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Lord Dixon-Smith: I am sorry to rise to speak at this time of the evening, but I was not satisfied with Clause 19 as originally drafted and I do not particularly like the Minister's reinterpretation. I am delighted to see her here to argue the cause. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is not too disappointed that he does not have to face us on this issue.
A situation such as that already exists. I refer to global warming. That is not an emergency, it is true, but, under the definition as drafted in the amendment, it is or could become, an emergencyor someone, if they wished to misinterpret it, could adduce that this was an emergency and that we should act under emergency powers.
Global warming threatens hugely increased flooding. Even flooding in London has been discussed as a long-term possibility. If one looks at the possible consequences of flood damage in places such as the Severn estuary, one may be putting not only human life, but the environment at serious risk in what the Europeans describe as an environmentally sensitive area that should be preserved at all cost. The long-term effect of global warming puts all such areas in danger. Such a matter could be termed an "emergency" within the context of this definition
I know that the Minister will give me an absolute assurance that that is not the Government's intention. But we are not dealing with the intentions of the Governmentalthough once they are put on the record in this House they become effective. We are dealing with the words in front of us, which cause me concern.
My other concern is the introduction of "war" into the amendment, because that seems to bring in a whole new scale to these emergency powers. Actions which a government might take during a war are on a very different scale from those which might be acceptable to the population in peacetime, even as the consequence of an act of terrorism.
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As drafted, if "war" were included here, it would imply that, for the duration of a war which affected the United Kingdom seriously, the Government could rule by regulation, thereby greatly diminishing the powers of Parliament. I do not suppose that that is the Government's intention but it seems to me that it is a possibility that must be considered.
I shall not go into the consequences of whether the Iraq situation was or was not a threat to the security of this country; that might be too embarrassing an argument to enter into at this hour of the evening. But, as I have illustrated, the wording as it stands, without interpretation, is too loose for the purposes for which, in my view, the Bill is intended. I do not invite the noble Baroness to do anything other than reject my sentimentsthat is what I expectbut I ask her to think very seriously about the precision of the definitions in the amendment that the Government are now moving. In my view, this definition is too loose for the purposes for which the Bill is intended.
Lord Lucas: Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I wish us to take our time over this part of the Bill because the powers which it enables Ministers to take to themselves are immense. In fact, they reach to the outer limits of the constitution. There is no limit to what a Minister can do under the Bill because we live in a country where Parliament is sovereign and can do what it likes, and the Bill gives the Minister the power of Parliament.
There are plenty of restrictions here which are supposed to tap in under relatively ordinary circumstances. Having been through the pre-legislative scrutiny, I am reasonably happy that, under those kinds of relatively ordinary circumstances where the need is pressing to act quickly but we are still a reasonably entire country with a sensible government, we shall probably manage to hold together and produce a sensible conclusion. What concerns me are situations where, for one reason or another, we are pushed beyond that. I want to ensure that under this legislation our system of democracy and the rule of law remain intact, even if they are tested extremely severely.
Of course, the measure requires that the personality of the Minister who finds himself in charge is warped somewhat and, finding himself with absolute power, he wishes to retain it. But that is not an unknown human characteristic. One cannot trust everyone who finds himself with absolute power to act wisely with it, even though he may be a perfectly adequate Minister of the Crown. There are certainly people involved in politics whom one would not wish to end up with this power under any circumstances.
It seems to me that, if we are to transfer power in this way to someone, it should be, so far as possible, under the control of Parliament. However, as one can see from 1933 Germany, it is quite possible for Parliament, with its eyes wide open, to transfer absolute power to a madman. I would rather that it did not happen because of something that we had done 30 or 40 years previously that made it impossible for Parliament to exercise a control under those circumstances.
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Therefore, my particular concern with this first clause under Part 2 is that it should be able to be understood by the man in the street. It should be obvious to anyone under what circumstances the Bill can be used. The difficulty that I have with the language, which is rather neatly illustrated by the noble Baroness's redraft, is that it has to be,
but it is not clear that it has to pose a serious threat of serious damage. If I were to go into Parliament Square, dancing up and down and holding an orange and saying, "This is a thermo-nuclear device and I will detonate it and it will obliterate London", that is threatening serious damage but it is not a serious threat.
We need to be clear on the face of the Bill how serious a threat has to be before it can trigger these immense powers. Does it have to be real? Someone doing something nasty to a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin is a serious insult but it is not a serious threat or serious damage. A minor matter like that on the periphery, or something that is inherently unbelievable, should not be a trigger for the powers taken under this Bill.
It has been said by the Government that it is inherent in some way in the wording of "threatens serious damage" that there must be a serious threat. But the Government have chosen a different wording for paragraph (c),
I would like to see this matter expressed in English which anyone is able to understand. In a crisis, in a situation where this Bill is in danger of being abused, it will not be an obstruse constitutional lawyer who will be called upon to decide whether someone is acting within his or her powers; it will be an officer of the police, or whoever is in charge of the Army or other elements of the defence forces at the time, someone to whom this language is foreign and who requires matters to be expressed in English.
I would like to see the word "serious" or the words "poses a serious threat of" in the provision, so that it is clear that it has to be a serious threat of serious damage and not something that is inherent unlikely to occur. In that way we shall be expressing what we all agreeI believe we all agreeare the circumstances under which these powers should be used.
Lord Elton: My noble friend's speech does not address mere semantics, but the entire interpretation of the Bill. Having heard that and having heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I wonder whether the Committee is in a condition at this hour of the night, when we are supposed to adjourn at any moment, to come to a conclusion on this issue. Under our conventions, we are not allowed at a later stage to reverse a decision that we take tonight. I believe it would be possible to amend it. I wonder whether the
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noble Baroness feels that there is sufficient agreement among the Members in the Chamber to justify proceeding to the Question of whether this amendment be agreed to.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I hope there is. I appreciate that noble Lords have made some very broad comments in relation to Part 2. I have taken on board what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Lucas, about the nature of the scrutiny that they will give to this part of the Bill. Had we not started at twenty minutes to seven, I had intended to make some more comprehensive introductory remarks about Part 2. I am very happy to do that in a few moments.
We now enter Part 2 and I anticipate that there will be the most careful scrutiny. If noble Lords come to the conclusion at the end of Committee stage that further or other amendments to government amendments are proper, I understand that there will be no impediment in the rules to them being raised again so that we can discuss this issue further.
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