Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Nearly all of us in the House accept that the Home Secretary is right when he says that we face a qualitatively different threat, so it behoves us at least to consider whether it is necessary to curtail to some degree traditional civil liberties in this country. I accept that, to some degree, that may be so, but we should try to secure the life of the people of this country with the minimum loss of their liberties.
For my part, if there is to be a loss I would try to limit it to the smallest group of people, which in the first instance seems to be foreign nationals, rather than extending the loss of liberty to British citizens as a whole. I would want to minimise the reduction in the burden of proof and the procedures for proof, which are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly pointed out, equally important. Above all, I would want to minimise reliance on political decisions rather than independent judicial decisions. That is where I take a completely different line from what the Government are proposing in the Bill.
Normally, when we consider matters of this gravity, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Government seek consensus. They try to take a
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balanced approach and to eschew partisan rhetoric and point scoring, to maximise support for any reduction in liberty or curtailment of our freedoms. Sadly, that has not been true on this occasion. The Government have made rather pathetic attempts to use the Bill both to burnish their own credentials and to tarnish the Opposition‘s credentials on the treatment of terrorism. I have to say that that makes it more difficult to give them support, because we cannot but have doubts when powers are introduced in a partisan manner that they may be used in a partisan manner. We remember all too well how the Government were prepared to summon tanks to Heathrow when that was helpful to them, but not to explain subsequently why the tanks were there.
Mr. Denham rose?
Mr. Lilley: I will give way in a moment, as I tend to say rather nice things about the right hon. Gentleman, who made an important and valuable contribution to the debate.
Ministers are responsible to the House for securing our lives and upholding our liberties. They should be responsible to the House for putting in place systems for securing that rather than for putting individuals away simply on the Government‘s say-so. Sadly, Ministers are trying to take powers that would give them personal responsibility for putting people away, while avoiding full accountability to the House by curtailing debate on the Bill in a shameful way and putting the responsibility on others who are not accountable.
At Prime Minister‘s questions today, the Prime Minister repeatedly invoked what he described as the unanimous recommendation of the police and all the security agencies for the measures that the House is considering. It is wrong in principle for Ministers to invoke their public servants, who are not accountable, to justify measures that those who are accountable are proposing to the House. There are a number of reasons why we should not accept the advice of the security forces without first questioning, probing and evaluating it and weighing it up against other factors. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was right to point out that that is the responsibility of Ministers. A Minister must take decisions on the basis of the advice that he is given, but it is his decision what advice he takes. If he takes bad advice, he is responsible if he has not first probed, tested and evaluated it and made it his own. We have to question the advice that we receive from the security forces and the police, because the Government must weigh security against liberty. The security forces have to consider only one thing. They do not have to put anything else in the other scale. They just have responsibility for trying to maximise the security of this country against security threats.
Secondly, the police and secret services will always think that they know things that they cannot prove and will want to seek to avoid having to prove what they just suspect. Unfortunately, sometimes their suspicions turn out to be false, and they can turn out to be false on quite a large scale, not just on individual occasions. We should remember when taking these powers that the House granted a previous Government the power to introduce internment without trial in Northern Ireland.
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We should remember how that turned out. I quote from a note from the Library, which in turn quotes a book by Paul Wilkinson, which said:
“Internment or detention without trial, was introduced in 1972”
“was argued that the normal judicial processes had proved incapable of providing essential protection for society. The police were hamstrung in their efforts to bring known terrorists to trial, and to have them convicted.”
But, as it turned out,
“many of those netted by the security forces had little or nothing to do with involvement in IRA terrorism.”
We know the consequences of that. They were threefold: it was not just, first, that individuals were wrongly interned and thereby often radicalised; it was that the guilty were left free to go on carrying out their terrorism; and the community was alienated and often shifted to supporting the very terrorists with which it had previously had no connection. That is why an early action of this Labour Government was to repeal from the statute book the power to introduce internment without trial.
What the then Minister, Lord Dubs, said at the time was:
“The Government have long held the view that internment does not represent an effective counter-terrorism measure . . . Quite apart from any judgment about its appropriateness in principle, the fact is that internment has not worked in practice. Indeed many would say that it was a disaster when last used in the 1970s. There is nothing to suggest that it would be . . . more effective in the future . . . We cannot envisage any circumstances in which we would seek to deprive an individual of his or her liberty without trial and without the normal safeguards that the law provides for the protection of suspects. Such action would surely run counter to the rule of law as it is understood internationally.”?[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 January 1998; Vol. 584, c. 889?90.]
In fact, obliging the security forces to find convincing proof, rather than relying on suspicion, will enhance the security of the country, as well as protecting the liberty of the individual.
Mr. Trimble: I do not wish to get into an argument with the right hon. Gentleman about precisely what happened in 1971 in Northern Ireland, but I should like to point out that, even if he takes the view that such measures failed then, he must put into the balance the fact that they were used successfully in the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and of course in England and Wales during the first and second world wars. For that reason, he should not take up an absolute position against this reserve power, which might be necessary.
Mr. Lilley: I thought that I made it clear that I was not taking up an absolute position against that power. I do accept that there may be a need for curtailment of liberties, but it is up to the Government to persuade us of that in proper and, if necessary, prolonged debate in the House, by investigating the evidence and experience of what has happened in the past and justifying, on the basis of that evidence and experience, what they propose to do in future. One thing that we cannot doubt is that many innocent people were rounded up on the say-so of the police and security authorities, who told Ministers that they knew who was doing it, that they could lock them up, but that they just could not prove it. It is important to remember that.
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Sir Patrick Cormack: Is not the fundamental problem that whereas it is absolutely right to say that it is far better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent one to be punished, when we are dealing with not only homicidal but suicidal terrorists, surely we must set the greater good and the greater safety of the greater number as the first priority?
Mr. Lilley: Indeed, but we should be cautious about doing that in ways that could tip more people into joining the very terrorist organisations that we fear. We should find ways that try to assess each individual, preferably before someone who is independent rather than political, rather than just taking the say-so of the security forces that they know best.
A third reason why we should question, yet not reject, advice from the security forces is that they always have an interest in asking for more measures than they expect to get. When I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I was summoned to appear before the heads of all five agencies because they felt that something that I wished to do?even now, I cannot reveal it to the House?would impinge on methods of surveillance of which I was previously unaware and of which I hope that all hon. Members are still unaware. I wanted none the less to introduce the changes, which have gone on to have a beneficial impact on this country‘s prosperity, so I argued against the agency heads. It eventually emerged that they could work round my proposals, so they let me go ahead, but they asked for more measures because they wanted to find out how much they could get. In the end, however, they were happy to get nothing and to work round the situation themselves.
There are even greater reasons why the security forces ask for more than the Government can concede now. They know that if they are unable to prevent a major terrorism event?God forbid?it is better for them to be able to say that the Government refused them something than to say that the Government offered everything that had been asked for. The Government, in turn, seem to be playing much the same form of brinkmanship with the House by saying, “If you reject this, we‘ll label you as soft on terrorism.” It is important not that we reject the proposals before us, but that we deal with them sceptically and with great deliberation, and find out whether there are better ways of achieving the same result.
Fourthly, the security forces will always want to keep the processes that they use under wraps. They sometimes want to do that for the good reason that terrorists do not know about these processes and they want to keep them secret so that they can continue to be used without the terrorists realising it. It is probably a little known fact in the House that I was acting Home Secretary for one weekend when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was abroad.
Mr. Llwyd: Oh, that weekend!
Mr. Lilley: It was a bank holiday weekend, so it was quite a long one. I found myself being invited to sign documents and permissions to do all sorts of interesting things. It was right for some of them to be kept secret, even though some processes were quite simple, as the IRA probably did not realise that they were being
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carried out. However, one felt that other processes were being kept secret simply to retain the mystique of the organisations, because they like having secrets and being able to say, “We can tell you, Minister, but you mustn‘t tell anyone else.”
Departments have an interest in emphasising the importance of what they do, so the secret services and the police likewise have no incentive to understate the threats and risks?both general and specific?that the country faces. That is not to deny that we might face an enormous risk, as I said earlier, but we should want to assess and deliberate on each individual case with scepticism and put it to an independent legal test.
Mr. Dalyell: Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect the case of Matrix Churchill and public interest immunity certificates? Does that not warn us to be extremely careful?
Mr. Lilley: I would love to go down that line on another occasion, but there are better examples of why we should be careful.
We should not ignore the advice of the security authorities either on policy or on individuals. We should take it extremely seriously. They are brave, honourable supporters of the state and the public interest. We should do what Ministers failed clearly to do in the case of weapons of mass destruction?question, probe and evaluate any evidence that we receive from them before we adopt it, and then Ministers should adopt it in their own authority and not pass off the responsibility and blame on officials.
Sadly, the Government are trying to escape responsibility for what they are doing. They are trying to escape proper debate about what they are doing. I believe that the outcome would be far healthier were the debate longer, and were we able to accept the advice from the Conservative Front Bench and prolong existing measures until we are sure that we are putting in place something that will ensure the security of the nation, which might involve some curtailment of liberties, but will, I hope, not go as far as saying that individuals can be put away on the say-so of a politician rather than an independent judicial source.