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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I must make progress.

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The courts will hear anyone else who has an interest in the property before making the necessary order, but they will have a firm basis for decisive action when that is in the interests of justice.

The new provisions on evidence, inferences and forfeiture extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. It happens that prosecution for membership offences has been much less common in Great Britain, but it is important that we should act consistently.

The judicial process remains paramount throughout the changes. No prosecution in Northern Ireland or in England and Wales will be conducted without the personal involvement and approval of the relevant Director of Public Prosecutions. It will continue to be a matter solely for the courts to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not on the weight and quality of the evidence presented. The present criminal burden and standard of proof for conviction will remain.

I have already referred to the requirement for the police officer's opinion to be supported by other evidence in order to found a conviction. That also applies to inferences from any failure to mention material facts. Our commitment to the rule of law is one of the crucial differences between the principles of democracy and the evil dogma of the terrorists.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) rose--

Mr. Straw: I will give way in a few moments. It is just possible that I might be about to answer the point that my hon. Friend wants to make.

Earlier this Session, both Houses gave overwhelming support to the Human Rights Bill. It is not yet law, but, as the House would expect, we have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that this Bill is consistent with our commitment to human rights and to the particular requirements of the convention. The additional inference from failure to mention material facts in answer to questions, which builds on the existing power to infer from silence, takes full account of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Murray. In that case, the court found that inferences should not be drawn from silence prior to access to a solicitor. We have specifically covered that point in the Bill.

A further important safeguard in relation to the whole of the first part of the Bill is that all the new provisions will, as I said, be subject to annual renewal. As it happens, the first occasion that the House will have to debate renewal will be in the debate on the prevention of terrorism Act next March, just six months away.

Before I move on to the second part of the Bill, let me refer specifically to three issues that have been discussed--

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater) rose--

Mr. Straw: If I may just make this point, I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) andthe hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik)--[Interruption.]--oh, and perhaps to someone behind me as well. I will not quote what Iain Macleod once said about speaking from the Front Bench.

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Before I move on to the second part of the Bill, I shall refer specifically to some issues that have been discussed in the aftermath of Omagh but we have not taken forward at this stage. The first relates to evidence obtained from interception, or telephone tapping.

At present, under section 9 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985, there is an absolute ban on the use of intercept evidence in any court for any purpose. Some of the intelligence available, which leads the police to a strongly held belief that someone is a member of a designated organisation, may have come, or may come, from the product of interception. It has therefore been suggested that the intercept product might be admitted specifically to support charges of membership of a proscribed organisation, or in terrorist cases more generally.

Of course I understand the view that any material that points to involvement in terrorism should be put before the courts, but there are strong contrary arguments, which include the risk of damage to operational effectiveness from wider knowledge of interception capabilities. There are also difficulties in limiting any change to specific offences.

I hope that the House will accept that it is neither desirable nor, I suggest, practical to depart from the general rule laid down by Parliament in 1985 for the narrow purposes of this Bill. However, I acknowledge the case for looking again at the regime for interception.

Aside from any other considerations, profound changes in the technology of electronic communication have taken place in the past decade, and they, together with the decisions of the European Court in Strasbourg, have made new consideration of the regime imperative. In his report, Lord Lloyd made recommendations for a limited change in this respect, and those recommendations must be considered. I can therefore announce to the House today that, earlier in the summer, I had already put in hand a comprehensive review of the interception regime, and a consultation document will be published in due course.

The second suggestion was for much wider powers to confiscate the assets of terrorists who are convicted of offences of membership of a proscribed organisation. I announced last October that I was determined to ensure far more effective arrangements, so that criminals generally could not profit from their crimes, or use wealth that had been obtained unlawfully. Work is in hand on that, and I will be making announcements later in the year. As I have already said, the Republic of Ireland is already very much further ahead of us in this respect with its Criminal Assets Bureau, and we shall we studying its arrangements with interest.

I shall now give way to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and some others.

Mr. Tom King: The Home Secretary drew attention to the significance of clause 4 and the power of forfeiture. He mentioned farms specifically. He will know the role that many have played as storage areas for weaponry and munitions over the years and of their use for the preparation of home-made bombs and the provision of fertiliser. Does he consider that it is sufficiently known that there is a power for the whole farm to be forfeited from someone who is found be assisting in such activities? Has consideration been given perhaps to announcing a short amnesty for any farmers who declare

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the existence of any stores of munitions and armaments or the location of equipment for the preparation of home-made explosives? It could be made clear that, if the farmers failed to take advantage of such an amnesty, their whole farm could be forfeited.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the extent of the powers relating to some other offences. As to his second point, so far as I am aware no consideration has been given to the amnesty suggestion, but I and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, believe that it is an interesting and original suggestion. I shall ensure that it receives proper consideration as part of the overall environment for decommissioning.

Mr. Bermingham: Proposed section 2A(4) contains a provision whereby, in order to comply with the judgment in the case of Murray, the prisoner has to be advised legally. Is it not a fact that, in Northern Ireland, the solicitor then withdraws? Would it not be sensible to allow the solicitor to remain, as he does in England? We should then have not only the benefit of the tape recording of the interview and of the presence of the solicitor, which would prevent any conflict, but, ultimately, an enormous saving of court time, as we have found in England, Wales and Scotland, where interviews are conducted in the presence of a solicitor, tape-recorded and presented without argument.

Mr. Straw: I have dealt with tape recordings, but I accept the gravamen of what my hon. Friend says. It is certainly true that the present position is slightly anomalous, because, in Great Britain, the solicitor, having been permitted access to his client, or vice versa, remains for the interview, which does not necessarily happen in Northern Ireland. There are reasons why the separate practice has grown up. I believe that the RUC will accept in the particular circumstances of this measure that the probative value of inferences to be drawn from a failure properly to answer a question may be enhanced if a solicitor is present. We shall pursue that point with the RUC and the prosecution authorities in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Öpik: I am also encouraged by the Home Secretary's comments on human rights issues. The civil liberties of a group of people could still suffer--those people who are coerced into assisting with terrorist acts. It is difficult to prove coercion and so forth, but is the right hon. Gentleman willing seriously to consider amendments that might help to find a way forward so that the civil liberties of individuals who have been coerced to help will not be curtailed in a way that might contravene natural justice?

Mr. Straw: Of course we will consider amendments when they are tabled, and treat them on their merits. Obviously, coercion is a defence. The hon. Gentleman may say that he is concerned about that defence being given in open court. The RUC has had long experience of dealing with people who have suffered from being coerced, and of treating their defences in the strictest confidence.

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