Inside Parliament: Howard shuns consensus in anti-terror law debate: Labour accused of placating left over PTA - Mandelson seeks assurance over talks leak - Waldegrave urged to clarify 'lie' comments

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Any thought that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, might put aside party politics and try to meet Labour part-way to achieve a consensus over the Prevention of Terrorism Act was quickly revealed as the wildest of wishful thinking as the debate on renewing the legislation began yesterday.

Accusing the Labour leadership of voting against the Act to 'placate the left-wing of their party', Mr Howard said changes sought on exclusion orders and seven-day detention would make the job of the police and MI5 more difficult and impose extra risks on the public.

The chairman of the terrorism committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers had told him: 'The retention of the Act in its present form is an essential weapon in the armoury of counter-

terrorism.'

Mr Howard said: 'No party that is prepared to deny that essential weapon to the brave police officers who have to confront the evil men at whom these powers are aimed is remotely fit to govern this country.'

Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, was repeatedly challenged by Tories on why his opinion should be preferred to that of the police. He explained he did not want to impose his view, but that there should be an independent review of the Act.

It would consider whether the exceptional power to detain a suspect for up to seven days should be subject to judicial rather than ministerial control and whether exclusion orders should be scrapped. The latter is a form of internal exile banning a person from crossing to Britain from Northern Ireland or vice versa. David Trimble, for the Ulster Unionists, said restricting people to one part of the United Kingdom was 'inherently objectionable'. Though his party backed the Act, he suggested the Government consider ways of improving it.

Mr Blair reminded MPs that they were 'temporary provisions' - introduced by a Labour government in 1974. He quoted misgivings about the inroads into civil liberties and lack of a judicial element from former home secretaries William (now Lord) Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd, and the view of Viscount Colville of Culross that exclusion orders should go.

Lord Colville carried out the last full review of the Act on behalf of the Government in 1987. Last year 455 extensions of detention beyond 48 hours were granted in Ulster and 39 in Britain. Of the latter, 17 people were charged with serious terrorist offences. At the end of 1993, 80 people were subject to exclusion orders.

After an acrimonious three-hour debate, the order renewing the Act was approved by 328 votes to 242. The result will enable Tories to go on portraying Labour as soft on terrorism - a charge John Smith and Mr Blair tried to shake off by their private approach to the Government in search of consensus. Mr Howard deplored the fact that the meetings between himself and Mr Blair and between the Labour leader and John Major became public knowledge.

Intervening, Peter Mandelson, Labour MP for Hartlepool, said it was 'scarcely believable' that the Home Office was not implicated in the leak of the meetings since Mr Howard was quoted in the Sunday Express story.

He sought a 'unambiguous assurance' that neither Mr Howard, his officials, nor his advisers had any responsibility for planting the story. Mr Howard's two advisers, David Cameron and Patrick Rock, were 'regularly seen operating in the press gallery', Mr Mandelson said. Who but the former Labour communications director would know the practice better?

Mr Howard gave the assurance, but Mr Blair was apparently unconvinced. Though he repeated the offer of talks on a consensus, he was damning of the response of the 'Home Office regime' to his last approach. It had been met 'not just by a refusal to consider our proposals but to reject them out of hand, to find a story planted in the press before we even had the courtesy of a reply. That is not seeking agreement in the interests of peace and security. It is playing politics with this issue.'

Mr Howard said it was 'nonsense' for Mr Blair to imply the Government was insisting on all the powers currently in the Act for party political reasons. It was Labour who, in 1981, moved away from the bipartisan consensus on how to tackle terrorism.

'It simply won't do for Labour to say that they are in favour of anti-terrorist legislation in principle and then to criticise its two key provisions which make such a crucial contribution to the fight against terrorism.'

Jeff Rooker, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, said he was an MP when the original legislation was passed in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings and had continued to vote for it despite its defects. However he would now vote against it because of Mr Howard's performance. 'The British public . . . are entitled to see grown- up politics in operation.'

Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Blair's call for a review of the Act would 'send precisely the wrong signals to Sinn Fein'. Notwithstanding the exceptional nature of the measures, it was necessary to endorse them for another year.

The House later approved by 324 votes to 221 the setting up of a Northern Ireland Select Committee to scrutinise policy in the province. The move is seen as a concession by the Government to secure Ulster Unionist votes.

William Waldegrave's candid remark that it was sometimes right for ministers to lie to the Commons was seized on by Labour MPs who asked Speaker Betty Boothroyd if there was any way of knowing when they were being told the truth.

Michael Meacher, Labour's Citizen's Charter spokesman, called for a statement from Mr Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to 'clarify this highly damaging doctrine'. Mr Waldegrave told the Civil Service Select Committee that Parliament understood that 'in exceptional circumstances it is necessary to say something that is untrue'.

But Mr Meacher said official guidance required ministers to 'provide as full information as possible about their policies, decisions and actions and are not to deceive or mislead Parliament or the public'. If this was not consistent, how could the minister for open government remain in office 'when he is seeking to justify such deceptions and half-truths?'

(Photograph omitted)

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