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15 Mar 2000 : Column 474

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

2.1 am

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

Many principles behind the continuance order have been discussed in more than nine hours of debate today, and in many hours in Committee and on Second Reading of the Terrorism Bill. I shall therefore try not to detain the House for too long.

In an intervention on Third Reading of the Terrorism Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked about its compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998. It is right for me to tell the House our opinion of the compatibility of the continuance order with that Act.

The United Kingdom Government have had to enter a derogation from the 1998 Act because of the executive power for extensions of detention. That derogation arose from the case of Brogan, which came before the European Court. Apart from that derogation, I am satisfied that all the provisions that we want to renew tonight comply with convention rights.

We are considering the 1999 report on the operation of the prevention of terrorism Act by Mr. John Rowe QC, who has undertaken his usual thorough review of the provisions.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): When will my right hon. Friend inform the Council of Europe that the derogation from the Human Rights Act 1998 no longer needs to apply to Britain?

Mr. Straw: We should be able to do that when the Terrorism Bill becomes law, if it is passed in another place. I hope that that will happen.

I should like to place on record my appreciation and thanks to Mr. Rowe for a further year's work in carefully and assiduously reviewing the operation of the provisions. To pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North made about human rights, in paragraph 21 of the report Mr. Rowe states that on many occasions, the person interviewed--police officers or others to whom the prevention of terrorism Act is relevant--

Those remarks are encouraging.

Mr. Rowe's report is concerned with 1999. In those 12 months, we had great optimism over the Good Friday agreement and, towards the end of the year, considerable pessimism about its full implementation. Notwithstanding the fact that the ceasefire continued, seven deaths in Northern Ireland occurred as a consequence of terrorist violence. I ought to remind the House of two: in June, Elizabeth O'Neill was killed in her home by a pipe bomb thrown through the window and, almost exactly a year ago, Rosemary Nelson was murdered in an act of sheer

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brutality as she left her home in her car. Terrorist-related incidents also occurred on the mainland. In particular, I draw the House's attention to the siege of the Greek embassy in London last year.

The Home Office statistical bulletin on the operation of the prevention of terrorism legislation, which was published earlier this month, gives details of the use of those powers. In summary, 12 persons were detained in connection with Northern Irish terrorism during 1999--down from 20 the previous year--and 87 were detained in connection with international terrorism, up from 25 in 1998. The former powers to make exclusion orders were not used in 1999 and have now lapsed. That followed undertakings that I gave in opposition, which we have implemented in full in government. Of the 99 persons detained in 1999, 84 were charged with an offence. Extensions of detention were granted for eight persons, 437 persons were examined for more than an hour but not detained and 29 were charged with an offence. Mr. Rowe spells out in his report that he believes that the powers have been properly used and that they are needed for renewal.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): A matter on which Mr. Rowe reports is the operation of amendments to the prevention of terrorism legislation represented by the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998. His brief chapters 7 and 9 confirm that neither has been used. He makes no comment about that. Does the Home Secretary have a comment as to whether it is necessary for them to continue?

Mr. Straw: I suggest to the House that it does not always follow that the only proof of whether powers are needed is whether they are used. They can often have important deterrent value. That was part of the debate when the House considered that Act in September 1998. I believe that they are necessary for renewal, but the hon. Gentleman will know that they are replaced in the Terrorism Bill.

When the Terrorism Bill receives Royal Assent, as I hope that it will when it is passed by the other place, it will provide new, modernised counter-terrorism legislation proportionate to the threat that we face. However, it is vital that there is continuity and that the existing counter-terrorism powers remain available for the period before the Bill comes into force, pending the enactment and implementation of the new legislation through the renewal of the current legislation by the order.

2.8 am

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Many of the points that we would have expected to cover were dealt with at length when the Terrorism Bill was debated so it may please the House to know that I shall be brief.

I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to Mr. Rowe for his report, which convincingly argues that the provisions of the prevention of terrorism Act are needed for another year. The Conservative party, in opposition and in government, has never shirked its duty to take the toughest stand against terrorism and to give the police and the armed forces the powers that they need

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to protect the public. In that spirit, we fully support the report's conclusions and with them, therefore, the continuance of the Act.

The reasons given for the Act's continuance are compelling. In the past year, there have been substantial and welcome moves towards peace in the Province of Northern Ireland but, although the security situation in Northern Ireland has greatly improved, none of the main paramilitary organisations has even begun to decommission its illegally held arms and explosives. The capability of the paramilitaries therefore remains undiminished, and their organisations remain firmly intact. They retain huge arsenal of weapons, and continue to carry out shootings, beatings and mutilations and to exile people from their homes.

The Rowe report states that

While those groups maintain the capability and the infrastructure to perpetrate gross acts of terrorism, we must ensure that our police and security services have the powers that are necessary to combat them.

Acts of violence carried out by paramilitary groups are also still prevalent in the Province. The report states that

The findings of the report are borne out by figures given in reply to parliamentary questions. The Northern Ireland Office recently stated that there had been 225 shooting or bombing incidents in Northern Ireland during 1999, and figures supplied by the Government reveal that 2,400 persons have been injured as a result of terrorist attacks since the Good Friday agreement. During the same period, 49 deaths have been attributed to the security situation in Northern Ireland. The attack on an hotel in February and recent attempted attacks on Army bases in Northern Ireland remind us that the threat from terrorist groups has not gone away. Even with decommissioning by the main paramilitary groups, the dissidents opposed to the Good Friday agreement will retain their capacity for terror and destruction.

The Act, however, is not concerned solely with Northern Ireland. The Rowe report states that

We need only read the history of terrorism on the international scene, written by Professor Wilkinson and contained in volume II of the report of Lord Lloyd's inquiry, to realise that the threat is still there.

The order gives special powers to the police and security services to deal with the threat of terrorism. They include provisions allowing for the admissibility of evidence from a police officer that a defendant belonged to a specified organisation, along with other powers which the Home Secretary has already set out and which I shall therefore not repeat.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): And this is a brief speech?

Miss Widdecombe: It could become longer, if I were tempted.

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Today the House has debated the Terrorism Bill, which will combine the existing emergency provisions Act and prevention of terrorism Act in a single piece of permanent UK-wide legislation. As I have said, we support the Bill; but if the Home Secretary speaks again--he does not seem much inclined to do so at the moment--he should give the House an assurance that the order contains all the provisions that it should contain.

I shall not be ungenerous enough to dwell on the error in the Home Office that allowed--

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