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16 Mar 1999 : Column 999

Prevention of Terrorism

10.27 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

I am aware of the long line of Home Secretaries who, since 1974, have risen to speak at the Dispatch Box, as I do now, to propose the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 for a further year. In doing so, many of them have reflected on the mixture of signs of optimism and violence that have characterised the preceding year. I, too, shall draw the House's attention to some of the key events, encouraging and depressing, over the 12 months since the previous renewal debate.

However, I am perhaps the first Home Secretary in 25 years to say that I hope that this may be one of the last--although maybe not the last--of the annual debates on the renewal of the prevention of terrorism Act. As the House will be aware, the Government propose the introduction of permanent counter-terrorist legislation, which we hope will do away with the need for the annual renewal of temporary provisions.

That approach recognises the sad but incontrovertible reality that even a lasting peace in Northern Ireland--something that we all pray and hope will be firmly established soon--would not of itself remove the need for counter-terrorist legislation. Terrorism, and the threat of terrorism from a range of fronts, is likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Although the focus of today's debate is on the renewal of the powers under our current prevention of terrorism legislation, I also intend in closing to say something about our plans for future legislation.

Looking back over the past 12 months, I am struck by what an extraordinary period of highs and lows it has been. Less than six weeks after the House agreed the renewal of the prevention of terrorism Act for a further 12 months, the Good Friday agreement was signed. It was subsequently endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland and provides the means to take Northern Ireland on the road to lasting peace.

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and many others on both sides of the House continue to work tirelessly with all the parties to achieve the full implementation of the agreement and to see the Executive established by the first anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I think that the whole House recognises that this is Northern Ireland's best chance for peace in decades and it must not be allowed to slip from our grasp.

By contrast, the interception in July in London of six primed fire-bombs, and the appalling Omagh bombing on 15 August last year--in which 29 people lost their lives, and over 200 were injured--brought home forcefully the residual threat from renegade groups opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Yesterday, we had a further shocking reminder of the depths to which terrorist groups in the north of Ireland will stoop. Rosemary Nelson, the prominent human rights lawyer and mother of three young children, was murdered

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in cold blood outside her own home. Her death was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist splinter group bitterly opposed to the Belfast agreement. The proscription of the group and--subject to parliamentary approval--its specification was announced less than two weeks ago, and rightly so.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I join my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in mourning the loss of Rosemary Nelson in yesterday's terrible events. Is he prepared to examine the question of the security provided to Rosemary Nelson, who clearly was a target of extreme groups, and suffered accordingly?

Mr. Straw: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be happy to look into those matters if representations are made to her by representatives of the family of Rosemary Nelson.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary has invited David Phillips, the chief constable of Kent, to oversee the inquiry into Rosemary Nelson's murder. It has also invited the Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide an input into the investigation. Those measures, which the Government welcome, demonstrate the RUC's commitment to a full and independent inquiry into this terrible crime.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in conveying our sympathy to the family of Rosemary Nelson at this time. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that that was reiterated on both sides of the House. We must restate our commitment to see peace established in Northern Ireland, and the actions of those dreadful murderers must not be allowed to succeed.

There is also the threat of international terrorism. The bombings--also in early August last year--of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with the loss of more than 250 lives, were a shocking illustration of the scale of indiscriminate violence that international terrorists are prepared to unleash whenever they see their opportunity.

In the past few months, the horrific events in the Yemen, and more recently in Uganda--which resulted in the deaths of four and eight tourists respectively, including seven British citizens--have further emphasised the global reach of international terror.

Our response to all this is twofold. We will do all that we can in the international and domestic context to help to establish peace and stability, and, alongside that, we will do all that we can with the police and security agencies to counter terrorism directly.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Will my right hon. Friend--a senior member of the Cabinet--reflect on the fact that, however terrible the events in east Africa were, we endorsed the American bombing of the Al Shifa factory in Khartoum without any evidence--and, it now transpires, almost certainly no grounds whatever--for doing so? Day by day, Tornados and American aircraft are raining down mayhem on Iraq, and we are threatening to bomb the Serbs. Ought there not to be some reflection on the fact that violence begets violence?

Mr. Straw: I have great affection for my hon. Friend, with whom I dislike disagreeing--but, I am afraid, I do disagree on this occasion. There has been enormous

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reflection on any military action that the Government have supported, as was the case with the American action over the Sudanese so-called pharmaceutical factory, and in terms of Iraq and Serbia. Before such action can be taken, there is a huge degree of careful reflection in the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence and all those involved in those decisions.

I am not a pacifist, and I do not think that my hon. Friend is. There are occasions when military action has to be taken. There is a world of difference between action endorsed by the United Nations and/or NATO for a specific, lawful and legitimate purpose and the wholly indiscriminate violence against the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 250 lives were lost and many more were injured. As far as I recall, nobody was killed in the action against the alleged pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. The action was proportionate to the problem that the United States and we had identified.

The twin approach of which I was speaking was well illustrated by the recall of Parliament in early September to enact the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, to strengthen our anti-terrorist laws against dissident Irish terrorist groups and our conspiracy laws in relation to terrorism and other crimes.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): The Secretary of State spoke about possible sources of terrorism, such as Iraq. What is the potential for extreme Islamist terrorism within the United Kingdom? There are links with the United Kingdom in the case in Yemen. Is there a growing threat within our own territory?

Mr. Straw: There is some threat within our territory. I must first make it clear that, although the phrase "Islamist terrorism" is used in common parlance, we ought to avoid it. We do not use the phrase "Christian terrorism", or indeed "Catholic terrorism" or "Protestant terrorism", to categorise some of the terrible events that have taken place in Northern Ireland. We avoid implying that the religions followed entirely lawfully by the vast majority of people are somehow a cause of terrorist activities. The overwhelming majority of followers of Islam here, as in every other country, are wholly law abiding.

The problem is middle eastern terrorism based on territorial challenges and on tribalism, which seeks to justify itself by reference to Islam. The lawful Islamic groups in this country are very sensitive on the matter. I make that point at some length because it is a real issue of sensitivity for the British Muslim community, which is entirely lawful. Middle eastern terrorism is an acknowledged threat, and the security and intelligence agencies and the police take it very seriously and monitor it carefully.

The key to the prevention of terrorism is to ensure that the police and others have all the powers that they need to deter, disrupt and investigate. I pay tribute to the diligence, the immense hard work and the bravery of the police and the security forces in their daily efforts on our behalf.

Informing our debate today is the report prepared by John Rowe QC. I am very grateful to Mr. Rowe for the work that he has undertaken in the past 12 months, as he

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has in previous years. He advises that the powers in the Act, including the powers of arrest, detention and stop and search, and the terrorist investigation powers, were all used appropriately and proportionately in 1998 and should remain in force for 1999. As exclusion order powers were not included in last year's order, Mr. Rowe has not considered those powers in his report.

The order does not contain exclusion powers. It has been the Government's long-standing view that exclusion orders are wrong on policy grounds--in that they may be used to exclude British citizens by Executive order from part of the national territory--and that they have in any case proved to be of limited utility.

As long as the powers remain on the statute book, as they will have to until there is primary legislation, they could of course be reactivated on security grounds, but I find it hard to conceive of the circumstances in which I would decide that that would be expedient, and our consultation paper on our proposals for future legislation makes it clear that we do not envisage carrying them across into our new permanent anti-terrorist laws. Of course our ability, under the Immigration Act 1971, to deport, or deny entry to, suspected international terrorists will remain unchanged.

Returning to the issues raised in Mr. Rowe's report, I was especially pleased to read of the care that he found was taken in respect of all the relatively small number of complaints received about the operation of the powers under the prevention of terrorism Act. We must never lose sight of the fact that the powers available under this legislation are exceptional and must be exercised with the utmost integrity and diligence. It is absolutely right that any complaints are treated seriously. Therefore, it is pleasing and reassuring to learn that there were relatively few complaints in 1998 and that Mr. Rowe considers that all those were dealt with conscientiously.

The specific anti-terrorist provisions in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which amended sections of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989, also fall to be renewed for the first time in the order before the House. I shall remind the House what those measures mean. First, they mean that the opinion of a senior police officer is admissible in court as evidence of membership of proscribed and specified terrorist organisations. That includes the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA but, subject to parliamentary approval, not the Irish National Liberation Army. Secondly, courts may draw inferences from a suspect's refusal to answer questions during an investigation into membership of a proscribed and specified terrorist group. As hon. Members may remember, it is not possible, under the legislation, for a suspect to be convicted solely on the basis of inferences allowed under the Act or on the statement of a police officer alone.

As Mr. Rowe points out in his report, there have not so far been any convictions in connection with the new provisions, but that cannot be the sole criterion for judging their effectiveness. The measures were introduced as a targeted response to the small, but very dangerous, renegade groups who are bent on destroying the Northern Ireland peace process, and have no regard for the human life that they would destroy at the same time. The fact that similar action was also taken in September in the Irish

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Parliament sent a powerful signal of the total repudiation from people both sides of the border of those renegade groups and all that they stand for.

However, the provisions are more than a symbolic gesture. They are there so that it is possible to take robust action against any who, in the face of the express wishes of the people of the island of Ireland, choose to support groups not observing total and unequivocal ceasefires. All of us hope that the support for those groups withers away, but, if it does not, the strengthened provisions are there to assist in bringing those people to book.

That leads me to touch on the observations that Mr. Rowe offers in his report about the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act and the European convention on human rights. In his report, Mr. Rowe concludes that most of the measures in the Act do not raise issues of possible incompatibility. Indeed, he points out that, although it has been possible for individuals to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights since 1966, only two cases have been dealt with by the court in all that time, and a violation was found in only one of those. It is fair to say, therefore, that our ECHR record, vis-a-vis the prevention of terrorism Act, is good.

However, Mr. Rowe does raise concerns about the compatibility of the new membership provisions, enacted last September, with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which provides for a right to a fair trial. It may not surprise the House to learn that I part company with him on that point. I can assure the House, as I made clear when the emergency legislation was introduced in September, that the whole issue of compatibility with the ECHR was looked at extremely closely before the Bill was published and that I was, and remain, satisfied that the provisions are compatible with the convention. We would not have introduced the legislation in that form if we had believed that it was incompatible with our obligations under the convention.

We have, of course, looked again at the provisions in the light of the specific points made by Mr. Rowe in his report, and I do not lightly take issue with his conclusions, but his arguments--which we have studied with great care--have not caused us to change our position. That is something on which we will have to agree to differ, unless and until these questions are settled in the courts. As Mr. Rowe himself has pointed out, his conclusions are very provisional indeed, and the matter will ultimately be decided by the courts.

I shall make a few remarks about our proposals for new counter-terrorist legislation. The House will be aware that the Government issued a consultation paper, "Legislation Against Terrorism", just before Christmas, inviting, as it happens, responses by 16 March, which is today. In it, we argued that, because of the range of terrorist threats that the United Kingdom faces, there will be a need for continuous United Kingdom-wide anti-terrorist powers, even when lasting peace is established in Northern Ireland.

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