament and the Government, and that represents a different challenge from that which we find with many other terrorist groups”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/18; cols. 507-8.]

Do the Government still subscribe to the comments I have just quoted, made by the Security Minister just 13 months ago? What has changed over the last 13 months to lead the Government to adopt the approach they now propose in relation to the political wing of Hezbollah, which we will not be opposing, but which the Government were arguing against in January of last year?

In the debate in the Commons on Tuesday, the Home Secretary said:

“I can say that Hezbollah has been reported in many open sources as being linked to or claiming responsibility for many atrocities. These include a suicide bomb attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish community centre in 1994 that left 85 people dead and hundreds injured. The bloodshed came just two years after an attack on the Israeli embassy in that same city, which killed 29 people. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war since 2012 continues to prolong the conflict and the brutal repression of the Syrian people. In 2016, it helped besiege Aleppo, stopping humanitarian aid reaching parts of the city for six months, putting thousands at risk of mass starvation. Its actions continue to destabilise the fragile middle east”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/19; col. 283.]

I am sure nobody would wish to do anything other than condemn the specific acts referred to by the Home Secretary last Tuesday, but the point is that all those acts he referred to were known about when the Security Minister was arguing, 13 months ago, against proscribing the political wing as well as the military wing of Hezbollah. Again, what has happened over the last 13 months to lead to the Government changing their stance?

In her letter to me of 25 February the Minister wrote:

“Hezbollah itself has publicly denied a distinction between its military and political wings”.

I think, though, that I am right in saying that that was known at the time of the debate in the Commons in January of last year, when the Security Minister was arguing against proscribing the political as well as the military wing of Hezbollah.

At the end of the debate in the Commons last Tuesday, in response to questions about why the Government had changed their stance, the Home Secretary said:

“I will give four reasons”.

It would be helpful if the Minister could repeat those four reasons, since it seemed to me that he gave only two. He said:

“First, there is secret intelligence. I think the House will understand why we cannot share it … there has been a step change in the activity of Hezbollah, particularly in Syria”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/19; col. 304.]

The second, I think, was that the proscription review group had expressed the view that Hezbollah in its entirety met the definition of a terrorist organisation in the 2000 Act. Does that mean the proscription review group was not of that view at the time of the debate in January 2018, when the Security Minister argued against the course of action the Government are now proposing—namely, that the political as well as the military wing of Hezbollah should be proscribed? If so, what is it, at least in general terms, that has led the proscription review group to change its view of 13 months ago?

The Home Secretary also said that both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development have looked again at the work they do in Lebanon. They are clear that they can continue that work and support the legitimate Government of Lebanon and its people. What exactly does that mean in practice? One of the Conservative contributors to the debate on this order in the Commons on Tuesday said that he thought Hezbollah provided,

“13 out of the 68 Members of Parliament in the governing coalition”.

That Conservative contributor went on to say that there were,

“important development objectives, particularly in the south of Lebanon where Hezbollah has the core of its support from the poorer Shi’a communities in the Lebanon”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/19; col. 294.]

If the FCO and DfID think that they can continue their work in Lebanon—and the Minister for Security laid some stress in the debate 13 months ago on how the stronger the state of Lebanon is, the weaker Hezbollah will be—does it mean that they will be having, or continuing to have, contact with members of the political wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, even though this order proscribes Hezbollah in its entirety, including its political wing?

One change since the debate in January 2018 is not a new Minister of Security, but a new Home Secretary. Maybe that is an important, though not decisive, reason behind the change in the Government’s stance. This order will be passed by your Lordships’ House, and I stress again that we are not opposing it, but I would like some answers on the record from the Government to the questions I have asked and the points I have made, because I do not think the questions addressed in the letter of 25 February sent to me by the Minister on behalf of the Government were in relation to Hezbollah.