Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. Robert McCartney: Am I correct to say that no prisoner may make an application until the punitive tariff period has expired—that until then he is positively barred from making an application?

Mr. Ingram: My understanding is that that is correct, but it is in the back of my mind that compassionate circumstances may apply. However, as the provision is framed, the answer to that is yes. I will consider whether compassionate grounds may apply. Someone may have a terminal illness and be at the point of death; compassionate grounds can allow for release in certain circumstances. However, the tariff must be spent before the application can be made. That is my understanding of the provision.

Mr. McCartney: Will the Minister accept a brief supplementary question, which concerns the fact that certain evidence—certain facts, rather—may be made available to the commissioners in the absence of the prisoner? Do I take it that that means intelligence, rather than evidence, because if it were properly evidence—material, admissible and relevant in a court—the prisoner would be entitled to hear it?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. and learned Gentleman has a point. It is intelligence that would be withheld, although not necessarily only in matters relating to terrorists or paramilitary prisoners. For example, there could be someone with a mental disability who threatened a psychiatrist who had recommended a course of action. To expose such witnesses giving evidence to the commissioner to the prisoner's presence could put them at risk. It is therefore not necessarily a matter only of intelligence as we commonly know it; it could be a matter of knowing that there is a risk to the witness. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that point.

The second proposal is that prisoners can be excluded from case proceedings and a legal representative appointed on their behalf. As we explained, that would happen in cases in which confidential information is withheld from the prisoner. The Government believe that the provisions are essential for the ability to review cases for release in a complete way. They allow for the supply of information to commissioners that might not otherwise be available, because of danger to the provider, and are designed to cater for the human rights of potential witnesses and society as a whole.

In reality, such provisions would not be used frequently. All prisoners who were eligible for release under the sentences Act have been released, and it is in such cases where the provisions are most likely to apply. During the early release programme, we used the provisions only three times. In the unlikely event that a former prisoner went back to prison, the Life Sentence Review Commissioners would need the same capabilities. I explained one example of when the provision would have to be used—when an expert witness's life would be put at risk if he or she were exposed to the prisoner. Hon. Members might be aware that the provisions are currently subject to judicial review. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further, but I repeat that the provisions are designed to cater for the human rights of potential witnesses, victims and society as a whole.

My final point relates to the important provisions that have been included to cater for the rights of prisoners throughout the proposed process. In future, life sentence prisoners will have their tariff set in court and will subsequently be referred to the independent Life Sentence Review Commissioners at the appropriate time, who will assess the case for release based on their professional and expert knowledge. When cases are considered, prisoners will be entitled to a hearing and legal representation, subject to the conditions that we have just discussed. Legal aid regulations have been amended to provide for the Life Sentence Review Commissioners' business.

I remind hon. Members of the reasons for the Government drafting proposals for a life sentences order for Northern Ireland. There is a need for life sentence review and release arrangements to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the recommendations of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. The Government believe that the time has come in Northern Ireland to transfer responsibility for such matters out of the hands of Ministers. Tariff setting will fall to the court, and release decisions will fall to an independent group of judicial character that will be created with the necessary expertise. The proposals cater for the needs of society and the rights of prisoners, and I recommend them to the Committee.

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Mr. Beggs: I am pleased to sit again under your impartial chairmanship, Mr. McWilliam. However, I must record my disappointment that the Committee has not yet met in Northern Ireland, while the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees have met frequently away from Westminster. I know your position, Mr. McWilliam, and that you are prepared to serve wherever you are called to do so. We welcome that, and I hope that the Minister will take note and acknowledge that those of us who consistently participate in this Committee believe that we should be treated fairly, too. I also hope that a meeting will be arranged in Belfast.

Mr. Ingram: I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the fact that that is not for me to decide. I am a servant of the Committee—I am not even a member of it. I take on board his points, but he should make representations to the quarters where those decisions are taken. I know that his party has been making strong representations.

Mr. John M. Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. The Minister raises the interesting question of who decides the business of the Committee. I received what I can only describe as relatively short notice of today's sitting. Had there been consideration through the usual channels of the convenience of this date, I might have made representation to the effect that another date might have been more convenient. However, I am here. I am not being churlish, but if neither the Minister nor I decides, and my right hon. and hon. Friends from the Province have no hand in the matter, who does decide? Who plays God?

The Chairman: I almost said me. The correct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the House decides on a motion tabled by the Government. To pick up on the point of the hon. Member for East Antrim, I shall be in Belfast on Monday anyway, so, personally, I have no view on the matter.

Mr. Taylor: Further to that point of order, Mr. McWilliam. I would have found it extremely agreeable to be in Belfast on Monday.

Mr. Beggs: The issue of prisoner release has been—and still is—at the forefront of the minds of many people in Northern Ireland, including, of course, the many victims in the Province. References to ``early prisoner release'' understandably produce a bad taste in the mouths of many. It is unfortunate that such terminology is used in the order. The term ``early release scheme'' reminds people of a scheme that we wish had never been conducted at all. Let us hope that this scheme, which deals with the future procedures for the release of life prisoners, goes someway to restoring public confidence in the Northern Ireland criminal justice system.

In the current mechanism for the return to prison of those released as a result of the Belfast agreement, there is little public confidence in the ability to revoke licences. It must be remembered that when the security forces spot a known member of a terrorist organisation near the home of a police officer, for example, collecting information on a potential target, that is terrorism. The threat of violence is terrorism as much as the act. The latent influence is still intact, and decommissioning is necessary for the removal of that influence. Let us hope that the revocation of licences under this scheme is less politicised than that of those operated under the agreement.

That brings me to my first area of concern over the commission—the objectivity of the commission or, more accurately, its independence from Government, which was rightly highlighted by the Assembly Committee that considered the order. I am more than aware that independence does not always provide proper decision making. One needs only to consider the naivety of the many supposedly independent human rights bodies in Northern Ireland to prove that. It must be remembered that a ``proper decision'' is one that takes into account those factors that must be taken into account, and only those factors.

In order to protect the independence of the commission, it might have been prudent to provide the commissioners with security for a fixed period, such as the suggested five years. That might be considered in future when the commission is running, therefore maintaining a constantly high level of experience among the commissioners. On the powers to dismiss commissioners, it might have been more appropriate that commissioners be compulsorily removed after the commission of a criminal offence.

Article 7 provides for the Secretary of State to grant a licence on conditional grounds without consulting the commission, where doing so would be impractical. It would never be impractical to do so if the commission retained a rolling assessment of each prisoner's propensity to abscond or re-offend while on licence.

In considering the order, the Assembly Committee also highlighted the period of the licence. It has been suggested that the duration of the licence on release—for life—is in some way unfair. If a member of the public, perhaps a relative of a murder victim, asked me after the sentencing of the murderer what life imprisonment meant, how could I reasonably answer? After all, the ``tariff'' dictates the point of reconsideration for release. The only assurance that a victim can be given is that the offender will serve a period in prison as punishment and will remain on licence for the rest of his life. A lifetime on licence is not harsh.

As well as making recommendations on licences, the Assembly Committee considered victims' rights. At present, it would be wholly inappropriate for victims to have a say in whether a prisoner should be released on licence. It may be appropriate at some point in future if victims are given a role in initial sentencing—if they are permitted to make representations before sentence—but not before such reform occurs.

Many other issues that merit further discussion were raised in previous consideration of the order. However, one especially pressing concern has not been allayed by previous discussion, to my knowledge. I refer to article 6(6). I hope that the Minister can provide me with a logical explanation of its purpose. It enables the Secretary of State to direct that `` large'' is taken into consideration in determining the relevant part of a prisoner's sentence. Therefore, a prisoner ``at large'' or on the run could be suitable for early release under the scheme even if he had not served the relevant period in prison.

When one takes into account the fact that the order applies to existing life prisoners through article 11, the possibilities of the paragraph become more apparent. The impact for escapees who have not served their time could in theory be imprisonment and immediate release after a direction by the Secretary of State and a decision of the commission.

There are many references to the serving of ``the relevant part'' of a sentence. The judiciary should ensure that meaningful minimum time will be served before life sentence prisoners qualify for release on licence. There should be consistency in sentencing throughout the United Kingdom, so that Northern Ireland does not become a transfer haven for prisoners convicted outside the Province.

What assurance can the public have that the order will not lead to a spate of miraculous recoveries after release on compassionate grounds? I am sure that the Minister will agree that if there were too many such cases, the exceptional circumstances provision would be discredited for victims and society generally.

From my experience with offending former pupils, probation officers have such heavy case loads that there is not always sufficient time for frequent and regular contact with ex-offenders on probation for less serious offences. Will the Minister assure us that when the Secretary of State makes rules for regulating supervision of released lifers on licence, he will also make provision to monitor the application of those rules?

Although the wholesale release on licence of convicted murderers, whether labelled loyalist or republican, has been extremely sickening in the continuing absence of decommissioning of illegal weapons, we must accept that all existing life prisoners should be treated equally on the possibility of release on licence. Many people in Northern Ireland lack confidence in the absence of political pressures and the latent influence on decision making on licence revocation. The potential for exploitation of article 6(6) could further damage confidence. I hope that the Minister can allay my concerns.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I am pleased to note that the Minister is satisfied that the order complies with human rights legislation, and that it will not create a spate of legal appeals to the European Court funded by legal aid at the taxpayer's expense.

To conclude, the order will be generally welcomed by Ulster Unionists if it creates further accountability and transparency in sentencing and lessens potential conflict between the Human Rights Act 1998 and the life sentence procedure. I hope that the Minister will respond to our concerns in his winding-up speech.

10.5 am

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Prepared 22 March 2001