Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.45 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Although the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and I differ in our faith, or lack of it—I am a member of the Anglican Church—my party and I share his view that it is nonsense to protect a denomination of one faith in a way that other faiths and other denominations of the Christian faith are not protected.

Mr. Garnier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: One more sentence; it is an early intervention.

My party believes—in this respect, I share the Home Secretary's view—that it is better to legislate on this matter in the context of other changes in faith legislation, with slightly more time given to them after we have dealt with the emergency provisions that make up the principal part of the Bill.

Mr. Garnier: I am tempted to mention early birds and worms.

Surely the point is simple: the law of blasphemy may be bad, but we should not replace it with another bad law.

Simon Hughes: That is certainly part of our case. I shall return to the argument that, when we legislate on

19 Nov 2001 : Column 55

faith, freedom of speech and so on, we need to be careful to consider whether we can do it reasonably in a total of two or three hours in the House of Commons, because it will be almost incredible if we can. To think that Parliament as a whole can do it in a couple of weeks is certainly incredible, and we will be in big trouble if we try, because we will be doing a disservice to members of all faiths and because it will be disrespectful. I hope that we can agree on the process even if we have different views—as there are in all parties—about the laws that we should have.

On a more formal note, I thank the Home Secretary, his ministerial team and their officials for the courtesy that they have shown to me, my colleagues and, I believe, Conservative Members in trying to keep us abreast of the preparation of the legislation before it came into the public domain last week. We may disagree—as we do—about some of its elements and about the process, but on the matter of personal political co-operation, I hope that the three main parties have behaved as efficiently as possible given that the Government have an army of civil servants and all the cards at the beginning, and the Opposition parties do their best with the cards that they are dealt at the end. We have also tried to work co-operatively and intelligently with the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and his team, so that the politicians disagree only when we really disagree and do not spend time engaging in artificial disagreements when there is little between us.

Mr. Letwin: May I take this opportunity to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks? I, too, thank Ministers for now distributing early versions of their amendments to us for consideration. They are gratefully received. I hope that the Bill will be an example of scrutiny in opposition, with the Opposition parties working together in co-operation in a way that does service to the nation.

Simon Hughes: That is the formalities over. It is important that we send people the message that we are trying to be adult and responsible politicians as we deal with difficult matters in difficult times.

Liberal Democrats share with all other responsible community leaders the view that exceptional times sometimes need exceptional measures. The 11 September attack was an exceptional attack and, since then, people have been trying to come to terms with exceptional new realities. There has been a severe element of terrorism in the world, the likes of which we have never seen before. We accept that there is a terrorist threat to this country, although its extent is probably better known to Ministers than to hon. Members generally. For those reasons, as Ministers and the House know, we have supported the international diplomatic, humanitarian and military coalition abroad. We may have had some nuances of difference and differences of emphasis, but we realised, and were prepared to say publicly, that we knew that something had to be done.

This debate, however, is not about what we do abroad; today's questions relate to what we do at home. Are the United Kingdom's laws sufficient to deal with the threat, or do they need to be strengthened because we did not foresee the provisions that we would need?

19 Nov 2001 : Column 56

I remind colleagues that only a year ago we passed the Terrorism Act 2000, and only a little earlier we passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Those two major Acts give the state considerable new powers, and before we legislate further we should consider whether those are not enough.

We are all seeking to ensure that we get the balance right between the powers that the state properly needs in exceptional times and the liberties that people should have whatever situation we are in. That is self-evidently important because we have no written constitution. With some exceptions, Parliament is supreme, so we have a particular job to do. If, for example, we deny people the opportunity to go to court to have a decision of the Executive investigated, there is no place to which they can turn for a remedy.

There are two fundamental justifications for the Bill. The first is that we need additional powers to deal with terrorists, and the second is that we need an emergency timetable to put those powers into statute within days. However, the problem is that the Bill deals not only with national and international terrorism but with many other matters. Liberal Democrats' first objection is that if we are to be asked to legislate in haste to deal with terrorism, we should do just that, and not tackle matters that are in the Government's queue for action or that it will be convenient to append to this already significant project.

When the Home Secretary was asked why the Bill contains phrases such as "any other criminal offence," he said, in a telling response, that it is because the offences cannot be separated out. That is not the argument that we heard from his colleagues last year when we legislated on terrorist offences. If we are trying to deal with terrorism, as much of the Bill does, we should limit the legislation to that because it gives the state particular additional powers. Other, less serious, crime should not be dealt with in the same way, and there should be no general removal of rights from the defendant or suspect.

Our second objection, which has also been voiced by Conservative Front Benchers, is that time limits are imposed at only two points in the Bill. There is a time limit on the opt-out from article 5 of the European convention on human rights and a possible time limit on some of the powers on data regulation in part 11. Like the Conservatives, we say clearly to the Government that unless, by the time the Bill leaves Committee, it contains general provisions requiring us to legislate again when we have time to do so properly, it will not be acceptable. There is a precedent for such legislation—we have introduced emergency powers for Northern Ireland, as many colleagues know well. In that case, there was not only an annual renewal provision but a requirement for Parliament to re-enact legislation to make sure that what was done in haste was considered more carefully later on.

I need not remind hon. Members that history tells us that legislation rushed into statute for a short period often remains in place for a very long time, and legislation pushed through the House quickly is often very poor. I shall give a minor example. At 4.30 pm my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) went to a delegated legislation Committee dealing with a Home Office measure on the rehabilitation of offenders in England and Wales. From the fact that the Committee had to be adjourned because the measure was not accurately or adequately drafted, we can see the need to get our legislation right. With the greatest respect to the

19 Nov 2001 : Column 57

members of that Committee, this Bill is much more wide-ranging and much more dangerous in its implications than that statutory instrument, and we need to learn the lesson.

We welcome the omission from the Bill of two provisions that were talked about and, in one case, even announced. We welcome the fact that the provision for additional sentencing powers for what are colloquially called "anthrax hoaxes" is not retrospective, because that would have been quite wrong. We are grateful that Ministers heard the opposition to that idea and decided not to proceed. Secondly, in his statement of 15 October, the Home Secretary suggested that there might be a general conspiracy law. That is not included, which is welcome news.

I can be very brief about the bulk of the Bill. There are generally good things in eight of its 14 parts. Parts 1 and 2, which deal with the proceeds of crime, terrorist property and freezing orders, are by and large acceptable. My only comment today is that they should logically be part of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is in Committee at the moment. I hope that, by the time this Bill has passed through the House, those provisions will be more correctly located with their parent legislation.

Without going into detail, parts 6, 7, 8 and 9 contain measures that the House wants to put into statute. It is obvious, for example, that we ought to be improving aviation security, so we welcome and support those measures.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman says that we welcome and support those measures, and he may be right, but does he agree that the process that we have embarked on should enable us to consider them properly and in detail?

Next Section

IndexHome Page