Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lady Hermon: I listened attentively to the hon. Gentleman, even when I left my place for a moment to correct something. In the context of Northern Ireland, I was on the Standing Committee that reviewed the code of practice for video recording introduced under the Terrorism Act 2000. I assure him that there was wide consultation on the code and that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland raised no objection to it. The hon. Gentleman's fears in relation to past cases would not be realised in the future. The system has been tightened up greatly, to the benefit of everyone, including police officers who are often wrongly accused of misusing or abusing defendants in custody.

Mr. Mullin: Yes, I accept that that is so. All I am saying is that I do not want us to agree to anything that would send us back in the direction from which we came. We got into rather a big mess, and although it is true that these standards now apply, such as those governing the recording of interviews in Northern Ireland, they were not achieved without a struggle. Indeed, as for recording, the usual suspects resisted until almost the last moment in some cases.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mullin: No. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I do not want to get distracted by going down that particular alleyway.

I tabled new clause 56 in the hope of flushing out these points from the Minister, and she has given the assurances that I sought. She has also explained the various relevant schedules, which I wanted on the record rather than in a friendly letter from the Home Secretary. I am grateful for that, and I will not press the new clause to a vote. All that I would say is that once such a power is conceded it is rarely taken back again, and I fear that it will be with us for a long time.

Simon Hughes: I take a similar approach on this matter to that expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). The proposition has come late in the day, as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has said. We have therefore had no chance

20 May 2003 : Column 952

to consider it in detail in Committee, which is a disadvantage. It strikes me that the speed with which it was introduced was unnecessary, because if it were really urgent, we would not be legislating now with a view to implementation in the autumn. The case for changing the law to double the period for which people can be held without charge surely cannot be so urgent that it was only thought of two weeks ago and so urgent that it needs to be introduced today. I am unhappy about the procedure, and the Government have not explained how it is justified.

The questions that I asked the Minister, and amendment (a) tabled by my hon. Friends and by me, are meant to test that proposition, as the Minister understood. She has made arguments, which I understand, and the police have put a case to her. A second disadvantage is that nobody has independently verified the justification for that case—there has been no opportunity for the matter to go to the Home Affairs Committee and for it to take evidence on it. There has been no chance for the matter to go to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for it to take evidence, look into the human rights implications and consider its compatibility with our international obligations. My understanding is that it would not be the normal procedure of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to look into these matters on a routine basis. None the less, it would have been possible to speak to it and to get its view. Although the Minister made it clear that Lord Carlile of Berriew has been informed of the proposition, he has not reported on it. He has produced annual reports and recommended various changes, but he has not recommended the provision. Its only source is the argument of the police, which is backed up by the Government's willingness to introduce it.

I understand that the police think that they need the powers and that the case for longer detention might have changed. However, it strikes me that we must be careful that the case is justified on historical fact. I am sure that that is why the hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked how often the seven-day ceiling had been reached and it is also why I asked the number of times that the police have detained people for the maximum time permitted. The answer was 16 times in the most recent full year for which figures are available and the Minister told us that it happened a further 16 times in the past three months. Such information might strengthen the case for extending the period, but only for extending it by a little.

Liberal Democrat amendment (a) would change the period of detention to 10 days. Lord Lloyd of Berwick proposed a period of two days in 2000, although he made the concession of a four-day period in exceptional cases. The Government then asked for the period to be changed to seven days. However, doubling that period within three years could be a step too far.

Liberal Democrats are, of course, consoled by the facts that there will be judicial oversight and that the police will have to go to the courts to make their case. We are reassured that the Minister reported that the magistrate does not necessarily grant the whole period and often insists that the police come back after a day or two, which means that only small periods may be granted. Although our worries will not make us oppose the measure today, we shall try to get to the bottom of the matter in the House of Lords. It might be the case

20 May 2003 : Column 953

that we should accept the extension of the period by only a further three days—the 10-day period that we have suggested—or that there should be a sunset provision so that the extension of the period would last for only a year or two. Parliament would then legislate again if it wanted to retain the exceptional measure. Irrespective of the justification for a significant removal of people's civil liberties and a significant increase of the state's power, we must be careful not to do that without having the opportunity to recover the position in more normal times, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said.

Lady Hermon: I have always greatly admired what the hon. Gentleman has said on human rights. I know that he will accept that the most fundamental right is the right to life. It is important that we remember that we are facing terrorists who will use all sorts of appalling weapons, such as biological weapons, that we did not see in Northern Ireland during the 30 years of IRA terrorist violence. Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the campaign of terrorism throughout the world in the past week and fortnight and remember that we are trying to preserve the fundamental right of life in the battle against terrorism?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady does perfectly well to remind us of that and she knows that I share that view. Those who are determined to commit the most unspeakable offences, with no warning, against unknown numbers of people—often entirely innocent people with no relation to the issues that concern the perpetrators—deserve to be caught, arrested and dealt with by society in the most serious way possible. She is right that such terrorism is in a different league from even that during the many years of the Northern Ireland troubles.

That point explains why, if I had the choice, I would rather that there were a slightly longer period for which people could be detained before charge. It is better to restrict liberty in such cases under careful judicial oversight than to go down the road of detaining people indefinitely without trial. One of the great constitutional changes of recent years means that people are this very week being held in custody, perhaps indefinitely, and their cases are being taken up by the courts. It is a greater loss of liberty to detain someone indefinitely without trial. That is why we are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt and to allow a slightly longer period to investigate whether a case really has been made. A person can then be charged if there is a case and released if there is not. That is a less severe restriction on someone's liberty in the interests of the greater good than locking people up indefinitely so that they never know when they might be released.

Those are the balances that we seek to strike and they involve the most important and difficult issues. It is our job to scrutinise the Executive. We may propose a limited duration and, possibly, a slightly more limited extension than the Government advocate when the Bill is considered in the House of Lords.

Beverley Hughes: As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said in his concluding remarks, the judgments are difficult, and the international context in which they are

20 May 2003 : Column 954

set makes them even more difficult and sensitive. I agree that the civil liberties of individuals who might be suspected of terrorism is important, not least for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), but we have to balance that against the civil liberties of all the citizens of this country who also have a right in a democracy to expect to live their lives free from the fear and possibility of harm by people who act in that way. It is increasingly necessary to balance the public good against the rights of individuals.

It might help the House if I set out the safeguards. In trying to strike a balance, we must recognise that the context is very different from what it was some years ago, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said. The Terrorism Act 2000, and schedule 8 provisions for the extension of detention in particular, is subjected to PACE code C and specific codes of practice under that Act. There must be judicial authorisation after 48 hours for any extension of detention and there is access to solicitors throughout unless there is good reason to exclude that arrangement in the first 48 hours only. There is audio recording of all interviews and video recording of all interviews in Northern Ireland. There is a detention review throughout by the police and an annual review by Lord Carlile, who I am sure will examine the issue. Northern Ireland also has an independent commissioner for detained terrorist suspects.

Although that might not assuage all concerns completely, especially if they are based on points of principle, it is clear that there is a battery of safeguards. I hope that they give some comfort to hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page