Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Like other Members, I start by referring to the events that took place in London during the summer and in doing so pay two tributes. The first is to the intelligence and police forces that handled that three or four-week period with great integrity and received much public support for their management of the process.

Secondly, I pay tribute to the Home Secretary, who dealt with those difficult circumstances with great calm, not only at the time of the attack that killed so many people but also a few weeks later when the failed attacks took place in London. I also welcome the fact that, although he was busy and focused, he was courteous enough to include his opposite numbers in the discussions and to keep the Opposition parties briefed. That was an appropriate response and I am very grateful.

The Liberal Democrats have always acknowledged, even during those long hours in January when we were debating the control orders, that there is a real threat to this country from terrorism. Our cross-party differences have been not about whether there is a threat to London and other cities but about the appropriate response to that threat. We remain convinced that the issues are serious and we do not in any way underestimate the need for a proportionate response. We accept that there is a terrorist threat.

The issue has always been about the level and balance of the response to the threat. I have thought long and hard about our party's approach to the Bill. Any responsible politician wants to introduce measures that will make the country safer and it would be irresponsible not to look at measures that could make all of us safer as we walk through the streets of our cities. I was very taken with the Prime Minister's remarks, at press conference after press conference, about civil liberty and the principle of freedom that we should be able to walk freely without fear of attack. Of course we support that. However, as politicians we also need to argue for other freedoms and civil liberties and for the important principle that we do not hand the terrorists a backhanded victory by doing away with our strong principles of justice.

When the bombings took place in London, people said time and again that they did not want the bombings to change their way of life. From that, I drew the conclusion that they wanted sensible measures to make their lives safer but that were not so draconian as to change the way they lived their everyday life.

It was right that the three parties came together during the summer to try to achieve consensus. At that point, the public wanted their politicians not to disagree, but to work together and try to find a way forward. We made much progress in agreeing and signing up to three measures that are in the Bill and still have our support. However, during September, problems emerged, as the Home Secretary said, when the Government decided to go further than the three measures to which we had agreed.
26 Oct 2005 : Column 357

Our party felt that a wide, sweeping new offence of glorification was unacceptable, too hard to tie down in law and would infringe freedom of speech. We also felt that the principle of holding people for three months without charge was a step too far. It was at that point that the consensus began to fall apart. I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has thought again about the provisions on glorification. The removal of the former clause 2 is extremely welcome, but will he go one step further and address the use of glorification in clause 21? It seems to be very much used as it was in its previous incarnation—as one of the grounds for banning organisations. If there could be the same movement on the use of that word as occurred in clause 2, I should certainly welcome it. In substance, we support a large amount of the legislation. We are left with one significant objection about which I shall speak later.

I reiterate the point I made in my intervention. I understand the Home Secretary's irritation at our decision not to support the Bill this evening. I repeat that we are determined to try to get consensus back on track in Committee. We want to persuade the Home Secretary and the Government that there are alternatives to holding suspects for three months. However, he needs to understand the strength of feeling about the issue in my party and why we felt that rather than waiting to show our objections on Third Reading—if those provisions remain unchanged—we had to send the Government the strongest possible signal that, if things stay the same and the clause remains in the Bill, we could not support it. That is why we felt that it was right to make that stand tonight. However, our commitment to try to resolve the issue and our commitment as a party to support a changed and modified Bill on Third Reading remain.

Mr. Hogg: May I support the hon. Gentleman in what he has just said? If one cannot support the core measures of a Bill, one must oppose it, even though it will be considered in detail in Committee.

Mr. Oaten: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention. The decision was difficult because there is much in the Bill that I support and much of it has been subject to talks. At the end of the day, however, I took a judgment and my colleagues agreed—we debated it at the party conference—and we felt that we could not support a Bill that included such a provision. I would have found it extremely hard to abstain or to support something that included a provision with which I fundamentally disagreed. The honest thing to do in those circumstances is to take the position that we have taken. I regret only that it could be interpreted as our wanting to wreck the consensus. We do not want to do so. It is a principled position that we hold dear.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he was opposed to a sweeping glorification clause and that he accepted that the Government had made a change by removing the former clause 2. Does he accept that clause 1 includes an element of intent and is he content with that?
26 Oct 2005 : Column 358

Mr. Oaten: In Committee, we shall want to look at the whole question of intent and when I talk about the indirect incitement provisions I want to look at how both intent and likelihood are built in, so I shall address those points when I get to that section of my speech.

I want to deal with some of the measures that we support. First, we have long argued that acts preparatory to terrorism should be a criminal offence. We argued that when the Newton committee reported and when we were dealing with derogations from the European convention on human rights. We said that such an offence was a better way of getting suspects into court than holding them without charge. The provisions on acts preparatory have a clear level of intent built into them and that principle should run through the whole Bill.

Secondly, we very much support the creation of a new offence of training for terrorism, although I want to flag up one concern. The Bill also includes an offence of attending a place used for terrorist training. It would be nonsense if, for example, journalists who attended a place of training as part of their investigative work fell foul of such an offence. We need to tidy that up in Committee.

Thirdly, and more problematically, we support the idea of creating an offence of indirect incitement to terrorism. We support it because there will be occasions when people with some influence will be able to use either written or spoken language with the clear intention of encouraging others to commit a terrorist attack. That should be an offence in this country. The problem is that the clause, and the criminality of the statement, depend on the interpretation of a third party, not the statements themselves or the intentions of a publisher. It depends very much not on what somebody says but on how other people react to what they say. We have concerns about the provision, but we broadly support it.

It would be extremely helpful if some safeguards could be included. At present, the offence is modelled on the proposal of the Council of Europe convention on the prevention of terrorism, which was signed earlier this year. Under that convention, there are two key safeguards: first, incitement must be intentional and, secondly, there must be the likelihood of a terrorist attack as a result. As we explore the matter in the next couple of weeks, it would be helpful if we could move back towards that model and build into the Bill those sensible twin safeguards that are already enshrined in the European convention on the prevention of terrorism.

As I said, those matters have our broad support, but before I address our key difficulty with the Bill, I want to touch on the definition of terrorism itself. We have debated the way in which we define terrorism and it is my general view that the current definition is too wide. The Home Secretary helpfully wrote a note to the shadow Home Secretary and me yesterday in which he outlined his arguments for why—bluntly—he thinks that that definition is probably the best one in town and we should thus probably try to stick with it. He said that the definition was very close to that drawn up by the EU in 2002, but I am worried that there is an important difference between the Home Secretary's definition and that of the EU.
26 Oct 2005 : Column 359

Under the Home Secretary's definition, there could be circumstances in which animal rights groups and groups such as Greenpeace fall foul of terrorist legislation, as he acknowledged in one of his recent Select Committee appearances. The EU definition includes the phrase:

Tagging on that additional phrase is helpful by making an attack on property or a field a separate issue. The EU phrase would clearly add an extra layer to the definition that would give confidence to people like me who are worried that the definition of terrorism being used is too broad. I am not suggesting that it would be easy to redefine terrorism, but the small EU addition would go some way towards improving our definition of terrorism, which we would all like to see better defined.

I turn to our major concern, which the shadow Home Secretary outlined in detail: the provisions of clause 23. Why is the question of holding suspects for such a long time a key principle for this party? Article 40 of Magna Carta says:

That has been an established principle of our criminal justice system for some 800 years. That principle of liberty has been adopted across the globe. Indeed, article 40 of Magna Carta is the forerunner of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which says that

To put it simply, as long as we have had justice in this country, that principle has been at the heart of it.

Next Section IndexHome Page