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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 9 July 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2001.

Mr. Browne: I know that brevity is much appreciated by members of Standing Committees. However, this is an important order and there are matters that I want to put on record. The order is worthy of a full explanation, which I hope will help the Committee to understand it better.

It may be useful for hon. Members if I outline how I propose to approach today's debate. I shall make a comprehensive speech covering all aspects of the draft order. First, I shall describe the key features of the proposals before the Committee and outline the reasons for change. Secondly, I shall report on the consultation process required under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the main issues that arose from the consultation process.

To ensure that hon. Members are fully informed of the Government's proposals, I have made certain material available in advance of today's debate. I have made available copies of the proposed life sentence review commissioners' rules 2001, which will underpin the operation of the legislation. I have also provided the report on our proposals produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Hon. Members will have a summary of the representations made during the consultation period and a copy of the resultant changes laid with the draft order.

Hon. Members will be aware that we have a second draft order for consideration today: a consequential amendments order that provides for minor technical adjustment of UK legislation in light of the main order. I propose to cover the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2001 at the appropriate point in my speech, and move its consideration at the end of the debate.

The key features of the main order—the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001—are: the appointment of life sentence review commissioners to consider the cases of all life sentence prisoners; the setting of a tariff by the court that represents the punitive element of the sentence after which release can be considered by the commissioners; the power of the commissioners to direct the release of a prisoner on completion of the tariff period subject to the requirement that release would not present a risk to the public; the attachment of licence conditions by the Secretary of State on the prisoner's release; the power of the Secretary of State to revoke a prisoner's licence and recall him to prison; and, through the underpinning rules, the entitlement of the prisoner to a hearing of his case, which will include legal representation, when being considered for release by the commissioners. In essence, those proposals will establish in Northern Ireland a system for life sentence prisoners similar to the parole board system for England and Wales.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and thank him for his courtesy in supplying the Committee with the papers beforehand, which was helpful. As a preliminary matter—and I hope he has easy access to this information—does he know the current number of people affected in Northern Ireland by these provisions? How many people are currently serving life sentences? That would be a helpful piece of background information. He rightly pointed out that there has been a report by the Assembly that the Government have clearly taken into account during their consideration. As well as reporting back on matters where the Government have agreed with the Assembly, have the Government—or will they in any event—reported back to the Assembly with reasons for where they did not do what it recommended? As the Assembly is an elected part of the United Kingdom Government, it would be helpful to place on record the formal response of the Government to responses to the consultation.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. He raises two important issues, one of which I am more prepared to respond to than the other. There are 83 life sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland who are affected by the provisions. I am advised that we have replied to the Assembly in response to the comments on the order that resulted from the deliberations of the ad hoc committee.

There are essentially two reasons why the order is important and the Government are introducing the new proposals: first, owing to the commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998 on 2 October last year and, secondly, as a result of the report of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

A review of Northern Ireland prisons legislation revealed that current procedures might be inconsistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. Legal advice suggested that compliance would require that once the punitive element of the sentence had been completed, life prisoners' cases should be subject to periodic review by an impartial and independent body established by law and with the specific power to give a legally binding direction concerning the prisoner's release.

The recent report of the Northern Ireland criminal justice review endorsed that view. The review group commented on the lack of openness of the current procedures—the executive Life Sentence Review Board advises the Secretary of State on release, who then consults the Lord Chief Justice—and recommended that an independent body should make decisions on the release of all life sentence prisoners based on the risk to the public. The Government now propose to introduce such arrangements.

As is required by the 1998 Act, our proposals were referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly for a 60-day consultation period, which took place between January and March this year. In addition, on the recommendation of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), referred the draft proposals to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, where they were debated on 22 March. The consultation process was extremely useful and successful, and the overall support for our proposals was especially pleasing. I should like to place on the record my thanks to all those who contributed to it.

I propose to deal first with the points raised on individual articles—which gives me the opportunity to describe in a bit more detail what we are proposing—before dealing with the four general issues that arose from the consultation. That reverses the structure of the summary report on representations that has been made available to hon. Members, but it provides a better guide to the order and allows me to conclude my review of the consultation process with a few remarks about implementation plans. I shall now move through the individual provisions of the order.

Article 1 simply introduces the order. During consultation, representation was made that reference in article 2 to the use of the term ``early release of prisoners'' too closely resembled the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. That Act, which arose from the Good Friday agreement, introduced what is commonly referred to in Northern Ireland as the early-release scheme. We accepted that representation and have removed the word ``early'' from the order.

Article 3 provides the Secretary of State with the power to appoint life sentence review commissioners. Key features are expertise in the fields of law, psychiatry, psychology, criminology and the rehabilitation of offenders.

Lady Hermon (North Down): First, I congratulate the Minister, whom I was delighted to see appointed to his post.

I listened carefully to your introduction. You explained that the human rights legislation requires an impartial, independent body. I am concerned that the Secretary of State is proposing to appoint life sentence review commissioners. Why not have a commission—an impartial, independent body—rather than commissioners? How many commissioners will there be? When an advocate or solicitor is appointed, could we have someone with human rights knowledge or experience, given that human rights are the reason for the provisions? Finally, will you clarify the length of the commissioners' appointments?

Mr. Browne rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies, I point out to the hon. Lady that in Committee or on the Floor of the House Members are addressed or referred to as the right hon. or hon. Lady or Gentleman, not ``you''.

Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr. Benton.

Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the debate and, in turn, congratulate her on her election. Many Members on the Government Benches were pleased to see her elected, and we look forward to her contributions to discussions on Northern Ireland. She is a woman of knowledge and of clear views, which will doubtless be welcomed by many of us.

The hon. Lady raises an important point with which I intended to deal. As part of the consultation, it was suggested that independence could be enhanced by establishing a commission that is a fully fledged executive—a non-departmental public body, as it would be called. However, we do not agree for a number of reasons. The commissioners' case load will be quite small. As I said to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), currently there are 83 life prisoners of various types in Northern Ireland. The distribution of their sentences is such that about only 12 of them might need active annual review. It was felt that giving a commission full executive, non-departmental body status was simply not feasible, because the overheads and procedures would cause undue administrative burdens for a relatively small group.

As part of the argument of independence, it was suggested also that commissioners should employ their own staff. Rather than their employing permanent staff, it makes eminent sense for the Secretary of State to provide a small support team that will report directly to the commissioners, thereby ensuring independence. A similar arrangement is in place for the sentence review commissioners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, and there has been no hindrance to independence. On numbers of appointees, we will of course ensure that sufficient commissioners are appointed. At this stage, we think that a panel of between 12 and 20 will be more than adequate.

Although human rights experience is not a requirement, it would be helpful, and the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is not lost on the Government. The legal member of the commissioners will ensure that human rights practices and principles are observed, and we shall of course provide extensive training for commissioners.

I shall return to my speech. I had advised the Committee that the necessary expertise for commissioners—in law, psychiatry, psychology, criminology and the rehabilitation of offenders—was laid out in the order. We—and, indeed, those whom we consulted—agreed that those are the skills that are necessary in considering and assessing the release of life sentence prisoners. Although there were no adverse comments on the skills and expertise required, representations were made during consultation that the perceived independence of commissioners could be strengthened, as the hon. Member for North Down has mentioned.

However, I can assure members of the Committee that commissioners will be independent of Ministers. On a fundamental level, independence is provided in the authority vested in commissioners to direct the release of life sentence prisoners. If the commissioners direct release, the Secretary of State must comply—he has no discretion. Secondly, commissioners' professional expertise is also an important factor in their independence, credibility and acceptability. The appropriate specialist qualifications are already contained in the draft proposals—in article 3(2).

Independence will also be created by the mechanisms through which commissioners are appointed. An appointment will be for five years, and on terms that are in accordance with the Lord Chancellor's guidance, which was announced last year. Appointment will be by open competition, and a commissioner can be considered for dismissal only with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.

It was suggested also that as a group, commissioners should be representative of the communities in Northern Ireland. Our view is that the commissioners' professional expertise will establish their independence, credibility and acceptability in Northern Ireland. As I have said, specialist qualifications are already provided in the draft proposals, so we see no need for the order to go beyond professional experience and qualifications.

Article 3 also describes the factors underpinning commissioners' functions: protecting the public from serious harm, rehabilitation and preventing reoffending. During consultation, representations suggested that the draft proposals as originally published might not be as clear as they could be on the relationship between those factors as commissioners review cases for release.

We reconsidered the provisions. Our intention is that a prisoner cannot be released if he would present a serious danger to the public. Risk is the prime consideration.To ensure that that primacy is clear throughout all functions undertaken by commissioners, we have made a small adjustment to article 3 to emphasise the higher importance of risk assessment when commissioners are considering cases throughout sentence. Commissioners must always have regard to risk as opposed to the desirability of rehabilitation and preventing the commission of further offences.

The key principle governing the commissioners' functions is defined as the need to protect the public from serious harm. That is the basis on which all life sentence prisoners will be considered for release. In doing so, we are conforming to a model that is increasingly accepted nationally and internationally.

 
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Prepared 9 July 2001