Draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): It is always nice, Mr. Benton, to serve under your chairmanship. I, too, should like to compliment the Minister on his appointment. Conservative Members will try to be helpful whenever we can. There has not been 100 per cent. bipartisan agreement about the policy, but we have tried to take a responsible view of the difficult questions that land on the Minister's desk.

On behalf of my party, I welcome the extensive consultation that the order has enjoyed thus far, both in the Northern Ireland Assembly's ad hoc committee, on 12 March, and in the House of Commons Northern Ireland Grand Committee, on 22 March. We broadly support the introduction of the order, following commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland in March 2000. The review and the order are in accordance with the Belfast agreement's commitment to a

    ``wide-ranging review of criminal justice (other than policing...) to be carried out by the British Government.''

Pursuing the order and the aims of the various peace agreements is especially important in the light of recent developments in the Province.

When the order was first introduced last December, by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), it was described as

    ``an important step forward in the continuing `normalisation' of criminal justice matters in Northern Ireland.''

I am bound to say that I broadly agree with the view of Ulster Unionist colleagues, as articulated by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee meeting of 22 March. As he said, we should generally welcome the order

    ``if it creates further accountability and transparency in sentencing and lessens potential conflict between the Human Rights Act 1998 and the life sentence procedure.''—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 22 March 2001; c. 14.]

I am conscious that our new and most welcome colleague, the hon. Member for North Down, is present on the Opposition Benches. I should be more than happy to give way to her if she feels that I have failed faithfully to represent the position of her party.

Lady Hermon: No.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Lady appears not to need to intervene, which is gracious of her.

The order includes many recommendations that were expressed in the review of the criminal justice system. I do not consider the main body of the order to be controversial, but I have a few questions and concerns about some of its articles. It is only fair for me to say that I have no intention of holding the Minister up this evening. My support of the order—or at least, my not opposing it—is not conditional on his answers to my questions. I would be content for him to consult his officials after the debate and let me have written replies. I leave it entirely to his discretion whether he answers all or some of my questions at the end of the debate or whether he answers all or some of them in writing.

As the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for North Down mentioned, article 3 in part II does not stipulate the number of commissioners. Nor does it provide them with any security of tenure to ensure total independence from political influence. Should they be provided with such protection? We suggest that they should. I think that the Minister answered the first part of my question in response to an earlier intervention, when he referred to there being between 15 and 20 commissioners, if I recall the numbers correctly. If that is not correct, I am sure that he will put me right.

My second question also relates to article 3, which says that the commissioners can advise only on matters referred to them by the Secretary of State. That is confining. Could it conflict with the ECHR's ruling that politicians should be removed from such decision making?

My third question derives from article 4 in part II, which affects schedule 2. Paragraph 3(e) of schedule 2 states that

    ``information about a prisoner''

should not

    ``be disclosed to anyone other than a Commissioner''

unless otherwise directed by the Secretary of State. Am I reading that correctly, and does it infringe on a prisoner's right to have access to documents pertinent to his case?

My fourth question relates to article 5 in part III. The Secretary of State is armed with wide discretionary powers. Under article 3, the court does not have to determine the tariff if it considers the offence too serious. However, under article 5(4) and (5), the Secretary of State

    ``may at the appropriate stage direct that the release provisions shall apply''.

The appropriate stage is

    ``when the Secretary of State has formed the opinion . . . that it is appropriate for him to give the direction.''

He does not have to consult the Lord Chief Justice, the commissioners or the original judge. Could that conflict with the ECHR's ruling?

Article 9 in part III provides that

    ``The Secretary of State may revoke''

a licence, with or

    ``without a recommendation by the Commissioners''.

Where there is no such recommendation, the decision can be taken unilaterally,

    ``where it appears to him''—

the Secretary of State—

    ``that it is expedient in the public interest to recall that person''.

Does that undermine the role of the commissioners?

I move to my last two questions. The first derives from article 10 in part III, which provides that, on transfer to Northern Ireland, life prisoners will be treated in accordance with the order. If a life prisoner is sentenced under the laws of a foreign country and then transferred to Northern Ireland for humanitarian reasons—for example, to be nearer his family—will the order take precedence over the laws of the sentencing country?

My final question derives from article 11 in part III. That applies retrospectively where the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, thinks that, had the order been in operation at the time of sentencing, the court would have ordered that the release provisions should apply to the life prisoner. The Secretary of State does not have to consult the other bodies involved in his decisions. Is it right that the order should include a retrospective element?

The Minister began by saying that he begged leave of the Committee to discuss the matter at length because he wanted certain points put on record. I told him that I entirely understood why he should want to take time to discuss this difficult, sensitive and highly technical matter. I apologise to the Committee if some of my questions have been technical, but—as I have said before—there is little room for laughs when discussing Northern Ireland affairs; it is usually pretty serious. I hope that my remarks have been taken in that context. These matters are serious and I shall abide by what the Minister has said and put my questions in writing if he prefers to postpone dealing with them.

5.27 pm

Simon Hughes: I warmly welcome the hon. Member for North Down to the House and to the Committee and I look forward to her contributions, which will be greatly valued.

I apologise to the Committee for the fact that in this debate I am merely the surrogate: my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit O£pik) would have been our nominee for the Committee had he been available. He follows these matters all the time. I have less experience than him and I apologise for that.

If anyone wanted a Committee baptism of fire in terms of departmental responsibility, this was it. This is an extremely important issue across the United Kingdom. It is a particularly sensitive issue for the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) in relation to Northern Ireland. He certainly drew the short straw when he was given this as his first brief, but he was very clear when setting out the argument and that was helpful. He is always precise and helpful and I am grateful to him for that.

I should like to make a procedural point which may be helpful. The Minister indicated that a reply was given to the Assembly from the Government, and the hon. Member for Solihull—on behalf of the Conservative party—indicated that he is happy if the Minister replies later to questions to which he cannot reply immediately.

Mr. Taylor: I should have made it clear that I would wish to proceed in such a way that all members of the Committee have the replies that are sent to me.

Simon Hughes: I assumed that.

Given the importance that we all understand the issue to have, is it possible for the Government's reply to the Assembly, and any correspondence that is sent as a result of questions asked and matters raised in Committee, to be put in the House of Commons Library as a public document? Perhaps the Minister will say whether that is possible. It is important that the debate that concludes the matter in Committee is in the public domain. The deliberations of the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee are in the public domain; it is important that the ancillary bits and pieces to today are also there.

I have one more general matter which I want briefly to discuss. I am conscious that other hon. Members may want to speak and that we have limited time, which is one defect of a procedure that makes Northern Ireland suffer relative to other parts of the UK because it is more often subject to it. Was there a request to the Government before the general election or since—although I think that it could only technically have been before—from the newly set up Joint Committee on Human Rights to examine this matter? If not—and I anticipate that the answer is that there was not a request, because of the work that that Committee was doing on other legislation—can the Minister give an undertaking that this matter, even if it is approved by Parliament, will be referred to that Committee for its consideration? These two pieces of secondary legislation provide a classic case for examination by that Committee. That would not be controversial, but it would give assurances to people who may have concerns. If the Minister is happy for the legislation to go to that Committee, when the Committee is set up with its new membership it will see what has happened, call for papers and proceed accordingly.

On the substance of the order, I share the Government's view that we must move in Northern Ireland, as we have done in Great Britain, to a system whereby the court sets sentences and politicians do not review them once the tariff has been fixed. If it is right for England and Wales, it must also be right for Northern Ireland. That is one effect of the European convention on human rights.

It would be helpful if the Minister would deal with the one remaining complication relating to human rights, which was alluded to by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), in the previous Parliament. My understanding is that it is now illegal under the ECHR, as a result of the judgment in the Thompson and Venables case, for a tariff to be set in relation to juveniles by politicians. That is why the tariff set by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), was an injustice. However, it is still technically possible under the ECHR for tariffs for adults to be set by politicians. Commentators have rightly said that they do not understand the consistency of the two decisions, which is a concern that I share.

Can I take it from the Minister's remarks that it is now the view of the Government in relation to Northern Ireland sentencing that whether one is a juvenile or an adult when one is sentenced, the same two principles will apply: the court sets the tariff and an independent body, in this case the commissioners, acts to review it? The role of the Secretary of State is the role that the Minister set out about the revocation of life licence; he or she will not take a role in the other two matters.

I am happy about what the Minister said—as far as it goes—in relation to victims and the opportunity for their relatives to take part in the process. I ask him to consider—again, he can take time to give me an answer—whether we should move further in Northern Ireland than our present position, which is something that I would argue for the rest of the United Kingdom. After conviction in the original trial, but before sentence, the victim should be allowed to write a statement to the trial judge about the effect of the crime. I deduce it to be the case that the policy applies in Northern Ireland as it applies in this country: when somebody is about to be released the family will be alerted in advance. It is the custom of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, like the Home Secretary here, to ensure that the family of those affected knows in advance the date of release. It is my assumption that that is done privately, but it is done so that no family is taken by surprise by meeting on the streets somebody whom, had it known he or she would be released on a certain day, that family might have wanted to avoid.

I share the view, which is controversial and goes against one of the recommendations made by the Assembly, that it is right that somebody who is given a life sentence should remain on licence for the rest of his or her life. If we are trying to establish the good objective of a criminal justice system across the United Kingdom in which we mean what we say, someone who has been sentenced to life imprisonment but released after a certain time—we understand that that happens—should be able to be recalled at any time. I want to put it on the record that I think that that is right. It might appear onerous in some ways, but people should understand that point. At the end of the day, it is right for such a decision to be taken by the Secretary of State on advice, rather than being left entirely in the hands of the commissioners. It is certainly right that, in exceptional circumstances, the decision to release on compassionate grounds and to recall must remain with the Executive, because one might need a very speedy decision, for the reasons that the Minister gave.

The last matter picks up on points that members of the Committee have already raised. Like the hon. Member for Solihull, I have a worry that relates to schedule 2. I shall be honest with the Committee—I am not absolutely certain on the question of compatibility with human rights legislation. None the less, if information that the state holds on a prisoner is accessible to the commissioners, it should also be accessible to the prisoner or a nominated representative. A prisoner cannot argue against the case for his not being released, for example, unless he knows what that case is. I should be grateful for assurance, whether now or later—I am happy with either, so long as it is given in the public domain—that the new system will ensure that information, excluding that which the intelligence services might hold in other circumstances and not make public, is not held without the individual concerned knowing what it is. It is a basic principle of natural justice that one knows the argument against oneself so that one can argue against it.

I hope that my remarks have been helpful, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Benton, and to the Minister for the way in which matters have proceeded.

5.37 pm

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