Previous Section Index Home Page

I certainly do not want to suggest a prescriptive solution to the problem, but it is worth bearing in mind that the opportunity for such speculation and for the emergence of facts that might be prejudicial to a fair trial is clearly helped by lengthening the period between arrest and charge. I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that, particularly as I understand that the Attorney-General has contacted
10 July 2007 : Column 1356
the press to express her anxieties about it. I should also like to know whether the Government think that further legislation would be required to deal with the issue—not, I should like to emphasise, that that is a route on which I would wish to embark in an ideal world. Having fair trials is rather important, because otherwise we run the risk of allowing people who might have committed serious offences to escape conviction. That ought to be a matter of concern to everybody in the House.

I do not want to take up more of the House’s time and I am aware that others wish to speak. I hope that the Minister can provide answers to the queries that I have raised. We shall support the Government in the renewal of the order, even with the hope that it might not have to be renewed in future. On that point, I raise the issue, which has already been mentioned, of post-charge questioning. It is clear that post-charge questioning is intensely relevant to the period of time for which we have to detain people. I hope very much, therefore, that we can introduce it quickly.

Finally, I simply say this to the Minister. At times, the suggestion has been made—not by the Minister, but by others in the Government—that a 28 or 90-day period is necessary not because of the need to question and gather evidence to bring somebody to trial, but almost because it acts as a disruptive mechanism, even though there is really no prospect of the person ever being charged and those arresting them know that.

John Bercow: That will not do.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend says it clearly—that will not do, and it will not do under any circumstances whatever. I hope very much, therefore, that the Minister will take this opportunity to reassure us that that is not now, and will not be at any time in the future, the Government’s reasoning.

5.33 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am obviously in favour of the order and of keeping the period of detention without charge as it is now, namely, 28 days. It would be odd if I were in any way in disagreement with the order.

I said in an intervention, and I repeat now, that a consensus on the issue is desirable. The previous Home Secretary said that he would consult fully, which is a point that the Minister has made again today. We want to avoid a situation such as the one that we faced in November 2005, when there was a great deal of controversy and division. We are united against terrorism, but it would be unfortunate if the Government took the view that a longer period was necessary without providing compelling evidence. If any Government went down that route, whatever the outcome there would be a repeat of what happened before, namely, a great deal of controversy and division. I hope that we can avoid that.

Most people will have seen the advertisement placed by Muslims last week, which emphasised that the overwhelming majority of Muslims who live in this country condemn terrorism. It branded as outright criminals those who want to inflict terror, and pointed out that Islam forbids the killing of innocent
10 July 2007 : Column 1357
people. No one in this House would doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in our constituencies are totally and utterly opposed to terror. We must also, of course, recognise that Muslims would be among the victims.

The criminals argue that they are protesting against foreign policy. In my time, I have protested against the foreign policies of previous Governments. I did so for many years over apartheid, but it was never suggested by the organisers that, because we could not get our way, we should inflict terror on our fellow citizens.

I welcome the advertisement, but I want to make the point that inside the Muslim community, in the mosques and outside, there needs to be constant and continuous condemnation of terrorism. An advertisement arising from the events of last week is fine, and security is fine—one hopes that further security measures will be taken to protect our country—but in the end we are dealing with criminals who believe, according to their interpretation of their religion, that inflicting terror is right and justified. That must be dealt with in the Muslim community because it cannot be dealt with effectively from outside. The point must be made day in and day out, inside and outside the mosques, that Islam forbids the taking of innocent lives, as the advertisement stated.

As for those who talk about protesting against foreign policy, how does that link up with trying to murder females in night clubs? Are we not dealing with people with particularly sick and evil minds, who can look upon women, young or old—obviously, in night clubs they would be young—as though they had no right to life? What is the word that these people use? Slag—a polite word for prostitute. That can come only from sick and evil minds.

John Bercow: I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying now, but I think that he and everyone else would accept that that remorseless programme of education and persuasion is necessarily a continuing and probably long-term process. For the short term, and for the avoidance of doubt, will he tell the House whether, if the Government were to argue for an extension to the number of days, providing evidence—the term that he used—would have to mean published cases?

Mr. Winnick: I would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. At the end of it all, any extension beyond 28 days must depend on clear, persuasive evidence. I think that that is what he was suggesting. To repeat what I said in an earlier intervention, the Home Affairs Committee looked at all the facts. Like all Select Committees, it has members from all three main parties, and we came to the unanimous view that, at the moment, there is no such evidence.

Having spoken about the sort of evil people who want to inflict terror on our fellow citizens, we have to be careful that we do not play into the hands of such criminals by passing legislation that is clearly counterproductive. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and others. We have to reach the right balance between security and civil liberties.
10 July 2007 : Column 1358
Clearly, the criminals want a backlash and a situation where people, including Muslims, can be locked up.

When the IRA was about, the security people were looking for people of Irish origin, not for Muslims, Sikhs or Buddhists. Likewise, at the moment the suspects come from the Muslim community. We risk a situation in which not only the criminals but the fellow travellers and the apologists can turn around and say, “What is happening is action against the Muslim community” and then try to rally that community against the laws passed in this country to protect our fellow citizens. That is why it is so crucial to learn from the experience of dealing with the IRA, internment and all the rest, and not to play into the hands of the very people who want to inflict terror.

I take the view that, so far at least—whatever may happen in the future—Parliament has found the right balance and learned from some of the mistakes made in dealing with the IRA. That does not mean that more steps cannot be taken. It is very much the topic of the moment and it may well be raised tomorrow in Prime Minister’s questions. Further steps can be taken to strengthen the necessary security at ports of entry, for example—again learning from past mistakes, which are much publicised in today’s papers.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is it not to the credit of the British population that since the recent outrages we have seen such a measured and sensible response? People are aware of the savagery with which they are dealing, but the real tribute should be to the common sense of the population, who have not lost their sense of perspective or scented the ability to create scapegoats, but have rather continued to look for sensible and balanced argument.

Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend is right. We avoided a backlash against the Irish during the 30 years of terror in which atrocities were carried out. One of the advantages of age—there are many disadvantages, I am sure—is having a pretty long memory. My hon. Friend may remember that after the war there was Jewish terrorism in Palestine rather than Britain. I shall not go into the rights and wrongs of it, but attempts by fascists to create a backlash against Jews did not succeed. Fortunately, in the main we are sensible people and we do not want to create martyrs. We also recognise that when it comes to the IRA or Islamic terrorism—if we can call it such—we want to locate the guilty and not penalise the innocent in any way. Long may that continue to be so.

I have a couple of points in conclusion. I believe that it is going to be a long haul against terrorism. The IRA’s murderous campaign lasted some 30 years, but whether the present terrorism will last 30 years I do not know. It would be optimistic to believe that it was going to go away in the next year or two. I do not believe that, because terrorism has worldwide significance and what happens here is undoubtedly connected with events abroad. Adopting a different view would be optimistic, and I believe that we have to be realistic and have the patience to deal with this latest curse.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Is there not a slight danger of drawing too precise a parallel with the
10 July 2007 : Column 1359
IRA? After all, the IRA had a specific goal and specific intention and purpose behind their terrorism—despicable though it was. It is very hard to discern, however, a specific purpose or goal behind the current terrorism being waged against our and other western countries.

Mr. Winnick: I partly agree, but I believe that the terrorists do have a specific goal and they hardly disguise it. Al-Qaeda barely avoids mentioning the sort of society that it would like—a Taliban type of society. It has no illusions about that, which brings me to my final point.

Terrorists rejoice in mass murder. They glorify what they do and they glorify death, including the taking of their own lives. On the other hand, we rejoice in life itself and in all the liberties that have made Britain one of the most advanced democracies, in which Muslims no less than any other people enjoy full political and religious freedom. We have much to defend in this country. I believe that we will do so and will defend those liberties, the rule of law and everything that we believe to be so vital and crucial in making this country a civilised place in which to live. That is why, at the end of the day, terrorism will be defeated. I look forward to that day, even though it may not be in my lifetime.

5.45 pm

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): We support the disapplication, if that is the word, of section 25 of the Terrorism Act 2006 and I can assure the House that we will not seek to divide it on the order. It is a matter of record that notwithstanding our very serious reservations about extending the period during which police can detain suspects without charge from 14 to 28 days, we accepted the case at the time. Recent events—the conviction of the four 21/7 terrorists in court yesterday and what happened in Glasgow and Haymarket last week—have provided a reminder, if any were needed, of why it is necessary that we constantly review the powers on the statute book. I also accept, at least as far as I understand the information that has been provided by the police and others, that the sheer complexity of one case—the alleged Heathrow bomb plot last summer—necessitated using the full 28-day period.

However, as the Minister rightly suggested, and on which others expanded, this debate is as much a mini-dress rehearsal for a debate that we are likely to have in the autumn as anything else. Therefore, I would be remiss in my duties as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on these matters if I did not emphasise that our support for the disapplication of section 25 should not in any way be taken as a signal that we think that the debate should evolve towards a further lengthening of the period during which the police can detain people without charge.

It is worth reminding the House, as others have done, how far and how fast we have travelled. The sheer velocity with which the law has changed within a matter of years is striking. The change from 7 to 14 days took place only in 2003, and the change from 14 to 28 days in 2005. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly suggested, we are now way out of step with practice in almost all other countries in the developed world and certainly other
10 July 2007 : Column 1360
common law countries. A suspect needs to be brought before a judge within 24 hours in Canada and within 14 days in Australia. It is also 24 hours before a suspect needs to go before a magistrate in Italy. In Germany, the period is 48 hours.

I do not make those points to oppose the measure—I support it—but we have travelled very far, very fast in a short time, and it is heavily incumbent on those who want to reopen the debate to prove why that case needs to be remade again.

Mr. Cash: Like others, the hon. Gentleman calls for further evidence. The noble Lord Carlile said only a few days ago on the subject of some of those who had escaped these extremely lax control orders that there is “solid evidence” that the trio in question with regard to the Haymarket attempted bombing had wanted to join insurgents abroad and attack British troops serving in Iraq. I assume that he knew what he was talking about.

Mr. Clegg: I am sorry, but I do not entirely understand the relevance of the noble Lord Carlile’s comments on control orders to the matter at hand today, which is the period in which police can detain someone without charge. They are separate legal issues and I do not see the connection. Perhaps I am missing something.

The hon. Gentleman refers to evidence. Given how far and fast we have changed the law in this respect, we believe that it is important that any reopening of the debate needs to be premised on overwhelming evidence. The Minister seemed uncomfortable about—I think he said he cavilled at—the notion that he might need to display evidence. I think he was uncomfortable for the simple reason that, as far as I am aware, there is as yet no overwhelming evidence that a period beyond 28 days is ever deemed necessary.

If I understand the Government’s case correctly, it is based on the assumption that although that has not yet happened, it will happen in the future. The alleged Heathrow bomb plot in particular has set alarm bells ringing in Whitehall and elsewhere with the prediction that it will be replicated in future, which would make the task of marshalling evidence and bringing charges in 28 days almost impossible. If my premise is correct, I should like the Minister to explain how the assumption has arisen. Where and in what way has analysis been conducted to suggest that last year’s alleged complex Heathrow bomb plot will definitely be followed, as night follows day, by an even more complex plot?

I do not imply that that concern has not been well argued or is not sincerely held, but I suspect that part of it flows from a feeling that the police may not have the resources to deal with the sheer complexity of such a plot and of an evidential trail that would stretch across the globe, as it tends to in such cases—hidden in hard drives and so on. Is it not incumbent on the Government to be more candid about the existence of a resources issue? Should they not state clearly that it may be a question less of simply seeking to extend indefinitely the period of detention without charge than of trying to give the police the resources with which to do the job?

The Minister spoke eloquently, if perhaps a little uncharacteristically, of the need to establish cross-party consensus. That is a welcome development, but
10 July 2007 : Column 1361
may I remind him politely that the clock is ticking? We have talked about cross-party consensus for several weeks, and I hope he will not think it churlish of me now to suggest that talk should be transformed into action. I am as yet unaware of any organised mechanism enabling such a consensus to be identified and established.

The Minister referred to changes that the Liberal Democrats and others have advocated for some time, such as making intercept evidence available in court, allowing post-charge questioning, developing the practice of plea bargaining with the aim of gaining informants from among those who operate on the penumbra or margins of terrorist plots—plea bargaining is already used in serious organised crime cases, and I believe it could be used more in terror cases—and considering the so-called threshold test deployed by the Crown Prosecution Service when it brings charges in such cases. All those possibilities need to be examined.

If the Minister agrees on that menu of possible changes, does he also agree that it is at least sensible to consider them first, for the sake of natural chronology, before once again pitching us all into a febrile debate about the time during which the police can detain people without charge? If we are to take a responsible and measured approach, we should think about those issues before deciding collectively to reopen the Pandora’s box of 28 days.

5.54 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): As chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, let me begin by complimenting my hon. Friend the Minister on his active engagement with us on these issues. While we may not agree with some of what he says, I do not think we can complain that he has been unwilling to talk to us.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made an important point which has been lost in the debate. What we are talking about is an extension of 14 days to 28, not an extension of 28 days to 90 or some other number. We need to focus on what this order is actually about. I do not think we are in a position to contradict either the Government or the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in their view that subsequent events have demonstrated the necessity of extending the maximum period from 14 to 28 days.

The purpose of today’s debate is the power of annual renewal in the Terrorism Act 2006, but if such a debate is to be meaningful it must be informed by a thorough, detailed and independent review of how the power has operated in practice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) pointed out, this is not just about Muslim terrorism. We have recently witnessed a good deal of police activity relating to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for instance, and we need to retain a broad approach to the issues.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) spoke of the speed of change. It is also important that we allow changes that have already taken place, such as those involving new offences, to bed down before we begin to consider wider extensions.

Next Section Index Home Page