Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his preparedness to take interventions. I refer him to the principle of clauses 5, 6 and 7. Does he accept that there is a serious danger of incorporating in British law what pertains in countries over which we have no influence or control whatever? People in such countries might decide that some of their political opponents in exile are dangerous and should be committed to prison. The title of clause 5 does not specify the offences. It merely states:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that part of the Bill is extremely dangerous and has far-reaching implications for the principles of political asylum anywhere for people who legitimately oppose brutal and barbarous regimes in other parts of the world?

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety. Others have expressed it, and I hope that not only on Second Reading but in Committee my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be able to allay those fears. They can be allayed by reference not only to what is in the Bill but by the important fact that the Attorney-General will have the duty personally to examine every potential prosecution and, if required, he will be able to take the public interest into account. That includes some of the considerations that my hon. Friend raises.

We need not look in the crystal ball; we can look at the book. As I explained, any offences committed in countries that are members of the Council of Europe can be the subject here of a charge of conspiracy to commit those offences abroad. In addition, the offences of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit sexual offences anywhere in the world can already be put on an indictment.

Mr. Beith: So what is the urgency?

Mr. Straw: The urgency is to ensure that, in appropriate circumstances, we can also charge people with terrorist and other serious offences. There is one other explanation. At the moment, we can charge in respect of terrorist offences not only in countries that are members of the Council of Europe but in the United States and India. Therefore, if the outrages committed by middle

2 Sept 1998 : Column 739

east terrorists had taken place not against the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi but against the American embassy in Delhi, and there was evidence here of a conspiracy to commit that outrage, we could have brought that charge. In all the 19 years that I have been in the House I have never once heard a representation against that power being used.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General would exercise the greatest care in judging whether an indictment should lie, and judge and jury would also deal carefully with the matter. We are dealing here with important anomalies which mean that our weaponry against those who conspire to commit terrorist offences abroad is defective. I have long believed that we should remedy those defects and, in the light of the nearly 300 people who lost their lives in those outrages in east Africa, now is the time to take action.

We shall return to the question of asylum, but the law and the practice here are categorical. Even where, from time to time, people in Britain are convicted of terrorist offences that relate to international, not Irish, terrorism, it is common practice where the offence is serious for a deportation order to be issued against such individuals if they are not British citizens. But those people arenot automatically deported. Despite their previous convictions, they have rights under the United Nations convention on refugees and rights under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which we are strengthening by its incorporation. They cannot be sent back to the country from which they came if they will then be subject again to degrading punishment.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): No prosecution can be taken forward under clause 5 without the agreement of the Attorney-General. My right hon. Friend mentioned the public interest consideration that the Attorney-General of the day would apply. Would I be right in surmising that the Attorney-General may consider it important not to alienate a major trading partner and that, because of that, no action should be taken, despite there being, on the face of it, good reason for that?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General furrows his brow with some measure of disbelief at the supposition behind the question. Such a consideration would be entirely outwith the quasi-judicial way in which, in my time in the House, the present Attorney-General and--I say with great respect--his predecessors have operated.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to three hon. Friends; then I must proceed with the debate. Of course, I shall also give way later.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): To be specific, Osama bin Laden was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. If anyone had supported him then, would he have been caught by what the Bill proposes? Many of us, including my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I, supported Mandela when he was imprisoned for terrorism to which he confessed at the Rivonia trial. If people are now engaged

2 Sept 1998 : Column 740

in trying to topple Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, or North Korea, would they be caught by the Bill? Would the Bill apply to Sandline and to other mercenaries who provide the mechanism for this? Would it apply to the security services? My right hon. Friend must be absolutely specific. If we pass this legislation, prosecutionswill arbitrarily be left to the Attorney-General. Attorneys-General can be flexible in their interpretation of the law if it is inconvenient to the Government in which they serve. That is why they remain Attorneys-General. We must not pretend that this is simply a matter of the law, the law, the law. It is a matter of governmental discretion. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend would answer those questions.

Mr. Straw: I shall do my best but, if I fail in my right hon. Friend's eyes, as I suppose I might, I hope that he will return to the matter in Committee.

The Attorney-General's decision is simply to proceed to prosecute. He is not judge and jury. Aside from the wider issues of the public interest, the Attorney-General must, above all, take into account whether he believes that there is a case to go before the courts and then before a jury. If the case is weak, it is highly likely that the judge will throw it out before it gets to the jury or, if he allows the case to go to the jury, that the jury will throw it out. I have great confidence in the ability of British jurors to determine guilt or innocence in serious cases of this kind. I am clear in my belief that they would do so.

We are dealing here not with a clean sheet but with a highly anomalous situation where already conspiracy to commit murder anywhere in the world is an offence here, as is conspiracy to commit various sexual offences and, as it happens, some computer crimes. A conspiracy to commit terrorist offences in the United States and India is already an offence here and a conspiracy to commit any offence of any kind in any country that is a member of the Council of Europe is already an offence.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): My right hon. Friend refers to the Attorney-General being a safeguard, but he is not immortal and we must worry about any future incumbent's attitudes. It is appalling to think that a person's liberty could depend on the fairness, justice and probity of one individual. Surely the Bill needs to give people the clear safeguard that, if they do something against despotic regimes abroad that is not illegal here and which we as democrats would support, they need not fear prosecution here.

Mr. Straw: Although Attorneys-General are not immortal, as it happens--this is an ad hominem point--my right hon. and learned Friend is almost immortal. Next year, he celebrates 40 years in this place. I was in his constituency yesterday in part to celebrate that great and looming day which will take place in October.

My hon. Friend's other point was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I do not believe for a second that, under the Bill as drafted, any idea of a charge against people who supported the African National Congress, as I did, throughout the period of apartheid, would have remotely got on its feet. We are not talking about that; we are talking about conspiracy to commit serious crime. Much of what the ANC was doing here was a crime in the vile Republic of South Africa, as it then was, but it was not a

2 Sept 1998 : Column 741

crime here. No charge can be made unless it is a crime not only in the country concerned but here. That is the essence of the dual criminality rule.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and then from the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed).

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Like most people in the country, I suppose, I do not believe that Britain should be some kind of haven for those committing terrorist offences abroad. It is inconceivable that we should give asylum to those who do that. However, why do we not insert the word "terrorist" in the appropriate place in the phrase "conspiracy to commit offences"? I understand that other serious offences that my right hon. Friend mentioned, such as sexual offences, would be covered by other laws, but in order to tighten the legislation and to safeguard civil liberties, will he consider adding the word "terrorist" at the appropriate place?

Next Section

IndexHome Page