Draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Simon Hughes: For information as this is obviously an important and controversial issue, will the Minister bring us up to date with the current number of life sentence prisoners with Northern Ireland backgrounds who are held outside Northern Ireland? Likewise, will he tell us whether there are any life sentence prisoners held in Northern Ireland who come from the other three countries of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Browne: I am not in a position now to answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, but I hope to be able to do so shortly. As for his second question, of the 83 life sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland, 74 were sentenced in Northern Ireland, seven were sentenced in England and Wales and two were sentenced in the Republic of Ireland and repatriated. I shall return to the first matter raised by the hon. Gentleman when I have the information, Mr. Benton. Indeed, I have just received the information: there are no Northern Ireland sentenced life prisoners outside Northern Ireland.

Article 11 provides arrangements for those prisoners—83 in total, as we have discussed—who are 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 cases to the Lord Chief Justice—and the trial judge, if available—for advice, then certify that the order will apply and when. In effect, that will be a process whereby current prisoners receive a tariff. That point will be the trigger for referral to the commissioners for review and consideration for release. As with the comments that were received in relation to article 10 about transferred or repatriated prisoners, some felt that the setting of the tariff should be left entirely to the court. Again, however, this is a mapping-in exercise, and the Secretary of State will make a direction in each case in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge. In such cases, setting tariffs in court is unnecessary in law and potentially a waste of valuable court resources. The arrangements that we are proposing already exist and have been tested in England and Wales.

It may be worth taking a few moments to describe our planned approach to current cases and to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that all such cases are dealt with fully and fairly. When we forward the cases of current life sentence prisoners to the Lord Chief Justice for his consideration, he will have available to him the original case papers. In line with United Kingdom case law, the Secretary of State will also provide progress reports on any prisoners detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure—there are currently two in prison in Northern Ireland. Given their age and lack of maturity at the time of conviction, special provisions are required, so the Lord Chief Justice will additionally receive progress reports in such cases. All prisoners will be able to make representations to the Lord Chief Justice—through their lawyers if they so desire. Moreover, arrangements will be made for victims or their families to register any views that they may have on cases. We will shortly publish guidance on the procedures established for such cases, and meetings on how they will operate are already ongoing with relevant criminal justice agencies.

Article 12 provides that any prisoner currently licensed under the relevant prison legislation or the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998—about 459 in total—will fall to the commissioners if they are recalled to prison by the Secretary of State. In such circumstances, the normal recall provisions of giving reasons, allowing representation and commissioners' powers to direct release will apply. No representations were made on the article 12 provisions, but I stress that all such cases become live for the commissioners only if those concerned are recalled to prison. The Secretary of State will have the responsibility for monitoring and action.

Article 13 provides for the adjustment and repeal of relevant provisions of current Northern Ireland legislation. No representations were made on these provisions. However, a need was identified internally for a separate instrument to amend UK legislation listed in the initial published proposals, which I shall deal with towards the end of my speech.

It was recommended during consultation that the arrangements for the compensation of commissioners who leave office early should be amended to ensure that compensation is not available to any commissioners who have been dismissed. The power to pay compensation has been amended to apply only to those commissioners who resign from office. The blanket provisions for compensation need that constraint, which was overlooked in drafting.

Schedule 2 allows the Secretary of State to make rules, which I have made available for information purposes. Most comments were made on the provisions for the non-disclosure of information and the exclusion of prisoners from proceedings when damaging or confidential information is being deployed. I have already dealt with those under article 4. Schedule 3 provides for the amendment of Northern Ireland legislation. That concludes my somewhat detailed review of the individual provisions of the order.

I will now turn to the more general issues that were raised during consultation. First, on human rights compliance, assurances were sought that the order as a package should comply with current UK and European Court of Human Rights law. I can assure members of the Committee that the order is fully compliant with human rights law and provides powers and arrangements already in existence and in operation under other UK legislation. With the setting of the tariff in court, the establishment of an independent body of experts with the skills required specifically identified, the hearing of prisoners' cases for release at which they can be legally represented and the provision of legal aid, the very basis of the order is human rights driven. The rights of prisoners are fully covered, and I am confident of human rights compliance in the order.

Recommendations were made that the rights of victims and their families to make representations should be included in the legislation. We accept that victims' views should be sought and made available as part of the various decision-making processes, and we already keep victims informed when they register an interest. That is enhanced in the rules underpinning the order. At consideration for final release, victims' views will be provided to the commissioners as part of a dossier prepared by the probation service and, as current cases have tariffs set, victims will have the opportunity to register their views.

As part of our consideration of the issues facing the criminal justice system as a whole, we shall examine ways of catering further for victims' needs and interests. The criminal justice review made important recommendations in this area, which we are now taking forward, and those arrangements will be at the discretion of the victims or their families. Many victims and their families prefer to put difficult events behind them and to move on.

On ministerial direction and guidance, representations were made suggesting that the Secretary of State should have the power to issue directions or guidance. We accept that it will be necessary for Ministers to make it clear that certain procedures will apply. First, we intend to issue guidance to current life prisoners, and I have stated our commitment to publish guidance on arrangements for victims' input. I have used my speech this evening to put additional points on the record.Guidance has no statutory weight, so statutory guidance cannot exist. There is no need for it to appear in legislation, but in addition to what is put on the record today, we shall produce relevant guidance notes.

Issuing directions is a separate matter and is an inappropriate path for Ministers to tread. The essence of the sentencing and review process is independence, and for Ministers to direct the commissioners--for example, on risk assessment--would be inappropriate and contrary to the establishment of an independent review body. It will be for the commissioners to establish standards, guided by extensive domestic and international case law.

The fourth and final matter that was raised concerned implementation. Representation was made that there should be meaningful consultation with relevant organisations prior to implementation. I assure the Committee that that has taken place as our proposals have developed. Our proposals were made available to more than 200 interested parties and groups. The courts, prosecuting authorities and, in particular, the probation service, which will have a crucial role in the new processes, have all been involved in development. To take that a step further and to ensure smooth introduction, my officials will develop working protocols with and between criminal justice agencies. We shall consult relevant bodies and keep prisoners advised of progress. We shall work to ensure that all relevant staff are aware of and trained in the new procedures.

Those are the four general issues that I thought needed clarification in the light of the representations made during consultation. Before concluding, I shall deal with the need for a separate statutory instrument: the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2001, which provides for amendment of related United Kingdom legislation.The reason for the consequential amendments is simply that an order made under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides the legislative vehicle for the main life sentences order, can amend legislation only as it applies in Northern Ireland.

The section 84 order is a technical requirement to amend legislation as it applies in England and Wales. It provides for the inclusion of references to the Life Sentences Order 2001 and the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984, the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001, which allow and provide for various transfer and repatriation arrangements within and to the United Kingdom. The order also provides for the inclusion of references to the life sentence review commissioners under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as a group to whom the Act will apply.

I close by reminding members of the Committee of the reasons for the proposals before the Committee. It is the Government's view that the time has come to transfer responsibility for the release of life sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland from Ministers to a body of life sentence review commissioners. In future, life sentence prisoners will have their tariff set in court, they will be referred to the independent commissioners at the appropriate time and their case for release will be assessed according to commissioners' professional and expert knowledge. In having their cases considered, prisoners will be entitled to a hearing at which they can be legally aided and represented.

I am confident that our proposed system caters for the needs of society and of victims, and ensures the rights of prisoners. I commend the orders to the Committee.

5.14 pm

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Prepared 9 July 2001