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Dr. Lynne Jones: The House authorities have been able to organise the removal of the scaffolding and the preparation of the Chamber so that we can reconvene. Perhaps they could advise on how to organise audio equipment in Irish police stations.

Mr. Mullin: There is no need. The equipment is already in Irish police stations. The police can use it if they want to, but they do not want to.

After my earlier exchange with the Home Secretary, I made a few inquiries. Apparently, 1 January is the target date. That will be too late--or I assume that it will be. Presumably those who are going to be lifted under the Bill will have been lifted by 1 January. Anyone who has not been lifted is not likely to be available to be lifted. With all due respect, 1 January is not good enough. The problem is not in the Home Office, but over the water. I hope that whoever needs to be pressed will be pressed so that we can come up with a concession.

The issue is vital to the credibility of the legislation. If the Bill is not credible and the first cases that come to court collapse, we shall all look pretty silly. If the RUC is interested in producing credible evidence in court, it should be aware that what I am suggesting is the way to go about it. I am sure that the Home Secretary recognises that this is a helpful point. It is designed to make the legislation work without alienating a swathe of opinion that is well on the way to being alienated. He may have seen the statement put out last week or earlier this week by 30 lawyers in Ireland, which was signed by a number of lawyers over here. It talks of the "grave disquiet" arising from the legislative changes. It says:

We must bear that in mind. We want to build up the rule of law in Northern Ireland. We want the forces of law and order to be respected, as they should be in every part of the United Kingdom. The statement says:

    "It is astonishing therefore that it is proposed that a belief expressed by a member of that force that an accused is a member of a proscribed organisation will be sufficient".

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    That will no longer be sufficient, but the necessary corroborating evidence, such as it is, could easily come from another policeman. The one who has to go to court and assert with complete confidence that so and so is a member of a terrorist organisation will be a superintendent. The guy who tells him that, during interview in the interrogation centre, a chap sat silently or did not respond to questioning is likely to be a constable or even a sergeant. The corroboration will not be very serious if it consists of no more than a superintendent and a sergeant corroborating each other.

We shall also run into difficulties with the European Court of Human Rights. I am not certain that the current wording of the legislation will get through the court.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): My hon. Friend is talking about the audio recording of interrogations. Is that not even more important in Northern Ireland, where such matters go before courts without juries--the Diplock courts?

Mr. Mullin: That is an important point. We have to bear in mind the climate in which the powers will be exercised. Interviews with terrorist suspects are not yet audio-recorded, solicitors are routinely excluded from interviews, the courts operate without juries and the judiciary is peculiarly close to the security forces. Moreover, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which is designed to safeguard the rights of suspects, does not apply in terrorist cases. It is still possible in Northern Ireland to send someone down for life on the word of a single informer or an unrecorded or uncorroborated statement obtained after hours of relentless interrogation in Castlereagh. That is the background against which the Bill will be implemented.

There is a serious possibility that mistakes will be made and that the provisions will be seen by some as an opportunity to settle old scores. I would not be surprised to find a few people on the list who were not members of terrorist organisations, but were just called in for a conversation to remember times past. A solicitor in Northern Ireland to whom I spoke yesterday said that names were already being whispered to newspapers of people who were liable to be picked up without their being members of any of the proscribed organisations.

I do not understand how it will be possible to defend oneself against an allegation. The superintendent will say in court that he is certain that the suspect is a member of a terrorist organisation. He will then be asked the basis of his assertion. He will have to say that unfortunately all his material is covered by public immunity, and then sit down. That will not look very good. A lot of people will be watching. The superintendent may not even know the suspect whom he is fingering. He may be relying on material supplied from south of the border, or on the word of junior officers, who themselves may be relying on the word of a third party whose identity they are not at liberty to disclose. The scope for error or abuse is enormous.

I am also uneasy about the powers to confiscate assets. I hope that they will be used sparingly. The families of terrorists may know little or nothing about the activities of the convicted partner. Rendering families destitute will not win us any friends.

A lot of doors will be knocked down as a result of the Bill. Most of those at whom it is targeted--I hear estimates from people who ought to know of between

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30 and 200--will not simply sit at home waiting to be lifted; most of them will disappear. A lot of the doors that get knocked down will be the wrong doors. In addition, mistakes will be made. Some of the intelligence will be out of date and there will be cases of mistaken identity. Before we know where we are, we shall be back to alienating a much wider section of the community than those against whom the Bill is targeted. The image of the RUC already leaves a certain amount to be desired. Policing by consent, which we all want, will be more difficult to achieve.

My fear is that, in the name of fighting terrorism, we shall end up fanning the flames. Just when republican terrorism appears to be imploding, we shall provide it with a lifeline. I pray that that will not be the case, but it is a possibility which we should not exclude. Ministers ought to be aware, whatever is said in the debate, that there is widespread unease in the House--and not just on this side; several Opposition Members have expressed to me their unease with this hasty legislation. It could all go badly wrong if we are not careful. That is why I have tabled amendments that I hope are helpful. One relates to audio recording, another to the presence of a solicitor. That should not be controversial--it is not controversial in the rest of the country. The Government could concede those points tonight if they set their mind to it. I am pleading with them. It would do them a lot of good, because it would make the legislation more credible in the eyes of the wider world. There is no reason why audio recording and the presence of solicitors cannot be organised overnight. The problem is political, not practical. The changes will happen only if they are made a condition of the Bill, as my amendments propose. We would then find that the practical objections melted away like snow on the edge of a volcano.

Mr. Corbyn rose--

Mr. Mullin: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am going to sit down. I hope that the Government will take my points seriously into account by the time we come to Third Reading.

7.8 pm

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon): The objective of the Bill is one that we can all share--no Member of this House condones terrorism. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Government are engaged in defeating terrorism. In that endeavour, they deserve our support--they certainly have mine; I have solidly supported the Government in recent months and, provided they do the right thing, I shall continue to do so in future. But, however worthy the Government's motives, we have a duty, as the Bill goes through the House, to ensure workable, practical and credible legislation.

The Bill has been brought forward in some haste. It has been produced for perfectly understandable reasons--some of them are very good reasons indeed--in response to the public mood for action following the atrocity at Omagh, so I am not too critical of the speed with which the Government have acted. When I was younger and knew much more than I do now, I might have made exactly the same decision and introduced this legislation with great speed, so I sympathise with what the Government have done.

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However, the Bill shows everywhere the signs of haste. The Government are asking the House to agree to it today and I am sure that we shall--I shall give the Government the benefit of any doubts that I might have. However, unless we are extremely fortunate, the price of the House giving its agreement today might be that, whatever the merits of the motives of the Government in introducing the Bill, it will not have been properly and fairly considered and will be shown, in action, to be defective in some of its aspects.

We are asked to endorse a policy that the Government have speedily assembled to deal with the security situation and events in Northern Ireland. It is almost bound to contain loopholes--indeed, it would be a miracle if it did not. The time available to us and the speed with which we have to act today may mean that we shall have to return to this issue and this legislation at some point, to ensure that it meets the objectives that we all share and which are the reasons for our supporting it today.

Not every aspect of the Bill is urgent. The clauses relating to conspiracy to commit an offence are not new to the House; my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) introduced a private Member's Bill with similar content. The target of those clauses--militant groups planning offences overseas--are, in the main, repellent groups and it is right that we should seek to take action. However, it is difficult and complex to define such groups and the precise point at which they move beyond legitimate overseas opposition to engaging in actions that require the Government to say, "That is intolerable and we shall take action in this country to stop them." The objective of the provisions is laudable and I thoroughly support it--let there be no doubt about that--but the definition of such groups is extremely tricky. We have already seen some examples, the most obvious being that of groups in this country supporting the Kurds against Saddam Hussein, but that is by no means the only example that will be mentioned today.

My point is simple: we should legislate with great care and it would have been better had we done so with more time for consultation and consideration. In so doing, we might produce more effective legislation and avoid injustices that we might perpetrate today, and we might not have to return to this matter, as I fear we shall. The Government deserve support for their intentions, but their approach runs the risk--I put it no more strongly than that--of producing bad legislation that has side-effects that we shall not have considered, such is the speed with which we are to deal with the Bill.

The guts of the Bill, which I suspect contain the imperative that encouraged the Government to introduce the legislation so speedily, are the clauses relating to evidence regarding membership of proscribed organisations. Of course, it has long been an offence to belong to such an organisation, but no prosecutions--certainly none of which I am aware--have been brought, because it is extremely difficult to obtain a conviction without disclosing intelligence information that, if disclosed, might imperil not only lives but the flow of such information in future.

The Bill moves the law forward a little: it provides that the prosecution can take account of the word of a senior police officer that, in his view, the accused is a member of a proscribed organisation. That is a weakening of the original briefing--it may have been misreported--that led me to believe that it would be proposed to the

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House that prosecutions could be brought on the word alone of a police officer. If that was the original intention, I believe that the House would not and should not have supported it, so the change to the provision in the Bill as published is welcome; however, it leaves several questions that we have a duty to consider.

Never mind the theory, or our determination to get at the evil people whom all of us want to see safely behind bars--how, in practice, in a Diplock court, with no jury, will the provision work? A senior police officer says, "That man is a member of a proscribed organisation," but the man says, "No, I'm not." What is the judge to do? Without the weakening of the Bill, the judge would have been in no position to ensure that there was corroborative evidence, but now there must be corroborative evidence. The Home Secretary was absolutely right to make the change and reword the clause because, if he had not, the result would have been executive detention.

Having said that, what is the corroborative evidence to be? Is it to be intelligence information? Is the evidence to be provided to the court--to the judge, with prosecuting and defending counsel present? Is that what is to happen in future? If so, I hope that we shall be told, because such an assurance would ease some, not all, of the concerns in the mind of some hon. Members. If that is not what is to happen, we should be told what the corroborative evidence is to be. If it is now agreed that there is need for corroboration, for the prosecution to prove the case beyond doubt and for "innocent until proven guilty" to be the presumption, how much, in practice, does the newly reworded clause add to existing law, which was the purpose of bringing the House back during the recess?

It is clear that the clause adds a little to existing law, but not as much as many people think. The senior police officer reiterates his assertion that the accused is a member of a proscribed organisation, but self-evidently he believes that, or he would not have brought the case in the first place, and he will have to produce corroborative evidence. Therefore, that provision, of itself, adds very little. The inference drawn from the silence of the accused--a novel proposition which I hope has only limited scope--adds something as well. However, the combined effect of those two provisions is far less than most of us believed it would be when we first heard that draconian legislation was to be introduced in the House.

Had the legislation been introduced in its original form, undiluted, allowing conviction without supporting evidence, it would indeed have been draconian--and actually rather objectionable. Requiring supporting evidence, as the Bill now does, presents a change that will, I suspect, make obtaining convictions a little easier, but that is not a great sweeping change and it will not make a significant material difference to the likelihood of there being convictions. Somewhere, that old Athenian statesman Draco will be holding his hands to his sides and chortling at the thought that that is supposed to be a draconian change.

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