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8.10 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I shall restrict my comments to part VII, which deals with Northern Ireland. Any hon. Member who was involved in the recall of Parliament in September 1998 will not be surprised by the Bill's contents, which are consistent with events then. I remember spending 16 solid hours in the Chamber listening to exactly the same arguments, and over which hon. Members took similar positions.

The legislation that was passed then has not been used once since it became law. Governments are in the habit of worrying about the failings of human nature instead of celebrating its triumphs. That is slightly ironic because one of its great triumphs has occurred in Northern Ireland in the past few weeks. The extraordinary events there show that if we have faith in people and apply normal human law, we can make enormous progress.

The emergency provisions and prevention of terrorism Acts have been part of a messy process which has led us to our current position. They probably had an impact on our ability to reach that position, so it is no surprise that those measures are amalgamated in the Bill. That is part of the process of normalising the terrorism legislation that applies to Northern Ireland. We all agree that that needs to be done. It is not only the five-year limit that is crucial, but the fact that the provisions must be renewed every year, like previous measures. That means that they could cease to operate before the end of the five-year limit, which is all to the good.

Some hon. Members, few of whom are present, believe that even the time-limited Northern Ireland provisions are too much. I do not believe that because we need to make the change gradually, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said. For example, the role of the Diplock courts nowadays is much diminished compared with the time when they were established. However, we must be confident that we can get rid of them.

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Placing the onus of proof on the accused for possession of firearms and explosives is a logical provision, given events in Northern Ireland during the past 30 years. The much-debated powers of search, seizure and arrest without a warrant, which clauses 79 to 93 cover, have always been controversial. We all want to see the back of those clauses over time--nevertheless, it is right to be cautious.

Some senior and authoritative sources question the need for continuing with separate proposals for Northern Ireland and ask why we cannot have one measure that covers the United Kingdom. One of the most eminent of those groups is the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is an independent statutory body that was established under the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is the only commission of its kind in the United Kingdom, and probably in western Europe. It has a duty to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in Northern Ireland on human rights. It takes a stronger view than mine--it believes that the Bill should not provide additional special powers exclusively for Northern Ireland, and that the measure should not extend the life of the current emergency provisions Act until it comes into force.

Professor Dickson, who is chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, is worried about the compatibility of the Bill with the European convention on human rights. Those points have already been made. I make the case not because I am convinced by it, but because we have to anticipate a profound dialogue in Committee to understand why people such as Professor Dickson feel so strongly. My views reflect those of the Ulster Unionist Members who spoke tonight. Change must be gradual.

I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House some idea of the amount of consultation that has already taken place with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Government's plans as we progress towards Committee stage. It is important that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly are seen to be directly involved in the process as we move forward. It is perhaps even more important for the public to understand why the Bill contains separate provisions for Northern Ireland as we move towards a normalised cultural and social society in Northern Ireland.

The fundamental question is, for how long will we need special provisions for Northern Ireland? Is there a way of balancing more quickly the needs of Northern Ireland with those of the rest of the United Kingdom? Given the breadth of views expressed in the Chamber tonight, the Northern Ireland provisions will constitute the Bill's key bone of contention. Those are good grounds for further discussion in Committee.

8.16 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I apologise for not being in the Chamber throughout the debate. I shall give the reason for that shortly, because it bears on the debate. I listened to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and I totally agreed with him. I have written to the Government Chief Whip to say that I cannot support the Bill. I do not know whether there will be a vote, but I cannot support the measure for very personal reasons.

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When I appeared in Trafalgar square in 1964 to support a well-known terrorist who had just been convicted in the Rivonia trial, would I have been guilty of terrorism under the Bill? The next time I met the man, he had a Nobel peace prize and was President of South Africa.

One of the reasons for my absence from the debate was that I was outside the Russian embassy, protesting against the bombing of Chechnya. The Russians argue that the people of Chechnya are terrorists. Would I be guilty of supporting terrorism for going to the Russian embassy to demand that the Russians stopped the bombing and that Chechnya be given the opportunity to determine its future? Doubtless, the Home Secretary can help me. It is no good people shaking their heads. According to the Russian Government--a de jure and a de facto Government--the people of Chechnya are terrorists.

Tomorrow morning, I shall be in the Middlesex court defending a woman who put some graffiti outside the House of Commons to protest against nuclear weapons. She is a very courageous woman. I am not allowed to mention her name because one cannot deal with sub judice cases, but I have known her for years. She was at Greenham common and I appeared for her in York when she opposed the Menwith camp. If we define damage to property as terrorism, that woman could be a terrorist.

The Bill is an outrageous measure. I have spoken to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I could not believe that the Liberal Democrats would not vote against the Bill. I have enough Liberal blood in my veins to believe that this place is about civil liberties and democracy. The more the Government open themselves to the influences of international organisations and business, the more they clamp down on dissent in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) drew attention to that. I can imagine circumstances, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, involving, for example, genetically modified food, in which the Government crack down on opposition here and become increasingly open to the influence of Monsanto and other companies that interpret free trade as an opportunity to buy Governments.

I was in America this summer, celebrating my golden wedding, and I had breakfast with the World Affairs Council. A former Governor of Ohio said to me, "We'll never have democracy in America until we stop companies buying political parties." He was a Democrat--I suppose that he would be called an old Democrat in the language of today--and he pointed out that the American prison population is rising dramatically and that big companies pay the Democrats and the Republicans and expect a pay off, whoever wins.

These are big issues and I am terribly disappointed that a Government whom I support--I have always supported Labour Governments since joining the party in 1942--should be introducing a measure that would get a standing ovation at a Tory conference if a Tory Home Secretary proposed it. Every Conservative Member knows that the Bill is absolutely foreign to the conventions and traditions of the Labour party, which has always been in favour of trying to help people from other countries who have struggled for their independence against repressive Governments and which has always been sympathetic to the dissident because the dissident often turns out to be right. I do not know whether the suffragette who chained herself to the statue of Lord Falkland in St. Stephen's hall

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and broke the sword when she was pulled off would have been guilty of damage to property under the Bill. Might she have ended up in that category?

This is a thoroughly bad Bill. Although there will not be a vote against it, at least on the motion--

Mr. Simon Hughes rose--

Mr. Benn: Has the hon. Gentleman changed his mind on the vote on Second Reading?

Mr. Hughes: Although the right hon. Gentleman was unable to be present for my speech, he knows that severe criticisms of the Bill have been made from both sides of the House. Given that we cannot defeat it on Second Reading and therefore will go ahead, and because we want to debate the issues, I hope that he will accept that examining the evidence for the Government's case before we consider the Bill line by line is the best way to proceed.

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