Draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. Browne: I thank hon. Members for their contributions. Whether in interventions or in short speeches, very important issues were raised, and even though some of them were dealt with in my introductory speech, it was important that we returned to them.

I shall endeavour to answer this afternoon the points that were raised, but I undertake to look carefully at my entire contribution, and if any further information would assist members of the Committee I shall write to all of them. That said, I hope that my initial contribution and my closing remarks will deal comprehensively with the issues raised by the hon. Members for Solihull and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

I shall deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey because some of them were more general and can be dealt with quite quickly. A copy of the responses to the Assembly will, of course, be placed in the Library. In response to the hon. Gentleman's request, a copy of any letter sent after today's meeting will also be placed in the Library and copies will be sent to members of the Committee.

We undertake to refer the entire matter, if approved, to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is a joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament. Somewhat unusually, I am able to contribute to the matter because in the previous Parliament I had the great honour of being a member of that Joint Committee, for the short time in which it convened before the general election.

That Committee is a Select Committee of this House—in fact, it is two Select Committees that work together—so, as a Minister, I am not in a position to determine what it should examine. Its work programme, when it is reconstituted—I hope that that will happen quickly—will be a matter for the Committee itself. I shall draw the request of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to the attention of the Clerk of that Committee, but in the meantime we will proceed with the introduction of the order. The whole tenor of our argument is that the order is a substantial improvement, in terms of human rights, in the way in which the review of life sentences is conducted. We want to see it implemented as soon as possible.

I know from previous experience—although things may now operate differently—that the Committee would have examined this legislation and formed a view on whether it was worthy of more detailed consideration. I shall, however, draw our discussion to the attention of the Clerk of that Committee when it is reconstituted, and to the attention of the Committee's permanent adviser, who is an employee of the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Solihull and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for the gracious and generous way in which they have raised their points and for their understanding that I might not, in my maiden appearance as a Minister in a Committee of the House, be able to answer matters entirely comprehensively or appropriately.

I turn, slightly out of order, to a point made by the hon. Member for Solihull. He raised the question of the retrospective application of the order to prisoners who are transferred or repatriated or who are existing life sentence prisoners who will have to be transferred to the new system. He asked whether it was right and appropriate for such an order to apply retrospectively. At the risk of sounding west of Scotland-cheeky, I should say that there is no other way of dealing with existing prisoners. There must be an element of retrospective application. The new law, rather than existing procedures, must apply to current prisoners, or it would be non-compliant with human rights. If they are to be included in the new system, someone must make a judgment on what level of tariff should apply to prisoners who are transferred or repatriated, or who are transferred as existing prisoners. I can think of no other way of fixing the tariff, and it is a core provision of the new regime that a tariff be fixed, unless some retrospective judgment is made about what tariff would have applied at the time when the sentence was imposed.

It is important that the fixing of the tariff is done transparently, and in a process in which all parties who have a right to be heard are heard, and represented if necessary. I think that we have achieved that. Proper legal rules must apply to the process, so that it is seen to be done properly. In broad terms, the Secretary of State has the power to fix the tariff, which will be done on the recommendation of the Lord Chief Justice. In many cases, most of the prisoners being transferred will have come with a tariff, which will continue to apply under the new provisions.

The hon. Member for Solihull also asked whether repatriated prisoners will become subject to Northern Ireland law. They will. All prisoners serving sentence who are repatriated to the United Kingdom become UK prisoners. All those who go into the Northern Ireland system become Northern Ireland prisoners. Countries that repatriate their prisoners, under the terms of international treaties or on a voluntary basis, do so knowing full well that that is likely to happen to them.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the number of commissioners. I indicated in my introduction that there would be between 15 and 20, but perhaps that needs further explanation. We must examine business needs, and whether the number of commissioners is 15 or 20 will depend on the amount of work that they have to do.

The commissioners' fundamental independence will be ensured by their professionalism, and also by their statutory right, in effect, to order the release of prisoners, as they can give a direction with which the Secretary of State must comply. Their independence will be reinforced by their security of tenure, which will be provided by the Lord Chancellor's guidelines, and by the provision for automatic renewal after five years.

The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Solihull raised the important issue of whether it is appropriate, with regard to complying with human rights provisions, that prisoners whose cases are being reviewed should have access to all the information to which the commissioners considering their cases have access. The Government believe that all the information concerning a case must be made available to the commissioners, so that they can make appropriate decisions in the light of all the evidence. However, it is not difficult to think of cases in which it has been considered that some information should be withheld: indeed, in the context of the Human Rights Act 1998, there have been at least three such cases. Information might be withheld because it is particularly sensitive in terms of the protection of the realm and national security: more frequently, however, information might be withheld to protect the people who have provided it, because to release it would reveal its source.

The order and the rules provide a procedure that is similar to that which was set up under the 1998 Act. In special circumstances, special advocates are appointed to represent the interests of the prisoner. In the general debate, neither the prisoner nor his representative can have access to the information, but special advocates, who undertake to preserve the confidentiality of the information, are appointed to look after the prisoner's interests.

That system has worked in practice. However, in the case of Mr. Adair, the procedure is subject to judicial review. The Government believe that that procedure, which protects the public and witnesses, and their human rights, is compliant with the 1998 Act and, consequently, that it strikes the appropriate balance.

Such issues will be debated at length in the context of the judicial review. I have stated the Government's position; in terms of the order, they are repeating the process. However, I believe that it would be pointless and inappropriate for me, as a Minister, to debate the matter in any greater depth, and I certainly should not do so in the context of the existing case. Therefore, if Committee members are satisfied, there is nothing more that I can add at this stage. The issue might have to be revisited in the light of the judicial review's conclusions, and Committee members can be reassured that that will be done, if it is necessary. However, the Government believe that human rights provisions are complied with and, therefore, that that will be unnecessary. Moreover, it is envisaged that the provisions will be rarely used, although that does not detract from the importance of the issue.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey also, in effect, asked whether the provisions in the order will apply to all cases. We have decided that, with regard to Northern Ireland, it is appropriate to transfer responsibility for all cases to the commissioners. We decided to accept that recommendation of the criminal justice review, which involved wider consultation.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked whether victims' families would know release dates in advance of a release. The answer is simple: if the families want such information, it will be provided, but, as I said earlier, in our experience, not all families want to be involved in the process. Only if families request that information will they be given it. There is no statutory requirement for that information, but the criminal justice review's recommendations on victims and victims' views are being considered. I am confident that hon. Members will shortly be aware of decisions made about those recommendations in the form of legislation and about their implementation, but at this stage I cannot discuss them in detail. If victims' families want to know the release date in advance, they will be told.

The hon. Member for Solihull asked whether the emergency recall procedure available to the Secretary of State undermines the commissioners. He will not be surprised to hear that we do not believe that it does. It is an emergency procedure to be used while information becomes available or if developments are such that it is practicable to refer the matter to the commissioners. The reservation of the recall procedure solely to the Secretary of State is for emergency circumstances. The whole story cannot be remitted to the commissioners. The cases of recall prisoners must be referred to the commissioners to confirm or reject a decision to revoke a licence in order to prevent serious harm to the public. The procedure does not undermine commissioners, who will have the opportunity to review cases and by whose decision the Secretary of State will in turn be bound.

I am grateful for the comments of the hon. Members for Solihull and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. From the absence of any further comments or questions, I interpret reassurance that the Government have the proposals as right as any Government probably ever have.

I hope that my comments have provided reassurance that we carefully considered all the representations made during the consultation and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and by hon. Members present today. Many of those representations related to issues that did not require adjustment to the order but that will be reflected in the practices that will be adopted in implementing the proposals. As I said earlier, criminal justice agencies that will have key roles in the operation of the new proposals have already been involved in policy development. Officials will continue to work closely with those agencies to develop protocols to help the successful implementation of the order. I thank hon. Members for their forbearance this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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

DRAFT LIFE SENTENCES (NORTHERN IRELAND CONSEQUENTIAL AMENDMENTS) ORDER 2001

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2001.—[Mr. Browne.]

        Committee rose at six minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Cawsey, Mr.
Cran, Mr.
Field, Mr. Frank
Goodman, Mr.
Grayling, Chris
Grogan, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Hughes, Simon
Jones, Lynne
McIsaac, Shona
Mallaber, Judy
Moffatt, Laura
Stringer, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John

 
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Prepared 9 July 2001