Terrorism Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: This has been a helpful discussion. I agree wholeheartedly with the initial point of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the debate on proscription is important. We addressed it to some extent on Second Reading, but this is the place to discuss it further. I too have been influenced, as have the Government, by Lord Lloyd's recommendations and by his important and detailed work on the nature of modern terrorism--work that informs the Bill. However, I thought that the hon. Gentleman departed somewhat from his usual forensic standards when he suggested that the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill in the other place had something to do with that. To slide together a range of supposed Government illiberalisms was not worthy of him.

I begin by addressing the fundamental issue of proscription. Why do we have it and how does it operate? I concede immediately to the hon. Member for Aylesbury that the issues involved are finely balanced and matters for judgment. We are reasonable people who can take different views about the best way of proceeding.

There are three principal reasons why we think proscription is important. First, it has been, and remains, a powerful deterrent to people to engage in terrorist activity. Secondly, related offences are a way of tackling some of the lower-level support for terrorist organisations. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey spoke about numbers: he is right that, broadly speaking, about 200 incidents have been dealt with since 1990--as he said, usually on the second count of the charge. Without commenting on the details that he 57 58 gave earlier, it is true that while that is a relatively small number, it is not insignificant. It has been a significant factor in dealing with some of the issues.

Thirdly, proscription acts as a powerful signal of the rejection by the Government--and indeed by society as a whole--of organisations' claim to legitimacy. The points made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury in that context were eloquent. It is important for society to state that certain activities are simply--I hesitate to use the phrase in this context--beyond the pale; I do not mean it in the Irish sense, but in the sense of the way in which civilised, democratic society operates. The legislation is a powerful symbol of that censure and is important. So I believe that the Government are right to continue with proscription and that the provision is justified.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I understand those three arguments. On the first of them, does the Minister agree that, although it may be true that the legislative power of proscription is a powerful deterrent, that does not determine how widely drawn it is? There is no evidence, from what I understand, that those involved on the margins have been greatly deterred by proscription. The evidence of the cases taken to court is that it has deterred those who have been actively involved in or who have subscribed to activities that would have landed them in the courts under the present legislation.

Mr. Clarke: I am coming to deal with the points about the width of definition that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. I would like to deal first with amendment No. 35, because concerns have been raised on the issues it deals with. On domestic groups, it seems highly unlikely, on present information, that any domestic groups would be proscribed. Proscription is a very serious power that can be contemplated only if absolutely necessary. I wish to be clear and direct about the fact that there is no intention to pick out any domestic group that has a particular approach. I state that because of some of the concerns that have been flying around --although not in Committee--about the extent to which the power might be used. I think that the Committee will acknowledge that successive Secretaries of State, of all parties, have used the power with great discretion and care. I stress that that will continue to be the case--there is no open door to another position.

When we consider extending the power to international groups--

Mr. Simon Hughes: Before the Minister moves on--he has raised an issue that I was going to deal with later--will he deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter)? One of the concerns of organisations that feel that they might at some stage be proscribed--environmental campaigning organisations have been mentioned in this regard--is that there is no mechanism for them to challenge that eventuality through the normal processes of the court. If a positive answer could be given to the question of the hon. Member for Basingstoke, it might lessen the concern about domestic organisations that fear that they might be caught by a future Secretary of State, for whom the Minister obviously cannot speak.

Mr. Clarke: I shall address the point made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke later, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to wait until then.

The Chairman: I am sure that the Minister will get to it eventually.

Mr. Clarke: I hope so, Mr. Stevenson.

The effect of amendment No. 35 would be simply to exclude international groups from everything to do with the Bill. That would be short-sighted and foolhardy. The appendix by Professor Wilkinson to Lord Lloyd's report sets out graphically the extent to which international terrorism is an issue for the modern world. It is trite to observe that society is becoming much more globalised, but the fact that something is trite does not mean that it is not true. We are aware of all kinds of examples of international terrorism being a real threat, but I shall not detain the Committee by listing them. We have suffered attacks from international terrorist groups and recent history shows that attacks from such groups remain a real risk. That is why we should resist amendment No. 35 and state that we are prepared to take powers to deal with international terrorism.

That said, I acknowledge the concerns raised by Opposition Members about how to apply the power. Important issues of judgment are involved. I wish to make a few points in that regard. First, on the fear that foreign Governments would lobby in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I have no control over whether they would. No doubt they would. However, I cannot envisage any circumstances in which Ministers or a Secretary of State from any party would be ready to surrender that quality of independent authority to deal with the matter in that way. I hope that I can set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest about the issue of foreign lobbying. I do not deny that it could take place, but we can be confident that it would be resisted. The interests of the Government and the people of our country would be paramount in dealing with international terrorism.

The hon. Gentleman asked where intelligence would come from. Again, I can set his mind at rest. There is no question of the Government--not the Labour Government, but any Government of this country--taking any decision based on some kind of hearsay from someone else. As he knows, there is a lot of co-operation between intelligence agencies of different countries. That will continue and I predict that it will intensify as the world becomes smaller. None of that could surrender the sovereign obligation of a British Home Secretary or Prime Minister to consider a situation directly on the information that they have. We would not simply accept another Government or intelligence service's word and do what we are told because of it.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Does the Minister appreciate that, without a review process in the courts for a decision to proscribe and without the most extensive freedom of information legislation, it would be difficult to test any such decision? Intelligence, whether our own or passed on from elsewhere, would by definition be exactly the sort of information that a Government would not want to disclose. Therefore, the chance of having any such decision reviewed seems thin.

The Chairman: Order. I heard the Minister say earlier that he would come to the points made by hon. Members. We should resist the temptation of anticipating in interventions what Ministers might say. I hope that that is helpful.

Mr. Clarke: I struggle with anticipating myself on some occasions, so I appreciate your guidance on the matter, Mr. Stevenson.

For those reasons, I hope that the Committee will resist amendment No. 35, which would simply exclude activity against international terrorism.

Amendments Nos. 43 and 36 are about active involvement in terrorism and the issues that it raises. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey spoke clearly, and the purpose of the amendments is also clear: they are designed to restrict the grounds on which the Secretary of State can proscribe an organisation. The operation of the proscription regime by this Government and previous Governments demonstrates how seriously the responsibility is taken. No suggestion can be made--I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made one--that the past provides evidence of any frivolity in the way in which it has been dealt with. The evidence stands up and is strong.

The core and central thrust of the hon. Gentleman's proposal is that the definition should specifically be restricted to acts of terrorism. Not all the organisations are actively concerned in terrorism at all times, but they nevertheless pose a serious threat to society. By their nature, organisations go through periods when they are unable to take action, either for some security reason, such as the security service having been successful at curtailing their activity, or due to some political judgment about how they should operate. As a result, they may not actively focus at certain times on acts of terrorism, although they may have done in the past and may intend to do so in future. It is important to retain in the Bill the power to examine what constitutes a terrorist organisation rather than to restrict it as tightly as the hon. Gentleman's amendments would specifically to preparing and participating in acts of terrorism. For significant periods, proscribed terrorist organisations do not participate in acts of terrorism, yet retain the power to do so. The Secretary of State should retain the power to proscribe organisations involved in such activity.

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Similarly, amendment No. 36 would require the Secretary of State to judge not only organisations as a whole, but the intentions of individual members of an organisation. I am not sure that that is a helpful distinction. Proscribing organisations involves judging the organisation and the activity in which it is involved. The deterrent effect that I have described inhibits individuals or citizens from being drawn into an organisation's activity. The judgment should be made about the organisation, rather than its individual members.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will accept what I have said about acts of terrorism; he will say when he winds up on his amendments. However, it is important for the entire Committee to acknowledge that the ebb and flow of the activity of proscribed terrorist organisations reflects many different factors, including the security situation and the political situation, for example. We should not make acts the core of our definition.

The hon. Members for Basingstoke and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned the law. The thrust of several of the amendments that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has tabled is to give the courts a different--he might say, higher--role. The hon. Member for Basingstoke suggested that they might be introduced at the beginning of the process and asked why the Government took the view that they did. The Government took the view that a cycle of events is involved, from the Secretary of State making a judgment on the basis of information available to him or her about the nature of the organisation about whether it should be proscribed, to an appeals process, as specified in clause 5, through which that judgment can be challenged or tested. We judged that, on balance, that was the best way to proceed. We did not believe that a case could be made for involving the courts at the beginning of the process. Nor do we take the view that the POAC process should be replaced by a purely judicial process, as some of the amendments suggest.

To return to the point that I made earlier in response to the hon. Member for Aylesbury, the fundamental reason why we reached that view was our view that the powers of the Secretary of State--who is always directly accountable to Parliament for his or her actions--have been used responsibly and carefully, and that a judicial role earlier in the process would not be effective or, as I shall argue when we reach clause 5, assist the process. The effectiveness of the security campaign against international terrorism rests on the Secretary of State's responsibility to Parliament.

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