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2 Sept 1998 : Column 847

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

Clause 1

Evidence and inferences: Great Britain

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): Before we embark on the Committee stage, I wish to make it clear to the Committee that we are working on the basis of the amendment paper as at 9.30 pm today and the revised selection list that relates to the amendment paper.

12.38 am

Mr. Cash: I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 1, line 15, after 'to' insert

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this, we may discuss amendment No. 78, in page 1, line 16, leave out

and insert

    'at a particular time belonged to or was a supporter of'.

Mr. Cash: I support the Bill for all the reasons that have already been given in the debate, but, when we consider the manner in which the Bill has been introduced, the extraordinary confusion that existed yesterday, when a draft Bill was made available and, subsequently, the Bill itself was properly made available only at 2.30 this afternoon, and all the other things that have already been said, the reality is that the Bill requires very careful examination. An enormous amount depends on--[Interruption.]

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. There are still far too many conversations taking place in all quarters of the Committee. May we now listen to the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Cash: In his winding-up speech, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), used the same words that I have used in the amendment, for a very good reason. The clause lays down the basis on which organisations will be proscribed. The provisions apply

The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which we passed on 28 July, relates directly to the issue, because it deals with the early release of prisoners. That Act uses the word "supporter". It is well established that the word "support" means much more than merely belonging to an organisation. It is clear to anyone who has eyes to see that it is possible for people who support an organisation to

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avoid becoming members of it so that they can provide support without being caught within the four walls of the Act.

I have the support of the Minister, who used the word "supporter" in this context on Second Reading. I strongly agree with him and I am trying to be helpful and constructive in creating a framework that will work. The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 also uses the word "supporter". In the rush to draft the Bill, the issue may have been overlooked. I argue strongly that the word should be included.

Terrorist organisations are clever and cunning. They rely on the interplay of words. They are past masters at weaving their way in and out of the liability that will attach to them under this Bill, the 1998 Act or any other legislation on terrorism. Was the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) entirely satisfied that those who spoke for Sinn Fein could automatically be regarded as spokesmen for the IRA when they said that the conflict was over, or words to that effect?

Terrorist groups have long been adept at developing covert relationships with those who front their organisations--relationships that could involve giving funds or providing some other form of support to ensure that the organisation was able to continue--without their being members of the organisation.

Furthermore, I notice that the provisions of the Irish legislation, which I believe went through today, create a new offence called "the unlawful collection of information". If the Government are suggesting that we should, as far as possible, be on all fours with the legislation in the Irish Republic, I suggest that the offence now being created--that of collecting, recording or possessing information likely to be useful to members of unlawful organisations in the commission of serious offences--is a form of provision that relates to support for an unlawful organisation within the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill, but would not be directed exclusively at persons who are members of that organisation.

I do not think that I need enlarge on that point. I have made a simple point and it is open to the Government to make their case as to why, in the light of the Minister of State's remarks, the amendment should not be passed. I do not need to repeat myself. The amendment is important and I strongly suggest that my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government accept the amendment for the reasons that I have given.

The Second Deputy Chairman: I call Mr. Paul Murphy--sorry, Mr. Adam Ingram.

Mr. Ingram: In many ways, I wish that it were Mr. Paul Murphy.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has made several points about the need to amend the Bill to bring the concept of a "supporter" into play. His amendment would allow a police superintendent to give evidence that the accused is a supporter of a specified organisation, but the new evidence provision in clause 1 regarding members of a specified proscribed organisation has been

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laid down as a means of specifically targeting the wider offence of membership of a proscribed organisation. It is felt that it would not be appropriate in the context of that targeting to widen the basis of the offence to encompass support for an organisation, which is not, in itself, an offence.

In accepting the hon. Gentleman's amendment, we would be creating a new offence; but, in this legislation, we are trying to be extremely specific and targeted and to ensure that those who are members of specified organisations are brought to justice and receive their just deserts in a court of law. Therefore, I resist the amendment primarily on the basis that we do not believe that there is a need to widen the scope of the legislation.

Mr. Öpik: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman may speak after I sit down, and so extend the debate if necessary.

On Second Reading, we heard criticism from right hon. and hon. Members of the measures in the Bill.

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I am trying to explain that the Government are extremely specific and targeted in what we are trying to achieve.

Extending the legislation to cover supporters of proscribed groups might not achieve our objective, which is to take out those who are actively involved and engaged in illegal activities. Indeed, extending the Bill to supporters might encourage others to begin to support the organisation, because it would extend the area of grievance, which is something of which we have to be conscious. We must not encourage the creation of a new republican family who are prepared to take actions such as those seen at Omagh and elsewhere.

Mr. Cash: Does the Minister not accept that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 is absolutely specific? I have never heard a Minister reject an amendment that is perfectly clear, that uses words that he himself used on Second Reading and that is reflected in an Act of Parliament that received Royal Assent only a few weeks ago, on 28 July. That Act used exactly the same expression in relation to eligibility for release. It said:

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I appreciate that we are in Committee, but this is a very long intervention. The hon. Gentleman must bring it to a quick conclusion.

Mr. Cash rose--

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. Has the Minister finished his speech?

Mr. Ingram: Yes.

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Mr. Cash: In which case, I am replying to the Minister.

The Minister said absolutely nothing about any of my points. He simply said that the Government wanted a targeted provision. For the reasons that I have given, membership of an organisation is not sufficient in itself to determine whether a person is engaged in terrorist activities.

It is perfectly clear from the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that, if the word "supporter" is used in that context, it is precisely because the Government know perfectly well that being a supporter of such an organisation is a strong reason for being caught within the framework of that Act, and there is no reason whatever, in either logic or common sense, why the same criteria should not be applied in respect of the Bill. The Minister gave no indication whatever why he draws the distinction.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael): Yes, he did.

Mr. Cash: In so far as he made an attempt to flannel, he said that he thought that there might be an encouragement to other people to become supporters. Exactly the same point could be applied to the way in which the word is used in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

I strongly suggest to the Minister that, if and when it is established in due course that supporters have participated in what would, under the amendment, be criminal acts, and that, by default, they have been allowed to get away with terrorist activities, the responsibility will lie with the Government, and not with the mover of the amendment.

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