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The arrangements in Lebanon have significantly strengthened Hezbollah’s political hand in that part of the world. It has made a successful demand for a veto of cabinet decisions and makes use of its weapons arsenal—another demand that has been met. That goes against UN Security Council resolution 1701, which called for
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the disarmament of the group in the wake of the Lebanon war of a couple of years ago. The new political agreement that has been brokered in Lebanon allows Hezbollah to retain arms as long as they are not used to resolve internal political conflicts in Lebanon. Well, we will believe that if we see it. Although the Lebanese Government may no longer be a target, Hezbollah can continue to build its weapons arsenal for use against Israel in future. The Israeli security cabinet heard that Hezbollah now has an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets ready to be fired at Israel, which is three times more than two years ago at the start of the second Lebanon war.

There is a strong case for the proscription order that we are being asked to approve. I only regret that my right hon. Friend the Minister has not bitten the bullet, as it were, and gone far enough by outlawing the organisation in its entirety, as we have with Hamas and other terrorist organisations that profess to have a separate political wing but in practice are all one. Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation through and through and should be proscribed in its entirety.

7.22 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): On the same day that this order to proscribe the military wing of Hezbollah was published, the Prime Minister told the House that it was solely on the grounds of new evidence of its involvement in terrorism in Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories. Of course, we all utterly condemn the violent and terrorist activities that are conducted by Hezbollah. I say to the Minister at the outset that Liberal Democrat Members are in broad agreement with the Government’s decision to introduce the order. However, I would like to pose a few questions to probe their motivation in doing this and get a little more information so that the House can come to a clear decision.

It would be helpful to have more of an outline of why this change in legislation has come about now. What specific activities undertaken by Hezbollah have prompted it? I appreciate the sensitive nature of the issue, but it would be advisable for the House to have the maximum information possible. I think that the Minister said—I hope that he will confirm and clarify this—that some of the intelligence had been confirmed following the apprehension of a senior individual on 20 March 2007. If so, why has it taken more than a year for the Government to get to the stage of bringing this order before the House? Is it just because the information was gleaned from the individual only recently, or have there been delays for some other reason? On the same day that the order was announced, The Daily Telegraph reported that some Iraqi MPs had accused Hezbollah of planning and supervising the kidnapping of five British citizens from the Iraqi Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May 2007. Does the Minister have any reflections on the coincidence of those two events and whether they were related?

While the activities of terrorist organisations must of course be condemned, the Government cannot entirely escape criticism for their role in creating conditions in which terrorism can thrive. Is it not the case that Hezbollah’s activities in Iraq stem partly from a fatal lack of planning for the post-Saddam Hussein situation? Iraq has become
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a magnet for fundamentalists, and the implications of that failure of planning are still unfolding across the entire region.

Several right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of definitions. I, for one, welcome the Minister’s assurance that the political, social and humanitarian activities will be unaffected, but defining those will prove very difficult, and I would welcome clarification from him as to how that would work in practice. Hezbollah is a highly opaque organisation. It cannot even have bank accounts in its own name, so its finances run through sister organisations funnelling money to a central structure, where it then reaches the military, political and other arms. Finding any conclusive proof that financial support given to Hezbollah from a UK donor has paid for arms rather than social projects will be an incredibly difficult exercise. Last week, a lawsuit was filed in the US district court in Manhattan by Israeli victims of rocket attacks who are seeking $100 million-worth of damages from five Lebanese banks that they accuse of helping to fund Hezbollah during the 2006 war. At that time, horrified by the pictures of the humanitarian problems on our screens, many people gave donations to the relief effort for legitimate charitable purposes and out of a genuine desire to help the people of Lebanon. That case raises problems about how any individuals or institutions that provided financial backing to Hezbollah would be dealt with under similar circumstances in future. Contributors to genuine charitable causes should not be at risk of prosecution for supporting a terrorist organisation. I hope that the Minister can expand a bit further on how the question of definition will be resolved.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Lady is right to address the consequences of proscription. No matter how bad this organisation is, others who support general, charitable causes will be caught within the overall net of what is proposed. Does she agree that there is a general lack of clarity on the issue of proscription and on what other organisations, perhaps not associated with this one, are involved with in supporting the general cause of peace in the middle east?

Jo Swinson: The right hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience in these matters through his chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee. My point is that greater clarity is required about Hezbollah and its different arms, partly so that innocent people are not caught out unfairly by the legislation. I am sure that that is not the Government’s intention, but I would welcome some clarification as to how they propose to get round these difficulties.

Under the existing terrorism legislation, there have been no prosecutions of Hezbollah-connected militants in this country. Is that a sign that that legislation has been so successful that we should not worry too much, or was the previous definition proving to be unhelpfully narrow as regards securing prosecutions, while this order is expected to give the Government the extra tools that they need to bring to justice people who should have been dealt with previously? Have there been any Hezbollah supporters in this country who should have been prosecuted but have escaped as a result of the different definition?

In the international context, it would be helpful to hear the views of our EU partners. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) listed various countries that
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have proscribed Hezbollah. Are we in step with our international partner countries on this issue, and are they making similar changes to their terror lists on an EU or a UN basis? I look forward to the Minister addressing some of those points, but give broad support to the order.

7.29 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), like the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), raised important points concerning the whole question of proscription and its implications. It is right that Parliament should scrutinise such important decisions. Even though this order will quite rightly go through the House unchallenged tonight, it is the scrutiny that Parliament gives to such orders and legislation that is so vital.

Following the aftermath of what happened in New York and what happened in London just a few years ago, there is tendency to rush to make decisions and for Parliament to reflect on the consequences afterwards. I do not think that the Government have done that in this case, and I fully support what the Minister said about the organisation in question. In many cases, those of us who are not experts in this field—although I chair the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I do not regard myself as an expert on this matter—do not possess the kind of information and security intelligence that the Minister has. I accept what he says, therefore, and I take it on faith. It is a quiet Tuesday evening, there are not huge numbers of Members in the House, and the order will go through unchallenged by a vote, but the danger is that we will make a decision and look at the implications afterwards.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds was right to talk about the draconian effects of proscription. As we can tell from the word itself, proscription cannot be anything other than the most serious judgment on the activities of a particular group. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who follows these matters more closely than I do because of his great constituency interests, is able to reel off information about Hezbollah, which I certainly did not know, concerning who sits on its councils and what they do. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire picked up the information that the organisation does not even have bank accounts, but transfers its money between various sister organisations. All of that adds to the weight of knowledge that we, as parliamentarians, have.

My problem is not with the order, but with the implications that will become apparent long after it has been passed. The Minister knows about the issue of proscription, because I have raised it with him, and its effect on law-abiding citizens of this country who do not support the terrorist activities of organisations abroad, but believe in the wider cause. The example of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was raised, quite rightly, by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds. I have about 10,000 members of the Tamil community, and many Muslims, in my constituency, who would be very interested in what Hezbollah is doing in the middle east. I have many constituents who are concerned about the peace process. The problem for law-abiding British citizens who support the general cause, but do not support terrorist organisations, is what happens if they
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attempt to hold meetings or events that in some way deal with what is happening in the countries concerned, and Sri Lanka is an obvious example.

I have been to events organised by the Tamils Forum, with the approval of the Metropolitan police, and subsequently, I received almost hysterical communications from the Sri Lankan high commissioner about my attendance at what Sri Lanka regards as terrorist events. Of course they were not; we do not support terrorism. But they are events that concern members of the British Tamil community, who will be affected by the general nature of proscription. That is why clarity is so vital when we are affecting the rights of British citizens. I am surprised to some extent by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who is the chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. He is always very eager to talk about human rights, but should remember from his former profession as a lawyer that it is important to preserve the rights of individuals who are not supporters of such organisations, but somehow get caught in the wider net thrown around them because they attend or give at a charitable event, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned.

On Saturday, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats on foreign affairs, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), who was a Conservative MP but is now independent, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is a member of the Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) and the former Prime Minister of Kosovo were all at a meeting in Mitcham, attended by 40,000 members of the Tamil community, to talk about the situation in Sri Lanka. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), was not present, but had a letter read out at the event. The LTTE is a proscribed organisation, but the Tamil organisation is not. Police officers were there filming what was going on. I went up to a number of them, just to reassure them that nothing was out of order. The problem with orders of this kind is that they have implications far beyond what the Government intend—implications that affect law-abiding British citizens.

The last time I attended such an event, I was told by the Metropolitan police that those in every organisation had to sign a piece of paper, invented just before the meeting, confirming that they would not carry out various activities there. I said, “How can you just produce this piece of paper? These are law-abiding British citizens. In my 21 years in Parliament, I have never heard of British citizens attending a meeting being made to sign pieces of paper about what will happen there in advance of it happening.” My office was told by the police officer that this was now standard practice in view of the proscription that had been decided by Parliament. I did not know that; it was news to me that such forms had to be produced.

In passing the order tonight, we need to understand what will happen to people who do not support the organisation in question, and who do not believe that terrorism is a means of getting justice in the middle east, but are caught up in the wider net described by other hon. Members—apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who wants the Government to go even further. Other people are genuinely concerned about these issues. At the moment, there are 900,000
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people of Arab origin living in the United Kingdom—individuals and extended families. Some have indefinite leave to remain, and some are British citizens. Many take part in different organisational activities to do with the middle east, and are concerned about what happens there. Where is the demarcation line for those people?

My second point was just made to me, outside the Chamber, by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. I told him that I would be mentioning him in my speech, and he reminded me that the Government’s original order to proscribe 25 organisations was unamendable. No Member could amend that list, so we could not raise concerns about the implications of the order for law-abiding constituents who did not support terrorism. They want to support the Government in all that they do, as in the excellent work they have done in the past 11 years in trying to suppress terrorism. We could not amend that order, however, and there has never been an opportunity for us to do so. Of course, in future, the Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon or the Home Affairs Committee might look at the matter of proscription. However, as things stand, unless an order of this kind is brought before the House, there is no way in which we can scrutinise what the Government are doing in this area or offer fresh information about the implications that such actions have for law-abiding citizens.

My next point is about challenging proscription. I raised it with the Opposition spokesperson and he rightly said that he wished to concentrate on other matters in his speech, but I hope that the House will consider the subject in future. When an organisation wishes to challenge proscription—the Government have recently lost a case in the courts; an order was passed a few weeks ago when the Government had to come to the House and implement the court’s decision—there is no hard and fast, robust way in which to do that. I know that because a meeting was held with the former Home Secretary during which members of the Tamil community asked what they could do so that a distinction could be made between those who wished to pursue terrorist ends and those, like those members of the community, who did not, but wanted to speak about the genuine carnage and violence that is happening in parts of Sri Lanka and to return to the negotiating table, which was so vital to the progress of peace in that troubled and beautiful island. The then Home Secretary said that there were no procedures, rules or guidelines. All that an organisation had to do was write to the Home Secretary and that would trigger a look at proscription. If the request was turned down, people could go to court and there could be a judicial review, which is exactly what happened in the case of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran.

Of course, we will go along with what is suggested tonight, because the Minister has presented us with persuasive arguments, as he always does when he introduces such measures. We are always willing to support the Government on such issues because they are so serious and the Government have much more information than we do. However, given that we are entering new territory and that the Government have been challenged in the courts and lost, at great expense to the taxpayer, may not we have some regulations or rules, or some sort of robust scheme whereby organisations can appropriately challenge the Government’s decision without having to
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await such a discussion or an order such as the one that we are considering? May we have a mechanism whereby organisations can challenge and place evidence before the Government? I hope that the Minister will address that when he responds to the debate. What other way is there, other than writing to the Home Secretary and, when she says that the proscription cannot be lifted—I would be amazed if she wrote back and said yes to any of the organisations that she or her predecessors have proscribed—going to court? The recent case went through the High Court to the Court of Appeal and eventually to the highest court in the land. Do we have to do that every single time a Government decision is challenged?

I urge my right hon. Friend, in balancing out what we are doing today, to consider a more robust scheme, which will enable us to make progress. If we do not, hysteria will grow about organisations and individuals such as members of the Tamil community. It is wrong to stigmatise a whole community, as some in the Sri Lankan Government have done. I welcome the Tamil community’s actions in the past few years in politicising themselves and lobbying Members of Parliament. Tomorrow, that community has an exhibition in the House about what happens in Sri Lanka. That is the way for people to pursue their legitimate political grievances—through parliamentary democracy.

I ask the Minister: please consider a more robust scheme that is fair to our citizens. We are talking not about people abroad, but about those who live here—British citizens or those with indefinite leave to remain—who pay taxes and vote for people such as the Minister, me and Opposition Members. Let us treat them with respect and ensure that we have a robust scheme, which enables people to challenge what they regard as an unfair law.

7.44 pm

Mr. McNulty: With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the genuine and sincere comments that hon. Members have made. Many contributions have gone beyond the narrow confines of the order, but it might be appropriate and of use to the House if I, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, addressed those broader issues.

I understand what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) says about organisations that are loosely associated, or not at all associated, with proscribed organisations, but have an interest in broader political issues. However, I part company with him on the notion that there is anything but clarity in the 2000 Act about de-proscribing. Let me briefly describe our experience with the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. A collective—if I may use that phrase—of Members of this House and the House of Lords took the case for de-proscription to the Home Secretary. I understand that anyone is free to do that, but in the case that I am considering, it was a significant group of Members of this House and the other place. The Home Secretary, in her wisdom, said—I still believe rightly—that we would not de-proscribe. The principals involved then rightly took the matter to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, not straight to a court of law. The commission, in its wisdom, said that the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran should be de-proscribed.
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My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary then took the case to the courts and lost. In the narrowest terms, the process is clear.

There are problems with organisations that are loosely associated, or not at all associated, with the principal proscribed organisations, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East mentioned. The law deals with some, but others are in a greyer area. My right hon. Friend knows that the second form of proscription undergoes a different parliamentary process and involves laying an order, which is subject to the negative resolution procedure. That happens when the organisation that we wish to proscribe is an adjunct to the original proscribed organisation, which might be described as the precursor. For example, the PKK was proscribed and Kongra-Gel was seen as simply another element of the same terrorist organisation. The latter was proscribed through negative rather than affirmative order, because we could establish evidential connections.

Keith Vaz: I am not clear about my right hon. Friend’s comments about the case of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. Obviously, de-proscription is almost as important as proscription when people feel that they are subject to an unfair restriction. Is my right hon. Friend saying that, to get an organisation de-proscribed, Members of this House and the House of Lords must approach the Home Secretary? I did not envisage that when I read the vague rules that currently exist on de-proscription.

Mr. McNulty: Absolutely not. In the first instance, anyone who objects to proscription can write to the Home Secretary asking for an organisation to be de-proscribed. I made the point about the PMOI because it is the most recent, if not the only, case of de-proscription that was not done by Government but because a group of Members of this House and peers took up the cudgels for it. However, there is no parliamentary process whereby Members of Parliament and peers have to do that. An organisation or anyone who feels that they have been affected by an organisation’s proscription may apply in writing to the Secretary of State for the organisation to be de-proscribed. That happened in the case of the PMOI.

As I said, if the Secretary of State refuses the application, the applicant may appeal to POAC. When hearing an appeal, the commission consists of a panel of three members, at least one of whom holds or has held high judicial office. POAC sits in public, save when considering material whose disclosure is contrary to the public interest. The closed session with special advocates enables POAC to consider material that would be the subject of public interest immunity in ordinary High Court proceedings. The special advocate sees the sensitive material and can make submissions upon it. It is perfectly right and proper that the de-proscription process should be as clear as the proscription process, which is the subject of today’s order.

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