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Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order 1999

7.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing this order in another place two evenings ago, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary took time to reflect upon the mixture of signs of optimism and violence that have characterised the 12-month period since the last debate extending the life of the prevention of terrorism Act; and I too would invite your Lordships to consider briefly with me some of the key events that have taken place this past year.

But perhaps I may first touch briefly on one other issue referred to by my right honourable friend in his opening remarks. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Government, in their consultation paper Legislation against Terrorism propose the introduction of permanent UK-wide counter-terrorism legislation which we hope will do away with the need for the annual renewal of temporary provisions, and so this debate may be one of the last annual debates on the renewal of the prevention of terrorism Act.

The proposal to introduce permanent counter-terrorist legislation recognises the sad but incontrovertible reality that even a lasting peace in Northern Ireland--something we all hope will be firmly established soon--would not remove the need for anti-terrorist provisions. Terrorism and the threat of terrorism from a range of fronts are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future. I intend to say more about our proposals for

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future legislation in closing. But now, if I may, I shall remind noble Lords of some of the significant events over the past year which form the context of this debate.

Not six weeks after the prevention of terrorism Act was renewed in 1998, the Good Friday agreement was signed. It was subsequently endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland and provides the means to take Northern Ireland on the road to lasting peace. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and many others on both sides of this House, and outside it, continue to work tirelessly with all the parties to achieve full implementation of the agreement and to see the executive established by the first anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

But the year has also brought savage reminders of the residual threat from renegade groups opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. The dreadful atrocity in Omagh on 15th August last year, which claimed the lives of 29 people and injured over 200 more, brought this home in the most appalling manner. And on Monday of this week we had a further terrible reminder of the depths to which such groups will stoop, with the murder in cold blood of Rosemary Nelson, the prominent human rights lawyer. Her death was "claimed" by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist splinter group opposed to the Belfast agreement. The proscription of this group--and, subject to parliamentary approval, its specification--was announced just two weeks ago.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary has invited the Chief Constable of Kent to oversee the inquiry into the death of Rosemary Nelson, demonstrating its commitment to a full and independent inquiry into this terrible crime. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in echoing the sentiments of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in conveying our sympathy to the family and friends of Rosemary Nelson particularly today, the day of her funeral. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that her death in these dreadful circumstances should serve only to strengthen our efforts to secure a lasting peace for Northern Ireland. Regrettably, I should also at this point remind your Lordships--if it is necessary to do so--that yesterday we were served another grim reminder of Northern Ireland's past with the murder of Frankie Curry in Belfast. There is little we should say about the brutality of an action such as this other than to condemn it in the most forceful terms possible.

The threat of international terrorism has also been with us this past year. The bombings, also in early August, of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with the loss of more than 250 lives, were a terrible and shocking illustration of the scale of indiscriminate violence international terrorists are prepared to unleash. The horrific events in the Yemen and, more recently, Uganda, which resulted in the deaths of four and eight tourists respectively, including seven British citizens, have further emphasised the global reach of international terror.

The Government's response to all this is two-fold. First, we do all we can in the international and domestic context to help establish peace and stability; and,

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secondly, we do all that we can with the police and security services to counter terrorism. The recall of Parliament in early September last year to enact the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 was an illustration of this twin approach. The Act strengthens our anti-terrorist laws against renegade Irish terrorist groups and our conspiracy laws in relation to terrorism and other crimes. The key to the prevention of terrorism is to ensure that the police and others have all the powers that they need to deter, disrupt and investigate. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the diligence, hard work and bravery of the police and the security forces in their efforts on our behalf.

Turning to the Act itself, I am grateful for the report prepared by the reviewer, John Rowe QC, which informs our debate today. I am pleased to say that Mr. Rowe has once again concluded that the powers available under the Act in 1998 were used appropriately and proportionately. I say "available under the Act" because, as your Lordships will recall, the exclusion powers were not included in last year's order and Mr. Rowe has not considered these powers in his report this year.

The order before us now does not contain exclusion powers. I do not propose to explain in detail this evening the reasons for this; they have been well rehearsed in the past. Suffice it to say that it has been the Government's long-standing view that exclusion orders are wrong on policy grounds and in any case have proved to be of limited utility. While the exclusion powers remain on the statute book they could be re-activated on security grounds. But I should remind your Lordships that our consultation paper on proposals for future legislation makes it clear that we do not envisage carrying these powers across into the new permanent anti-terrorist laws. Our ability under the Immigration Act 1971 to deport, or deny entry to, suspected international terrorists will remain unchanged.

To return to Mr. Rowe's report, it was heartening to read of the care that he found was taken in respect of the relatively small number of complaints received about the operation of the powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. We must never lose sight of the fact that the powers available under the Act are exceptional and must be exercised with integrity and diligence. If I may add a personal word of testimony, I should like to bear witness to the scrupulous care with which the powers have been used in my experience. I am very conscious of the exceptional nature of the powers when called upon to exercise them, as I am occasionally required to do when giving consideration to police requests to extend detention periods under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Noble Lords will recall that the specific anti-terrorist provisions in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which amended sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, also fall to be renewed for the first time in the order before the House today. Your Lordships may recall these measures mean that the opinion of a senior police officer is admissible in court as evidence of membership of proscribed and specified

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terrorist groups (that is, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA but, subject to parliamentary approval, not INLA); and courts may draw inferences from a suspect's refusal to answer questions during the course of an investigation into memberships of a proscribed and specified terrorist group. Noble Lords may recall that it is not possible under the legislation for a suspect to be convicted solely on the basis of inferences allowed under the Act or on the statement of a police officer alone.

As Mr. Rowe states in his report, so far there have not been any convictions in connection with these new provisions. But I am sure your Lordships will agree that that cannot be the sole criterion for judging their effectiveness. These measures were introduced as a targeted response to the small but very dangerous renegade groups whose aim is to bring down the Good Friday agreement and who have no regard for human life. The fact that similar action was taken simultaneously in the Irish Parliament sent a powerful signal of the total repudiation of the action of these groups and all that they stand for.

But the provisions offer more than a mere symbolic gesture. They exist to enable robust action to be taken against those who, in the face of the express wishes of the people of the island of Ireland, choose to support groups that do not observe total and unequivocal ceasefires. I am sure noble Lords will, like me, sincerely hope that support for these groups withers away, but if it does not, the strengthened provisions are there to assist in bringing these people to book.

That leads me to touch upon the observations that Mr. Rowe makes in Chapter 2 of his report about the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). He concludes that most of the measures in the Act do not raise possible issues of incompatibility. He is at pains to stress that, although it has been possible for individuals to bring cases to the European Commission of Human Rights since 1966--long before the Prevention of Terrorism Act first came into force--only two cases have been dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights in all this time and a violation was found in only one of those. Therefore, our ECHR record vis a vis the Prevention of Terrorism Act is good.

But Mr. Rowe raises concerns about the compatibility of the new provisions on membership enacted last year in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 with the ECHR, in particular Article 6 (the right to a fair trial). As was made clear when the 1998 Act was considered both here and in another place, the whole issue of compatibility was looked at extremely closely before publication of the Bill. We were then, and remain, satisfied that the provisions are compatible with the convention. Noble Lords can be assured that we would not have introduced this legislation in the form we did if we had believed it was incompatible with our obligations under the convention. But in the light of the remarks made by Mr. Rowe in his report we have looked at the issue again carefully. His arguments do not, however, cause us to change our position. This is therefore something on which we shall have to agree to differ, unless and until these questions are settled in the courts.

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I mentioned that I would in closing say a few words about our proposals for new counter-terrorist legislation. As I reminded noble Lords at the outset, the Government issued its consultation paper Legislation Against Terrorism just before Christmas and invited responses by 16th March (Tuesday of this week). In that paper we argue that the range of terrorist threats which the United Kingdom faces, and may potentially face, creates a need for United Kingdom-wide anti-terrorist powers, even when lasting peace is established in Northern Ireland. We believe the time has come to put the necessary legislation on a permanent footing. We envisage legislation that is flexible enough to be able to respond to the ever-changing nature of terrorism, is effective and proportionate to the threat that the United Kingdom faces, protects the rights of individuals and complies with our international commitments. It is our sincere hope that by the time new legislation is introduced the threat from Irish terrorism will have diminished to the point where no additional special powers are necessary to combat it. But if the security situation suggests that some particular measures are needed, it is proposed that they would be included in a temporary additional section of the Act, subject, as is the Prevention of Terrorism Act now, to additional independent review and to Parliament's annual approval to their staying in force.

I do not intend to detail now the measures we have included in the document. As I made clear earlier, I hope that those noble Lords with a particular interest in these matters have been able to read and respond to the paper, which seeks to strike a balance between giving the police and other agencies the powers they need to fight terrorism and guarding the civil liberties of those affected by the exercise of these powers. However, we recognise that it is not an easy task to get the balance right; and we shall consider carefully all the responses we receive to our paper.

Returning, finally, to the focus of today's debate, the question before your Lordships is whether the Prevention of Terrorism Act should remain in force for a further 12 months. In this regard, the Government firmly endorse the conclusion of the Act's reviewer, John Rowe QC, that it should. It is vital that those engaged in the fight against terrorism have all the powers that they need. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee]--(Lord Dubs.)

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