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The order was entirely in the control of the Minister, and that provision was in the notorious Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922.

This year, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Its work and cause were supported by many Members of this House, and one of its aims—and eventual successes—was to overturn that obnoxious legislation. We need to remember how notorious the 1922 Act was. South Africa’s Minister for Justice in the apartheid years, Mr. Vorster, put through his own pernicious legislation, but said that he would trade it all for one clause of the 1922 Act.

Now we find that, with this Bill, this Government are digitally remastering one of the most pernicious and obnoxious provisions of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922. That is what we have come to, and that is what is happening with the provisions in the clauses under consideration. They are almost uncanny in their resemblance to the 1922 Act when it comes to their scope and their effect.

If nothing else, what should give people cause for concern is that the measures will not be applied only to Northern Ireland. Indeed, Northern Ireland is in some ways protected from some of them, as the special coroners will not operate there. As I understand it, that is because it is deemed that all Northern Ireland’s coroners are already kosher, having been security-vetted and all the rest of it. However, the standard set by the 1922 Act is to be the law for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the future.

The House needs to think twice about these provisions, and I beg the Government to think again about them.
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Ministers may claim that they apply in only a small number of cases, but it has been stressed already that those cases will be very important and controversial. Moreover, if the number of cases is likely to be small, and if the powers are to be used only rarely and as such are not worth worrying about, why are we to have 15 special coroners? Why are the Government going to such lengths, without consultation and when other legislation is going to be available soon? If they are trying to clarify, reform and deal with problems with the coroner’s system in an effective and positive way, appropriate legislation is already coming.

The Government should withdraw these provisions from the Bill. If they do not do so, Parliament should say no to them.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I find myself in complete agreement with the points made in the series of powerful speeches about this part of the Bill. Indeed, it is difficult to see how any objective observer could fail to be in complete agreement with those points.

I support the amendments put forward by Opposition Front-Bench Members, and others. I hope to vote for them later this evening, but I do not intend to engage on those issues in what I hope will be a brief contribution to this debate. Indeed, so comprehensive and compelling have been the arguments so far put forward that I am certain that I would be unable to add to or enhance them in any way. Instead, I want to make a particular point that relates to the proposed admissibility of intercept evidence at coroners’ inquests from which the jury has been excluded—as they would be if the provisions of the Bill as it stands reach the statute book.

The Home Secretary has recently appointed me to the advisory group of Privy Councillors that is concerned with the implementation of the Chilcot committee's recommendations on the admissibility of intercept evidence in criminal trials. The make-up of the committee is in fact identical to that of the original Chilcot committee, except that I have been appointed in place of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Hurd of Westwell. The only other member of the committee who is a Member of this House is the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and I am delighted to see him in his place this evening.

Obviously, the views that I express this evening are mine and mine alone. I do not purport to speak on behalf of the committee in any way. It is, however, fair to say that the committee as a whole has been impressed with the way in which the officials who have been charged with the task of implementing the original recommendations, which were of course accepted by the Government, have set about their task. That task is not an easy one. The Chilcot committee report set out nine requirements that must be met to ensure that the United Kingdom’s strategic intelligence capability is safeguarded, and that the ability of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to protect the public is not harmed if intercept evidence is made admissible.

I do not intend to go through all nine requirements this evening, but they include provisions relating to the retention of raw intercepted material and to the examination and transcription and note taking of intercepted material. In all, they add up to a comprehensive series of safeguards designed to minimise and, if possible, eliminate any risk
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to national security arising from the admissibility of intercept evidence. It therefore came as a surprise, to me at least, to see the provisions of the Bill that allow for the admissibility of intercept evidence in coroners’ inquests without a jury, and to see that there was no reference to those safeguards, and indeed no hint of their necessity. Of course, I appreciate that the disclosure envisaged in the Bill would be limited, but that does not dispose of some of the questions that could arise. For example, the way in which intercept material is prepared—an issue to which I have already referred—is, on the face of it, relevant whether we are talking about intercept disclosed in the circumstances envisaged under the Bill, or intercept disclosure in criminal proceedings.

Other questions arise, too. What if the verdict of an inquest that is based on intercept evidence, among other things, leads to a prosecution, or is challenged through judicial review? It may well be that the Government have thought through all the implications of the change, and have convincing answers to all those questions. I hope that they do, in which case I look forward to hearing them from the Minister at the end of the debate. Should that not prove to be the case, a great deal of further thought would be required before the provisions find their way on to the statute book.

Mr. Havard: I know that a number of people wish to speak, so I shall keep my remarks short. It was interesting to hear reference made to the Deepcut barracks cases. My right hon. Friend the Member for—I will probably get this wrong—Walsall, North—

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): South.

Mr. Havard: I knew I would get it wrong. My right hon. Friend was the Chair of the Defence Committee when we produced the report, “Duty of Care”. That is an interesting phrase; it refers to our duty of care to people—the families—who have an interest in an inquest and go through the process. I am very interested in the subject.

In some senses, the part of the Bill that we are discussing worries me more than the issue of pre-charge detention. It is interesting that the media have not really done much with it, and that there has not been much informed debate among the public about the real effects of the provision that we are discussing.

It was clear both during our inquiry and subsequently that the inquest process has huge potential to allow people to understand not only what has happened, but why. The provision will deny that process to people who would be subject to it. We saw the genuine pain and suffering of families who wanted that ability to understand—they did not necessarily want revenge or retribution—but to whom the process was denied, because it was not properly run and not properly available to them.

A coroners Bill is due to be introduced. The Defence Committee is waiting for it, and had a discussion today. I do not speak on behalf of the Committee, but as everyone will know, we wish to hold an inquiry on how the coroners process is run, with regard to cases concerning the death of military personnel and attendant effects relating to people associated with the military. The provision that we are discussing seems inherently unsound, in a way that many hon. Members have already described.
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Certainly, its timing is wrong. When that Bill comes along, the provision in the Counter-Terrorism Bill and this discussion will not inform it. They will prejudice it if the Bill proceeds and the Government will have to unscramble it and redo it.

The dangers of the provision have been described by others. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, the problem is not what such provisions do now, but what happens later. I suppose the Secretary of State responsible will be the Justice Secretary. That might be an honourable person at present, but individuals will change. We must be careful what we do. I signed the amendment and I shall prosecute that if necessary, but I would prefer not to do so.

Everyone has explained that this is the wrong time to legislate in haste in a Bill that, we are told, was drawn up in the cold light of day as a reserve power for the future. The provision is wrong, it is dangerous, and I hope that the Minister will withdraw it—if not here, then elsewhere later.

9.30 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): In a civilised society, every one of us, and the society itself, has an interest in the causes of the death of every one of its members. That point has been well rehearsed in the debate. The Bill is extraordinary, but I say to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that I am not surprised by anything that the Government bring forward from the Home Office or any of their security agencies to improve the lot of the British citizen.

Who could imagine that a Bill about terrorism should suddenly incorporate an amendment of a Coroners Act to bring about a situation that repudiates the whole tradition of our open justice and our approach to the reinforcement of the citizen’s right to know what happened in the circumstances of an unusual or exceptional death? That is why we support coroners courts. That is why they have been largely open and accessible to us. We spoke about closure and satisfaction of the individual families concerned, but we as a society have a wider interest. We want to know that the cause of death is explicable and whether it was criminal in its intent.

Suddenly a Bill relating to terrorism contains an extraordinary and very nasty series of proposals. It states:

and then it lists the circumstances:

the usual catch-all that the Government use—

Defining the public interest is a matter not only for Government, but for the Chamber. The measure strikes at the basis of our principles. It is outrageous that it has been incorporated in the Bill.

The provision can be retrospective. The clause goes on:

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and so on. It is an assertion of the nervousness of the state. Let us be clear about that. Who in a democratic society would seek such far-reaching power to obscure something that we take as a routine part of our democratic exchanges? Yet there has been no justification. What do the Government mean by

It is everything, is it not? The Government determine it. On the most basic and preliminary examination, this is unacceptable.

I have heard all the calls for national security over the nearly 30 years that I have been in the House. The Conservative Government used to bait the Labour party because it opposed internment and the Northern Ireland terrorism Acts. This Government now try to bait the Conservative party on the basis that we are soft on terrorism. It is nonsense. This country is united in the belief that we want peaceful, lawful existence, and that the purposes of the state are to ensure that each and every one of us is secure. To stick in the middle of that the view that something nasty might be going on in a coroner’s court hardly brings joy to the hearts of a free people when they listen to a Government bring forward what we all know are important measures in other areas of the Bill. I hope very much that the House—no one else has spoken in favour of it other than the Minister himself—

Mr. McNulty: I have not yet.

Mr. Shepherd: The right hon. Gentleman has probably been listening to the Prime Minister and will come back with the answer.

The House must reject these provisions. This is not a matter for the House of Lords. This is quite clearly a matter for us, and we should tell the Government that this should not be included in the Bill and should be withdrawn.

Jeremy Corbyn: I shall be brief to enable the Minister to reply and other Members to speak. I want the Minister to be able to explain to the House exactly why we are introducing something as draconian as clause 65 into this Bill. I am glad that we have had a good debate on this issue this evening, because this part of the Bill is as important and as dangerous to liberties in this country as the 42 days that we will be debating tomorrow. Like that issue, it crosses the important Rubicon of the separation of political and judicial powers. If we are to give the Secretary of State the power to appoint a coroner, the power to prevent a jury and the power to intervene in a case as it goes on, we can no longer claim that there is a complete separation of political and judicial authority in this country. Additionally, since, as far as I understand it, the majority, if not all, of jury cases that are heard in a coroner’s court involve a state party—be it the police, the Army or some other organ of the state—in connection with a death, the Minister, whoever he is, will have a clear conflict of interest, as many hon. Members have pointed out.

Proposed new section 8A(1) (b), in clause 65 (2), contains the words

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That particularly disturbs me. If we are to be proud of and believe in our judicial system and traditions, why are we saying that our relationships with another jurisdiction are an overriding interest? Look at the odium that Tony Blair incurred when he intervened to prevent the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the involvement of BAE Systems with Saudi Arabia. He said in his defence that the overriding interest was one of national security and the relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose record on human rights is slightly questionable in a number of areas. I suspect that the overriding interest would relate to many other jurisdictions as well where we have close relationships, arms sales or whatever else. It is simply wrong and dangerous for us to do this. It will not do our standing any good around the world and it is no good for our judicial system or our democracy.

I also draw attention to the briefing that has been sent out by Inquest. That organisation has its offices in my constituency and it has campaigned with great difficulty and tenacity and very bravely on investigating the causes of deaths in custody. I pay tribute to that organisation, and I know the people who work there very well.

I know families where somebody has died in custody, and the family goes through the pain of calling for an inquiry, a coroner’s court inquest and so on. Someone who dies in custody may be under suspicion, which may be why they are in custody in the first place. Such people often do not have wonderful connections with brilliant barristers and lawyers, and they are often victims who find themselves in police custody and tragically die for a variety of reasons. In such circumstances, it is not in the interests of the police to ensure that there is an open investigation, and it is not necessarily in the interests of any other agency of the state. The only avenue that is available for families of the deceased to seek justice is through the legal system. If we give the Secretary of State the power to intervene to prevent a jury trial in a coroner’s court, that avenue will not be open to such families.

I have two more points. First, deaths in custody raise important issues of state power and accountability. In a free and democratic society, deaths in state custody should be subject to particularly close public scrutiny. For that reason, it is imperative that the inquest system is open and transparent so that justice can be seen to be done and public confidence in the state bodies is upheld.

Secondly, I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) during his excellent contribution—I will take great pleasure in supporting his amendment—on international comparisons. I do not have the information that he thought that I had about what happens in every other jurisdiction, but I want to discuss article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which other hon. Members have also mentioned. Article 2 requires the Government to implement a proper procedure for ensuring the accountability of agents of the state to maintain public confidence and to allay any concern arising from the use of lethal force. It places a positive duty on the state to investigate a death in custody with an inquiry that is conducted on the state’s own initiative, that is independent both institutionally and in practice, that is capable of leading to a determination of responsibility and the punishment of those responsible, that is prompt, that allows for sufficient public scrutiny and that enables the next of kin to participate.

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When the Minister replies, I hope that he will explain the motives behind the inclusion of clause 65 and its related provisions in the Bill. We are taking a very dangerous step: we are giving too much unaccountable power to Ministers to protect the state’s agents, when the public rely on us, as Members of Parliament, to defend their interests, their procedures and their access to justice.

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry to prevent others from contributing, but I am mindful of the time. [ Interruption. ] The programme motion was agreed by Government and Opposition Front Benchers, so take it up with them and get real.

Some germane and relevant issues have been raised. There have been some interesting little treatises, including the previous contribution, by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), but they do not bear much relation to the substance of the Bill. Nobody, apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), has answered the question of what to do about families who are currently stuck in limbo and cannot achieve resolution and closure at an inquest into the death of a loved one because of the blockage around the use of sensitive material and, potentially, intercept evidence—I will address the point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in a moment. If this system, or a similar system, does not prevail, what will happen to families involved in such rare cases? The answer is that they will stay in limbo; the answer is that they will stay in abeyance and nothing will be done for them.

Mr. Beith: I understand what the Minister might be trying to do, but how has he met the tests that the Chilcot committee set, such as the test that intelligence and law enforcement agencies should not be required to retain, transcribe and otherwise process material to such an extent that it would interfere with their ability to gather intelligence? That is one of the things that the implementation group is now having to address.

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