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6.22 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I shall seek to be brief. The context of the Bill is Omagh. The atrocity there caused immeasurable human suffering, and I believe that the violence of the assault on innocent men, women and children truly shocked the nation. I associate myself with everything that the Home Secretary has said about that. It was the latest and most terrible event in the violent history of the past 30 years.

We all remember that tragic history in different ways. At the end of the 1960s, I was a reporter, covering the initial descent into violence in Northern Ireland. In the 1970s, I was a parliamentary private secretary in the Northern Ireland Office when Lord Whitelaw was Secretary of State. In the 1980s, I was evacuated, like my Cabinet colleagues, from the Grand hotel in Brighton after the IRA bomb there and, more to the point, next day, as Health Secretary, visited the hospital that was caring for the injured.

Against that background, in the 1990s I have given full support, first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) in his very important initiative, and then to the Prime Minister and his colleagues in their efforts to achieve peace.

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We should be in no doubt about the intention of the people who planted the explosives at Omagh--it was to destroy the prospect of peace, which the overwhelming majority of people, both in Ulster and in the Irish Republic, showed conclusively that they wanted. It seems to me that it is very much up to the House, as far as we can influence the outcome, to ensure that the bombers of Omagh do not succeed. One way in which that can be done is by demonstrating as united a front as possible against terrorism.

Among the hopeful developments of the past years has been the ever-increasing co-operation between our Government and the Irish Government. That makes the response to terrorism immeasurably stronger. However, I suggest to the Home Secretary that none of that is to say that there cannot be debate and different views on the exact way forward. There is no monopoly of wisdom. Judgments may well be different, but let it be clear--especially to terrorists--that the aim of any such debate is to strengthen, not weaken, our defences against terrorism. I believe that the House is united on that essential aim.

We should be frank about this debate. This is not the ideal way of making law--I doubt whether anyone would try to pretend that it was. The Bill was published for the first time yesterday evening. It is expected to have its Second Reading and complete its consideration in Committee tonight--and, I suspect, tomorrow morning--and, if all is well, it will go to the Lords and become law tomorrow.

By any measure, that gives Parliament precious little time to subject the important measures in the Bill to scrutiny. I am concerned about parliamentary scrutiny--with respect to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), who said that there should have been a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, as its opinion was a crucial determinant. [Interruption.] He was corrected by the Home Secretary--although even then he did not seem to get the hint. [Hon. Members: "He has gone."] The hon. Gentleman has indeed gone--doubtless to convene such a meeting.

The House would not normally contemplate the procedure that we are adopting with regard to the Bill. With respect, any of the measures before us could have been introduced in the past 18 months. Specifically, the provisions concerning conspiracy to commit an offence overseas have been a draft Bill ready for introduction throughout the Government's time in office. Therefore, although I understand and respect the Home Secretary's argument about urgency, this is not, by any standards, an ideal process.

Against that background, however, I welcome the fact that the provisions relating to Northern Ireland will need to be reviewed year by year. That is some defence. There was initial doubt about that, at least in the press. Had the 12-month review path not been chosen, it would have been our first amendment to the Bill in Committee. If we cannot have proper pre-legislative scrutiny, we can at least have the opportunity to review the workings of that legislation after 12 months. We should make that review real; I shall return to that subject later.

On the same theme, I welcome what the Home Secretary said on the admissibility of evidence derived from telephone tapping. It is entirely right that we should give thorough, detailed consideration to that proposal. We need to look at the entire position, and there would

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certainly have been no case for adding such a measure to the Bill. We look forward to the consultation document on counter-terrorism--with the hope that it may be published as speedily as possible, as it has been promised for some time.

I turn first to the part of the Bill that deals with the provisions concerning conspiracy to commit terrorist acts abroad. That was the subject of a Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in the 1996-97 Session, with the support of the previous Conservative Government--the Jurisdiction (Conspiracy and Incitement) Bill. I hear what the Home Secretary says about the consistent support given to the measure by the previous Labour Opposition. Actually, in the previous Parliament, Labour Members kept out of the Lobbies to prevent that Bill from being passed, but let us not make too much of that point.

The measures now proposed follow that Bill very closely. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on his initiative, which is now near success. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who, years earlier, drew attention to the defects in the current law. Those defects, I feel, are clear. As the law stands, in some circumstances, people living in this country can conspire to commit offences overseas, knowing that they are immune from prosecution for their conspiracy in the United Kingdom. In other words, they can escape prosecution simply because their actions took place in the United Kingdom.

The point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne when he introduced his Bill. Referring to a case at the Old Bailey, he said that one of the arguments advanced by defence counsel was that, although the defendants had indeed planned to cause explosions, they had planned to cause them not in Britain but overseas. Most people today would not regard that as a valid distinction, any more than they would if the position were reversed and Britain were the target of an overseas conspiracy.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that--as I think the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) would accept--one of the troubles with both Bills was the definition of a terrorist? One man's freedom fighter might be another man's terrorist. That cliche sums up, and encapsulates, a real problem; how would the right hon. Gentleman overcome it?

Sir Norman Fowler: It does sum up a problem, but I think that the dual criminality test inserted by the Government meets the point.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: May I first finish my response to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)? I do not intend to take interventions in threes, as the Home Secretary did.

This is not just my view as a layman; it is the view of Lord Lloyd, a Lord of Appeal, expressed in his report on counter-terrorism legislation. He said that the most significant additional measure that the Government could

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take would be to amend the law on conspiracy to facilitate the prosecution of those who conspire here to commit terrorist offences abroad. He added:

    "It may take a prosecution or two before the measure takes full effect but it should then serve as a demonstration, both to those involved and to the international community, of the Government's determination to make the UK as difficult and uncomfortable a place as possible for supporters of terrorism overseas."

That strikes me as an entirely legitimate objective. It is the objective set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, and I strongly support it.

Dr. Starkey rose--

Mr. Waterson rose--

Sir Norman Fowler: Although I will not give way in threes, I will give way in twos.

Dr. Starkey: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was slightly offbeat? The dual criminality test applies to the nature of the offence, but the point that my hon. Friend was trying to make did not relate to that; his point was that the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist depends on whom the offence is committed against. If it is committed against a democratic Government, the person concerned is obviously a terrorist; but if it is committed against a despotic Government, that person may well be a freedom fighter.

Sir Norman Fowler: There will be the test of the Attorney-General, who must give advice and, indeed, permission in such a context. Moreover, the offence must be an offence in both the countries involved. If we are to seek to legislate against international terrorism, laws of this kind will be necessary, and it seems to me that the checks proposed by the Government are adequate for the purpose.

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