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Repeal of Provisions of Part 7

Lorely Burt: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

'(fa)   section 108 (evidence)'.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 4, in page 5, line 13 [Schedule], at end insert—' Section 108'.
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3.45 pm

Lorely Burt: These amendments would repeal section 108 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This issue was raised and discussed at some length in Committee and I have no desire to rehearse those arguments now, but I do want to discuss one or two of the points that the Minister made in Committee on the use of hearsay evidence. Section 108 has not been used in the seven years in which it has been available to the authorities in Northern Ireland. In responding to an amendment tabled in Committee, the Minister said that five potential cases were in the pipeline, but that we would not know whether section 108 was effective in that regard until it had been tried out. Seven years down the line, and given that we are seeking to repeal as much terrorism legislation as is safe to repeal, I wonder whether we should be trying to implement more such legislation. We have managed without section 108 for seven years.

I remind the Minister that he said in Committee that

I certainly agree that it is good to take advice from our police and security services, but our job is to strike a balance between convicting terrorists and protecting the basic freedoms that we enjoy elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Of course, the Minister made those comments before the 90-day proposal was voted down. I respectfully suggest to this House that section 108 should be dealt with in a similar way.

Mr. Woodward: These amendments seek permanently to repeal section 108 of the Terrorism Act 2000. I entirely understand Lord Carlile's views on this provision and I have carefully considered whether it should be retained in part 7 of the 2000 Act. Obviously, this is a question of judgment, and judgment is based on weighing evidence and advice, including that of the Chief Constable and Lord Carlile.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) referred to what I said in Committee about the 90-day provision. It is interesting to note that earlier today the Liberal Democrats drew on the advice of Lord Carlile, who did not entirely agree with them about the 90-day provision. There again, the Liberal Democrat policy of pick and mix is one that we well understand.

I am mindful that section 108 has yet to be used in a case. However, it is an exceptional provision and it was never envisaged that it would be used regularly. I am sure that the hon. Member for Solihull is aware of that, but I remind her of the very special circumstances that caused section 108 to be introduced. They still obtain and are the subject of continued investigation, and we must be very aware of them. The hon. Lady has demonstrated this afternoon her real concern to identify with what people feel about OTRs, but we must do the same in respect of the people of Omagh and accept the advice from the security advisers to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Lord Carlile has often given excellent advice, but we judge that, on balance, section 108 should be retained.
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Mr. Dodds: Is not the Minister guilty of adopting a somewhat contradictory approach? In the previous debate, he said that we should have an early deadline because progress was being made and we should be optimistic. However, he now says that we should disregard Lord Carlile's advice and retain section 108 on the ground that it may be needed at some point, even though it has never been used in the past seven years. Moreover, he said in Committee that it was important to retain the option as paramilitary activities overlap further with acquisitive crime. That is exactly the argument put forward by hon. Members on these Benches in the previous debate, and the Minister argued against it. Is there not a clear contradiction in that?

Lembit Öpik: Absolutely.

Mr. Woodward: Absolutely not. Despite the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire—and I thank him for his encouragement—I shall try and explain why my approach is not contradictory.

First, it is worth bearing in mind that one reason why the section has not been used is that cases have collapsed. Secondly, I am not contradicting what I said earlier about the expiry of the special provisions. Section 108 will expire if the enabling climate allows—if it does not so allow, the provision will not expire. It is as simple as that.

We believe that it is right to retain section 108. It is worth noting that a largely similar provision has operated successfully in the Republic of Ireland since 1972. That provision is set out in section 3(2) of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1972. The basic principle underlying it is essentially the same as that underlying section 108, namely, that it allows for the opinion of a senior police officer to be admissible in evidence in a trial on membership charges. The provision has been successfully used in the Republic to    secure convictions for membership of illegal organisations for over 30 years. Only last year, for example, Liam Campbell was convicted of membership of the Real IRA. Although that case is from a different jurisdiction, it offers clear evidence that such a provision can and does work.

I know that the security advice to which I have referred contradicts Lord Carlile's recommendation, but it maintains that section 108 remains a useful provision for the PSNI to have.We understand from the PSNI that there are a number of cases in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland in which section 108 could be used. The individuals involved have been charged with membership of an organisation that is specified, and the police are willing to make a section 108 statement.

Finally, I urge the hon. Member for Solihull to think about the conditions that led to section 108 and about the people in Omagh. The amendment could undermine a prosecution case. When deciding about pressing the amendment to a Division, she should think carefully about the consequences if it were to succeed. What would be the effect on possible prosecutions? Would it help us to achieve normalisation? Would it allow the enabling environment that I mentioned earlier to come about? This is a very serious issue—it is not just about following up a recommendation in a report. It is genuinely about whether or not cases that could come to court could be jeopardised by the hon. Lady's proposal.
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If those prosecutions were assisted by section 108 and resulted in convictions for membership of a proscribed organisation, there will be clear evidence of its usefulness. It remains the case that because it has not yet been tested, we do not know. However, the risk of accepting the amendment is huge. We have concluded, therefore, bearing in mind the ongoing cases, that section 108 remains potentially useful, and we do not wish to handicap the police or those investigating the cases. However, as I have stated, like all part 7 provisions, section 108 is an exceptional provision, targeted at the specific terrorist threat that exists in Northern Ireland. Thus we are committed to its ultimate repeal, as with all part 7 measures, when the security situation allows. That assumes an enabling environment that we may see by the end of July 2007, but if we do not the Bill allows us to continue the provisions for another year. In the event that the security situation then, as judged by the Secretary of State, is not one that would allow the Bill to disappear, we would be able to consider what appropriate steps may need to be taken. However, it is still our belief that by that time the general provisions of counter-terrorist legislation for the whole of the UK will suffice for Northern Ireland as well.

On that basis, and bearing in mind the specific cases of which I have spoken, and thinking of the people in Omagh, the hon. Lady should think again about whether she wishes to divide the House. If she chooses to do so, I urge the House to resist the amendment.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but I intend to press the amendment to a Division because it is an even more important point of principle than new clause 1.

Mr. Woodward: Does the hon. Lady accept that in the unlikely event that the amendment were to be accepted, she could prejudice the cases that I mentioned? What would she propose as an alternative to enable those individuals to be brought before the courts?

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