Roy Jenkins: Why I am opposed to the anti-terrorism Bill

From a speech given by the Liberal Democrat peer at the second reading of the anti-terrorism bill in the House of Lords

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As almost 27 years ago, on 28th November to be precise, I introduced a Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill – with what turned out to be ironic parentheses – I thought that perhaps I ought to speak. In view of all that, it would not be possible for me, without the most blatant hypocrisy – one tries to avoid it in its blatant form, at any rate – to denounce the principle of a legislative response to acts of terrorism or its accelerated passage through Parliament. However, I have a number of reflections from that experience, not all of which may be entirely welcome to the Home Secretary.

As almost 27 years ago, on 28th November to be precise, I introduced a Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill – with what turned out to be ironic parentheses – I thought that perhaps I ought to speak. In view of all that, it would not be possible for me, without the most blatant hypocrisy – one tries to avoid it in its blatant form, at any rate – to denounce the principle of a legislative response to acts of terrorism or its accelerated passage through Parliament. However, I have a number of reflections from that experience, not all of which may be entirely welcome to the Home Secretary.

While the atrocity over which I was acting was of an immensely smaller scale than that of 11 September, it was much nearer to home. The two explosions in Birmingham pubs caused 24 deaths and nearly 200 serious injuries, almost entirely among young adults. They were part of a series of events, many of which were in Birmingham. The Guildford bombing had also happened only six weeks previously. Birmingham was not only the second city of England

None the less, I did not then contemplate any return to the 1971 policy of indefinite internment without trial, which had become heavily discredited and which, in retrospect, is undoubtedly thought to have exacerbated rather than contained the IRA terrorist threat. The new powers taken then were much more precise and limited.

First, the police were allowed to detain a suspected terrorist for up to 48 hours on their own authority and then for a further five days with the specific authority of a Minister of the Crown. Secondly, much tighter controls at the points of entry for Northern and southern Ireland were introduced. Thirdly, and most controversially, the Home Secretary was given powers to exclude from Great Britain – that is, just from this island and not from the United Kingdom as a whole – citizens of the Republic of Ireland or those originating in Northern Ireland had they not been domiciled here for 20 years if it appeared to him, on advice, that they were, or were likely to be, involved in acts of terrorism. However, two independent assessors were appointed to whom representations could be made.

Looking back, what do I think of that Act? I think it helped to steady a febrile state of opinion at the time and to provide some limited additional protection. However, I doubt that it frustrated any determined terrorist.

If I had been told at the time that the Act could still be on the statute book 20 years later, I would have been horrified. It is often the provisional that endures.

There is a wider consideration. Not at all as a direct result of that Act, but associated with the mood of that time, there occurred some of the worst miscarriages of justice in the recent history of British criminal law. Guildford and Birmingham became notorious names in that context. There was undoubtedly a certain atavistic desire to get any Irishman and convict him. That affected police, prosecuting counsel, judges and juries. As a result, several years in the 1980s had to be spent on a campaign under the inspired leadership of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, to right some of those appalling mis-convictions.

At a time of threat, to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing is a natural human – and perhaps particularly ministerial – reaction. But something, anything, is by no means always better than nothing. You can do more harm than good.

It should be very carefully directed at the threat and not splayed over a wide area of increase in executive powers. It should be done with a wary consciousness that what starts as a temporary measure is only too likely to last. Above all, something should be done within a framework of respect for the rule of law and an awareness of the need for those at the hinge point between the security of the state and the freedom of the individual to remain as calmly judicial as possible. I have sympathy for Mr Blunkett with the conflicting pressures upon him. But I cannot endorse this Bill as it comes unamended to your Lordships' House.

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