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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): We agree in principle with wanting to take off the net material that would incite or encourage terrorism, on which there is agreement on both sides of the House. However, we want to preserve the protections put in place by my noble Friends in relation to free speech and freedom of information and a certain degree of protection for the police.
The internet is the most extraordinary communication tool. It brings light to some of the darkest places in this world because it circumvents the censorious nature of authoritarian Governments or dictatorships. We laud its freedoms when it suits us, because it brings news and the outside world into those countries where Governments would keep freedom at bay. We object when we see Governments interfere with those freedoms, as we did recently in the early-day motion on China and Google, which I signed.
The Government wish to disagree with my noble Friends' amendment. We believe, however, that free speech is threatened by intervention in what can and cannot be published on the internet. We therefore agree that the safeguards in relation to any removal of material should be strengthened. If the amendment is allowed to stand, the decision to serve a notice will be removed from the constable and will become a matter for judicial oversight. We want to ensure that the mischief that the Government rightly seek to address is confined to that particular mischief.
May I give a rather flippant example? We all know of the case of Mr. Walter Wolfgang, who was removed from the Labour party conference under
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anti-terrorism legislation on the determination of a police officer. Were Mr. Wolfgang to have a website, the Bill would allow a police officer to insist on its removal. We all know that that is a flippant example and that it is unlikely to happen, but under the Bill it is possible.
If a notice is served, an internet service provider will inevitably remove material that is cited as being unlawfully terrorism-related, because it will not be in the provider's interest to risk the cost, the fight and the possible prosecution for the sake of something about which, ultimately, he may not care very deeply. He might not be caught for non-compliance with the notice, but he would be caught under the provision relating to an endorsement being seen to have been given if the material were not removed within two days, and would be exposed to prosecution. Obviously, service providers would fight shy of that. No wonder they are not complaining to the Minister; I do not think they can. Accepting the notice and removing the material is the line of least resistance.
The judgment on material thought to be unlawfully terrorism-related becomes crucial. The Bill refers to the opinion of a constable. I am impressed by the sudden escalation of the qualifications of that constable to the level of special branch, with authority to give particular guidance; but the Bill uses the word "constable" nevertheless. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for our police officers, the usual remit of the police is to submit those suspected of law-breaking to the judiciary for their decision. Under the Bill, a constable will be the arbiter.
There is a history surrounding the opinions of police officers, particularly in respect of issues of this kind. We know that stops under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 resulted in a 300 per cent. increase in the number of stops after ll September. We know of the disproportionality relating to stop and search and stop and account. To my personal knowledge the Met has worked hard to eradicate such tendencies from its police officers, but that disproportionality persists. But even when a constable's discretionwhich is vital to police workis used, it is used to bring a suspect to justice. The constable is not supposed to act as judge and jury.
Moreover, the likely consequences of making the constable, through his "opinion", the final arbiter over what is unlawfully terrorism-related may expose the police to public criticism or ridicule should the "opinion" be obviously and substantively wrong, and subject them to unwanted publicity. The same would apply if a provider took his case to court and wonalthough, as I have said, I doubt that that will happen. The police would become vulnerable if required to make a judgment that a police person is not trained to make, and which it is not appropriate for him or her to make. The police have enough to contend with. Their role should be to bring offenders to justiceto submit to a judge those who, in their opinion, deserve a notice to remove material from the web. Judicial oversight would afford some protection to free speech, and to police officers who would otherwise be charged by the Government's edict with an inappropriate power to
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decide. Accepting the Lords amendment would have merely a time consequence, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said. We are talking about a delay of a few hours, not about going to court. The measure is akin to an arrest warrant rather than a court hearing, so the Minister's argument is somewhat specious.
Judicial oversight would lend weight and seriousness to a decision to issue a notice to remove such material, which can only be a good thing; such extra protection has to be a worthy thing. The added benefit is that in referring cases to judges, constables would have more time to weigh the decision being taken; as a result, they would not refer cases so lightly. Constables themselves would consider whether a particular case was worthy of judicial oversight, which provides an extra protection.
We all understand what the Government are trying to do, but we must ensure that we do not in any way become like those authorities and Governments around the world whom we judge so harshly for their censorship and lack of freedoms. The safeguards that we propose are relatively minor, but they are necessary.
Mr. Redwood: I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and all those who are concerned about this provision. Like the Minister and all sensible people in this House, I wish to see every decent action taken against terrorism to make it less likely, and to curb those who want to participate in it. However, I am very nervous about the Government's proposal, which will leave our police in great difficulties. The use to which such material is put is in the eye of the reader and the mind of the beholder.
I trust that all Members believe in the rule of law, peaceful and legal protest and democratic action, not in violent or terrorist action. It is quite possible for us to read histories of recent or past events, of freedom movements and people who have gone beyond the rule of law in what they thought was a just cause, without them inciting us to do the same. To us, even if the cause was right, the means were wrong, and we read such histories with condemnation in our hearts and minds. It would be quite possible, however, for others to read such histories without that strong framework. One could argue that such histories incited them to do likewise in that cause, or in a cause that they regarded as similar. At what point does legitimate history, comment and reporting end, and incitement and the writing of dangerous material begin?
I would have been much happier to support the Minister this afternoon, had she been able to say how serious a problem this is, what kind of material she doesand does nothave in mind, and how many such instances we might be talking about. If she is saying that she knows of websites that contain outrageous material that is having an impact on a limited number of people, who are then using them to develop a terrorist mentality and to share intelligence with one another, that is one thing, and an argument that I can understand. If, however, she is saying that all manner of websites could be out there that could cause this problem, that is very different. My worry is that the latter is the case, and that the Government are taking a scattergun, very general approach that will place newspapers, opinion-formers, commentators and others in a very difficult position.
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They will not be sure whether their material could be struck down, or what processes they could use to defend themselves.
The suggestion is very good and because we wish to prevent terrorism by all sensible means, we will not try to prevent the Minister from extending the powers of the state in this way in order to have some control over internet material. However, in order to reassure all those involved in legitimate reportage, history writing or internet communication that they are not being targeted, a senior judicial figure should be involved in such cases. That would also provide an added protection for our constables. The Minister said that we are talking about a very limited number of specially trained peoplepeople who need remarkable language skills and judgment in trying to distinguish between the different types of material that I have sketched out todaybut in fact, the Bill states that any constable could deal with such matters. That places too big a burden on constables, and might lead to pressure being put on them by people who see websites that they do not like, and who think that this could be a route to getting them closed down. I therefore urge the Minister to think again.
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