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23 Jun 2008 : Column 101

Mr. McNulty: It is almost as if my hon. Friend was looking over my shoulder at the next paragraph of my speech.

Although POAC considered that the Government were wrong to refuse to de-proscribe the PMOI in 2006, it did agree that the original proscription was justified in 2001 and that the PMOI was responsible for many terrorist attacks over an extended period. It also stated that the Government were entitled to place little credibility on public statements made by the PMOI as its public statements contained—heaven forfend—“spin”, and the evidence submitted in the course of the hearing was “contradictory and potentially misleading” and demonstrated “a shifting approach”.

Our subsequent application for permission to appeal POAC’s ruling to the Court of Appeal was refused. While disappointed with this decision, we have complied with the judgment and have moved quickly to lay the order that the House is debating today. It will give effect to POAC’s order and remove the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) can take both my tone and our desire to appeal POAC’s decision to mean that we are not satisfied that the PMOI is no longer a terrorist organisation.

Keith Vaz: Bearing in mind that the Government lost in the courts and that the purpose of our debate today is to put the legislation right, have the Government reconsidered any of their other decisions on proscription? Is it possible that they have got decisions wrong in other cases as well?

Mr. McNulty: Let me reiterate that simply because POAC arrived at its decision—we accept it in full, which is why the order is before us—does not mean we accept that POAC is right and our original position is wrong; we profoundly do not. Our job is simply to review constantly who is on, and who should be on, the proscribed list. There is nothing in this judgment that leads us to think that we should review all the other organisations on the proscribed list.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The Minister needs to share with Parliament the fact that there were at least two days of closed session both at POAC and in the Court of Appeal, and that no less a person than the Lord Chief Justice of England said in his judgment that the two days of closed session with special advocates served only to reinforce his view that the decision of the Home Secretary was perverse. The Government had their opportunity in court with special advocates, and were found wanting not on one occasion but on two occasions: before POAC and before the Court of Appeal.

Mr. McNulty: And, as I have said, we sought to appeal POAC’s ruling, which gives a clear indication of the Government’s continued position. Perfectly fairly, that was refused, and while disappointed with that decision, we have complied with the judgment and moved quickly to lay the order that the House is debating today, which gives effect to POAC’s order and removes the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. That is entirely in keeping with the POAC ruling, and I commend the order to the House.

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Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Under part 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Secretary of State has the power to proscribe any organisation that commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism, or is otherwise concerned in terrorism. Proscription is a tough power. Any organisation that is on the list of proscribed organisations is outlawed in the United Kingdom. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, or encourage support for, a proscribed organisation. It is a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation, or to wear clothing or to carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that a person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Proscription also means the financial assets of the organisation become terrorist property and, as such, can be subject to freezing and seizure.

For those reasons, Parliament must take its role in scrutinising who is on the proscribed list very seriously. On the one hand, the failure to proscribe an organisation that is concerned with terrorism could allow it to have a foothold in the United Kingdom and also to recruit and raise funds in the UK, ultimately undermining national security in this country and beyond our borders. On the other hand, proscribing an organisation mistakenly or inappropriately could tie up a significant amount of resources—involving our intelligence services and others—which is what a proscription order requires. The resources available to our security services are finite and must be targeted properly.

As the Minister has elegantly made clear, the order seeks to remove the PMOI—or the MEK, to use a name that is employed interchangeably, which is how I will be employing it in the debate—from the proscribed list. That will, in effect, legalise it as an organisation, allowing it to recruit members and to raise funds in the United Kingdom. The decision in the Secretary of State for the Home Department v. Lord Alton and others left the Government with no choice but to bring forward this order de-proscribing the PMOI. The Minister set out their position and answered clearly that while he will abide by POAC’s decision, he and ministerial colleagues do not necessarily agree with the merits of the decision. There remain a number of questions to which Opposition Members would like answers.

I shall not rehearse the history of the PMOI; that has been done in detail elsewhere. However, before framing my questions I would like to summarise the history of its proscription in this country. On 28 February 2001, the then Home Secretary laid before Parliament the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2001, which sought to add the PMOI to the proscribed organisations list. That order was approved by affirmative resolution and the organisation has remained on that list until the time of the order before us. A Home Office press notice issued at the same time described the PMOI as an organisation that

On 5 June 2001, the PMOI applied to the Secretary of State to be removed from the list. He said in a letter dated 31 August 2001 that he remained satisfied that the organisation was then “concerned in terrorism”, as defined by the 2000 Act, in that it

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On those grounds, the application for de-proscription was then refused. In a debate in this place in March 2005, the then Home Secretary repeated the Government’s view that the PMOI was

In October 2005, in response to a parliamentary question, it was said that the MEK had

Most recently, on 13 December 2007, the current Prime Minister gave evidence to the Liaison Committee, saying of the PMOI that

As recently as 5 February 2008 in the other place, the Minister of State, the noble Lord Malloch-Brown, said:

Andrew Mackinlay: I want to pause at this important point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The representatives of the Iranian Opposition in exile repeatedly pleaded with the British Government, saying, “What on earth do you want us to do to demonstrate our good faith—that we have abandoned the military struggle?” The British Government did not want to respond; they did not want to tell them how they could prove that. One of the charges against the Government’s stewardship of this matter is that they were determined, for political reasons, not to de-proscribe. They were not prepared to allow this organisation to demonstrate to them—not having to go through the courts—that it had demilitarised.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that I would have used his words, which are a charge against the Minister.

Andrew Mackinlay: I said “stewardship”.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman also used the word “charges” and in fact made a very specific allegation. I do not myself have a view on that, but in this debate it is certainly worth airing the point that the opportunity for this organisation to prove its renunciation of terrorist tactics was not afforded to it by the Government. I genuinely do not know the answer to that, but I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to a quite serious allegation that, for my part, I have no views on. However, as I said, the matter is certainly worth airing.

Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. He rightly refers to the history of the PMOI and the allegation that it used to attack Iran. However, he should also bear it in mind that the people who support the Iranian Opposition who live in Ashraf city, in Iraq, are under daily attack by the Iranians. It is not just British troops who are under daily attack by the Iranians; the Iranian Opposition are also under daily attack by that dreadful regime. So there is the need for some balance in these arguments.

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Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman, from his point of view, has probably supplied that balance through his remarks.

The history of proscription gives a strong impression that the Executive of this country have serious and grievous concerns about whether this organisation has in fact renounced terrorist tactics. I make no criticism at all of Ministers in reciting the history; I merely record the fact that the advice they must be receiving from the security services and elsewhere clearly gives them pause when it comes to de-proscription. As I said earlier and as the Minister made clear, this order has been forced upon the Government—rightly or wrongly—because of a decision of POAC and of the Court of Appeal subsequently.

I would like to take the argument forward a little by raising some specific questions that arise, given that background. The point of raising the background is to say that over the years, Ministers have, from the tenure of the now Secretary of State for Justice as Home Secretary onwards, tried to act in good faith on what is obviously a sensitive issue. However, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing would probably like the opportunity to respond to those questions.

I am not entirely clear about what the Minister can share with us on the Government’s assessment of the PMOI’s terrorist capability, but it raises a question for me, given that the order will, in all likelihood, be passed tonight. The Minister will wish to know that the Conservatives will not vote against it, and we wait to see exactly how this business is finalised. Mr. Deputy Speaker will not want me to pre-empt things, but the Conservatives will not oppose the order. Nevertheless, a question remains about what understanding the Minister has about the possible reactivation of any involvement in terrorism and of the armed wing of this organisation subsequent to any de-proscribing that will be effected by the order’s being passed.

Bob Russell rose—

Mr. Ruffley: I will give way in a moment, but I just want to pin this question down. A report in The Times today indicates that the Prime Minister has taken a view on the issue of de-proscription. I am not clear about this, and I am sure that hon. Members will not be clear about it when they read the report. It states:

Again, I am not trying, in any way, to put the Minister in a difficult position, because I believe that he is a Minister who acts with good will.

Mr. Drew rose—

Mr. Ruffley: I shall give way in a moment. I would be most grateful to hear an answer on that point, as I know colleagues would, given the numbers seeking to intervene on me. Although the House might be de-proscribing in this order, it raises the question of how other allied bodies, if indeed that is what they are, might be treated by Her Majesty’s Government, because that seems to be a moderately authoritative report that they are seeking to ban this organisation’s armed wing.

Bob Russell rose—

Mr. Drew rose—

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Mr. Ruffley: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell).

Bob Russell: The hon. Gentleman has stated that Her Majesty’s official Opposition will not be opposing the measure. Could he just state as clearly as he possibly can whether he agrees or disagrees with it?

Mr. Ruffley: I shall indicate clearly that this is required of the Government. Should we be in their position—we might be in it sooner than the Minister and Labour Members think—we would have in front of us, as he and the Home Secretary have in front of them, a POAC decision. They sought to challenge it in the Court of Appeal, but they did not get leave to fight another day and were thus obliged, by law, to introduce this order. We would be in no different position from the Minister. That is about as clear an answer as I can give the House, and it is a factually accurate, legally watertight answer. [Interruption.] I do not know why the Minister is laughing; I hope it is a laugh of solidarity, because we are supporting him on the basis of the reasons that he has given.

The question of the merits, which is probably behind the hon. Gentleman’s question—he is tempting me to opine on the substantive merits of the order—is not something that I shall address tonight, because I do not have to do so. I have to ask some of the questions that those on both sides of the argument want answered, chief of which is the one that I have just asked in relation to the report in The Times about what action may or may not be taken against the armed wing, should it exist, that is the subject of the order.

The second question I have for the Minister relates to the posture of the US Government. The PMOI has been designated a foreign terrorist organisation since 1987 in the US, and I wonder whether the Minister can confirm what, if any, discussions he or his colleagues in the British Government have had with the US authorities about the decision to de-proscribe the PMOI. It is important to know whether the US has expressed any concerns about the implication of the UK de-proscription on its efforts to fight and contain terrorist organisations. I am sure that this order would have a knock-on effect.

A companion question relates to the position of the European Union, which listed the PMOI as a terrorist group and froze its assets. In December 2006, the European Court of First Instance ruled that the EU had not sufficiently justified its decision on the freezing of funds, although it did not—importantly—rule on the substantive issue of whether the PMOI was a terrorist organisation. The ruling was fundamentally a procedural argument about the basis on which funds had been frozen. I wonder again what the implications of this order will be for the EU-wide proscription of PMOI.

Those may seem to be dull, boring, procedural—nay, even anorak-type—questions to some, but they warrant a reply. I hope that the Minister understands that I am not pressing him to go further on the substantive issue: these are factual questions to which we need an answer.

My final set of questions will attempt to probe the Minister on the judgment by POAC, which raised some questions about decision making by Home Office Ministers. I do not mean this Minister, or even the current Home Secretary, but the Ministers who were the subject of the judgment in November. On page 131, it states:

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POAC highlighted in its judgment that there had been a failure to apply the relevant statutory tests and properly to assess the available evidence against those tests. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said, POAC concluded that the then Home Secretary’s decision could be “properly characterised as perverse”. For that to be said of any Home Secretary, of whatever political party, gives one pause for thought. The statement that the Secretary of State failed to

is particularly eye-catching.

In conclusion, I wonder whether the Minister could shed some light on what lessons Ministers and civil servants are learning from POAC’s quite damning report. In particular, will he tell us what action is being taken to ensure that the procedural irregularities from POAC are being adequately and swiftly dealt with so that all of us, in this place and beyond, can have full confidence that Ministers are taking decisions in the proper procedural way?

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