November 10, 2005

Terrorism Bill

John Bercow outlines his objection to the Bill as being too wide ranging and vague. He dismisses Government arguments that it is what the police and public want.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The Government say that the main provisions of the Bill are necessary. As William Pitt said as long ago as 1783:”Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom: it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

The debate has, on the whole, taken place in a good-tempered and sometimes even convivial fashion, so let me be clear: I do not suggest for one moment that the Prime Minister is a tyrant. I think he is a patriot and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, a person of remarkable qualities and courage. I think that sometimes he is right. I happen to think on this occasion that he is wrong. It is a question of an honest difference of opinion—a concept that I hope the Government and their Back Benchers would be prepared to recognise.

Specifically, the kernel of my objection to the Bill in its current form—as it was my objection on Second Reading—is that it contains too broad a range of powers, which are too vaguely defined and threaten too much damage, in return for too little benefit. I want to focus on a couple of the arguments that the Government have advanced in support of it. Neither of them strikes me as compelling.

One argument is to say that the public want it. That, frankly, will not do. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) argued in a powerful contribution, we cannot reduce ourselves to a situation in which we accept that legislation should be formulated, defended and passed on the basis of survey research or an opinion poll. I argue—I think legitimately so—that we should heed the words of Edmund Burke who, in his letter to the electors of Bristol in 1774, said that he was their Member of Parliament and representative, and in that capacity he owed them not merely his industry, but his judgment, and he betrayed, instead of serving them, if he sacrificed his judgment to their opinion.

We must be prepared to look at the merits of the case. If we are not robust enough emotionally and intellectually to withstand the rather downmarket, low-grade and substandard attacks on us that will emanate from the veritable organ of public opinion, The Sun newspaper, we should not be in this place. I want to argue the case on its merits.

The second argument that the Government advance, to which we have to pay significant attention, but which I do not regard as conclusive, is that the police tell us that the power is necessary. I was concerned by the argument of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), who said that he was guided by that argument because we have to listen to the experts. We have a responsibility to listen to, but not be overwhelmingly persuaded by, the experts’ view. That is especially so if we are not told of the evidential basis for that view. The argument, “The police say it’s necessary, and that’s good enough for me”, may be good enough for some hon. Members, but it is not good enough for me.

I want to know the evidential case for an extension of the period of detention without charge from 14 days to 28 days. I am still not convinced that there is such a case. I certainly should want to be persuaded that there was a compelling evidential case for 90 days. It is my view that there is a better way forward. Intercept evidence should be admissible in court proceedings. I fear that the Home Office is against that because, were the policy adopted, it would require warrants to be issued on the basis of a decision by a judge and not simply on the say-so of a junior Home Office Minister. Nevertheless, it is the right course of action and the Government should adopt it.

Moreover, there is a better approach. If the security services cannot manage—it is a difficult process because they would have to download computer files, de-encrypt and study the detail—let us have a massive increase in the investment in the personnel, resources and training that are required to enable the police and intelligence services to do their job. I am sad that that argument was not properly explored before the Government contemplated and advocated the abandonment of an historic liberty of the British people. If, in blindfold pursuit of enhanced security, we sacrifice precious liberty we shall end up with neither enhanced security nor precious liberty. That would be a tragedy. I respect the Government’s integrity. I believe that they are motivated by the highest considerations of national protection and public service, but I honestly believe that they are wrong.

4.20 pm

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