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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Is it not possible that the more likely reason is that those groups were given 24 hours to do exactly that by the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, or he would use against them the type of legislation that we are putting through the House tonight?

Mr. Corbett: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates the point that I made earlier about his great wish to live in the past. He knows as much as I do about the people who were responsible for the Omagh outrage--nothing. He may have his suspicions as to who they are and where they live. Indeed, some Northern Ireland Members have given names in this Chamber today. That is not proof and evidence.

I say to the hon. Gentleman again: please at least consider the possibility that the withdrawal of the life support system from these terrorist groups is really what has made them realise and accept that violence will no longer win support from those communities in Northern Ireland. That is my view. It will not be shared universally--I acknowledge that--but I ask the hon. Gentleman and others at least to consider it.

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I say to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in particular and to his Front-Bench colleagues: what saddens me about their proposals is that implicit in them is the suggestion that nothing has changed in Northern Ireland, and that the only proper response to Omagh is to pile more anti-terrorist legislation on to what we have already.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) reminded us that he was in the House on the night the prevention of terrorism Bill was introduced--as a temporary measure to last for six months. So was I, although we voted in different Division lobbies. I come to the issue as a representative of the city of Birmingham, so I feel that I have a special responsibility to make judgments on what the Government are proposing for Northern Ireland.

It is no good pretending that legislation such as the prevention of terrorism Act will beat terrorism. It has not done so, and it will not, as the past 24 years have demonstrated. The Act has given a bonus to those on both sides who have engaged in violence by giving them martyrs--people in prison who can be used as recruiting sergeants and to raise cash.

The PTA has also done something more damaging. On the perjured evidence of police officers under oath, it persuaded jurors to convict the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and others in a long line of serious miscarriages of justice. Police officers lied on oath--officers whose word, together with the silence of the accused, could send someone to prison for up to 10 years under the Bill. We should all know what we are doing if there is a Division on Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) gave us a quote from Lord Denning. The PTA led Lord Denning and a series of distinguished judges over many years to dismiss with contempt the appeals of those wrongly convicted of terrorist offences. The Birmingham Six fought for 15 years for the justice to which they were entitled.

Short cuts with justice lead inevitably to miscarriages of justice. Replacing the presumption of innocence to which a defendant is entitled with a presumption of guilt--as the Bill does, in my view--is wrong and risky, and encourages the police to take short cuts. The opinion of a police officer is not evidence; it is an opinion. As the Home Secretary has confirmed, if a defendant remains silent in the face of an accusation, that can be interpreted as corroboration of the opinion of a police officer. This will surely take the Home Secretary to the European Court of Human Rights, so I wonder what the justification is for running a real risk of miscarriages of justice.

Of course there should be a response to evil acts of major terrorism, but the proposals must face the tests of reasonableness, effectiveness and how they are likely to play with the public. They fail on each count, and will do nothing to encourage and support the strong majority in both parts of Ireland who have made it clear that those who turn to them for help in terror will no longer get it.

11.33 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Nobody in their right mind would ever justify what happened in Omagh a few days ago. In my objections to several parts of the Bill, I hope that hon. Members will not consider me soft on terrorism. Perhaps I could be considered tough on civil liberties and the need to avoid denials of them. That might ring a bell with the Government Front Bench.

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On such an important issue, some emergency action is needed in the national interest. Surely, such briefing as was available to Labour Back Benchers last week should have been made available to the rest of the House--[Interruption.] That there was some correspondence has been confirmed to me by some Labour Members; perhaps they were not telling the truth. In any case, there should have been some ground work before today, because the Bill is important and far-reaching.

The Government's attitude leaves a lot to be desired. The Bill was made available only at 5.55 pm yesterday, to be debated through all its stages today. The way in which the Bill is being dealt with has broken new ground in the House. It is the Government's fault that the unanimity of condemnation of what happened at Omagh has not been translated into unanimity of support for the Bill. Perhaps, if we had all had time to reflect, consider and reasonably discuss amendments with Ministers, we would be a little less fractious in the Chamber this evening.

The concept of introducing the opinion of a senior police officer as admissible evidence is a novel and highly dangerous one. I echo the views of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who made a fine speech on that point. Of course, opinions are often given as evidence in court. Such opinions will normally be the evidence of people who are experts in their field and who have been called as witnesses to assist the court. They will not be witnesses for the defence or for the prosecution, but witnesses to assist the court. That is what expert witnesses are. Their duty is not to secure a conviction--

Mr. Grieve indicated dissent.

Mr. Llwyd: I speak as a practising barrister. I shall gladly develop the point, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue it.

Mr. Grieve: I do not want to take issue with the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that, in my experience, witnesses, including expert witnesses, are called for both prosecution and defence to give their opinion in criminal cases.

Mr. Llwyd: If the hon. Gentleman reflects on that, he will realise that their first duty is always to the court. He might like to check that and to apologise in due course.

The value and quality of experts' evidence vary from one case to another and the evidence is sometimes flawed. The one fundamental flaw is that such evidence is too partisan, and that is the crux of the matter. This evening, the cab driver who brought me from Paddington asked me what was going on in the House of Commons and I told him. I could not explain much, because I had not seen the Bill; I was not in a position to explain anything other than what I too had read in the press. His comment was, "How can the policeman be independent in those circumstances? He wants to secure a conviction."

That comment may or may not be right. I am not anti-police--I speak as the son of a policeman and the brother of a serving policeman--but at the core of my argument is whether we are to entrust police officers with that extra role, which I believe goes beyond the bounds.

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In every walk of life, every trade and every profession, there are good and bad, but to have a bad policeman in this situation is to guarantee miscarriages of justice as surely as we are debating this point today.

After carnage such as that which occurred in Omagh, one can imagine a policeman being extremely anxious, upset and--quite naturally--angry. He would want to secure a conviction--to clear the books, as it were. That is the sort of background against which miscarriages of justice have occurred from the 1970s onward, which led to the formation of the new commission. That commission is still considering cases that are outstanding.

The Bill says that such evidence alone would have to be tested, and that is a welcome safeguard, but one can easily imagine that a defendant would feel disadvantaged if he had little evidence to support his case and a senior police officer was there to give an opinion on whether he was a member of a certain organisation.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) blamed miscarriages of justice on what he called English juries. Far be it from me, as a Welshman, to defend English juries, but that is a ridiculous proposition, because if juries were persuaded by tainted evidence that was clearly not their fault.

We all know of the inequities involved in the sus laws and the way in which they worked in London, putting, in my view, unrestrained power in the hands of some police officers who misused it.

The Bill says that a senior police officer's evidence alone cannot secure a conviction, but the frightening thing is that such evidence, coupled with the exercise of what was, until very recently, an inalienable right to silence, would be enough to secure conviction. In other words, the opinion of an interested party, coupled with the suspect's silence, would be enough. That is a radical departure from the normal practice under the law obtaining in England and Wales.

I believe that the right to a fair trial is being undermined. We could all quote senior lawyers, civil liberties groups and others but, with all respect to them, we do not need their opinion because we need only look at the Bill and what it sets out to do. I am concerned, because people might exercise their right--or what was their right--to silence because they are not able to express themselves adequately or for a wealth of innocent reasons.

On clauses 5 to 7, I am not satisfied on the Mandela question. Consider, for example, the PKK, the Kurdish group fighting state terrorism and murder by Turkey. Its members might consider violence the only way of combating that terrorism--I do not know what they might be planning--in which case they would be in the firing line under the Bill. Their legitimate right to defend themselves from being gassed and bombed by the state would, it seems to me, be taken away. Other examples could include the Tamils. I am no supporter of violence for any political ends, but I live in a democracy in which we can argue our case rather than being bombed and gassed.

No one can deny that the events in Omagh were horrible, inexcusable and vile, or that measures should be taken to ensure that such an incident never happens again. With regret, I cannot in all conscience say that the Bill is the right vehicle. I believe that we should have had far more time in which to reflect and discuss. The great danger is that the very intention of the Bill, to defeat

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terrorism, will be completely subverted, and that it will fan the flames and create martyrs once again. I am thinking of the internment in the 1970s, which was known as the IRA's recruiting sergeant. Legislation in haste may well lead us to repent at leisure. The trouble with the Bill is not simply that it could increase difficulties in Ireland but could also negate the basic civil rights of many people throughout the United Kingdom.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need to move in tandem with the Republic of Ireland. I agree, but surely that does not mean speeding downhill without any idea of a destination. There should be more opportunity to discuss the Bill because it is not receiving reasonable scrutiny. I raised that with the Prime Minister earlier. We are not doing our job properly and to do that more time should have been allowed.

Hurried law is often bad law, and in that context one thinks of the poll tax and the Child Support Agency. The consequences of getting the Bill wrong are far more serious than the consequences that flowed from those flawed and disreputable pieces of legislation. If we legislate in haste we shall repent at leisure. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, but I have great forebodings about the Bill.

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