TERROR LAW 'NO THREAT TO PEACEFUL PROTEST'
Yep, Straw's at it again....
by Trevor Mason, Parliamentary Editor, PA News Tuesday 14 December, 1999
Further info: Terrorism Bill - The end of direct action?
Activists guide to the Terrorism Bill
Home Secretary Jack Straw tonight defended plans to replace existing counter-terrorist legislation with permanent UK-wide laws in the face of Labour backbench concerns. Opening Commons second reading debate on the Terrorism Bill, Mr Straw insisted: "This Bill is not intended to, nor will it, threaten in any way the right peacefully to demonstrate. "It is not designed to be used in situations where demonstrations unaccountably turn ugly."
MPs from both sides raised concerns that the new, wider, definition of terrorism might catch campaigning groups like Greenpeace or those viewed by foreign governments as terrorists in their own countries.
But Mr Straw said: "The new definition will not catch the vast majority of so called domestic activist groups which exist in this country today. "I know of no evidence whatever that Greenpeace is involved in any activity that would remotely fall within the scope of this legislation." Pressed specifically on the position of animal liberation groups who break into research laboratories, Mr Straw acknowledged there was a "thin dividing line". He added: "There are people who claim to be in favour of so called animal liberation who have engaged in acts which have ... resulted in the most serious violence to individuals and placed people under threat of their lives. In such circumstances they may well come within the ambit of Clause One (of the Bill)."
The measure, he said, was aimed at deterring, preventing and where necessary, investigating, the "most heinous" crime. "The Terrorism Bill is about protecting, not threatening, fundamental rights." The Bill puts existing temporary counter-terrorist measures on a permanent basis, although some parts relating specifically to Northern Ireland will be still subject to annual renewal.
It repeals the Prevention of Terrorism Act but re-enacts provisions giving special powers to the police to counter terrorism. Mr Straw said the new wider definition of terrorism, involving the use of "serious violence against persons or property", did not create a specific offence of terrorism itself.
But Labour's Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N) warned the Bill could threaten the traditional right of people in exile to campaign for political change in their home countries.
And Alan Simpson (Lab Nottingham S) said a number of Labour MPs were concerned that the Bill widened the definition of terrorism to "incorporate a whole series of offences currently covered under criminal law". Mr Straw said the aim was not to restrict the right of peaceful protest or campaigning. But those who conspired to commit terrorist acts abroad would come under scope of the Bill.
Labour's David Winnick (Walsall N) said Britain should not be used as a base for terrorism abroad but added: "There are certain misgivings, even for those of us who support the broad thrust of this Bill, that perhaps under a different government ... civil liberties could be undermined or threatened." Mr Straw said there was a "profound safeguard" against the disproportionate use of the powers, in the Human Rights Act which would come into force next year. He said powers for police under the Bill included an enhanced power to arrest and detain suspects, to stop and search vehicles and pedestrians and to investigate terrorist finances.
Labour's Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington) said he supported the Bill but expressed concern that other countries could apply diplomatic pressure on Britain to abuse the legislation.
He suggested a situation could arise where countries unhappy at protest groups operating out of the UK could persuade the British Government to curtail their right to peaceful protest.
Mr Straw said that from time to time such pressure did arise but insisted Britain would never submit to it. "As far as I am concerned as long as those people are protesting in a peaceful way and their immigration status is satisfactory then they are fully entitled to their peaceful protest. "The test in a democracy is not whether you accord rights to people you agree with it is whether you accord rights to people with whom you profoundly disagree."
Mr Straw insisted Britain's legal process would prevent an abuse of the legislation by any future home secretary because police would have to decide whether to investigate a crime and their independence was protected. He added: "We should defend to the last the right of peaceful protest and dissent in this country. At the same time we should not provide a haven for people who are plainly committing, organising or inciting terrorist acts here or abroad." Mr Straw said the wide-ranging and evolving threat from terrorism was not going to go away.
"The Bill therefore sets in place an appropriate and effective range of provisions which is proportionate to the reality of the threat we face." Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe told Mr Straw Tories supported the Government in many of the measures proposed in the Bill. Conservatives had "never shirked" in their duty in taking a tough stand against terrorism and had always believed in putting up a united front among political parties.
"The Opposition will always back legislation that makes life harder for those who engage in or give support to acts of terrorism." But she said this had not always been the case when Tories had been in power. Often through the darkest days in Northern Ireland, Labour failed to support such legislation.
"Year after year increasingly lame excuses were trotted out one after another. "And I do not believe that we shall ever forget the sight of the Prime Minister who when he was shadow home secretary, the very night that IRA mortar bombs were raining down on Heathrow Airport, ignoring the pleas of the, then, Home Secretary Michael Howard and leading his colleagues into the lobby to vote against the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act." Miss Widdecombe said the UK had lived with terrorism for 30 years and paid tribute to those who had been involved in the battle against it, including police, armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. She acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement offered the best chance for peace in Northern Ireland.
Miss Widdecombe said she accepted the new definition of terrorism but Tories might wish to "probe" the definition at a later stage. She backed removing exclusion orders as they had "outlived their practical usefulness". Miss Widdecombe supported inclusion of the separate Northern Ireland provisions in the Bill.
But she did express concern about the provisions transferring power to extend the length of time a suspect can be held without charge, from the Home Secretary to a judicial authority.
"We remain unconvinced that it is legitimately a judicial function rather than an executive one."
But Conservatives would vote with the Government for the Bill's second reading if the House was divided tonight. Labour's former Northern Ireland spokesman Kevin McNamara (Hull N) warned Mr Straw he was being "over-optimistic" if he believed the Bill did not contravene the Human Rights Act.
He criticised the Government for passing up a "wonderful opportunity" to do away with powers conferred on ministers by anti-terror legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Mr McNamara said the PTA was introduced after the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, at a time when public opinion was clamouring for action against the IRA and had only been supposed to last six months.
British citizens of Irish descent were being threatened and harassed in the aftermath of that atrocity and the Bill was also intended to help them by satisfying public opinion, he said.
But it was "ironic" that the PTA had subsequently been used against Irish people in both Ulster and mainland Britain, Mr McNamara told MPs. That had alienated a "whole community" Intervening, Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and S Tyrone) protested that Mr McNamara was "talking, always, as though successive governments in this House have somehow discriminated deliberately against Irish people, without any understanding - it appears - of the terror of 3,500 people dead, of 300 policemen injured".
Mr McNamara retorted: "I do not need to be lectured, even on a personal level, by you about how hard comes home the deaths that have happened in Northern Ireland." He said it was "with some sorrow and in some anger" that he had to criticise ministers for not getting rid of "a lot of the litter and debris of the past 30 years in Northern Ireland".
Tory former Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King (Bridgwater) said it was right for the Government to clamp down on people directing terrorism in other countries from a British base.
Intervening, Mr Corbyn said that if the Bill been law during the era of apartheid in South Africa, it would have meant London representatives of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress would have been terrorist members of an illegal organisation.
Mr King conceded: "It's a serious issue and needs to be addressed." It was true that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", he said.
"We are trying to find a balance between terrorism which we can all recognise, and anybody can see blindfold that it's terrorism committed against a friendly country and a country we approve of, and terrorism when it may be - as it were - an act of protest against a quite unacceptable regime in which our sympathies are very much more with the protesters." That question would have to be revisited as the Bill made its way through Parliament, he added.
Mr King said he "strongly" supported measures to tackle fundraising by terrorists, speaking of the infrastructure of black taxis, smuggling and rigged fruit machines providing cash for different groups during his time in Ulster. Labour's Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) said of the move to permanent legislation: "This is a symptom that in a particular way the terrorists have won." She said: "There have been circumstances when it is necessary to suspend the protection of human rights, which is guaranteed in international legislation and in other ways, in order effectively to investigate and prosecute activities conducted by terrorist organisations.
"But in a way they want that to happen and that's part of the problem, that the best form of prosecution and prevention is when we can use the robust mechanisms of the usual laws." Terrorists could then not portray themselves as victims of an oppressive state. Ms Mactaggart said the temporary nature of previous law had prevented "more careless use" of it by governments.
She also said she was "deeply concerned" that the Bill imposes "an onus to report matters which are only suspicions" and could discourage journalistic investigations into terrorist activity.
Simon Hughes, for Liberal Democrats, said they were concerned about the permanent nature of the proposals and the definition of terrorism in the Bill. The law should lapse once a parliament to allow MPs to "review it, re-enact it or amend it". He said: "It's a well-worn phrase that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance but it applies particularly to Bills like this." Mr Hughes said the definition of terrorism in the Bill went further than previous law.
The Government wanted terrorism to mean threat as well as use of force, violence against property as well as against people and activities which create risk to health and safety of the public as well as endangering life. "We should tread very carefully in moving from crimes against the state to crimes against individuals and much more carefully even than that if we're going to extend it to crimes against property as well."
He added: "It's absolutely possible, in my reading of the Bill, that the environmentalist attacking a field of corn in Lincolnshire would be caught, that somebody bringing about more serious damage to an animal laboratory in Oxfordshire, even if there was no human being in it, would be caught.
"Somebody attending a meeting in any of our constituencies at which somebody else spoke who might claim to be - even if they weren't - a supporter of a freedom struggle in a non-democratic country might also be caught. "I have to say when we go down that road we are asking for trouble for ourselves as a democracy and for our reputation."
Mr Hughes said the Bill's Section 18 "makes you guilty if you discover something about activities in support of terrorism and say nothing". "I have to say many journalists will be guilty without having done any more if that clause goes on to the statute book," he said.
Mr Hughes warned: "This Bill looks as if it is going too far in favour of the state and away from liberty." Mr Corbyn warned that dozens of solidarity groups on places such as Tibet, Indonesia and South America supported armed insurrection in those countries during meetings in his constituency. "Are they going to be criminalised?" he asked. "My understanding on the face of the Bill is yes."
Mr Corbyn said: "This is an example of legislation brought through without the necessary thought. It has the support of both front benches which makes me very suspicious.
"If we are serious about democracy, about accountability and about the due process of law, this is not the way to achieve it," he added. Mr Maginnis, welcoming the legislation, said: "I want to ensure that we have, throughout the UK, the sort of legislation that will ensure that no part of this Kingdom has to go through what we went through in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years."
He said he was surprised some who had pressed him and other Ulster Unionists to take a chance on the peace process were now criticising the Bill. Mr Maginnis accused Labour MPs like Mr Corbyn of having "regressed into their own bigoted, narrow, little, green-tinted world". Legislation to counter terrorism must be flexible enough to adapt to the changing nature of terrorism, he insisted.
Mr Simpson told the House he found it "surprising and disappointing", at a time when the country stood on the edge of a lasting peace in Ulster, "we are faced with proposals which would dramatically extend the scope of what we define as terrorism".
Mr Simpson said the legislation ran the risk of turning direct action movements into terrorist movements. Actions against corporations rather than the state had to be dealt within the framework of the criminal justice system.
"As soon as we start to move into presumptions about terrorism we are transforming the relationship between civil protest movements and elected parliaments and the judicial system." Mr Simpson said the new definition of terrorism could cover people who were organising protests against GM crops.
In an intervention, Tory former Cabinet Minister Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) said: "There is simply no point the front bench opposite saying 'oh well the Director of Public Prosecutions wouldn't authorise a prosecution'.
"The plain truth is that democratic activity is being inhibited by the fear of the offence which is being created." Mr Simpson said: "We are being asked to accept that somehow the threat to the stability of the State now gives way to a threat to the corporate estate. "And that is the new act of social terrorism. It is a desperately dangerous path to go down."
Labour's Stephen McCabe (Birmingham Hall Green) said he was "happy with the behaviour" of Mr Straw and his colleagues in relation to the Bill. But, he asked: "I do wonder what might have happened to the miners and their families or the women at Greenham Common if this legislation had been in effect then."
He said: "The ANC had an armed wing, as does the National Council for Resistance in Iran, an organisation which of course was once regarded as our good friend in the British Labour Party.
"I'm meeting with some of these people at lunchtime tomorrow and I'm really wondering if I'm putting myself in a position where sooner or later I'm going to be guilty of an offence under this legislation by simply listening to them."
Mr McCabe said there was a "Big Brother" element to the Bill. "These are measures that will severely restrict an investigative journalist. "Instead of making our society more secure, it will actually make it more secretive." Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley) supported the Bill and stressed the importance of it sending out a signal that "terrorism will not be tolerated, whether it is in Northern Ireland or other parts of the UK". He said: "A terrorist organisation which remains armed and refuses to declare that its campaign of violence is over should remain a prescribed organisation."
While there was the threat of terrorist intimidation of jurors, the Diplock court system in Northern Ireland, involving a judge and hidden witnesses, should continue, he told MPs.
Mr Donaldson argued that if it was the Government's intention to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland, it needed to ensure that the Royal Irish Regiment had a role in supporting police against terrorists.
"This legislation is necessary, but we hope for the day when it will not be necessary - but that is a day that is some way off yet," he added. Mr Hogg said, although he disapproved of hunt saboteurs and activists who released mink from their cages and animals from laboratories, he did not believe they should be cast as terrorists.
Mr Hogg warned that Kurds, encouraged by the previous Tory Government to throw out Saddam Hussein, would fall within the scope of the Bill if they came to Britain. "This is a serious departure from the principles that we should be operating in this country."
He added: "I personally think that this Bill has within it the structures whereby civil liberties will be seriously curtailed.
"We have, by extending the definition of terrorism, set at risk the long tradition of giving sanctuary to people fighting oppressive regimes abroad and put at risk the democratic rights of people to protest." Veteran Labour leftwinger Tony Benn (Chesterfield) condemned the Bill as "outrageous" and "thoroughly bad".
Mr Benn said: "I am terribly disappointed that a Government that I support should be coming forward with a measure that would get a standing ovation at a Tory conference but is absolutely foreign to the conventions and traditions of the Labour Party."
Labour always had been sympathetic towards the dissident, who was often proved right, he told the House. "The more the Government opens itself to the influence of international organisations and business, the more it clamps down on dissent in this country."
Another leftwinger, Audrey Wise (Lab Preston), said she abhorred terrorism but did not consider someone who attacked Trident submarines in the past, believing them to be a threat to humanity, was a terrorist.
She warned extending the definition of terrorism in this way would bring the law into disrepute. Winding up for the Tories, David Lidington backed calls for an annual debate on the Bill once it became law, to make sure it was working as intended.
"Concerns have been expressed by some somewhat strange bedfellows," he said, referring to the criticisms by MPs such as Mr Hogg and Mr Simpson. He warned ministers that the Tories would want to "look closely" at the Bill's definition of terrorism later on during its passage through Parliament. "It is important for us always to bear in mind that the legislation has to strike a balance between the threat to civil liberties and protection of the public," Mr Lidington declared.
Replying, Home Office Minister of State Charles Clarke said the Government was prepared to listen to proposals on how Parliament could keep an eye on the working of the legislation.
Ministers were ready to discuss the "most effective way of proceeding" in that direction, he assured MPs. Turning to the parts of the Bill affecting Northern Ireland, Mr Clarke insisted
the Government saw them as part of the peace process. "We are prepared to remove part seven as soon as the assessed level of threat means that it is safe to do so."
He went on to assure MPs the definition of terrorism contained in the Bill was not supposed to outlaw the activities of animal rights and environmental campaigners, as long as they did not resort to serious violence.
"This definition will threaten organisations who seek to pursue their ideological view by the threat of serious violence, and intendedly so, because I believe that is a very dangerous area."
The Minister rejected suggestions the Government had been influenced by big corporations in drawing up the definition. "This is not in the Bill, in any sense, at the behest of international corporate interests in the way that was suggested in the course of the debate," he declared.
Mr Clarke said there was still no specific offence of terrorism linked to the new definition. Terrorists would still be charged with criminal offences such as murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.
Instead, the Bill was about giving the police more power to investigate and prevent terrorists acts and "thwart" groups declared illegal, he told MPs. The Government had "no present plans" to proscribe groups such as those involved in the June 10 anti-capitalism riots in the City of London. But he warned: "Of course, circumstances may change and it's right that we have the flexibility to respond."
Referring to MPs' concerns about the transfer of powers from the executive to the judiciary, Mr Clarke said the Government believed its proposals were "effective, positive and progressive". On the issue of incitement, he said the Government was determined to send out a "strong message" to extremists they could not encourage organisations abroad to pursue specific terrorist activities. "The Government believes that every act of terrorism is a uniquely cowardly and barbaric crime," Mr Clarke told the House. "This Bill responds to the need for specific powers, ensures that the UK takes a tough stance, provides a new permanent legal framework and gets the balance right."
The Bill gained its second reading without a vote.