Parliament & Politics: Lords attack on `rushed' terror Bill

Click to follow
THE GOVERNMENT'S emergency anti-terror legislation was set to become law today despite further attacks by peers about the lack of time to consider the measures with proper scrutiny.

While peers broadly supported the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, they warned during a Lords debate last night that the legislation could contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

Peers followed MPs in complaining about ministers' insistence to push the Bill on to the statute book in less than 48 hours, but agreed to pass it in one session.

The measures, drafted in the wake of the terrorist atrocities in Omagh, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, are mirrored by legislation passed in the Dail, Ireland's Lower House.

The Bill will make it easier to prosecute people for membership of outlawed terrorist groups - the Real IRA, which claimed responsibility for the Omagh massacre, the Continuity IRA, the INLA and the LVF. It will also outlaw UK-based groups that conspire to commit offences abroad.

Leading the protests in the Lords against the Government's timetable, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said: "We are invited to abandon our role as a revising Chamber.

"We are asked to give the executive almost absolute power to put the legislation on the statute book without detailed debate in the normal manner."

The Opposition peers' leader, Viscount Cranborne, joined the protest, voicing "deep unease" about the manner in which the Bill had been introduced.

Lord Cranborne said the "extraordinarily hurried and unprepared way" it had been brought in was evident in its drafting and called for reassurances about being able to review the legislation later to ensure it was in good order.

Labour's Lord Stoddart of Swindon said there was absolutely no reason why the Bill's clause dealing with conspiracy to commit crimes abroad needed to be introduced with this Bill. He said: "We understand the need to have legislation to deal with terrorism, but it should be the right legislation and correct legislation that will do good."

Responding, the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay of Paddington, promised that Parliament would have the opportunity to review the Bill on an annual basis and assured peers that the Government's Chief Whip was already looking at the issue of dealing with emergency legislation.

"We take these matters very seriously and the substantive points raised will be addressed," she said.

Peers then approved without a vote the Government's motion to enable the Bill to go through the Lords in just one sitting.

Opening the Bill's second reading debate, the Home Office minister Lord Williams of Mostyn reminded critics of the legislation that it had been created in response to the murders in Omagh and to the "clear and present danger" of terrorism.

The Bill, aimed to stop terrorist groups from derailing the Good Friday Agreement, makes admissible in court the opinion of a senior police officer that an individual is a member of such groups, allows a suspect's failure to answer questions to be be taken into account, and gives the police the power to seize their property.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said the Bill could have been introduced in a "more measured way".

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev John Oliver, said the Government's failure over the past two years to introduce audiotaping of police interviews in Northern Ireland proved that the Bill was "fraught with danger".

But the former Ulster Unionist Leader, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, warned that the Real IRA was as deadly as the body to which they formerly belonged. He stressed that the renegade republican group had transferred much of its weaponry from the IRA and warned that it was likely to have built up a formidable armoury by early next year. "I cannot regard the Bill as totally adequate to contain such a threat," he said.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, one of Britain's most senior law lords and the judge chosen to review the law on terrorism in 1996, said that Bill would contribute nothing to the fight against terrorism. He added that any conviction that stemmed from the Bill would not stand up in the European Court of Justice. "No judge anywhere in the world could convict solely on the say so of a police officer."

Lord Lloyd added that even Lord Diplock had considered and rejected the idea of drawing inferences from a suspect's silence, as long ago as 1973.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, acknowledged that there had been "overwhelming pressure" on the Government to introduce anti-terrorist legislation after the Omagh bombing. "But we have to be careful that this Bill does not turn out to be dangerous law," he said.

He opposed the power to allow the Home Secretary to overrule the Attorney General's refusal to prosecute a case, claiming "I find that quite extraordinary".

Lord Avebury, former chairman of the all-party human rights group at Westminster, tabled amendments opposing the entire conspiracy abroad provisions.

Earl Russell urged for a restriction of the conspiracy provisions to countries which have free and fair elections.

"Moral outrage, however justified, confers no dispensation from the immutable law of politics, that measures must be capable of producing the desired effect," he said.