Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.45 pm

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I wish to use the time available to me to draw on the report on the Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I have the honour to chair.

The Bill was introduced into the House last Monday and our report was published on Friday. I do not know whether it is a record to report within four days, but it must be quite close. I wish to record my thanks to fellow members of the Committee, our staff and legal adviser for making it possible for the House to have the benefit of the report as an example of pre-legislative scrutiny.

I thank the Home Secretary for meeting a delegation of members of the Committee before the Bill was published and giving evidence to us on Wednesday 14 November. I also thank him for responding flexibly to some of our concerns and being prepared to consider amendments on issues raised with him.

It is precisely in circumstances such as the aftermath of 11 September that the need to be seen to be doing something puts the protection of human rights under pressure. Human rights apply to all, even people with unpopular opinions or those who support repugnant causes. It is important that we do not use this emergency procedure to introduce powers that would not have received parliamentary support but for the current concerns and fears.

The Committee welcomed the decision not to increase retrospectively the penalties for terrorism-related hoaxes and the Home Secretary's undertaking to consider rewording clause 27(9) concerning his power to issue a second certificate when the Special Immigration Appeals Commission cancels a certificate. We welcomed the confirmation that under the provisions dealing with incitement to religious and racial hatred, which were urged on us last month by the UN Human Rights Committee, the Bill will not restrict the freedom to express opinions and beliefs, including those which are critical of some or all religions, whether expressed seriously or satirically. So, to respond to a point made earlier on the Opposition Benches, Rory Bremner and Rowan Atkinson will not be out of a job.

The Home Secretary's statement to the Committee was also welcome, in that he told us that there will come a moment when the law of blasphemy will find its place in history. I welcome that. The Committee also accepted that SIAC is a fully fledged judicial tribunal.

Let me summarise the matters to which the Committee wants to draw the attention of this House and the other place. First, no other European country is considering this kind of legislation. Secondly, we believe strongly that there should be a clear definition of the class of people liable to be regarded as international terrorists. We also think that people who are considered to have links with terrorists or terrorist groups are covered by the Bill in ways that give cause for concern. We can find no precedent in United Kingdom law for such a vague definition.

19 Nov 2001 : Column 85

By relying on immigration legislation to detain suspected international terrorists, there is a risk of discrimination on the ground of nationality. We call attention to the proposals to retain indefinitely fingerprints taken from intending immigrants, believing that it stigmatises those who have no criminal connections whatever.

We note the extension of the powers of constables to require anyone on the street to remove facial coverings. That could be a matter of sensitivity for many people, particularly Muslim women.

We also call attention to the extension of police powers in non-terrorism cases relating to detention in a police station, such as being photographed without consent, removing any article worn on the head or face, even with the use of force, and the fact that there are no accompanying provisions covering the taking, storing, retention and cross-matching of the photos. We also note that the code of practice relating to the retention of communications data will not be subject to any parliamentary procedure, even though it may be used in evidence in courts and tribunals.

Finally, the European arrest warrant should be introduced by primary legislation rather than by invoking the provisions in clause 109. In brief form, those were the points to which the Committee wanted to draw the attention of both Houses as they consider the measure.

In conclusion, the Bill entails a great leap of faith and a considerable element of trust. I believe that the Home Secretary has evidence that a number of people—albeit a small number—are abusing our immigration and asylum system for the purposes of terrorism. However, by its nature, that evidence cannot be shared with us.

I have more reason than most people to trust the Home Secretary, having served as his Parliamentary Private Secretary during almost the whole of the last Parliament, but emergency legislation passed in haste can often haunt us. The Bill provides that the power of detention will continue in force for only 15 months, so I hope that the Home Secretary has booked a slot in the legislative timetable for February 2003 to ensure that it is not renewed. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights states in its report:

7.51 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Ulster Unionist party understands the need for most parts of the legislation. However, I am sure that the Home Secretary will recall that in summer 1998, following the tragic bomb explosion in Omagh in which 28 innocent people were brutally murdered, the House was recalled to debate emergency anti-terrorist legislation and that there was much talk of how effective such legislation would be in combating terrorism, especially the activities of the Real IRA. I bring the attention of the House to the reality that not one person in the United Kingdom has been convicted under that legislation since it was enacted by the House.

The Real IRA—the main target of the legislation—continues to be active in the United Kingdom and, indeed, we have seen its activities recently in Birmingham. To enact legislation is not in itself enough to defeat terrorism, so I urge the Government to look carefully at the effectiveness of the new laws that they intend to introduce.

19 Nov 2001 : Column 86

With regret, we also note that Irish terrorism is not covered in the definition of international terrorism. That is difficult to understand, as the definition of an international terrorist group is that it is

Is a person who resides in the Irish Republic not someone who lives outside the United Kingdom? Is it not the case that the Real IRA, for example, are controlled by people who live outside the United Kingdom? Is it not also the case that the Real IRA and indeed the Provisional IRA have been engaged in international terrorism?

During last summer, three senior members of the Provisional IRA were arrested in Colombia. It is thought that they were involved in the preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism in that country and were sharing their engineering expertise in bomb making with the Colombian terrorist group, FARC. However, the Provisional IRA will not come under the definition of an international terrorist group set out in the Bill; nor will the Real IRA, which has been involved in procuring weapons abroad and has been assisted in its terrorist activities by people residing outside the United Kingdom. It is, of course, a two-way process. The IRA has been assisting other international terrorist groups in acts of terrorism, yet it will not fall under the provisions of the Bill.

The leader of my party, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), has written to the Home Secretary setting out in detail our views on those aspects of the Bill that affect—or ought to affect—the terrorist situation in Northern Ireland. However, as I said, one of our primary concerns is the definition of international terrorism. Will the Government look at that carefully? We believe that the definition is too narrow. It is wrong to exclude groups primarily involved in acts of terrorism related to Northern Ireland or other parts of the United Kingdom; there is ample evidence that those groups are involved with and engage in international terrorism.

I support the comments of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the spokesman for the official Opposition, on the clauses dealing with incitement to religious hatred. I also support the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members in that regard. There is a genuine fear, especially among Christians, that those provisions will have serious implications for freedom of speech.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) raised the issue of the affirmation of fundamental Christian beliefs. There is a major concern about the proclamation of those beliefs. Will the provisions curb the freedom of Christians, for example, to evangelise in this country? Will citizens of other faiths, who live in the United Kingdom and who might take exception to such evangelism, be able to utilise the laws to curb evangelising Christians?

The Home Secretary must reflect on those points. The concept of civil and religious liberty lies at the heart of our constitution. I and my party are concerned that the provisions will curb civil and religious liberties to such an extent that we shall be unable to pursue the evangelism of our Christian faith in this country for fear that it will cause offence and that we will end up in court as a result of such activities.

I want to focus on the provisions on the retention of communications data. We are disappointed that the Government have not made provision for the admissibility

19 Nov 2001 : Column 87

of wire-tap evidence in bringing prosecutions against terrorists. The Home Secretary will be aware of the success of the United States authorities in infiltrating the mafia and securing convictions using the legal powers laid down in "RICO"—the racketeer influenced corrupt organisations legislation.

We have pursued that issue in the House for several years. Interestingly, it was considered by Lord Lloyd of Berwick in his inquiry into anti-terrorist legislation. In considering the arguments for and against the admissibility of wire-tap evidence, he made several points. I quote from one paragraph of his report. In dealing with the arguments in favour of an amendment on the subject, Lord Lloyd stated:

Why on earth does the United Kingdom impose that unique handicap on itself when dealing with serious crime, including offences of a terrorist nature? I can see no sense in that.

There are inconsistencies in the approach taken by the Government and also by previous Governments, as at present it is possible for conversations recorded by a device placed on a person to be admissible in evidence, yet evidence gathered using similar equipment to record telephone conversations is not admissible. When the Prime Minister declared war against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, he did so partly on the basis of intelligence information made available to him, no doubt including information gathered using wire-taps. Surely, if it is right to go to war on the strength of such information, it is right to make use of it to prosecute terrorists in our courts. Therefore, I urge the Government to consider the value of using wire-tap evidence and its admissibility in court if we are to secure convictions against international terrorists. It is worth bearing it in mind that, after years of terrorist activity, those people are very astute in the methods that they use to evade conviction, prosecution and, indeed, capture. We see that very clearly with the al-Qaeda group. Therefore, if we are to take stringent measures to combat terrorism, we should use every valid means at our disposal to ensure that those people are brought to justice. Making wire-tap evidence admissible is a valid method to secure prosecutions against terrorists, who are very adept at evading prosecution and conviction.

I return to what I said at the beginning of my speech. The legislation that emerged in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing is on the statute book, but, to date, it has proven totally ineffective in bringing to justice the people who perpetrated the Omagh bombing. They are still at large, free to carry out their evil activities. Therefore, in proceeding with the Bill, the Government need to take steps to ensure that the legislation is more effective than at present. However, I support those who call for the provisions on incitement to religious hatred to be removed and dealt with in separate legislation and at greater length, so that we can fully consider their consequences.

Next Section

IndexHome Page