|Draft Terrorism Act (Cessation of Effect of Section 76) Order 2002
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I apologise for having been absent; I have been serving on an unopposed private Bill Committee.
I want to add one remark to what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said. The Committee is likely to decide that the provision will apply to England and Wales and to Northern Ireland. I think that we all want to get to a stage when there are no special provisions for Northern Ireland unless they are essential for some other reason. If it became necessary to revise today's decision and move to the convention standard rather than the PACE standard—in general, I welcome the PACE standard—I would want to be sure that the Government would consider introducing that for England and Wales, and possibly for Scotland, rather than maintaining unnecessary differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Jane Kennedy: May I say to the hon. Member for Reigate how grateful I am for the thoughtful and considered way in which he has approached the order? I acknowledge the strength of his reservations, but I
Column Number: 8take issue with the picture that he painted at the beginning of his remarks. He suggested that I said that the security situation is far from perfect. I think I said that it is not perfect. He suggested that it was declining and that we should seriously consider whether to repeal this provision in the current circumstances.
It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of how the security situation is changing and, indeed, improving, over time. It is also worth reiterating that the number of troops currently in Northern Ireland is the lowest since 1970. We have 13,500 troops there now, compared with very much greater numbers in earlier times. In September 2000, the Army published its long-term vision for its presence in Northern Ireland, which anticipated a garrison of about 8,000 full-time soldiers in 20 bases. The last normalisation measures, which we took on 24 January this year, involved the removal of the military watchtower at Glasdrumman, outside Crossmaglen, and various other measures including the closure of the Ebrington Army base in County Londonderry in 2003.
None of those steps would even be considered were the security situation as dire as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I reassure Members that we are not considering this proposal in the context of a rapidly declining security situation in Northern Ireland, although that is not to say that the security situation there is perfect. There are continuing problems and real questions are being asked about the confidence that people on both sides of the community have in the political progress being made.
Mr. Blunt: I do not want the Committee to be left under a misapprehension. I am not saying that the security situation is in a period of rapid decline, but that it is not getting better. It is not improving from an unacceptable base level. It is unacceptable that terrorist murders continue. It is unacceptable that people attempt to murder police recruits. It is unacceptable that five people should be shot during riots in Short Strand. The level of such activity in Northern Ireland is not acceptable. That is my point. The only question is whether 2002 is the right time to be sending such a message. There has been no change in the situation since measures were introduced in 2000.
Jane Kennedy: I am glad that we have clarified that, because it brings me to the hon. Gentleman's point about the discussion at that time on the differences between the section 76 standard and the PACE standard. The Committee needs to know that the Diplock review, from which he quoted, concluded towards the end of the consideration of the 2000 Act. He is right that we must consider whether we need section 76 now.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence would accept that we need to continue to consider all the available measures, and to keep them under regular review. I think that the hon. Member for Reigate would accept that the difference between the section 76 standard and the PACE standard is marginal. We must remember that the PACE standard applies in England and Wales to confession evidence of terrorist suspects, which is the point made by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter
Column Number: 9Bottomley). He asked what would happen if we had to consider reversing the measure. That is a hypothetical question, and it would not be a wise Minister who tried to second-guess what the Government might do in those circumstances. We will, of course, need to keep the measure, its application and effectiveness under review.
We must keep at the forefront of our minds what impact the action that we are taking today will have on the police's ability to investigate terrorist offences. I reassure the hon. Member for Reigate that I have consulted on the action and that I am satisfied that it will not have an adverse effect for several reasons. The Diplock review concluded that it was unlikely that a confession would be admitted under section 76 that would not be admissible under PACE because of the practical application of the law as it now applies to terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland. Confessions are important, but they are not the only way that an investigation can be concluded. Recently, three Real IRA members pleaded guilty during a trial. I reiterate that the police are satisfied that repealing section 76 will not have an adverse impact.
Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister enlighten the Committee on the form of the advice from the police? I presume that the Police Service of Northern Ireland gave her formal advice on the measure, but its presentation may have been less formal.
Jane Kennedy: I discussed the measure regularly with the Chief Constable and the Assistant Chief Constables responsible for applying the 2000 Act, I visited the Lisburn holding centre as it was being set up and developed, and I discussed these issues with Bill Norris, the independent commissioner for detained terrorist suspects. I was satisfied in all my conversations over the past few months, especially as Lord Carlile was conducting his review, that the repeal of section 76 will not have an adverse impact on police investigations.
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Mr. Blunt: The Minister has not gone as far as I had hoped. If I understand her correctly, she is saying that she has had conversations with policemen responsible for the conduct of these affairs, but she has not had formal advice from the PSNI that the police are prepared to surrender the powers to obtain confession evidence that is admissible. That is an important point, as there is a difference between the police giving her formal advice and her reaching her own conclusion.
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Of course we have had formal advice from the police along the lines that he suggests. Indeed, I received a letter from the PSNI that confirms that. I was satisfied with that letter, but I also wish to test the matter for myself. I have had several conversations with those who take a close interest in the operation of the Act.
The hon. Members for Reigate and for Worthing, West talked about the difference between Northern Ireland and England and Wales. When Lord Carlile was making his report, he talked about the application of the measure in a time of peace. If having a difference between Northern Ireland and England and Wales is not sustainable, what we apply in those circumstances brings us back to the point that the hon. Member for Worthing, West made, although I will not enter into the speculation that that route invites.
Given that response to the thorough question that the hon. Member for Reigate posed, I hope that I have been able to reassure him, so that he feels able to support the Government in repealing section 76 of the 2000 Act.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at fifteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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