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The process of change in the inquest system, particularly where it has been driven by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, has all been in the direction of stronger safeguards for independence of the courts, greater public scrutiny and more involvement of the family of the deceased, particularly where the death involves a person in custody or a person to whom the state owes a duty of care.

Ministers from the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice have worked hard to reach out to bereaved families and build confidence in the Government’s commitment to ensure that investigations of controversial deaths are prompt, thorough and fair. I believe that measures before the House today could undermine public confidence and confirm the fears of many bereaved families that investigations of the deaths of their loved ones may be subject to interference from on high and cover up that is incapable of challenge.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: May I say how much I applaud what my hon. Friend is saying about clause 64, which is an awful clause, and how she is saying it? Does she agree that the clause contains no provision for appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision effectively to turn a coroner’s inquest into a secret inquiry, and that that in itself is cause for considerable concern?

Mrs. Humble: I share my hon. and learned Friend’s concerns.

Clause 64 proposes that the Secretary of State be given an astonishingly wide-ranging power to remove a jury from an inquest if he or she believes that evidence will be heard that should not be made public. Rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984 already gives the coroner powers to direct that the public be removed from an inquest if sensitive matters of national security are raised. If inquests take place behind closed doors, it will be hard for bereaved families and the public at large to allay any suspicions of unlawful conduct.

Clause 65 will create a new class of specially appointed coroner and thus give rise to the appearance, as has been noted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of political interference with the proper functioning of the inquest. The Government believe that the Committee’s fears are misplaced because the measure will allow the specially appointed coroner to examine materials not disclosable to his or her coroner colleagues, the jury, the family of the deceased or their legal representatives. I find it hard to believe that that defence of clause 65 will prove persuasive for bereaved families or their representatives, let alone the European
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courts. Instead, it risks undermining public confidence in the Government’s commitment to strengthen the independence of the judiciary.

Investigations of the deaths of service personnel in times of war and conflict pose many new challenges for an inquest system in urgent need of reform. The coroners of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire in particular bear a heavy burden in overseeing the determination of the causes of death in exceptional circumstances. With limited resources, the courts have sought to involve families who are distressed and sometimes very angry. Officials have provided first-class support and advice. Legal representatives of the families have battled to secure exceptional funding and fought for an open, transparent process. Juries have been diligent in performing their functions.

All those involved are conscious of the vulnerability of the armed services to unfounded accusations and of their sensitivity to unwarranted criticism. In such circumstances, it is even more important that the independence of the inquest system should be safeguarded and the integrity of its procedures protected.

Concerns about these controversial proposals have been expressed by the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and of the Justice Committee. I can only concur with their opinion that the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for introducing the proposals. If such proposals are to be introduced, the proper vehicle for their consideration is the coroners Bill.

9.6 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I agree with what the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said about part 6 of the Bill, and with what the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said in his intervention. However, I want to deal with an earlier and a later part of the Bill.

A great number of participants this evening have drawn attention to the speech made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and they were right to do so. I also pay tribute to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). The vast majority of the speeches have been contrary to the Government’s position, and a feeling is emerging that terrorism will be broken and deterred or inhibited only with the co-operation of the minority to whom it is designed to appeal. To seek a battle over the number 42 as opposed to 90, as the Government appear to be doing, will not reassure the majority and will simply feed the sense of victimhood of the minority. In short, it is merely a branch of gesture politics.

I say that in the context of a Bill that includes clause 59, which deals with the appointment of special advocates in matters to do with the seizing of the assets of those who have been convicted of terrorist offences. The clause provides for a relevant Law Officer to appoint a person to represent the interests of the party to the asset-freezing proceedings. I am staggered that in clause 59(2) the Government are pleased to announce that a person who is appointed as a special advocate is not responsible to the party to the proceedings whose interests
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this person is appointed to represent. If we are to consider the rights of the individual in that context, there is not much hope for any of us.

Sammy Wilson: I wanted to intervene on an earlier point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman. Much has been made of the parallel that has been drawn between the limit of 42 days and the lessons learned from internment in Northern Ireland. Does he not accept that internment in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was totally different from the focused 42-day detention of particular individuals who might have been caught carrying out terrorist offences? The lessons that can be learned are therefore very limited.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a huge difference between the facts and the history of Northern Ireland and the facts and the history of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorism that we have to deal with today. But the general point is a good one, and I do not resile from it and nor should anyone else.

In the few minutes remaining of my speech, I shall concentrate on schedule 1 and the paragraphs that deal with the alleged parliamentary and judicial oversight of the powers to extend the maximum period of detention. The Government’s approach is particularly hard to understand because the prosecution can use their threshold test, which has been mentioned several times, to decide whether to charge a terrorist suspect and finish collecting the evidence afterwards. That requires simply reasonable suspicion of the commission of an offence and is lower than what is called the full code test, which requires a reasonable prospect of conviction. In the absence of reasonable suspicion, it would be difficult to justify arrest, let alone detention. If post-charge questioning is allowed in such cases, as many of us hope it will be, the practical prejudice of a 28-day limit to the prosecution begins to look pretty speculative.

I shall say a little about parliamentary and judicial oversight. As I have mentioned, schedule 1, from paragraph 41 onwards, sets out the regime under which the Government think they will buy us off. What is the use of the information referred to in paragraph 41, which will be presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State? What is the use of telling us the material that exists? What is the use of the provision in relation to the administration of justice both generally and in the particular case of any given detained individual? What is the use of it so far as the rights and interests of the police, the prosecuting authorities and the defendant are concerned? I suggest that it is no more than pretended parliamentary oversight to add to the restricted judicial oversight referred to later in the schedule.

Parliament should not take any active part in criminal cases, which is precisely what the schedule provides for. If the process is of any real use, it is constitutionally improper, and if it is not, what is the point of it, except, as I suggested a moment ago, to buy parliamentary support for this egregious measure?

There is plenty that is not too objectionable about the Bill, but I am afraid that it is trumped by the Government’s proposals in relation to 42 days and the bogus form of democratic and judicial oversight of the Secretary of
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State’s powers. That is regrettable, but not the least bit surprising from this tired and, I suggest, soon to depart Government.

9.12 pm

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): In the past six months, we have heard a great deal about Britishness—indeed the former Attorney-General was put in charge of it, perhaps as a consolation, but more likely as a punishment for his term in office. In truth, that was wholly unnecessary. We do not need to be taught about Britishness, or about flags and ceremonies. Britishness has many great attributes at its root, but civil liberties are not one of them. Civil liberties are not an attribute of being British. They are the defining characteristic of our nation. They are what we are.

That is not hyperbolic; I mention it simply because what comes from it is the enormously high burden and standard of proof required in this House if any Government attempt in any way to circumscribe or check those liberties. My first point, which has been made extraordinarily well already, is that there is no evidence whatever to vote for the Bill—none. Hopeful statements of desiderata are not evidence. Statements from senior police officers saying, “I would really like this,” or, “I would really, really, really like this,” or, “It would be very useful,” or, “I need this,” are not evidence. Evidence is what needs to be put before the House, and there is none, so the Bill must not be voted for.

I wish to spend a couple of moments on a matter that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has just dealt with very well, so I can shorten what I was going to say. It is the entirely indigestible palliative that has been served up by the Government to attempt, as he said, to persuade the House to pass this measure. The House would be given an extraordinary power, but it is a power over the decision of the Executive that we simply cannot take. It is simply not available to us.

One can imagine the process: the Attorney-General—or the DPP, or the relevant chief of police—will say to the Home Secretary, “Look, we’ve found a plot. In fact, we’ve found two plots, or three, so we want special powers. We want to extend the limit to 42 days.” In response, the Home Secretary will say yes, and she will come to the House to get our approval for what is, of course, a judicial act.

That is a complete misapprehension of the difference between parliamentary and judicial power. We can use parliamentary power to give judicial power, not to exercise it, but that is what we will be doing. Will we exercise it ad hominem? In other words, are we going to be given the names of the plotters and the details of what they have done and how they have done it, so that we can decide what we are going to do? Or will we be told, “We know things you do not know”? That is much more likely.

Worse still, will we be told, “This group of plotters has weapons of mass destruction”? It would take an awful lot to get that through this House, and even more to get it past the people out there. What would happen if that were to be said and accepted by the House, only for us to discover—again—that it was a false and
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duplicitous claim? The result would be that this House would be found to have connived in locking up for 42 days people—almost certainly members of minority groups—who are innocent.

We cannot take this power. There are checks and balances on courts and juries and rules of evidence that mean that we know how information comes before us. We cannot operate like that in this Chamber, because juries are not whipped. I know many judges who wish that they were whipped, but they most certainly are not.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My hon. and learned Friend has been a consistent opponent of any attempt to introduce a counter-terrorism Bill, and that has attracted some strange bedfellows. He has long experience in this place, so will he say what judicial review or parliamentary scrutiny took place when miners were locked up in their houses during the miners’ strike, as a result of the emergency legislation introduced by the then Conservative Government? People could not leave their houses. What parliamentary scrutiny was there then?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: There was none, and I hope that my hon. Friend feels that he is making precisely the point that I am making. At the time of the miners’ strike, a law was passed that received neither judicial review nor scrutiny. Therefore, although he and I may have appeared to be at odds, in fact my hon. Friend and I are almost certainly at one. I am grateful to him—not least for the fact that his intervention has clocked up an extra minute for me that enables me to say something about 90 days.

What I want to say about 90 days has been said before, but it is worth reiterating in this House. If 42 days is the period of time required to do justice in the circumstances that are envisaged why, two years ago, were hon. Members on my side of the House whipped to approve a period double that which is now deemed to be necessary? That question has never been answered to my satisfaction, although the Government have adopted the rather coy approach of saying, “We have been listening, and we’ve learned.”

What, exactly, has been learned? What is the blazing, Damascene truth that has suddenly caused Ministers to say, “We got it wrong. We were going to lock people up for six weeks, which was completely unnecessary. We are very sorry”? The only person to my knowledge who has attempted to defend the Government’s approach was Lord Falconer. He made a robust—indeed, rotund—contribution but, when one reads it, one sees that it was completely untenable.

I simply place that before the House, for the House’s delectation. We should not have trusted the argument two years ago, and there is absolutely no reason why we should do so now.

9.19 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), who has been consistent and right about the policy.

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This is one of the most foolish Bills to come before the House. In many of its proposals, it is certainly one of the weakest and most unjust, but my chief concern relates to the extension of the pre-charge period to 42 days. Let us be clear what we are talking about. The proposal goes to the heart of what it means to be free. Depriving a person of their liberty is a more fundamental infringement of their rights than perhaps any other, yet the Government have consistently failed to provide any evidence to suggest that the extension to 42 days, to deny someone their freedom, is actually needed.

In a liberal democracy, certainly in peacetime, freedom should not be denied simply on the basis of suspicion. Evidence is absolutely essential. If we go down the road of detaining people purely on the basis of suspicion, we are a step closer to becoming a police state. Indeed, it appears to be a new principle of legislation that we pass laws today for an imagined scenario some time in the future. That is not the way to make law. Suspicion and hypothesis must take second place to evidence.

Not only is the 42-day detention period not needed, but it would be wholly disproportionate to what other democratic countries, facing similar terror threats, are doing. International comparisons are revealing. In most western democracies the pre-charge detention period is less than eight days. What is so unique about the British that the Government believe that they need not just 28 days but 42 days? Perhaps the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing could look at it this way: will he list five or six countries where the pre-charge detention period is actually 42 days? What sort of countries are they? Are they democracies? What sort of dubious club are we about to join? I should be happy to give way to him, however briefly, if he could come up with some suggestions.

In an intervention on the Home Secretary I mentioned the Madrid bombings. That example is relevant. Eventually, 29 suspects were charged. The case involved seven countries and 300 witnesses. There was a massive amount of evidence to go through yet all the charges were made within five days. Why do the Government believe that our investigations are so much less efficient and effective than those in other countries? They have not made that case.

Furthermore, the policy could be not only ineffective but counter-productive. I shall not dwell on that point because several other Members, especially the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), made it aptly. I shall simply add a personal experience.

Like many of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches, I served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and I saw at first hand how counter-productive internment actually was. By that time we were at the end of it, but we had to pick up the pieces. Internment made the job of the terrorists easier—they could simply go into local communities and recruit extremists. There was little doubt in our mind that one of the major reasons was the injustice of internment. We must not make that mistake again in this country. If we do, we shall be storing up a problem for ourselves that will last many decades, and many innocent people will pay the price.

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In the minute or so that remains for my speech, I can say only that it is no wonder that commentators are queuing up to condemn the Bill. We have heard about the Director of Public Prosecutions, the former Attorney-General, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Affairs Committee and many others. They are not ignorant bystanders; they are experts in their field who should be respected.

Finally, the Home Secretary made great play of the parliamentary safeguards that exist with regard to this legislation, but they would be inadequate, inappropriate and illogical: inadequate because the legislation does not allow for a vote by Parliament before the Home Secretary makes use of her powers; inappropriate because it is not the role of Parliament to assess individual cases; and illogical because, when triggered in response to an individual case, the extension of the pre-charge limit will apply to all suspects held, even if their cases do not justify such an extension. This is a bad Bill. One can only speculate about why it has been introduced at this time—perhaps in a vain attempt to outflank the Opposition and to prove that the new Prime Minister is tough on terrorism—but the case has not been made, and I hope that the House has the courage to defeat the Bill when the time comes.

9.25 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): International terrorism is the scourge of the modern age. It is pernicious; it percolates down through society and lies in dark corners, ready to strike at any time, in any way and at anyone. It strikes without warning, without reason and without care for human life.

Sometimes, I am astonished that some hon. Members blame themselves or the Government for the attacks. For example, they will say that al-Qaeda attacks on our soil have happened wholly because of the invasion of Iraq. I do not agree with that because, if the invasion of Iraq had not happened, I firmly believe that another reason would have been picked to justify the attacks. Ultimately, al-Qaeda is about an attack on and the destruction of our entire way of life. Al-Qaeda networks are active in many countries—those which supported the invasion and those that did not. Let us not forget that many of the victims of al-Qaeda are Muslims. That should be our recruiting sergeant in our Muslim communities.

We all oppose terrorism. All hon. Members care about civil liberties, especially those of the individual. I care about the liberty of the individual to enjoy going to a nightclub in Piccadilly, to board a tube train at King’s Cross to go to work or to catch a plane at Glasgow airport to go on holiday without the fear of being blown up.

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