I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 21st May, be approved.
The People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran, or PMOI, is opposed to the Iranian Government, and its stated aim is to replace that regime with a secular democracy. Most of its members are based at Camp Ashraaf, which is in Iraq, and under Saddam’s regime it operated as a de facto wing of the Iraqi military. Although it currently describes itself as a non-violent democratic movement, there can be no doubt that the PMOI was responsible for vile acts of terrorism over a long period, stretching back some two decades prior to 2001. Those were not acts attributed to the PMOI by the Iranian authorities; it expressly admitted responsibility for a number of horrendous crimes carried out against the Iranian people, aimed at both civilian and military targets. The PMOI is not widely supported in Iran, because of those attacks, and because it fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran in the war between the two countries.
The PMOI says that it decided to renounce violence at an internal meeting in 2001, and that it now seeks instead to pursue its objectives by peaceful means. Indeed, it has not conducted any attacks since then, although it has not made any public statement renouncing violence. Until 2003 it maintained an extensive arsenal at Camp Ashraaf, at which point it found itself surrounded by United States forces and surrendered its arms.
The position taken by the Government to date is the position of the entire Government. When we proscribe organisations in an international rather than a domestic context, of course we consult Departments across Government, including the Foreign Office, whose position is in accord with ours.
The PMOI was added to the list of proscribed terrorist organisations in 2001. We consider proscription to be a tough but necessary power. Its effect is that the proscribed organisation is outlawed and unable to operate in the United Kingdom. The consequence of proscription is that specific criminal offences apply in relation to a proscribed organisation. They include membership of the organisation and various forms of support, including organising or addressing a meeting and wearing or displaying an article indicating membership of the organisation. Further criminal offences exist in relation to fundraising and various uses of money and property for the purposes of terrorism.
A group of 35 interested parties, consisting of Members of this House and of the other place, disagreed with the PMOI’s proscription. A statutory procedure exists for any proscribed organisation, or anyone affected by the proscription of an organisation, to apply to the Home Secretary for that organisation to be de-proscribed. The group followed that procedure correctly, and wrote to the Home Secretary requesting that the PMOI be de-proscribed. It argued that it was no longer concerned in terrorism, having renounced violence and disarmed, and that its desire to express its legitimate support for the PMOI and its objectives was being unlawfully curtailed by its continuing proscription.
The then Home Secretary considered the application carefully, but continued to believe that the PMOI was concerned in terrorism, which is the statutory test for proscription. He formed that view in the light of the PMOI’s lengthy history of violence, in the absence of any public renunciation of violence, and taking into account the fact that it had disarmed some two years after the decision to renounce violence, and only when it had no other choice in the face of the overwhelming force of the US military.
Does the Minister accept that history is full of organisations that once practised violence in support of their beliefs and subsequently followed the democratic process? They include—closer to home—Sinn Fein-IRA, and various liberation movements in what was formerly the Empire and is now the Commonwealth.
I would accept that, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the IRA is still a proscribed organisation. I discussed this just before these two debates began. I do not think that Sinn Fein was ever formally proscribed. I do accept the broad historic point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but I do not accept—if this is what he subsequently asserts—that the PMOI is in the position that he has described, and the Government do not accept it either.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee went to Iran in November last year, but one of the things that struck us then was the Iranian regime’s absolute obsession with this organisation. My right hon. Friend says that it has no influence in Iran, and I think that he is probably right; nevertheless, the Iranian Government are completely obsessed with the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, the PMOI, or whatever name we choose to give it. They even tried to organise a televised meeting between us and victims of MEK terrorism.
I take my hon. Friend’s description of the Committee’s visit to Iran at face value. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary considered the application carefully, but continued to believe that the PMOI—or the MEK, as my hon. Friend rightly calls it—was still concerned in terrorism. That is the statutory test for proscription, as opposed to what other countries may think.
I shall be happy to give way shortly. I am always—I hope—quite generous in giving way. Let me make some progress first, however. The points that my hon. Friends wish to make will not go away, given the theme that runs throughout the debate.
While accepting that there had been no attacks since 2001, the then Home Secretary adopted a cautious approach. He was not satisfied that the renunciation of violence was more than a temporary cessation for pragmatic reasons, or that the 2003 disarmament would have taken place had it not been for the military position in Iraq and the artificially restrictive circumstances arising from it. He was concerned that the PMOI might return to terrorism as a means to achieving its objectives in the future if the situation in Iraq made possible for it to do so, and if doing so became strategically advantageous.
It is good to hear my right hon. Friend welcome the de-proscription so wholeheartedly, but I want to know where the evidence comes from. Perhaps this will be made clear during the wider debate, but I should be interested to know what representations the Government of Iran have made about the PMOI.
As I have said, what my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary had to consider was the application from the 35 interested parties for de-proscription. His first port of call was the evidence submitted in support of putting the MEK, or PMOI, on the list of proscribed organisations in the first place.
This decision was not taken lightly. The Government share the desire of those 35 Members of both Houses to see the advance of democracy and the promotion of human rights around the world. Given the wide-ranging impact of proscription, we are committed to ensuring that proscription decisions are lawful and proportionate.
The Terrorism Act 2000 sets out the definition of terrorism and the criteria for considering whether an organisation is concerned in terrorism. The Act does not refer to the motivation or political agenda of those who perpetrate acts of terrorism and, as the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission accepted, the Secretary of State is entitled to conclude that there is no right to resort to terrorism, whatever the motivation. We do not condone terrorism anywhere, whatever its justification or its target. These decisions must be evidentially based, however; we must not use this part of the Act to proscribe those whom we do not like. There have been many debates, and many foolish comments have been made from the Opposition Front Bench—although not by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), I freely admit—about a particular organisation, and the idea that its remaining unproscribed somehow shows a lack of willingness to engage with, and be tough on, terrorism. Clear criteria and processes are laid down, and the Home Secretary’s refusal to de-proscribe was appealed to POAC, which upheld the appeal and found that the PMOI was no longer an organisation concerned in terrorism. POAC directed that the Government lay an order before the House de-proscribing the PMOI, which brings us to where we are now.
The Minister has said that the Government had concerns about the PMOI when the former Home Secretary proscribed it and then resisted the application for de-proscription; indeed, the Government resisted that case through the judicial process. Is my right hon. Friend now satisfied that the PMOI is not engaged in terrorism, and that it has not been since 2001, and that there is no prospect of its returning to terrorism? In other words, does he fully and completely accept the findings of the judicial process?
It is almost as if my hon. Friend was looking over my shoulder at the next paragraph of my speech.
Although POAC considered that the Government were wrong to refuse to de-proscribe the PMOI in 2006, it did agree that the original proscription was justified in 2001 and that the PMOI was responsible for many terrorist attacks over an extended period. It also stated that the Government were entitled to place little credibility on public statements made by the PMOI as its public statements contained—heaven forfend—“spin”, and the evidence submitted in the course of the hearing was “contradictory and potentially misleading” and demonstrated “a shifting approach”.
Our subsequent application for permission to appeal POAC’s ruling to the Court of Appeal was refused. While disappointed with this decision, we have complied with the judgment and have moved quickly to lay the order that the House is debating today. It will give effect to POAC’s order and remove the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) can take both my tone and our desire to appeal POAC’s decision to mean that we are not satisfied that the PMOI is no longer a terrorist organisation.
Bearing in mind that the Government lost in the courts and that the purpose of our debate today is to put the legislation right, have the Government reconsidered any of their other decisions on proscription? Is it possible that they have got decisions wrong in other cases as well?
Let me reiterate that simply because POAC arrived at its decision—we accept it in full, which is why the order is before us—does not mean we accept that POAC is right and our original position is wrong; we profoundly do not. Our job is simply to review constantly who is on, and who should be on, the proscribed list. There is nothing in this judgment that leads us to think that we should review all the other organisations on the proscribed list.
The Minister needs to share with Parliament the fact that there were at least two days of closed session both at POAC and in the Court of Appeal, and that no less a person than the Lord Chief Justice of England said in his judgment that the two days of closed session with special advocates served only to reinforce his view that the decision of the Home Secretary was perverse. The Government had their opportunity in court with special advocates, and were found wanting not on one occasion but on two occasions: before POAC and before the Court of Appeal.
And, as I have said, we sought to appeal POAC’s ruling, which gives a clear indication of the Government’s continued position. Perfectly fairly, that was refused, and while disappointed with that decision, we have complied with the judgment and moved quickly to lay the order that the House is debating today, which gives effect to POAC’s order and removes the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. That is entirely in keeping with the POAC ruling, and I commend the order to the House.
Under part 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Secretary of State has the power to proscribe any organisation that commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism, or is otherwise concerned in terrorism. Proscription is a tough power. Any organisation that is on the list of proscribed organisations is outlawed in the United Kingdom. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, or encourage support for, a proscribed organisation. It is a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation, or to wear clothing or to carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that a person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Proscription also means the financial assets of the organisation become terrorist property and, as such, can be subject to freezing and seizure.
For those reasons, Parliament must take its role in scrutinising who is on the proscribed list very seriously. On the one hand, the failure to proscribe an organisation that is concerned with terrorism could allow it to have a foothold in the United Kingdom and also to recruit and raise funds in the UK, ultimately undermining national security in this country and beyond our borders. On the other hand, proscribing an organisation mistakenly or inappropriately could tie up a significant amount of resources—involving our intelligence services and others—which is what a proscription order requires. The resources available to our security services are finite and must be targeted properly.
As the Minister has elegantly made clear, the order seeks to remove the PMOI—or the MEK, to use a name that is employed interchangeably, which is how I will be employing it in the debate—from the proscribed list. That will, in effect, legalise it as an organisation, allowing it to recruit members and to raise funds in the United Kingdom. The decision in the Secretary of State for the Home Department v. Lord Alton and others left the Government with no choice but to bring forward this order de-proscribing the PMOI. The Minister set out their position and answered clearly that while he will abide by POAC’s decision, he and ministerial colleagues do not necessarily agree with the merits of the decision. There remain a number of questions to which Opposition Members would like answers.
I shall not rehearse the history of the PMOI; that has been done in detail elsewhere. However, before framing my questions I would like to summarise the history of its proscription in this country. On 28 February 2001, the then Home Secretary laid before Parliament the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2001, which sought to add the PMOI to the proscribed organisations list. That order was approved by affirmative resolution and the organisation has remained on that list until the time of the order before us. A Home Office press notice issued at the same time described the PMOI as an organisation that
“undertakes cross-border attacks into Iran, including terrorist attacks. It has assassinated senior Iranian officials and launched mortar attacks against government buildings in Tehran and elsewhere.”
On 5 June 2001, the PMOI applied to the Secretary of State to be removed from the list. He said in a letter dated 31 August 2001 that he remained satisfied that the organisation was then “concerned in terrorism”, as defined by the 2000 Act, in that it
“commits or participates in acts of terrorism”.
On those grounds, the application for de-proscription was then refused. In a debate in this place in March 2005, the then Home Secretary repeated the Government’s view that the PMOI was
“a nasty terrorist organisation that has to be contained”.—[Official Report, 1 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 799.]
In October 2005, in response to a parliamentary question, it was said that the MEK had
“a long history of involvement in terrorism in Iran and elsewhere and is, by its own admission, responsible for violent attacks that have resulted in many deaths.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 125.]
Most recently, on 13 December 2007, the current Prime Minister gave evidence to the Liaison Committee, saying of the PMOI that
“to proscribe an organisation that has been involved in terrorist activity seems the right thing to do by the decisions of this Government”.
As recently as 5 February 2008 in the other place, the Minister of State, the noble Lord Malloch-Brown, said:
“We just believe that there has not been a clear enough renunciation of those tactics…Until we are convinced that the organisation has really forsworn those tactics, we continue to believe it to be a threat to civilians.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2008; Vol. 698, c. 949.]
I want to pause at this important point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The representatives of the Iranian Opposition in exile repeatedly pleaded with the British Government, saying, “What on earth do you want us to do to demonstrate our good faith—that we have abandoned the military struggle?” The British Government did not want to respond; they did not want to tell them how they could prove that. One of the charges against the Government’s stewardship of this matter is that they were determined, for political reasons, not to de-proscribe. They were not prepared to allow this organisation to demonstrate to them—not having to go through the courts—that it had demilitarised.
The hon. Gentleman also used the word “charges” and in fact made a very specific allegation. I do not myself have a view on that, but in this debate it is certainly worth airing the point that the opportunity for this organisation to prove its renunciation of terrorist tactics was not afforded to it by the Government. I genuinely do not know the answer to that, but I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to a quite serious allegation that, for my part, I have no views on. However, as I said, the matter is certainly worth airing.
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. He rightly refers to the history of the PMOI and the allegation that it used to attack Iran. However, he should also bear it in mind that the people who support the Iranian Opposition who live in Ashraf city, in Iraq, are under daily attack by the Iranians. It is not just British troops who are under daily attack by the Iranians; the Iranian Opposition are also under daily attack by that dreadful regime. So there is the need for some balance in these arguments.
The hon. Gentleman, from his point of view, has probably supplied that balance through his remarks.
The history of proscription gives a strong impression that the Executive of this country have serious and grievous concerns about whether this organisation has in fact renounced terrorist tactics. I make no criticism at all of Ministers in reciting the history; I merely record the fact that the advice they must be receiving from the security services and elsewhere clearly gives them pause when it comes to de-proscription. As I said earlier and as the Minister made clear, this order has been forced upon the Government—rightly or wrongly—because of a decision of POAC and of the Court of Appeal subsequently.
I would like to take the argument forward a little by raising some specific questions that arise, given that background. The point of raising the background is to say that over the years, Ministers have, from the tenure of the now Secretary of State for Justice as Home Secretary onwards, tried to act in good faith on what is obviously a sensitive issue. However, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing would probably like the opportunity to respond to those questions.
I am not entirely clear about what the Minister can share with us on the Government’s assessment of the PMOI’s terrorist capability, but it raises a question for me, given that the order will, in all likelihood, be passed tonight. The Minister will wish to know that the Conservatives will not vote against it, and we wait to see exactly how this business is finalised. Mr. Deputy Speaker will not want me to pre-empt things, but the Conservatives will not oppose the order. Nevertheless, a question remains about what understanding the Minister has about the possible reactivation of any involvement in terrorism and of the armed wing of this organisation subsequent to any de-proscribing that will be effected by the order’s being passed.
I will give way in a moment, but I just want to pin this question down. A report in The Times today indicates that the Prime Minister has taken a view on the issue of de-proscription. I am not clear about this, and I am sure that hon. Members will not be clear about it when they read the report. It states:
“A Whitehall official has told The Times that the Government will seek to ban the PMOI’s military wing, the National Resistance Army of Iran…even though the group says that it is defunct.”
Again, I am not trying, in any way, to put the Minister in a difficult position, because I believe that he is a Minister who acts with good will.
I shall give way in a moment. I would be most grateful to hear an answer on that point, as I know colleagues would, given the numbers seeking to intervene on me. Although the House might be de-proscribing in this order, it raises the question of how other allied bodies, if indeed that is what they are, might be treated by Her Majesty’s Government, because that seems to be a moderately authoritative report that they are seeking to ban this organisation’s armed wing.
I shall indicate clearly that this is required of the Government. Should we be in their position—we might be in it sooner than the Minister and Labour Members think—we would have in front of us, as he and the Home Secretary have in front of them, a POAC decision. They sought to challenge it in the Court of Appeal, but they did not get leave to fight another day and were thus obliged, by law, to introduce this order. We would be in no different position from the Minister. That is about as clear an answer as I can give the House, and it is a factually accurate, legally watertight answer. [Interruption.] I do not know why the Minister is laughing; I hope it is a laugh of solidarity, because we are supporting him on the basis of the reasons that he has given.
The question of the merits, which is probably behind the hon. Gentleman’s question—he is tempting me to opine on the substantive merits of the order—is not something that I shall address tonight, because I do not have to do so. I have to ask some of the questions that those on both sides of the argument want answered, chief of which is the one that I have just asked in relation to the report in The Times about what action may or may not be taken against the armed wing, should it exist, that is the subject of the order.
The second question I have for the Minister relates to the posture of the US Government. The PMOI has been designated a foreign terrorist organisation since 1987 in the US, and I wonder whether the Minister can confirm what, if any, discussions he or his colleagues in the British Government have had with the US authorities about the decision to de-proscribe the PMOI. It is important to know whether the US has expressed any concerns about the implication of the UK de-proscription on its efforts to fight and contain terrorist organisations. I am sure that this order would have a knock-on effect.
A companion question relates to the position of the European Union, which listed the PMOI as a terrorist group and froze its assets. In December 2006, the European Court of First Instance ruled that the EU had not sufficiently justified its decision on the freezing of funds, although it did not—importantly—rule on the substantive issue of whether the PMOI was a terrorist organisation. The ruling was fundamentally a procedural argument about the basis on which funds had been frozen. I wonder again what the implications of this order will be for the EU-wide proscription of PMOI.
Those may seem to be dull, boring, procedural—nay, even anorak-type—questions to some, but they warrant a reply. I hope that the Minister understands that I am not pressing him to go further on the substantive issue: these are factual questions to which we need an answer.
My final set of questions will attempt to probe the Minister on the judgment by POAC, which raised some questions about decision making by Home Office Ministers. I do not mean this Minister, or even the current Home Secretary, but the Ministers who were the subject of the judgment in November. On page 131, it states:
“In our view, in three respects the Secretary of State failed properly to direct himself in accordance with law. These overlap…the Secretary of State failed properly to direct himself to the requirements of the 2000 Act; the Secretary of State failed properly to direct himself that each of the criteria in section 3(5)(a) to (d) of the 2000 Act required a belief that the PMOI was presently (i.e. at the date of the decision) actually ‘concerned in terrorist’ activity as defined; the Secretary of State failed properly to direct himself as to the requirements of section 3(5)(d) of the 2000 Act.”
POAC highlighted in its judgment that there had been a failure to apply the relevant statutory tests and properly to assess the available evidence against those tests. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said, POAC concluded that the then Home Secretary’s decision could be “properly characterised as perverse”. For that to be said of any Home Secretary, of whatever political party, gives one pause for thought. The statement that the Secretary of State failed to
“direct himself to the requirements of the 2000 Act”
is particularly eye-catching.
In conclusion, I wonder whether the Minister could shed some light on what lessons Ministers and civil servants are learning from POAC’s quite damning report. In particular, will he tell us what action is being taken to ensure that the procedural irregularities from POAC are being adequately and swiftly dealt with so that all of us, in this place and beyond, can have full confidence that Ministers are taking decisions in the proper procedural way?
I am proud to be one of the 35 people referred to in the case of Lord Alton and others. Others in that 35 are in the Chamber tonight. I deliberately say that I am proud because it was a unique group of people—[Interruption.] It was a unique group of people and included my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who shares my satisfaction at having been part of the campaign to have that grave injustice, as we saw it, remedied. It is worth reminding the House that among those people were Lord Waddington, a former Conservative Home Secretary; Lord Russell-Johnston, from the Liberal party; a former national agent of the Labour party, who is now in the House of Lords; Lord Archer, who was Attorney-General in James Callaghan’s Government; a former Scottish Law Officer; a Conservative Lord; and the former leader of the Labour peers, Lord Corbett. Those people banded together, feeling that there was a need to persuade the Government to lift the proscription on their own initiative and, if they did not do so, to pursue it through the courts.
I regret that successive Ministers could not be persuaded to look at the matter impartially—I use that word deliberately, because the Government have foolishly and recklessly been motivated by the desire to appease the unappeasable, namely the regime in Tehran. The Government have not executed their obligations in law or the obligations dictated by common justice that require them to consider the evidence when deciding whether to continue the proscription of the PMOI.
I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I agree on the subject of appeasement. Is it not true that the original decision was taken for mistaken foreign policy reasons? Although I agree with the judgment of the previous Foreign Secretary who took the decision, it was a mistake in foreign policy terms.
I totally agree. We have to deal with the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be, so there has to be some engagement with the wretched regime in Tehran, but that regime should not be appeased. The decision was an act of appeasement and it was foolish—appeasement has a heavy price. The decision was based on political considerations rather than, in my view, being taken to protect us against terrorist activity. That is why we have now come to this embarrassing day for the Government.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about the evidence needed for the Home Secretary to come to a view. Does he recall a previous debate on proscription orders in which I said explicitly that it would be wrong to rely on evidence from a foreign power, and that to reach a proper decision the relevant Minister needed evidence from primary sources to make a proscription order? I received a categorical assurance from Ministers that that was the case.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This continued proscription has been at the bidding and request—the demand—of the Tehran regime, without any evidence having been produced to justify it. That is not my view, but that of POAC, of the High Court and of the Court of Appeal. After all, the POAC decision states that
“the only belief that a reasonable decision maker could have honestly entertained, whether as at September 2006 or thereafter, is that the PMOI no longer satisfies any of the criteria necessary for the maintenance of their proscription.”
That is the position. I have already drawn the House’s attention to the fact that during both the POAC hearing and the Court of Appeal deliberations, there were days of closed session when special advocates were appointed to consider the secret evidence produced by the British Government. The Lord Chief Justice spent that time considering the documents and listening to the case from the Government’s special counsel and concluded that that had only served to reinforce his view that the Secretary of State had acted in a “perverse” manner. I asked a lawyer what that signified. He said, “Saying that people are ‘perverse’ is the nearest the Lord Chief Justice comes to being rude.” Such was the uniqueness of the occasion.
I also want to pick up on the interesting intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said that when he went to Iran, he saw how the regime was obsessed by the PMOI and related organisations. I will be signalling to Tehran tonight that the British House of Commons unanimously passed an order lifting the PMOI from proscription. There will not be a Division; it will be a unanimous decision in the House of Commons. I welcome that, but it needs to be reiterated. The United Kingdom embassy in Tehran also has to note that that will be the position tonight after we have concluded our deliberations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for citing what I said, but I do not want him to misrepresent my position, even inadvertently. I said that the Iranian regime is obsessed. However, my assessment is that the PMOI has almost no internal support in Iran. It may be active in this country, Sweden and other parts of the world, but there is a widespread, diverse and complex democratic opposition in Iran and it is a caricature of the politics to say that only one organisation leads them. Unfortunately, this debate could lead to the impression that there is only a choice between the regime in Iran and the PMOI. That is not the reality.
In any event, only time will tell. However, I look forward to the day when the regime in Iran falls and everyone there has an opportunity to present their cases in a democratic political marketplace. That is the objective of many hon. Members.
We should also refer to paragraph 57 of the Court of Appeal judgment. It says:
“It is a matter for comment and for regret that the decision-making process in this case has significantly fallen short of the standards which our public law sets and which those affected by public decisions have come to expect.”
That is a very serious condemnation—let me be generous— of the stewardship of this matter by the Home Office. It has ignored its obligations. The Court of Appeal indicated that the closed material
“reinforced our conclusion that the applicant”—
namely the Home Secretary—
“could not reasonably have formed a view when the decision letter was written in 2006 that the PMOI intended in future to revert to terrorism.”
There is no evidence to suggest that this is a momentary pause in the activities of the PMOI or that it is an irreversible decision—a unilateral renunciation of, in the parlance, the military option. It is incumbent on democracy in this place to give rewards when people, on their own initiative, abandon military activity or what others describe as terrorism.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but will he be a little more generous and accept that organisations and people’s views of them change over time? It is Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. He had form, according to some people, but went on to advance democracy, freedom and human rights in the way that the PMOI is in Iraq. As times change, views can change.
Absolutely. That was my case, the case of the other 34 Members of the House of the Commons and the House of Lords, and the case of the Iranian opposition in exile. Things do change, as history tells us. A year before Jomo Kenyatta was invited to Buckingham palace to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, he was described by the Crown’s representative as the prince of darkness and death. People change and get respect. [Interruption.] Yes, there was also Archbishop Makarios. One day, the people who are in exile will be in government in Tehran and the British Government of the day will be trying to rewrite history, just as the right hon. Lady who led the Conservative party rewrote history when we welcomed Nelson Mandela in Westminster Hall. I have no illusions about this, but I welcome the fact that people change their minds. The British Government should have been more generous in acknowledging the change in attitude of the Iranian opposition in exile.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) raised some pertinent issues, and I hope that they are addressed. There was considerable anxiety following the report in The Times that the Prime Minister had “instructed”—I think that that was the word—the Home Secretary to re-proscribe another grouping or what is described as its military wing. When the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, “The military wing of the military wing.” I want a reassurance that we are not going to have a cat-and-mouse act in this respect. In any event—I say this with the greatest respect—the Prime Minister will certainly need to read the decision of the Court of Appeal if he is ever tempted to go down this road. The POAC and the Court of Appeal both said that there are certain tests that the Home Secretary is under a duty to apply. It is now demonstrably clear that political considerations—the appeasement to which I referred—cannot come into that. They are legal tests, not political tests. It would be a big mistake if the Government were tempted to do what has been suggested, and I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the report in The Times is unfounded.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds also said that, under European Union rules, the fact that the United Kingdom had proscribed the organisation meant, ipso facto, that the whole EU had done so. The corollary of this evening’s unanimous vote will surely be that the British Government will communicate to the EU that the House of Commons and the other place have unanimously decided that the proscription should be lifted, and will invite the EU to reassess its position. That would be the sensible and fair outcome of the debate.
In conclusion, it is important to reiterate that the people in Camp Ashraf hold no weapons. They are under repeated attack and in serious danger. To use a simple phrase, they are taking these blows on the chin. They are turning the other cheek. We know that the source of these attacks is in Iran. It is bewildering to many Members that the Secretary of State for Defence has indicated, with great candour, that some of the ordinance used against British armed forces and coalition forces has its roots in Iran, implicitly with the full knowledge and consent of the Iranian regime. The PMOI and related organisations have been a significant source of information and intelligence to the United States and, ipso facto, to the United Kingdom Government and the coalition forces about the nature of the nuclear threat being developed by the Tehran regime.
It is a matter of fact that the people in Ashraf have protected person status under the fourth Geneva convention, and I believe that there are moral obligations on coalition forces, of which we are part, to see that those people are protected. I want to state for the record that the United States, which has stewardship of that area of Iraq, has done an enormous amount to protect the people of Ashraf, to the extent that it has allowed them to have bank accounts and so on. That is not something we normally facilitate for terrorist organisations. Why has that been allowed? It is because the United States is satisfied about the stand-down of the people in Ashraf—its demilitarisation—and the fact that they are open and transparent about their activities. Why can the United Kingdom Government not have the same generosity of spirit and common sense as our coalition partner, the United States? That is my request—the Government should pause and reflect.
In my 16 years in the House of Commons, I have not known an issue that has united Members of Parliament from both Houses, and from across the political spectrum, as much as this one. We saw the action of the British Government as foolish and not in the long-term best interests of the UK. It was unfair and perverse. I hope that tonight, we have given the Government the opportunity to pause and reflect in order to remedy the wrong that they have perpetrated against those people. I am proud to have been part of the campaign to bring about the order, which will be passed unanimously by the House of Commons.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who stated, with a good deal of passion, what many hon. Members feel about the way in which the Government have proceeded.
I will not go over the full history of the way in which the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran got on to the list of proscribed organisations. Its inclusion was controversial even at the time and its public announcements that it had disarmed and renounced violence were especially clear. It is surprising that the Government maintained their proscription in the face of mounting judicial reviews of the decision, beginning on 12 December 2006, with the European Court of First Instance and continuing with the POAC High Court decision on 30 November 2007. The hon. Member for Thurrock described fairly the Lord Chief Justice’s reaction to the evidence that the Government brought to bear in secret session. Despite all that, the Government persisted in attempting to defend the proscription.
That persistence suggests that other forces must have been at work in the decision. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) is the only Conservative Member to give the Government the benefit of the doubt—a minority position these days. It was even suggested that the Home Office was possibly right—obviously, that is one theory—and that all the judges who examined the matter in the European Court and in the High Court had been bamboozled by the evidence that they saw in public and in secret session.
I would perhaps give more weight to the second theory: when Ministers look at a document that is stamped, “top secret”, “highly confidential” and “for your eyes only”, they tend to give it greater weight than the public information that stares them in the face. That has happened in judgments about the middle east, not least those about the illegal invasion of Iraq. We could go back further. Only weeks before the Shah was toppled in Iran, I remember that a Foreign Secretary predicted firmly, on the basis of little evidence, that the Shah would be there for ever and a day. Clearly, that was an exceptional misreading of what was happening. Perhaps we are considering a case of secret information being given far too much weight. However, such information did not persuade the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Given that he is used to sifting evidence, whatever the source, we should give that opinion enormous weight.
Some hon. Members have hinted at the final theory for the Government’s reluctance to move, and I hope that it is not right. It is that, in what is meant to be a quasi-judicial matter laid down by statute, the Government have put foreign policy considerations before an assessment of the evidence. The Liberal Democrats suspect that that happened when the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into al-Yamamah was dropped, following public and doubtless private pressure from the Saudi Arabian Government. I would like the Minister’s reassurance—if someone could communicate with him, given that he is showing his usual courtesy of not being bothered to listen to speeches—that there was no influence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the ground of Britain’s foreign policy. We would also like an assurance that the Government of Iran exerted no influence, directly or indirectly.
If the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has clear evidence that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation, it should give that evidence. That would be perfectly within its remit. However, I am suggesting that wider foreign policy considerations should not be taken into account in this case, because we are talking about a matter of British domestic law and a fundamental freedom, which we have respected in this country for many years, according to which, if I may paraphrase Voltaire, even if we disagree with what people say, we will nevertheless defend their right to say it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the House has defended that principle over many years and should continue to do so.
Therefore, I repeat: I hope that foreign policy considerations have not been brought to bear on what is a matter of defending freedom of speech, freedom of activity and freedom of organisation in this country. Speaking for the Liberal Democrats, I for one would like an assurance from the Minister on that score. That said, we are happy to support the removal of the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations. The only question is why it has taken so long, when the evidence has been so great and when the judicial review has been so extensive. At the very least, the Government appear to have been extraordinarily dilatory.
I hope to be less than seven minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would like to respond directly to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), by quoting the unanimous conclusion of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report on Iran, which was published a few months ago:
“We conclude that Iran is a complex and diverse society at present governed by a theocratic regime. Iran’s quasi-democratic political system is not fully closed and may lead to reform that will result in a more constructive approach on the nuclear issue. We recommend that the Government should be careful to avoid action that could be manipulated by the hardliners such as President Ahmadinejad to bolster their position against the more pragmatic and reformist elements ahead of his campaign for re-election in 2009.”
That was said in the context of the nuclear issue, but I also believe that, in relation to politics within Iran, we need to be sensitive. That is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman.
Categorical statements that we should never do anything that takes account of anything in any other country are simplistic and dangerous. Sometimes, we have to be sensitive in the choices that we make and in the way we handle issues, because of the consequences that they might inadvertently have in other countries. Therefore, if the Government were receiving advice—I do not know that they were—that certain issues, handled in a certain way, might have had adverse consequences on another issue, such as the E3 plus 3 negotiations on the nuclear issue, they would have been right to take account of those wider issues and form a rounded judgment, rather than responding with a knee-jerk reaction.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If the House had believed that it was important to take account of the sort of foreign policy considerations that he is listing, it would have included that provision in the legislation. Can he point to any part of the legislation that allows the Home Secretary to do what he is suggesting?
The hon. Gentleman can try to intervene, but he should please not shout from a sedentary position.
The situation that we face with regard to Iran is this. A group of people are being held, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, in a kind of limbo in Camp Ashraf. The question that has not been answered in this debate so far is: why are they there? Those people are on that site because, for many years, they were living in Iraq and being protected by Saddam’s regime. I have been told many times, over many years, by many people in the Kurdish political movement that those people were used by Saddam for his own purposes for the repression of the Kurds and other minorities in Iraq. If those people were to be released from Camp Ashraf today, they would face the threat of death if they were returned to Iran. If they were released into Iraqi society they would also face death threats from the many very angry Iraqis who remember them as allies of the brutal Saddam regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has pointed out, the United States and others have a responsibility to find a solution to that problem.
We must take into account, however, that the PMOI organisation is not—and certainly was not in the past—an organisation that we would necessarily support as the democratic, legitimate opposition in Iran. There is no doubt that it is against the mullahs’ regime, but let us go back to the history of what happened between 1978 and 1981. It was like the falling out between Stalin and Trotsky in the Russian revolution, involving different elements within a revolutionary process who ended up on the wrong side. There are many other Iranians, including people who came out of the monarchist tradition, the social democratic tradition, or the Islamist tradition, who have not been involved in violent activities. Those people would strongly dispute the claim that the PMOI is the sole legitimate opposition to the regime in Tehran. It would be dangerous if this House were perceived to have given support to one political opposition group and, by making this decision today, we will be doing a disservice to many other Iranian democrats, liberals and secular people, as well as to the moderate Islamists and monarchists who oppose the regime in Tehran.
It is not in this country’s interests simply to say that the matter has been resolved. It was clear from the Minister’s remarks that the Government have concerns about this organisation and its future, and I hope that they will report back to us regularly. If there are any indications of a breach of the conditions, of a potential terrorist threat from that organisation, either in this country or abroad, or of fundraising activities for illegitimate purposes, I hope that the Government will review today’s decision.
I do not believe that de-proscribing an organisation means that it has been given a clean bill of health for the future. In the past, the PMOI had admitted to being engaged in activities that we would define as terrorist activities. It is not engaging in such activities today. As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) pointed out, people change over time. If that organisation is not engaged in terrorist activities today, and does not intend to do so, that is very good. However, we need to be careful that we do not give the impression that we are giving it carte blanche for ever. We need to be sure that any organisation based in this country is involved only in peaceful, democratic activities, and that it is not supporting terrorism in this country or in any other part of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) described the Minister’s speech as gracious. I assume that he was being sarcastic, because it was certainly nothing of the sort. It was a disgraceful and churlish speech. When the House considers this terrible matter, it is clear that the Government have behaved appallingly with the Foreign Office saying one thing and the Home Office saying another. The Minister’s position tonight was disgraceful and it is a pity that the Home Secretary did not stay to listen to his speech.
The PMOI has been seeking to bring an end to the terrorist and barbaric regime ruling Iran. More than 120,000 members and supporters of the movement, including boys and girls as young as 12, have been executed by the regime. Mrs. Maryam Rajavi and her supporters should be congratulated on the huge sacrifices they have made on behalf of others.
The Minister cannot possibly dismiss what the Lord Chief Justice said in the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 7 May 2008. I repeat what he said then:
“It is a matter for comment and for regret that the decision-making process in this case has significantly fallen short of the standards which our public law sets and which those affected by public decisions have come to expect.”
That is an absolute disgrace. I firmly hope that today the Government have turned a page in their relations with the Iranian regime on the one hand and the Iranian people and their legitimate resistance to that regime on the other.
I hope that the Minister will dissociate himself from the article in today’s edition of The Times, which was written by its deputy political editor, that told us that the Prime Minister
“has ordered… the Home Secretary to ban the PMOI’s military wing instead”.
We are told that, apparently
“Iran has been exerting pressure on ministers to keep the ban on the PMOI, which is part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. ‘They have threatened to withdraw diplomats over this unless the ban stays,’ one well-placed figure said.”
The Government must take immediate steps to ensure that the PMOI is removed from the European Union asset freeze list. The Government must accept that although the UK was a competent authority upon whose decision the EU listed the PMOI, now that that decision has been declared unlawful, the listing of the PMOI in the EU is also unlawful. At the same time, the Government must recognise the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as well as the PMOI, as being the legitimate opposition to the Iranian regime and engage in dialogue with them about the future.
Of course I commend the Prime Minister for his announcement last week that Britain and a few other EU states would be imposing further sanctions on the Iranian regime’s banking, oil and natural gas interests. However, the Government need to go much further. They should adopt a firm policy towards Iran, including blacklisting the revolutionary guard while applying comprehensive sanctions against the regime.
The message to the mullahs in Tehran needs to be very clear: Britain will no longer have anything to do with a mediaeval regime that stones women to death, hangs children in public, exports fundamentalism and terrorism across the middle east, trains, funds and arms terrorists responsible for the killing of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as coalition troops, and pursues nuclear weapons.
The order is a matter for rejoicing for all those people who want freedom in Iran, and it is a matter of shame for Her Majesty’s Government that it has taken them so long to bring it forward.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), particularly when he has given me rather more time than I thought I would get for my speech. It was also a particular honour to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) who has raised this matter more than anyone else in the House. Indeed, he has raised it on countless occasions in order to bring justice and fairness to bear. This victory is his, along with a few others. I am not sure what the 35 of us will be called in future; the “Chicago Seven” was an interesting epithet, but we will just take it as one of those victories that was well deserved and long overdue.
It was with some disappointment that I heard my right hon. Friend the Minister say what he said; he could have been more magnanimous. As the hon. Member for Southend, West said, he was somewhat churlish. In a sense, it is surprising that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, had to bail the Government out somewhat by saying, “There must have been some justification. We don’t know what it is, but there must have been something because of the case that those people kept putting across.”
The reality is that the writing had been on the wall for some years and it would have been much better to accept the judgment of POAC rather than going through to the Court of Appeal. The Government would then not have received the admonition of the Lord Chief Justice, whose words were carefully chosen. I do not know what it has all been about. If there was such strong evidence for the proscription, I would have thought we would have heard it by now, but all the evidence has been to the contrary. It has been a question of when, not if, the de-proscription would take place.
I pay tribute to the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Talk about a democratic campaign: we cannot go out of a tube station, attend a political party or go into Central Lobby without being lobbied by those people. That is what we call politics in this country. They have done it democratically. They have lobbied many of us on numerous occasions to get their point of view across. One would have thought that if there was a contrary point of view, one would have heard it and felt threatened in this country by the gestures of the PMOI. One would have thought that one would have heard what was happening in Iran.
I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) says—one has to consider balance and take account of the fact that when there is a democratic Iran there will not necessarily be one particular party in the ascendancy. We do not know. All I know is that without the PMOI and the NCRI in this country, we would probably have not, in the wider field of things, heard about Natanz and the reprocessing. We owe them an obligation for the fact that they spilled the beans on the Iranian regime to make it absolutely clear that what was going on there was reprehensible, and the rest of the world has followed suit and taken action against the Iranian regime.
We hear today that there is a possibility of even stronger sanctions, but without those who took an enormous personal risk in going inside Iran and saying what was going on in reality, we would not know all that and we do know it. We should acknowledge that and hold up our hands in admiration for those who take such risks.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will say somewhat more magnanimously that the right decision has now been arrived at, notwithstanding the caveats that always have to be put in place. I hope also that he will at least disown the report in today’s edition of The Times. If that is spinning, it is most unhelpful. We may have to be careful that we are not seen to be too much in bed with one opposition group, but at the same time we should make it absolutely clear that we do not in any way support the regime in Tehran. If that regime thinks that it can lean on a Government here or a Government elsewhere in the EU, or indeed if it feels that it can get its way in the United States, where the proscription stays in place, that is wrong and it needs to be said that it is wrong.
I am pleased that we have arrived at this decision and sorry that it has taken so long.
I concur with what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said about the message that the House and the other place have sent. How does the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) believe that his Government will advance the case at EU level? I have been associated with the NCRI, as he has, and one of the central cases that it has made is the need to lift the ban and the freezing of resources at European level. What does he expect of his Government on that matter?
That is a perfectly fair question, dare I say, to turn back to my right hon. Friend the Minister. As a number of speakers have asked, what will now happen with the UK Government’s role in EU terms? Putting words in my right hon. Friend’s mouth, I hope that the Government say that under no circumstances will they carry on with any proscription and that they will say categorically that the de-proscription, which I hope will go through this place unanimously to deliver a clear verdict, should take effect in the EU. That should be our diplomatic position as well as our political position here.
I hope that we have clarity. I hope that we have made a statement in defence of democracy and in defence of an organisation that is clearly, according to those of us who have stood with it, one that has changed its stance. We are now coming forward in supporting that stance.
I hope that the Minister will now see that and say the obvious thing: that the Government have listened and learned and will now recognise that the PMOI, through its political front, the NCRI, has a part to play in a future Iran, and has a part to play through the proper political process.
First, the Government have always argued that the Secretary of State was entitled to take a cautious approach when considering the PMOI’s application for de-proscription. No one, not least POAC, argues that when the original proscription was made in 2001, it was not a terrorist organisation. Indeed, the POAC judgment says that there were reasonable grounds for the belief of the Secretary of State that the PMOI was “concerned in terrorism” at the date that it was originally proscribed, 29 March 2001.
As I tried to show in my introductory remarks, it is the PMOI’s assertion—we would say—from 2003 onwards that it had forsaken the armed struggle. Versus POAC’s ultimate decision to take that at face value, the Government took the more cautious approach that it was not the case. The notion that we are dealing with some wonderful little gang of democrats who have never raised arms in anger, or taken terrorist action, is erroneous and not the case at all. Our contention was that, given its long and active history of committing acts of terrorism, and its failure publicly to renounce terrorism or voluntarily surrender its weapons, it should remain proscribed, on the criteria that it remains involved, or potentially involved, in terrorism, and no more.
It was certainly the assertion of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and at least part of the contention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), as we will be able to see in Hansard. I am terribly sorry if this disappoints, but it is our duty: we will not hesitate to re-proscribe the PMOI if circumstances change and evidence emerges that it is concerned in terrorism. It is not some reckless cat-and-mouse game, but our duty and responsibility under the legislation. That is all there is to it.
To reiterate the point of my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the judgment relates solely to the PMOI and has no direct effect on the proscription of other organisations. We have already strengthened our processes for reviewing the proscription of organisations and dealing with applications for their de-proscription, and will of course consider those again in the light of the judgment.
I do not need to give clues; I shall come on to that point.
Our role, job and responsibility is to keep organisations that we feel are involved in terrorism under review. I know of no dealings with the Americans in this regard, but, as hon. Members have said, it is quite proper that the PMOI is listed under EU common position 931, based on a national competent authority decision that we discuss in detail the consequences of the de-proscription order. We will discuss with our European Union partners the implications of the United Kingdom de-proscription in the light of the EU list, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud suggested. I think that that was a perfectly fair point.
All groups under consideration for proscription or de-proscription are kept under review. There is no substance in the story in today’s Times. As I have said on other occasions when we have dealt with proscription orders, I will not be giving the House or, more important, the organisations concerned due notice of whether we are going to proscribe them. I think Members will understand that, given the nature of the circumstances. However, although we do not normally discuss whether groups are being considered for proscription, I can say in response to the Times article that there are currently no plans to proscribe the National Resistance Army of Iran. I can also say that with de-proscription comes a watching brief from the Government, not least because of our position on these matters, churlish or otherwise. We still favour the cautious approach.
Let me say again to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds that if the group resorts to terrorism and the evidence is clear that it meets the statutory test under law and no more, we will consider the case for re-proscription My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that the PMOI had been given no opportunity to prove that it was not a terrorist organisation, and quoted from a 400-page judgment. Nothing in the law has impeded the PMOI from applying for de-proscription, or any interested party from doing so on its part. Such applications give organisations the opportunity to provide evidence that they are not concerned in terrorism.
That was not my point. My point was that the PMOI and related organisations had knocked on the Government’s door and said “Dear British Government, what can we do to demonstrate that we have demilitarised? What would you like us to show you?”, and that their request had received no response. That was my point, and it is a simple one. It is history now, because we are going to pass the motion unanimously, but my right hon. Friend should not try to rewrite history.
It is not the Government’s job to tell a proscribed organisation what it needs to do to be de-proscribed. That is absolute nonsense.
POAC concluded that there was no credible support for the assertion that an agreement had been reached with Iran pursuant to which the PMOI would remain proscribed, still less for the assertion that it would remain proscribed even if the statutory criterion for proscription was not fulfilled. My hon. Friend has thrown around wonderful words like “appeasement” and “reckless”. As ever, he has been very nice and very loud, but very wrong.
I can tell the hon. Member for Southend, West that we shall not be meeting the PMOI, because we do not consider it to be a credible opposition group. We also have no plans to meet members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Nor—if I may deal with another of my hon. Friend’s points—do we agree with the assertion that the PMOI/MEK or the NCRI constitutes the Iranian Government in exile. I repeat that the PMOI’s terrorist acts resulted in the deaths of many Iranian citizens. It fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and we see no evidence of popular support for either organisation.
The judgment turns on our cautious approach. Given the history of the organisation since 2003, we simply do not believe that its intent is entirely passive and peaceful. POAC’s judgment, to which it is entitled, is that the organisation’s assertions that it is no longer involved in terrorism and taking up arms are genuine and that it should therefore be de-proscribed. In the light of that judgment, we presented the order as quickly as we could. I hope that it will be passed unanimously, as forecast by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock—and I do not doubt that Members will rush out of the Chamber and start rewriting history as we speak.
I commend the order to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and in passing, and not in connection with this very serious matter, I wish you a very happy birthday for what remains of it.