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4.45 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): These are dangerous times—I think that is agreed across the House—and there are loopholes in our national security. That, too, is agreed across the House. However, the purpose of the House and of Parliament as a whole at a time such as this is not merely to enact into law the first set of propositions that occur to Her Majesty's Government, but to achieve an appropriate balance between public safety, which it is the Home Secretary's responsibility to protect, and individual liberty, which this House and Parliament as a whole were established to protect. Most of what I want to say relates to that balance and to the elements of the Bill that I and my hon. Friends believe do not appropriately strike that balance.

First, however, I want to say a word about process. I have discerned across the House, as everybody here must have done, a strong feeling that a few days—three days, in the case of this House—are not enough fully to scrutinise the Bill. However, I accept the severe time constraints under which the Home Secretary feels that he is operating. I also accept, therefore, that it is probably appropriate to allow this House and the other place the opportunity to make up ex post for what we will have failed to do ex ante, by providing a drastic set of sunset clauses so that Parliament as a whole will have a full opportunity to revisit almost all parts of the Bill regularly, and so that the great bulk of it will fall away unless Parliament chooses to re-enact it. We will then have the opportunity to see how it works in practice and to investigate whether the Home Secretary is correct, or whether some of the arguments that hon. Members, including me, will advance in this debate are proved right.

Mr. Hogg: Does my hon. Friend accept the proposition that, although there may be parts of the Bill that are truly urgent, the great majority of it cannot from any viewpoint be considered as such? Is not the best way forward to identify that which is truly urgent, incorporate it into a one or two-part Bill and deal with the rest of the matter in proper order?

Mr. Letwin: My right hon. and learned Friend and I will probably not wholly agree about this, but I am willing

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to take on trust and for the time being the judgment made by the Home Secretary, as he is in a position—whereas I am not—to understand what is urgent and where the loopholes are. If it turns out that some of the provisions were not needed or that they have not worked as the Home Secretary supposed, that will be an argument for them to fall. Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend will agree that some provisions should not have been included in the Bill in the first place. We will come to them in a moment.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that that is quite a comforting doctrine, as it says that if the House of Commons passes bad laws, that is good enough, as long as we know that we will return to them within 12 months? Does he accept that it would be far better if the House of Commons and the other place had time to consider the Bill carefully before it gets on to the statute book, and not after we have discovered that, as too frequently happens these days, we have made a pig's ear of it?

Mr. Letwin: Of course, it would be better if we had more time now. However, I suspect that the hon. Lady would agree that the time needed to scrutinise the Bill in detail is not simply an extra couple of days. If that were the case, I am sure that the Home Secretary would give way to the argument. The problem is that consultation on a wide range of measures has been inadequate because of time. The Home Secretary believes that he needs powers now to protect us against a potential appalling attack on our fellow citizens. I am unwilling on behalf of my party to put my country at the risk of the Home Secretary being proved right. I am therefore willing in that exceptional case to accept the argument that we should reconsider the matter later.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I could not let that go. My hon. Friend's approach to the Home Secretary is sympathetic and could almost be described as osmosis. Although that may be admirable, let us consider part 12, which covers bribery and corruption. What is so urgent that it needs those provisions? What arises from 11 September that requires them?

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend is right. Part 12 is not an emergency measure. For a long time, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have called for legislation on bribery and corruption to implement our obligations under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention. I accept that the inclusion of the provisions constitutes an inelegance. However, it would be difficult for my party to oppose it given that we called for it.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful for the way in which the shadow Home Secretary expresses his genuine disagreements. I believe that the Conservative spokesman for international development suggested that the Bill would be a suitable vehicle for the provisions in part 12. I accepted that, given that it affects the OECD and the financial implications that the Chancellor tackled in Ottawa yesterday. The United States has said that it wants precisely such measures to help with anti-terrorist activity.

Mr. Letwin: I fear that the answer to that intervention is simply yes.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): The general approach that the shadow Home Secretary intends to take

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to the Bill has excited a great deal of interest. Looking back at all those who have occupied the office of Home Secretary in the past 14 years, does he believe that it would have been legitimate in every case for Parliament to adopt the principle of "Trust me, I'm the Home Secretary"?

Mr. Letwin: It is never appropriate to adopt a principle of trusting anybody. Parliament exists not to trust but to scrutinise. I wholly accept that we should be willing to pass legislation at the current pace only in the most exceptional national circumstances. That view has not always been shared by Labour Members.

However, when the Home Secretary of the day believes that an urgent threat to our national security needs to be resolved but Parliament does not have adequate time to do that through scrutiny, proper sunset clauses are the only way in which to proceed. I hope that there is general agreement on that and that the Home Secretary and members of the Treasury Bench will eventually subscribe to our drastic amendments on sunset clauses.

Meanwhile, we must not delude ourselves that it is sufficient to express the fears and hesitations that many of us may have about the short time available for scrutiny, or to use them as an excuse to sit back and refuse to carry out the scrutiny that we can in the few days that are available to us. We have tried to begin that scrutiny in the past few days. I shall give three examples of amendments that I believe we shall table jointly with Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that they will command wide support in the House of Commons and the other place.

Part 3 deals with disclosure and includes strong provisions to increase the amount of disclosure of personal details by Government agencies, including the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. We shall try to limit that. The Bill would permit disclosure under the circumstances of any criminal investigation, including that of a minor offence. We want the provision restricted to terrorist-type offences.

Part 4 gives a definition of international terrorism that I believe simply contains an error. The response of the Treasury Bench will be interesting. The definition specifically excludes terrorism that is

Members on both sides of the House will recognise that the effect of that is that, if someone comes to the UK from a foreign country to engage in the kind of terrorism that is specifically restricted to Northern Ireland, these provisions could not be used against them. That cannot be the intent of the Government, and we would want to see an amendment to that provision.

My third point relates to the section with which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) was concerned. Notwithstanding the short time available, we want to carry out what scrutiny we can on the section on bribery and corruption. Clause 106 contains another error. I understand from our legal advisers that the clause as drafted would have the effect of making it a common law offence—indeed, probably an imprisonable one—for a member of Her Majesty's security services to bribe a foreign official to get

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information to stop terrorism in the UK. That cannot be the intent of the clause, and we shall table amendments to cure that.

Mr. Fisher: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern over the wording of clause 21(2)(c), in which the definition of an international terrorist includes someone who

When we are taking such extreme powers, is association of that nature—and the way in which it could well be interpreted—really satisfactory?

Mr. Letwin: I have to admit that, before the hon. Gentleman's earlier intervention, I had not taken proper note of clause 21(2)(c). I found his arguments compelling, and I shall discuss with my colleagues whether we could table an amendment to try to cure that anomaly too. I agree that there is a problem there, and I suspect that there are other problems lurking in the text of part 4.

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