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3.59 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Lest it should be thought that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) speaks alone, I should say that I have grave reservations about the speed with which the Bill is to be debated. I hope to move an amendment that will deal with some of the points that particularly concern me, but I believe that the House of Commons ought to give itself time to think.

In a long career in the House, I have realised that, brilliant though we may be, we are not the repository of all wisdom and that occasionally there are those outside in the United Kingdom who can give us advice and help and point out that what we believe to be targeted and precise may in legislative terms be imprecise, vague and, in the final analysis, not worthy of a democratic assembly. I hope that we will think. I am aware of the pressure on Members as a result of the horrendous and appalling events, but I hope that we will think seriously that, when we rush through legislation and cease to put on the statute book ideas and views that have been properly tested by the time to debate, to examine and, indeed, often to understand what we are doing, we are not fulfilling our proper task.

I have very grave reservations about the way in which our proceedings today are being organised. I hope that it will be clear that they stem not from objection to the need to do something urgent about the horrendous terrorism but from something stronger that can be summed up in a very simple phrase--my misgivings about legislation that is rushed and probably will not, in the final analysis, be capable of doing that which we demand of it.

4.1 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): My party received a fax at about 10 o'clock yesterday morning from the Secretary of State to say that, if we rang a number at Stormont, we would be supplied with a copy of the Bill. I immediately rang that number and the civil servant informed me that the Bill had been printed, but that changes were being made and that it had to be completely reprinted. I was told that it would be available shortly after noon. I rang again at noon and he said that he was sorry, but it would not be available until later on. It was only later last night that we received a copy. I must say that the Northern Ireland Office faxed us a full copy.

Hon. Members know my attitude to terrorism, but terrorism is not the issue before the House. The issue is how we deal with business that is very, very important. Hon. Members should bear in mind the fact that the Bill affects all my constituents: it does not affect only people who call themselves the Real IRA. Anybody can be lifted under the terms of the Bill. Therefore, I as a representative of those people have a right to defend their interests, and where should I defend them? I should do so in the House.

If we are to meet today, why did we not have a two-day sitting? Why bring us all here and then more or less say, "Snub your nose at the House of Lords for it does not

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matter what it says anyway"? If we had any respect for the other House, we would wait and hear its report and debate it. We should have had two days at this Bill.

The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party made a similar point when he said that his party would like more time to consider the Bill. In the circumstances, I should have thought that we should have as much time as possible to consider it, and there are ways in which that could be done. I therefore agree entirely with the hon. Members who spoke before me on that issue.

4.4 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I agree very strongly with the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who spoke before me--an unusual combination. We say that the Bill attacks civil liberties, but the attack on civil liberties has already begun because Members of Parliament are being denied the time to examine the Bill, to consult their constituents and experts, and to refer to the initial Acts of Parliament that are being amended. How can Members suddenly pick up the fact that the Bill amends the prevention of terrorism Act or the law on criminal conspiracy?

We are being used to rubber-stamp what a Government have decided to do, but they do not know what they want to do. They have had two weeks to draft the Bill. They could have published it in draft. The Liberal Democrats' leader said that he knows that changes were made. He is luckier than I am because he must have seen an earlier draft. If he had seen an earlier draft, he could have tabled an amendment before the Bill came before the House. What a way to treat Parliament! We are being treated as though we were the Supreme Soviet, simply summoned to carry through the instructions of the Central Committee.

Whatever the merits of the Bill--we are not discussing them now--it is an absolute affront to the House and to those whom we represent to say that we have to pass the motion by 10 pm. I made inquiries at the Whips Office. The Chief Whip will know that I rang No. 12 time and again before lunch. I was told that there was not even going to be a guillotine motion, so that has appeared at the last minute.

It is time that hon. Members stood up for our right to represent the people who send us here. On those grounds, I strongly support the speeches of the hon. Members who spoke before me. I think it is a view shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who said that he would be unable to support the Bill because of the shortage of time, although on reflection he might decide that he wished to support or amend it. I urge the House to move for more time.

As you know, Madam Speaker, I wrote to you in the middle of August asking for the recall of Parliament to debate the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan. I welcome the recall, but not just to be forced to do what I am told in respect of a Bill that I have not seen and cannot consider and about which, in any case, many people want a longer debate.

4.7 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): No one wants to undermine the unity that exists across the House against terrorism. None of the speeches that we have heard has

2 Sept 1998 : Column 718

sought to do that, but, procedurally, what we are asked to do is contrary to all aspects of "Erskine May" and our Standing Orders. It is wrong.

We can march in time with the Dail. Let us have Second Reading today, but let us come back in a week--the period that is usually allowed--during which time amendments could be tabled and the matter could be properly considered. We are again setting a precedent that is wrong.

It is not as if we are going to war. In some instances, the House is recalled specifically for that reason, but whether this Bill were passed tomorrow or next week would make not one jot of difference, except that a week's delay would mean that it could be considered fully and properly, as the structures of the House have always demanded. Why are we being so rushed? No reason has been given. It seems that we are thrusting to one side all the House's normal procedures for no reason.

4.8 pm

Audrey Wise (Preston): During Prayers, I obtained a copy of the Bill from the Vote Office. The document that I was handed stated that it was a draft. Like many other hon. Members, I have just come back from my holidays. I telephoned home to find out what was happening in general, was told that Parliament was to be recalled because of Omagh and was satisfied that that was proper. I want action to be taken against terrorism and terrorists, as do we all. However, clauses 5, 6 and 7 of the Bill do not deal with or arise from Omagh.

I received a letter from the Chief Whip, or party officials, telling me that the proposals--on conspiracy to commit terrorism overseas--were supported by the Government when they were in opposition. In February 1997, those proposals were put to the House in a private Member's Bill, which had the support of the then Tory Government, but the House failed twice to provide a quorum to pass the Bill. The Tories, who wanted it, could not provide the quorum and no Labour Member went into the Lobby to provide one on either occasion. If that was Labour supporting the measure in opposition, I would not like to see us opposing anything. In fact, it was one of the most effective examples of opposition during that Tory Government's period in office.

I feel deeply affronted that Omagh, on which I want the House to speak with a united voice, is being mixed up with other items. If action were taken or planned in this country, for instance against the Taliban in Afghanistan, that would be subject to the Bill--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she is making a Second Reading speech and we are dealing with the business motion.

Audrey Wise: I appeal to you, Madam Speaker, to those on the Government Front Bench and to anyone with influence, to disentangle those issues when we discuss the matter and, as has been said from so many quarters, to give us more time to discuss these important issues.

4.11 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I approached the Prime Minister on behalf of my party to ask for a recall of the House because we were tired of listening to Government through the press and tired of the concept

2 Sept 1998 : Column 719

that we were to tackle terrorism in Northern Ireland through secondary legislation, which might not stand up. Regrettably, now that we have been recalled, we have discovered that, for whatever reason or judgment, an opportunity to bring us into line with the Republic has been set aside. It is important that we have time to debate the matter and learn the mind of the House properly.

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