Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I have been listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about the assumptions in the 1970s when the prevention of terrorism legislation was introduced in the wake of the Birmingham bombings and his views on the on-going problem of terrorism. I do not disagree with him. However, in the context of new clause 3, is that not an argument, if not for a sunset clause, for some form of subsequent review of whether the powers as cast should be changed, revised or muted? After all, terrorism, even if it is a permanent feature of the landscape, is likely to change its form.

7 pm

Mr. Lidington: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the need for regular and thorough reviews of the legislation, but I doubt whether new clause 3 provides the best mechanism for such reviews. The Government have offered us an annual review. In Committee, the Minister said that the Government were minded to appoint an independent examiner--someone in the tradition of Mr. John Rowe and Lord Colville--to examine from an outsider's perspective the operation of legislation and to report to the Government. I should hope that, subsequently, the Government would ensure that the examiner's report was fully debated by both Houses of Parliament.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that one of the difficulties in Lord Lloyd's analysis of the matter was the failure to explore the difference between permanent counter- terrorism legislation and renewable counter-terrorism legislation? The latter would maintain the House's rights and responsibilities to deal with the matter in primary legislation, and would also allow the Government of the day to get out of the other trap. In a world in which the character of terrorism changes as quickly as economic circumstances change, if we try to deal with the matter in permanent legislation, we will inevitably be forced towards adopting much too broad a definition of terrorism, thereby casting long and dark shadows over the nature of democratic society and open government. A sunset clause would get us out of that predicament.

15 Mar 2000 : Column 359

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. That intervention was far too long. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) could also perhaps deal with that matter in the debate on the next group of amendments.

Mr. Lidington: The difficulty that I have with the argument being made, quite honourably, by the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) is that we could end up deluding ourselves into thinking that we were supporting counter-terrorism powers that were in a realistic sense temporary.

We have to acknowledge that the character of the international political environment in which British Ministers, British security and intelligence agencies and British police officers have to take their decisions has changed, and that it has probably changed irrevocably. It has been a change for the worse, but we have to come to terms with that change. There will be a need for us not only to remain vigilant about how Ministers and officials exercise the powers that they have been given in statute, but to ensure that our legislative safeguards are kept up to date, so that we are able to respond to what I fear might be the proliferation among terrorist groups of yet more deadly weapons.

Professor Wilkinson's report, which was appended to Lord Lloyd's, mentions the fact that, in the next few decades, chemical, nuclear or biological weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups which are prepared, if not to use them as such, to use them as instruments of blackmail and coercion. We have also to ensure that our legal arrangements are kept up to date with whatever new technologies become available to terrorist groups.

The best way of approaching that issue is to build on the process of annual review, which the Government have offered to us; to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to demand of Ministers that they introduce amending legislation as and when it is demonstrated to be necessary; and, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said, to use the Select Committee system that is available to us. I should certainly hope that not only the Intelligence and Security Committee, which would have an important role to play in the matter, but the Select Committees on Home Affairs and on Northern Ireland Affairs would interest themselves in the detail of how those powers are exercised in future.

Coupled with the formal procedure of annual review and annual report that the Government have already offered, the Select Committees--with the interplay of question and answer that they allow, and their capacity to subject Ministers to sustained interrogation, rather than simply allowing them to make an introductory speech, and then wind up the debate, giving way as frequently or infrequently as they choose--are a better way of approaching the matter.

For those reasons, I am not prepared to support this group of amendments.

Mr. Charles Clarke: This has been a useful debate. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, the issue was debated very fully in Committee. I am delighted to return to the subject now.

15 Mar 2000 : Column 360

New clause 3 and amendment No. 143, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), would time-limit the Northern Ireland-specific provisions to one year. New clause 8, tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), would provide for the expiry and revival of the Bill every five years. That provision is identical to the hon. Gentleman's new clause 2 in Committee, which we debated for 45 minutes, on 8 February.

I shall deal with the detail of the two specific proposals. First, however, I should like to make a couple of general points about the role of Parliament in all this.

As has been generously acknowledged by various speakers, the Government have sought to respond to the concerns expressed on Second Reading by establishing an annual report process, which was not in the Bill on Second Reading. We listened to comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and felt that there was merit in the case for producing an annual report.

I can also confirm that we did, indeed, commit ourselves to that report being prepared by an independent person. The document would not be internal and secret but out in the public domain. I should like to place that commitment on record now--as I did in Committee--as it is helpful to do so.

It is important that we should have a little discussion about Parliament's role in dealing with this form of accountability. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) used a good phrase--explanatory stewardship--to describe the role, and he was quite right about that. The question is how best stewardship can be explained. A wide range of parliamentary devices is available. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde mentioned Select Committees, which are the first possibility.

As all hon. Members who have served on a Select Committee will know, the Select Committee process can indeed be far more effective than a general process in the House. One of my first duties after being elected to the House was to serve as a member of the Treasury Committee. I am sure that the Governor of the Bank of England would agree that the regular interrogation to which the Committee subjected him and the Monetary Policy Committee on their policy on setting interest rates was much more rigorous than a regular debate in the House, or some other process, would have been. As the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, we also have the Home Affairs Committee, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee. They are an important part of the process. The House also has the capacity for debate in a variety of forms--a short debate on the Adjournment, or a more substantial debate, such as we are having today.

Contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, it is not the provision that will serve as a backstop, but this Parliament. If ever one wanted evidence that this Parliament has been a backstop in our consideration of such issues, one would only have to study the way in which legislation has been dealt with, often very rapidly, by the House. Although I take the point about consideration, the suggestion that there is any inflexibility in Parliament's ability to consider new legislation as circumstances change is simply not correct. It is a fact that over the years--in this as in other matters--Parliament has shown a tremendous readiness to

15 Mar 2000 : Column 361

respond rapidly to the issues raised by changing events such as judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, or by more dramatic events such as bombs and explosions, which require issues to be dealt with differently.

My response to the general discussion--before moving on to the particulars of the two proposals--is that it is quite wrong to describe Parliament as inflexible in its ability to address such questions. The reverse is true: Parliament has tremendous flexibility to achieve by a variety of different means the explanatory stewardship suggested by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. It would be unwise to opt for one constitutional straitjacket in seeking to address it.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Of course there is the flexibility that the Minister described. Can he confirm that clause 124, which provides for a report, does not necessarily trigger a parliamentary yes or no process? More important, looking back over any number of years, the two circumstances in which the Government come to the House to seek changes are when the are obliged by a court judgment to do so or when they are seeking more power. Governments do not readily seek to give up power even when there is a large clamour outside telling them they should do so.

Next Section

IndexHome Page