Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Is there any provision for an announcement to be made in court at the time of sentence of the punitive tariff in each case, or will the prisoner simply be informed of that privately?

Mr. Ingram: That is an interesting point. I shall deal with that in detail during my winding-up speech, if that would assist the hon. and learned Gentleman. The issue is important, because it brings victims' issues into play as well. It concerns the interests of the public as well as those of the defendant.

I can now advise the hon. and learned Gentleman that the tariff will be announced in court at the time of sentence, for the purposes that I have just explained. As I was saying, the commissioners must be satisfied that confinement is no longer necessary for the protection of the public from serious harm. Again, the key principle governing the commissioners' decisions is the need to protect the public from serious harm.

The ``punishment part'' of the life sentence must be complete and decisions on release will be made on the ground of risk to the public. If a prisoner is refused release by the commissioners, additional provisions in the draft proposals guarantee a maximum ``knock-back'' period of two years. The proposals to give powers of release to the commissioners are in accordance with the criminal justice review recommendations, and further contribute to the creation of an independent approach to the release of life sentence prisoners.

Article 7 will allow in exceptional cases life sentence prisoners to be released permanently by the Secretary of State on compassionate grounds. That could occur either before or after the tariff has been completed. However, in taking such decisions, the Secretary of State will be required to consult the commissioners, unless that proves impracticable.

Article 8 proposes arrangements for the duration and conditions of licences to be imposed on release. Unless the licence is revoked and the prisoner recalled to prison, licences will remain in force for the rest of the released prisoner's life. Licences may require post-release supervision by a probation officer—indeed that would be our expectation and only in rare circumstances would such supervision not be required. Licences will be issued by the Secretary of State and it will be his responsibility to monitor and act on non-compliance, subject to the advice of the police, the probation service, or appropriate agencies.

Again, to ensure independence in licence conditions and effective oversight of them, the Secretary of State must consult the commissioners. It should be stressed that licence conditions can be varied or cancelled. They do not have to exist for the rest of the released prisoner's life. As time passes, the prisoner may settle in a new life, in which licensing conditions may be no longer relevant. However, the licence itself will exist for life.

Article 9 deals with the recall of life sentence prisoners and provides two means of licence revocation. Both fall to the Secretary of State. The first and principal means will be on the recommendation of the commissioners. It is our intention that in such circumstances any routine advice from a supervising officer would be referred to the commissioners for their consideration. The second method of recall would typically be used in emergency circumstances, where more immediate decisions needed to be taken and a panel of commissioners might not be available.

The process would be subject to the advice of the police, the probation service, or appropriate agencies. In all recall cases, prisoners will be advised of the reasons for the revocation and can make representations. All cases will be referred to the commissioners, and if they recommend release, it will be the duty of the Secretary of state to comply.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Minister accept that the limited use that has been made of the power to revoke a licence causes a lot of concern and loss of confidence in Northern Ireland? Will he assure us and the public generally that that will not be influenced by a softly, softly approach in order to avoid offending groups of people who we believe should have been sent back to prison?

Mr. Ingram: If I understand the hon. Gentleman's question, he is referring to those prisoners who have been released under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. I assume that he is not talking about prisoners who have been released under existing provisions or who will be released under the new provisions.

The matter is all part of the political debate about the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. The Belfast Agreement provided that it had to be addressed. The Government addressed it, with the full knowledge that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted us to proceed with the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. It was not an easy process. It certainly raised many very difficult issues—not only those referred to by the hon. Member for East Antrim, but that of the impact on victims and their families, who bear the immediate grief over the acts committed by those who were in prison.

A different set of issues are at stake here. Under the new proposals, we hope to set out a range of control mechanisms, the application of which should give the public confidence. When considering the release of any prisoner, the commissioners will have to take into account the risk to the public. Apart from the fact that human rights considerations mean that the process must be conducted in that way, it will promote confidence in the system. Only time will tell whether that confidence is secured by the way in which the commissioners and the courts operate, but the Secretary of State will have minimal political involvement in the process.

Of those who have been released under existing licensing provisions, eight have been returned to prison. Prisoners on release are subject to law, but they also have human rights entitlements. They cannot be returned to prison just because the dogs in the street say that they are guilty. To protect the principle of the rule of law, we must ensure that everyone's rights are upheld. Although I accept the reasoning on which the hon. Gentleman's question is based, we are dealing with two different sets of circumstances.

Article 9 deals with recalls. All recalls will be made on the ground of risk, and the commissioners have specific statutory functions in that area. All cases will be referred to them for review and recommendation, and the Secretary of State must comply with any direction to release. That is important. The Northern Ireland Assembly has commented on the Secretary of State's powers under the proposal. However, the commissioners will determine any decision, and the Secretary of State must comply with their determination. That should allay any fears about the potential for political interference and is necessary to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Article 10 provides arrangements to apply the order to transferred or repatriated prisoners from other jurisdictions. In essence, the Secretary of State will consult the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland on the application of the order to the case in question and on the point at which it might apply. The Secretary of State will then certify the prisoner's eligibility and the point at which his case would be considered by the commissioners.

Article 11 provides the proposed arrangements for prisoners—about 80 in total—currently serving life sentences in Northern Ireland. The provisions are broadly similar to those for transferred or repatriated prisoners, in that the Secretary of State will refer their case to the Lord Chief Justice for his advice and then certify whether and when the order will apply. In effect, that will be a process whereby current prisoners receive a ``tariff''. On completion of that period, each case will be referred to the commissioners for review and consideration for release.

Any life sentence prisoners currently held on foot of a revocation of licence will not be referred to the court. They will have already been released under current arrangements, having been deemed to have served the appropriate period in custody. They will have been recalled on the ground of risk, and as such will fall to the commissioners. Such cases will therefore be referred straight to them, without the need to go to the court.

Article 12 provides that any prisoner currently licensed under the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) 1953 or the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998—457 prisoners in total—will fall to the commissioners if recalled to prison by the Secretary of State. In such circumstances, the normal recall provisions of giving reasons, allowing representations and commissioners' powers to direct release will apply. I stress that such cases become live for the commissioners only if prisoners are recalled to prison. The Secretary of State will have responsibility for monitoring and activation of that process.

Article 13 is a technical provision and provides for the amendment and repeal of current relevant legislative provisions on the release of life sentence prisoners—excluding provisions of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which will continue in force.

I turn to the schedules. Schedule 1 provides the arrangements for the appointment of commissioners; the grounds on which they can be dismissed, which can happen only after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice; their payment, allowances, staff and premises; and their disqualification from standing for election to

Westminster or the Northern Ireland Assembly. It also requires the chairman to prepare an annual report.

Schedule 2 provides for the making of rules governing commissioners' procedures. As I said, the draft rules were issued as part of the consultation process. The key features of schedule 2 are the requirements placed on the Secretary of State to provide the commissioners with relevant evidence and information for them to consider cases, and the ability for proceedings to be held in private. Two particular provisions are worth explaining. The first is the proposal that certain information can be made available only to a commissioner, and withheld from the prisoner being considered for release. The second is the proposal that, in certain circumstances, the prisoner can be excluded from the proceedings of his case and a legal representative appointed on his or her behalf. That would occur when confidential information was being withheld from the prisoner. Those provisions currently apply under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

 
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Prepared 22 March 2001