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Counter-terrorism Legislation

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Government's plans for reforming the existing framework of counter-terrorist legislation, including the provisions which relate to exclusion orders.

In the past 25 years, terrorism has exacted a terrible toll. Many people have lost their lives. More than 3,000 people have died in Northern Ireland alone. Businesses have been destroyed. Substantial damage has been wrought on our towns and cities. The very infrastructure of our nation has been attacked. That is not just the result of Irish terrorism. International terrorists too have cost us dear.

In the past 20 years, there have been more than 80 international terrorist incidents in this country. No one here today will forget the shooting of Woman Police Constable Fletcher outside the Libyan People's Bureau in St James's square, London in 1984, or the attack in 1988 on the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, when 270 people were killed by the blast. More recently, there have been the attacks on the Israeli embassy, and Balfour house in 1994. Only last January, letter bombs were sent to the London offices of an Arabic language newspaper, which seriously injured two security guards.

In combating this threat, we owe an enormous debt to the vigilance of the police and the security forces. I am sure that the House joins me in paying tribute to their work. They have had many successes in capturing and prosecuting terrorist suspects. The convictions of six IRA terrorists at the Old Bailey last July are but the latest in a long line.

In Northern Ireland, there has of course been a very welcome change for the better. The IRA and a number of loyalist groups have declared ceasefires. Currently those are holding. Substantive talks between the parties have begun. There is real cause for optimism that a lasting peace may be achieved in Northern Ireland. A negotiated political settlement is--as we are all agreed--the only way forward.

However, the ceasefire in Northern Ireland and the possibility of achieving lasting peace does not mean that we no longer need special legislation to investigate, to disrupt, and to counter terrorism. There are extremists on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland who are opposed to the present ceasefires and who want the talks process to fail, as this morning's explosion in Londonderry shows.

On the international front, there is ample evidence of the activities of terrorists, whether sponsored by unfriendly Governments or acting in more or less organised groups. Some of these international terrorists may commit acts of terrorism within the United Kingdom or raise funds here, and others might use the United Kingdom as a base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in the world. In the face of such threats, we cannot--and we will not--drop our guard. Terrorists change their tactics all the time. Therefore, we must remain vigilant at all times and ensure that the police and the security forces have the powers which they need.

The current legislative framework for combating terrorism in the United Kingdom is contained principally in the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions)

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Act 1989 and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996. Both Acts represent the latest versions of emergency legislation first introduced in the early 1970s in response to the very serious attacks which had taken place within the United Kingdom.

This legislation has been regarded by successive Governments as exceptional but temporary, to be removed as soon as circumstances would allow; but 25 years of attacks and the continuing threat from terrorists make a mockery of the suggestion that legislation to combat terrorism can, or should any longer be, regarded as only temporary.

What is needed is permanent legislation to deal with the continuing threat from terrorism and the terrorist. I shall say more about that in a moment, but first I shall explain the Government's intentions, in advance of new legislation, in relation to the exclusion powers of the 1989 Act. As the House well knows, the exclusion powers in the prevention of terrorism Act enable the Secretary of State to exclude from the whole of the UK, or a part thereof, anyone who he is satisfied is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism in connection with the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Unlike the powers to exclude under immigration legislation, the powers apply equally to British citizens as well as to the nationals of other states. In recognition of this, the powers have been used sparingly in recent years. Let me give the House the figures. In 1982, there were 248 orders in force. By 1994--just before the last ceasefire--the number had dropped to 74. During that ceasefire, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland revoked all the remaining 10 orders which he had made.

No order was made in 1996 or 1997 by my predecessor as Home Secretary against anyone who had not been previously excluded. This was despite the fact that the ceasefire had ended. When I took office on 2 May, the number had fallen to 22. For some years now, therefore, the power has been withering on the vine. During the last six months, I have considered 12 cases, as the law has required me to do. Of these, I have renewed two orders and either revoked or allowed to lapse the other 10.

As the House knows, the Government have long been opposed to these powers on the grounds that they were of limited utility and amounted to a form of internal exile without trial. This view is widely shared in this House and outside.

In 1987, Viscount Colville conducted a thorough review of anti-terrorist legislation on behalf of the previous Administration. In his report, Viscount Colville described the exclusion powers as "draconian", and recommended that they be removed from the statute book. He made that recommendation despite the fact that there was a continuing and active terrorist threat and that no ceasefire was in prospect. The exclusion powers have not only exposed the UK to severe criticism from our friends but have provided an easy argument for the apologists for terrorism to use against us.

Taking into account the view of those who advise me on security matters, I can therefore tell the House that--assuming the situation does not change--I am minded to allow the powers to lapse when the Act comes up for renewal next year. In the light of the recent developments in Northern Ireland, I have come to the conclusion that, at present, the exercise of these powers is no longer

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expedient to prevent acts of terrorism in relation to each of the 12 outstanding orders. I have therefore today revoked the last 12 orders.

In taking a fresh look at the whole of the legislation to see how it can be improved and strengthened, much of the groundwork has been done for us by the inquiry team led by Lord Lloyd of Berwick. The House will recall that he was asked in December 1995 to consider whether there would be a need for specific counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom in the event of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. His report was published in October last year. He concluded that there would be a continuing need for permanent United Kingdom-wide legislation.

Lord Lloyd made a number of detailed recommendations for changes to the definition of terrorism, to the powers to proscribe terrorist organisations and to the powers of the police to investigate and arrest those suspected of terrorism. His report was, of course, predicated on there being a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. That desirable state of affairs has yet to be achieved; but that does not mean that we cannot consider his recommendations and, if appropriate, implement them in the interim.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I therefore intend to present proposals to replace both the current Acts with permanent United Kingdom-wide counter-terrorism legislation. We intend to publish the proposals in the form of a consultation paper early in the new year. That paper will draw on Lord Lloyd's most helpful analysis and recommendations. Indeed, I hope that he will contribute further to our thinking.

In the interim, the police and the security forces must have the powers they need to combat terrorism. I therefore intend to seek the agreement of the House in March next year to the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. Similarly, the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 expires in August next year, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will introduce a Bill to extend its life and to make some amendments to it. The introduction of that Bill will follow later today.

Terrorism is not now a temporary phenomenon anywhere in the world. We need a robust and clear set of powers to enable the police, the security forces and the courts to deal effectively with all forms of terrorism for the foreseeable future, with the flexibility to respond to emergencies should they arise.

Like Lord Lloyd, the Government envisage that some existing powers will be confirmed and placed on a permanent footing; that some will be strengthened; and that others will substantially be changed. For example, it has long been our view that there should be a judicial element in the extension of detention process.

Our overall aim will be a framework of laws that are both effective and proportionate to the threat, against the background that the Government will never drop their guard in the fight against terrorism. I commend the proposals to the House.

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