Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on the measured way in which he made his proposals, although I do not accept all of them. The only blot was when he bracketed us with Burma and North Korea, which is simply incorrect.

Much of the debate about this issue is simplistic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) said, it often equates Belmarsh with Guantanamo Bay, but they are entirely different. It also engages in rhetoric when the Government are accused of betraying human rights.

My hon. Friend the Minister was absolutely right to start with the threat, which is the position taken by many of my constituents when I talk to them about it. They start with the threat demonstrated by 9/11, Spain, Bali and Istanbul. They also refer to what is, in my terms, the pre-enlightenment, anti-democrat, religious fanaticism under which this country is targeted. They also take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) that, at most, this country has detained only 17 people. The comparisons with other countries, such as France and so on, are often false because considerably more people are detained there, even though there is an investigating judge. I am not suggesting that we should react in a populist or utilitarian way. We should approach the issue pragmatically, but as a matter of principle. The Government's critics often approach the matter in absolutist terms and do not engage with the debate.

The shadow Home Secretary started with Lord Hoffman and his account of individual rights, but that is only half the story. Too often these days, we focus exclusively on individual and human rights, but that fails to take account of the history of civil rights and liberties in this country. To put it crudely, in the 19th century, the struggle was for democratic institutions and for whole groups of people to vote, assemble and join associations of workers, so that everyone and not just an elite could benefit. We must take into account the fact that we have democratic
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1448
institutions. We must also take into account the fact that when we talk about rights and liberties, we mean the rights and liberties of groups of people, not just individuals. The Labour party had difficulties with that during the 1930s when Sir Stafford Cripps said that the democratic legislature could overcome property rights. That was an unacceptable position. However, we have a democratic system—a great achievement. It may be flawed, but accounts that state that we have an overpowering Executive are lazy and do not take account of reality.

That 19th-century struggle was also about individual rights, which have of course been overlaid by the great human rights documents of the 20th century—the universal declaration and regional documents such as the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the 20th century, we had to reconcile democracy and individual human rights.

The shadow Home Secretary spoke of the great harm caused to individuals by imprisonment. There is no doubt about that, but in our society we have always accepted that we can deliberately impose grave harm on individuals to lessen the risk to others—we do that every day in the criminal courts; I do that when I send people to prison— because it is done in accordance with certain fundamental principles. The human rights documents themselves accept that democracy and individual liberty have to be reconciled. For example, as we know, there are provisions whereby Governments can act in ways that are necessary for a democratic society, so rights have to give way to that.

It is possible for democracy and human rights to be reconciled, but my main point is that we must take into account democratic institutions and the great 19th-century struggle, so that we have a system in which all can participate democratically. Instead of seeing democratic institutions—in this case, the Home Secretary, accountable to Parliament—as a blot on the system, we should applaud them. As we are debating a Liberal Democrat motion, I shall quote what Lord Carlile said recently in The Guardian:

he referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the former Home Secretary—

I certainly agree with those sentiments.

How do we reconcile democratic institutions acting for the collective good with the human rights of individuals? There are three overarching principles. First, actions must be justified democratically, in Parliament and to the public. Secondly, we cannot put security concerns in an absolute and unqualified way, which accords with another principle—that of shared humanity, recognised in the Human Rights Act 1998. A corollary of that is that any response by the Government must be balanced and proportionate, and take individual rights into account. Thirdly, we must act in accordance with law. That does not mean that we must necessarily act in accordance with the way in which the ordinary criminal courts operate.
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1449

In the article to which I referred earlier, Lord Carlile said, when talking about the steps that might be taken to address the problem of the Belmarsh judgment:

He went on to say that although he, as a criminal practitioner, believes fundamentally in trial by jury, in some cases that may have to give way. We do not necessarily need to have an adversarial system. The shadow Home Secretary said that it might be possible to have a two-judge process, whereby one judge screened the evidence before it went to court.

I do not have time to comment on the Government proposals in detail. The Liberal Democrat suggestion about deportation—that somehow we should have memorandums and framework agreements with other countries and not act until they are tested—is not sensible. We need also to think about creating new offences and a reformed judicial process. The control orders suggested by the Government also seem a sensible way forward.

I do not believe in absolute solutions to such difficult questions. There are no easy answers, but I am right behind the Government in their attempt to grapple with these difficult issues.

6.24 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I have no particular expertise to offer the House in relation to terrorism, and no legal qualification, but we all have a common duty to address the civil liberties of this country's subjects, as has been done eloquently in this debate. It has been generally accepted, with possible reservations, that we all know that there is a problem with terrorism, and it is possible to have slightly different interpretations about how best to deal with it.

I commented in an intervention that only a handful of people at Belmarsh had been subject to detention orders, and I am very doubtful whether that covers the whole population of potential terrorists—I think not—so that would not be a sufficient reaction even if it were necessary. There is an argument for having terrorists out in the community where they can be surveyed and we can keep an eye on them, but it is quite proper at least for the Home Secretary, who is a politically accountable officer, to consider whether detention should be part of the portfolio of measures that can be used against terrorism. I may have reservations about how to do that, and about the process, but it at least should be considered.

In some matters, Back Benchers and loyal Opposition parties have to defer to and trust Ministers in relation to the conclusions that they reach, if only because more evidence is available to them than to those outside the loop. I certainly do not question Ministers' motives, and I welcome the tone of the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety in this debate. We are all trying to feel our way towards an acceptable solution, but the fact that we start with that presumption of trust should not entitle us to give Ministers a blank cheque to do whatever they wish.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), I am concerned that there is a risk that we might stimulate
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1450
terrorism in the act of trying to overcome it. Beyond that, there is also the possibility of paying too high a price for any element of extra security that we may gain by taking certain actions. I have experienced the uncomfortable position of lobbying Ministers and getting them to lobby the Egyptian authorities in relation to one of my constituents who was detained for a very long time and eventually tried and convicted in Cairo, on evidence that would not have been acceptable to the House or to the British courts, for membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and then being told by an Egyptian official, "Well, you lock up people like that as well, don't you?" I found that very uncomfortable.

We should all remember that any action that we decide to take—even if we take it for good reasons—is not cost-free to the citizen. I had the interesting and somewhat disconcerting experience exactly a month ago of being peremptorily stopped in my car and being searched by Ministry of Defence police in uniform under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000. All I hope in that matter is that they acted perfectly correctly, that they were not acting on information relayed to them, and perhaps that their action was proportionate and targeted to the matter at hand—I had some doubts about that—but that shows what can happen to any of us. That was a very trivial matter, and I am willing to pay that price, but of course the process on which Ministers' views were overturned by the Lords, and which they are seeking in a sense to replicate with control orders, would greatly increase the inconvenience to citizens.

I must say, even as an amateur in the field of human rights, that at the time of the initial emergency legislation, when it was confined to foreign nationals, I anticipated what would happen in the Lords three years later, when it was struck down on the grounds of partiality. Of course, the collective approach of Ministers has been to say the answer is to make whatever we come up with applicable to British nationals as well.

I emphasise to Ministers that, even if they do not intend, for example, to use powers to lock up the shadow Cabinet on 1 April—I notice that the Minister is responding with interest to that, but I am making a serious point—any redress by way of appeal would take place ex post facto by judicial review, and would not be immediate. If there were a delay, it would not be cost-free. Of course, foreign nationals have been detained under the existing legislation, with all the horror involved, yet they have had no redress for some considerable time.

Conservative Members have what my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition described as "serious misgivings" about the process. Given that there is a common objective, process is central to the debate. My reading is that the Government object not to the concept of a trial and judicial process but to the malign consequences that might arise from that, such as damaging sources or risking individuals, and the possible inability to adduce certain kinds of evidence to the satisfaction of a court.

I have taken some notice of the deliberations of the Newton committee of Privy Councillors of all parties, partly on the back of the extremely eloquent speech made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and also because Lord Newton was
8 Feb 2005 : Column 1451
my first boss nearly 40 years ago—I echo the accolades that have been given to him. The committee made a careful effort to examine the possible constraints in the use of intercept evidence and the judicial process, and tried to find out whether they could be overcome. The Government should consider more carefully the possibility of preparing or filtering evidence through a judicial process before it is considered by a judge.

If there is evidence out there, it must be considered by someone. We hope that it would be considered by a judge before any detention or serious constraint were contemplated. The alternative choice would be for a Minister to consider it, but I would prefer a judge to do that, given the right safeguards. Ministers must remember—as we all must—that however high they might be, the law is above them. Frankly, the Government, to put it delicately, have not been blind to the real threat to our society, but they have evinced an authoritarian attitude. I find that rather distasteful, and it is one reason why I have signed up to the Conservative civil liberties group. It is important for hon. Members on both sides of the House to take such matters seriously and to witness to them. Ministers should not have a free run in this.

Ministers, especially, should understand that there is no middle way between the right thing to do and authoritarianism—they must do the right thing. It would be much better to find a system that strives to achieve judicial results and goes on to punish wicked people for what they are doing wrong, but does not achieve that by extending the powers of individual Ministers. We need a measure of self-restraint. There must be a better way than allowing the Home Secretary to lock people up without giving us evidence that would stand up in court.

6.32 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page