Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Öpik: As a matter of interest to the Minister, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill 1998--the Irish document that mirrors this one--does include definitions of a serious offence and may have other

2 Sept 1998 : Column 896

definitions; I have not read the whole document. Therefore, the Irish Government would take a different view from that of the Minister.

Mr. Michael: It is always difficult to draw exact comparisons between different jurisdictions; that is true in relation to Irish legislation and legislation in this country. Indeed, it is difficult sometimes, as we realised in one of the earlier debates, to ensure that in aiming to do the same for Scotland as we do for England, Wales and Northern Ireland we get it exactly right because the law is different and it is a difference that we have to respect, even though it again tests our knowledge and intellectual capacity from time to time. We have to tease out the right way of doing those things. I have explained the difficulty, certainly in relation to our law, which is all that I can speak about from experience, although not from qualification.

Mr. Corbyn: My hon. Friend is right to point out that, under his legislation, the Attorney-General would be the one to initiate prosecutions. Many of us have concerns about that, one of which is what scrutiny there would be of the Attorney-General's decision. Would it be subject to parliamentary scrutiny? Many of us are concerned that some future Attorney-General will come under pressure from a mixture of political and commercial interests in a repressive country to silence opposition that is based in London and to curry favour with those interests. Does the Minister recognise that there are serious concerns about these aspect of the legislation?

Mr. McNamara rose--

Mr. Michael: I think that I need to take breath in order to give way. I have taken breath and I give way.

Mr. McNamara: On the role of the Attorney-General, there is confusion about the new subsection (6) to be inserted by clause 5(2), which allows the preceding provisions for a matter to be instituted only by or with the consent of the Attorney-General to be superseded. It says:

Subsection (7) continues:

    "An order under subsection (6) above--

    (a) shall be made by statutory instrument".

The power is unnecessary if we are specifically saying that the Attorney-General should have it.

Mr. Michael: Several points have been raised that are relevant to the debate. We have to understand the issues in context.

I confess that I was puzzled when I read the first draft of the Bill. I am pleased to say that there is a satisfactory explanation. It is appropriate for the Attorney-General to make a judgment on offences involving terrorism that have some political sensitivity and might involve the exercise of the powers in a way that the House did not intend. On the other hand, there are some offences, which might arise frequently, on which the House would have no doubt. I refer specifically to the abuse of children abroad. The Committee would not regard the pursuit of those who pursue very young children abroad as politically sensitive. The power allows the Secretary of

2 Sept 1998 : Column 897

State to come to the House and ask that certain categories of offence should not require the Attorney-General's judgment. The Government might want to specify some paedophile offences, but that would not happen on the say-so of the Secretary of State. It would have to be done through a statutory instrument. We have broken with precedent by saying that that must be done through the affirmative resolution process. The measure could not be implemented without the specific agreement of both Houses. If the conspiracy provisions were used against paedophile activities, the Attorney-General's time would not have to be taken up.

That is a current issue. In the Evening Standard--I was going to say that it was this evening's edition, but it is last night's--there is a report of 40 people being held in worldwide raids related to child sex on the internet. The incidents involved the trading of children and what were described as "sick and revolting" sex images of children, some as young as two. We all find that horrific and unacceptable. There were simultaneous police raids in the United States, Finland, Austria, France, Sweden, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Australia and this country. No one in the Committee would doubt that that should be pursued. We are clearly dealing with conspiracy. We all agree that there is no political sensitivity about that being pursued with vigour. If the conspiracy requirements under the Bill enabled stronger pursuit of those who use and abuse children--sometimes their own children--for the production of images, we would be in favour.

That is an example of a case in which a category might be exempted. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), having had the same instinct as me to ask how the power would be used, will accept that that is the intention. I hope that he also accepts that we intend to use the affirmative resolution procedure rather than following precedent by using the negative resolution procedure. That shows how serious we are about the issue. The House should be able to take a decision before the provisions are implemented, rather than merely having an opportunity to react after the event.

Two of my hon. Friends referred to the powers of the Attorney-General, which is quite understandable. Hon. Members on both sides are trying to ensure that those powers, if approved by the House, can be used for the purposes that Members would want them to be used for, and cannot be used where it would be inappropriate. All hon. Members acknowledge that there are those who ought to be caught--those who are prepared to undertake horrific acts of terrorism or, because terrorism is often seen as having a political element, acts of gangsterism and violent crime.

In deciding whether to prosecute or to approve prosecution, the Attorney-General takes into account all aspects of the public interest. "The public interest" is a general term; there is no precedent for singling out any specific element as being more important than another. In the House of Commons, in 1951, Lord Shawcross gave classic expression to the doctrine relating to criminal prosecutions and I should be happy to go into detail if colleagues wish. The point is that human rights considerations, such as conditions in other countries, might be taken into account, where appropriate, by the Attorney-General in coming to his decision.

2 Sept 1998 : Column 898

4.15 am

It impossible to predict the circumstances in which public interest considerations would arise, but experience shows that, where the evidence in a particular case is available and the facts are clear, it is usually also clear whether the public interest lies in prosecuting. Crimes such as terrorism or murder do not cease to be crimes just because of the political aims involved. The facts of the event justify the public interest--indeed, the public interest lies in continuing to secure the peace and tranquillity of the nation, which is what we seek each day, in the prayers before Parliament sits. That is the prime objective that the Attorney-General has to consider in respect of the public interest.

Dr. Palmer: I have been following my hon. Friend's argument closely and, if I understood him correctly, he said that problems of definition make it undesirable to restrict the Bill to, for example, terrorist offences, serious offences, or some other such formulation. However, what he has just said suggests that, in practice, he would expect the Attorney-General to limit the application to what we, in common parlance, would call serious offences--that is, the Attorney-General would not wish to bother with relatively minor crimes and would concentrate on cases involving murder, terrorism and violence.

Mr. Michael: In colloquial terms, there is a lot in what my hon. Friend says. The difficulty is in drawing a line without excluding many offences that people might think it ludicrous to exclude. We argued for many years that the requirement that the Attorney-General should make the judgment is an important one. He has to take public interest considerations into account; the seriousness of the offences would form part of that public interest and pursuit of trivial crimes committed abroad would not, generally speaking, be in the public interest.

Those are the sort of considerations that the Attorney-General would take into account, along with other considerations. As I have said, no definition limits what the Attorney-General can take into account when considering the public interest, so he would certainly consider many issues that my hon. Friends would want to be taken into account. In that way, we can ensure that only those cases that the House intends to be pursued and that we really want to tackle will be pursued.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: The public interest may include considerations such as not alienating a major trading partner. The Minister spoke of criminals and terrorists, but what about environmental activists who are concerned about logging in the tropical rain forest in Brazil, which is an important trading partner with Britain? They might suspect that the indigenous peoples may suffer terribly as a result of logging. What considerations would form in the Attorney-General's mind in such a case?

Next Section

IndexHome Page