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4.20 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I had the privilege of serving as deputy to Lord Newton, as deputy chairman of the committee. I say privilege, but like my colleague in all this work—the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney)—I recognise that it took a great deal of our time. I am grateful to the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman for paying tribute to the formidable amount of work that we did, and I pay a personal tribute to Lord Newton, whose leadership and patience in running the committee's affairs was one of the means that enabled us to get through so much work and to produce the report.

I also pay tribute, as the right hon. Gentleman did, to the committee's small staff, who worked very hard indeed to enable us to achieve what we did. It was a pleasure to work with colleagues with a wide variety of political views from different political parties and, of course, one of none—a senior judge. We started from very different positions, but we reached unanimous conclusions on all the matters that appear in the report.

The committee was in no doubt at all that the threat to this country from terrorism is very serious and has to be addressed by coherent legislation and effective Government action. That was not in dispute, and if it had been the material that we saw during our inquiries would have convinced us in any case about the seriousness of that threat.

Much of today's debate has revolved around part 4—the detention provisions—and I shall start with them. The provisions in part 4, which have been so controversial, have been used to detain people who are, in fact, free to leave tomorrow if they can find a country that will take them. Indeed, they can go to their own country if they do not fear persecution there. Two such individuals have already taken the option to leave. The suspicion must be that, if there were grounds to believe that they would engage in terrorism, they might well continue to do so if they left this country and went elsewhere. That is one of the reasons why the committee was fairly sceptical about the efficacy of the whole procedure. While we did not discuss this, I sometimes wonder whether, in choosing not to leave, some of them prefer to make some kind of political statement through that process—although I would not willingly choose to use a method of making a political statement that involved remaining incarcerated in Belmarsh for an indefinite period.

The committee was also struck by the fact that those provisions do not address United Kingdom citizens against whom there is comparable evidence that gives rise to identical suspicions. There may be at least half as many such people as the number of foreign citizens about whom suspicions arise. We heard evidence about the number. Indeed, there have been examples of the involvement of UK citizens, such as Richard Reid, the shoe bomber.

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The provisions require a derogation from the European convention on human rights that no other country has found necessary and that continuously undermines our promotion of human rights throughout the world, in the many countries where they are damaged and threatened. We therefore sought to find alternatives and to suggest things that, if taken together, could replace the part 4 provisions. They included alternative procedures that have been discussed today, such as the use of an investigating judge, who, as was pointed out, could provide a firewall by examining evidence and considering possibly exculpatory material without revealing to the defendant evidence that, if revealed, would destroy the ability of the authorities to crack down on terrorism.

We suggested the use of aggravation provisions in relation to other offences and the use of intercept material in court proceedings. One should not exaggerate how much can be achieved by the use of such material because there are serious limitations to the amount that could be used, but that ought to be part of the armoury. I am unconvinced by the fact that the review has still not been completed. We were told that the review would be completed in a matter of months while we were conducting the inquiry in the latter part of last year, and that is also what we are being told now. It seems to be an endless review. We must complete the process by establishing procedures for using intercept material as evidence in court.

Alongside those provisions, which are designed to enable prosecution to take place, we suggested a range of measures that, taken together, could enable stricter monitoring of those who are not in prison. Given that those provisions are clearly required for UK citizens about whom suspicions are entertained, and may well be required for people who are released from Guantanamo bay and reappear in this country with suspicions surrounding them, why cannot they be used in respect of a relatively small number of non-UK citizens?

In that context, we welcome the significant increase in the resources available to the Security Service for surveillance. As the Home Secretary said, that provision was not dreamed up for today's debate—or, indeed, for last weekend's newspapers, given that he seems, perhaps inadvisably, to have briefed them about it—but has been developing for some time, and rightly so. Indeed, the Intelligence and Security Committee stated in reports of 2001 and 2002 that the service needed more resources and that if it continued to transfer resources into counter-terrorism, as it had to, unacceptable risks would eventually be taken with various other threats to our security. I welcome the increased resources, although I probably would not be saying so much about them if the Home Secretary had not made them so public.

We suggested a series of measures that, taken together, and perhaps including other aspects brought out by this debate and the six-month review, would provide a basis for getting rid of part 4. We have to do something about it in any case, because it expires in 2006. The committee felt that we certainly should not wait that long, and that the objective should be to replace it before then.

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We also argued for a focused, case management-based approach to the options for all those who are currently detained. Having looked at the Government response, I do not think that Ministers quite understood what we were suggesting. It would not be like the Special Immigration Appeals Commission process by which the validity of a person's detention is tested; it would involve Ministers considering whether individuals could be most suitably monitored back in the community, reconsidered for deportation, or dealt with in a series of other ways. We found no evidence that such a case-by-case review was taking place. Yes, there was a SIAC review into the validity of the detention, but not a review of the options available at any given stage.

Mr. Hogg: The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point that reinforces my earlier proposition. Once a power exists that enables the indefinite holding of a person, the Crown Prosecution Service or others will not strive strenuously to bring a proper prosecution.

Mr. Beith: That is one of the dangers of the system. The SIAC mechanism is very thorough, although its standards of proof are significantly lower than those in a criminal trial. Those taking part apply it conscientiously to test the validity of the limited grounds on which people can be detained under the legislation. However, the committee thought it wrong to have no focused system for checking whether the most sensible option is being pursued in each case. That underlines the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point: where there is no pressure, no action is taken.

Mr. Cash: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the recent case in which SIAC made a decision on the ground that the provisions of the legislation were incompatible with articles 5 and 14 of the European Court rulings because they permitted the detention of suspected international terrorists in a way that discriminated against them on the ground of nationality. The Court of Appeal then reversed that decision, and it is now pending before the House of Lords. That illustrates the point, to which I constantly return, that it is not only a matter for SIAC—it can be adjudicated by the courts.

Mr. Beith: That is true of the principles involved, but not of the individual cases, which are dealt with by the SIAC procedure with no such recourse to the courts. My point was not about testing validity, but about the Government's responsibility to decide whether a certain course of action was still the most sensible one in relation to the individual concerned.

I do not want to spend all my time on part 4, because the Committee made many other recommendations covering a wide range of matters. I am concerned that the constructive tone of this afternoon's debate, mainly on part 4, is not reflected in the Government's response to many recommendations. The response was published only this morning, and I doubt whether many right hon. and hon. Members have had time to look at it in detail. If they did, they would find an amazingly long list of rejections of recommendations, many of which are about the way in which we monitor or scrutinise various processes that limit the freedom of the individual. Some of them have little or nothing to do with terrorism. The

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committee made a series of recommendations on those subjects. I shall give just one example, because it would take up too much of the House's time to go into all of them. It relates to something to which the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire referred—information held by public bodies on individuals and the passing of information from one body to another on various grounds.

In paragraph 22, the committee makes the following recommendation:

In paragraph 23, we go on to say:

We are talking about one Government Department passing information to another on a matter that has nothing at all to do with terrorism—perhaps a much less serious crime—and that ought to be subject to an authorisation procedure. We believe that prior judicial authorisation is appropriate for sensitive information relating to allegations of less serious crimes.

The Government's response includes phrases on which hon. Members should reflect with care. In paragraph 24 of their response they say:

I am not sure that everybody would agree. In paragraph 25, the Government go on to say:

In other words, the Government support joined-up government and want to deliver on all sorts of targets, so one Department should be able to give any other Department without any prior disclosure anything that it has on any individual. The reason adduced is not the imminent danger of terrorism but joined-up government and other "legitimate aims". Hidden in the small print of the Government response are some alarming approaches to issues that have always, both in this House and the Lords, been regarded as matters deserving the most serious consideration. That is just one example of a series of matters that do not relate primarily to terrorism—sometimes they do not relate to terrorism at all—on which the Newton committee made recommendations for procedures or protections, only for the Government to reject our proposals outright. I hope that the constructive spirit that the Home Secretary brought to the earlier part of the debate will now be applied to some aspects of the Government response.

The last general subject that I want to refer to is the parliamentary process under which the legislation was introduced. After all, that is why the committee came

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into existence. Questions are sometimes asked at our meetings about why our terms were drafted in a particular way, and why we received a particular remit. It appears to be a back-of-the-envelope job late at night in the House of Lords when, yet again, part of the legislation was rushed through and subjected to a challenge. A concession had to be made, so it was agreed that a committee of senior Privy Councillors would review the legislation and produce a report that had to be debated. If it was not debated, they could specify that the legislation, or parts of it, should lapse. We are now engaged in that process. Indeed, if the debate had not taken place, the Act would lapse. That would depend not on the result of a vote but simply on whether the debate took place. However, the reason for the back-of-an-envelope arrangement at dead of night was the genuine anxiety about rushing through legislation that covered a wide range of matters, was not part of a coherent body of anti-terrorist law and extended into many other areas.

One of the committee's recommendations is that the Government should revert to their declared policy of having a coherent body of anti-terrorist law. That assumption lay behind the Terrorism Act 2000; indeed, it was explicitly stated. I recognise that the Government believed that they had to act quickly after 11 September, but they should revert to the previous principle. The committee believes that that should happen, especially as it has been extensively acknowledged in the debate that the situation is not temporary and that the legislation is therefore unlikely to be temporary. Its permanence is mentioned on the last page of the Government's response to the Newton committee's report.

I have said that the Act covers many subjects that go far beyond terrorism. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire referred to the Home Office practice of clearing the shelves of anything that they did not get through in previous legislation by sticking it into the next relevant measure. That applies especially if there is an opportunity of getting legislation through quickly and with less trouble than normal procedures allow. I am convinced that that happened in the case that we are considering. Indeed, the Act includes items that were explicitly withdrawn or rejected previously.

One argument that is adduced for such action is that terrorists are criminals, that they commit other crimes, and that the whole Act is therefore terrorist legislation. That was hard to sustain when it became clear to us that the main use of British Transport police powers was dealing with football hooliganism, and the main use of some of the information powers was tackling sexual offences, especially paedophiles. Those are legitimate reasons for legislation but not for justification on the basis that one is dealing with the threat from terrorism. If we argue that all crime can be tied up with terrorism, all criminal justice measures should be emergency legislation, rushed through both Houses of Parliament in as little time as possible because somebody might commit a crime before the process is completed.

The Newton committee took the issue seriously and paragraph 333 of the report states:

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When the Government introduced the measure, they depended on the wide acceptance that, in an emergency, with a serious threat to the country, one sometimes has to react quickly and push through legislation quickly. However, they relied on that to include far wider matters in the Act. The committee suggested that it would be appropriate to revisit many of them in mainstream legislation. The Home Secretary's argument and the Government response are unconvincing.

The Home Secretary was a little more open and honest than the document. He referred to his difficulties in getting his Bills into the parliamentary timetable. However, the official response states:

You could have fooled me, because the Home Office appears to do that regularly. Every year, a new criminal justice Bill and a new anti-terrorism Bill are introduced. The idea that one should not revert to subjects on which one has already legislated is not part of Home Office practice.

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