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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I now have to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day.

On the motion on Northern Ireland, the Ayes were 279, the Noes were 226, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

15 Feb 2006 : Column 1471

Terrorism Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 3

Application of Ss. 1 and 2 to Internet Activity etc.

Lords amendment: No. 22, in page 5, line 17, leave out

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): I beg to move, that this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 23, Government motion to disagree thereto, Lords amendment No. 29, and Government motion to disagree thereto.

Hazel Blears: Although I am sure that our debate on these amendments will be somewhat shorter than our debate on the previous group, they are detailed and controversial and I have no doubt that they will be subjected to proper scrutiny this afternoon.

The amendments relate to clause 3, which extends to the internet the offences set in clauses 1 and 2—encouragement to terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications. I am sure that the House does not disagree with the principle of the clause that knowingly encouraging terrorism through the internet should be a crime. We have all heard about the radical material that is sometimes distributed via the internet and on the worldwide web, and the damage that it can cause. However, in applying the offences in clauses 1 and 2 to the internet, we faced a significant problem relating to knowledge of the offence.

As we all know, it is possible for someone who runs a bulletin board-style website to be unaware of the content posted on it. Clause 3 provides for a notice and take-down procedure to enable the police to notify those who are unaware of offending material of its presence and to request them to remove it from the public view. If they choose not to remove the material, they will be deemed to have endorsed it and they will lose the chance, if they are prosecuted under clauses 1 or 2, to use the defence of non-endorsement set out in those clauses.

The House should bear in mind, first, that refusal to obey the notice and take-down procedure is not an offence in itself. The legal effect of refusing to comply with the notice is merely that the statutory defences in clauses 1 and 2 of non-endorsement are not open to be used by the person in question. Secondly, even if an individual fails to comply with the notice, the prosecution will still have to prove that they intended to encourage terrorism or to make information or assistance available to terrorists, or they were subjectively reckless about that. Those are significant burdens on the prosecution. The clause provides simply that someone who chooses to ignore the notice and take- down procedure will not be able to avail themselves of the simple statutory defence of non-endorsement; the prosecution will still have to prove the offence. The intention behind clause 3 was to provide a method by which webmasters could be made aware of content on
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their websites, thus ensuring that they could not claim not to have known about it if they were subsequently prosecuted.

The internet is a fast-moving medium. In the field of removal of child pornography, in which the UK is the acknowledged world leader, it is accepted that offensive material can change location several times in one day. Shifts in location can take place between different computer servers, across countries and across continents.

Mr. Ellwood: The problem to which the right hon. Lady refers is an international problem, but we are prompted to act in this respect because we are trying to deal with a problem of international terrorism. What discussions has she had with ICANN—the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is the international organisation responsible for the servers themselves—which would be at the heart of any attempt to solve the problem? If we control what goes out on the internet, we stop the means of communication that terrorists use so freely.

Hazel Blears: Personally, I have not had any such discussions, but extensive discussions are under way with internet service providers and the communications industry both in the European Union and internationally to try to ensure that we tackle those problems in relation to terrorism and child pornography. Hon. Members will acknowledge that we have made significant progress in dealing with child pornography in this area. Those discussions are under way, but the hon. Gentleman is right—we face international problems, and the imperative is to maximise international co-operation on these issues.

Locating that material and ensuring that it is removed is sometimes a difficult job, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It was therefore proposed and accepted by the House that a police constable could issue a notice to the person responsible for disseminating or publishing content considered capable of prosecution. The amendments made in the other place drastically change the effect of clause 3, and stipulate on the grounds of protection of freedom of speech that a judicial authority, rather than a police officer, should be capable of issuing such a notice. Moreover, they stipulate that the judicial authority should be a circuit judge, a judge of the High Court in England and Wales or an equivalent judge in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The argument advanced in the other place for such a change is that it would not be in the interest of a service provider or webmaster to ignore a notice, and that a police constable was not an appropriate authority to issue such a notice, given the effect on freedom of speech. I understand some of the concerns expressed in the other place, but I hope to reassure the House that they are unfounded. First, we are working to produce guidance on the issue of notices under clause 3 with a working group comprising members of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other interested parties. It is certain that a clearly stated protocol will be introduced under which notices will be issued. It is therefore not possible for a notice to be issued without serious consideration. Concern was expressed in the other place that a police officer could decide on a whim
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that material on the web contravened the provision and could issue a notice. However, I can reassure the House that that will not happen.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I accept the Minister's reassurance but, under the Bill as drafted, it is possible for any constable to issue a notice, whatever protocol is introduced.

Hazel Blears: It is appropriate for a police officer to take such a step, but I am seeking to assure the House that that police officer will be an accredited specialist with proper training. I hope that, on the basis of my assurances, the House is comforted that we are trying to build in sufficient safeguards so that the powers are not exercised disproportionately.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): How many cases will come to the attention of the police and result in such an order in a typical year?

Hazel Blears: I am not in a position to speculate about the effect of the provision because it is a new measure. The police, however, will look at the issue carefully. We all accept that some material circulated internationally on the web could fall foul of clauses 1 and 2, so it is appropriate to introduce a mechanism to request that that information is removed quickly—as I said, the internet is a fast-moving medium.

May I set out the detail of what the special branch officers will do, as it will give the House some reassurance? An officer in the anti-terrorism branch of the police service who carries out such duties is known as the single point of contact, and deals regularly with internet service providers and the communications industry. Our relationship with the communications industry does not simply focus on terrorism, and there are a range of issues on which the police must foster good relations. The accredited single point of contact officers will ensure efficiency and good practice in their management of relationships. They will use only practical and lawful requirements for the acquisition of communications data, and they will provide a guardian and gatekeeper function to minimise the burdens on internet providers so that a huge amount of bureaucracy is not created. At the same time, however, they will ensure that there is access to the information that could help us to tackle such problems.

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