Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Northern Ireland Office

  1.  The following memorandum is in response to a request from the Joint Committee on Human Rights dated 8 February 2001. The Committee requested the following information:

    —  What efforts the NIO has made to implement the Act and, in particular, to build a human rights culture?

    —  How has the Act affected the NIO's approach to human rights issues and what have been the consequences both for policy-formation and for the delivery of services?

    —  What have been the implications for the NIO of any court judgements on human rights matters since the Act came into force on 1 October?

    —  What impact has the Act had on everyday life in the NIO's fields of responsibility?

    —  How has the NIO addressed (where it has arisen) the duty under section 19 of the Act to make statements of compatibility or non-compatibility with the Convention in relation to Government bills and what problems has the process created?

  The memorandum answers these points in the same order.


  2.  The importance of human rights—and the need to protect and uphold them—has a special place in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland. For that reason, a commitment to protecting the rights of all the people of Northern Ireland was at the centre of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of our implementation of the Agreement, we have established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission with wide-ranging powers to promote and advise on the protection of human rights within Northern Ireland.

  3.  The political and public profiles of human rights issues in Northern Ireland have ensured that they have been a key consideration for the Northern Ireland Office long before the introduction of the Human Rights Act last year. Nevertheless, in preparation for the Act coming into force, the Department embarked on a wide-ranging training and awareness programme.

  4.  Within the core Department and the Forensic Science and Compensation Agency, a three-tier training programme was developed with specialist needs being provided by outside agencies (like the Civil Service College and University of Ulster). An intermediate level of awareness training was provided by the head of the Human Rights and Equality Unit, jointly with one of the legal advisors. Staff in the Unit also provided a basic general awareness session for more junior staff who merely required an overview of the Act and its implications for those working in public authorities. The training programme was carried out over several months and was completed by the autumn. The Department's central Training and Development Services will meet any residual training requirements (eg new arrivals).

  5.  Within the Department's other agency, the Northern Ireland Prison Service a separate substantial training programme is underway. A number of training sessions have been run for senior management with around 45-50 per cent having been trained. Further seminars are planned for the remainder. Of the 2000 staff employed by the Service, around 400 (20 per cent) have already received training. In addition, Human Rights Act training has been built into the recruitment policy of the Service. This means that it is an integral part of the induction process. As such, all new recruits will receive training on the Act. Human Rights Act training has also been linked to the Equal Opportunities Programme which is mandatory within the Service. In this way, it is intended that training on the Human Rights Act will reach all staff.

  6.  As well as providing training to staff within the Department and its agencies, the Human Rights and Equality Unit provided training to the officials in the Department of Public Prosecutions NI, Probation Board NI and a range of voluntary organisations eg NIACRO Extern and Victim Support Northern Ireland.


  7.  The Northern Ireland Office has scrutinised its legislation and procedures to establish their compliance with the ECHR. The following schedule outlines changes in legislation and procedures which came about as a result.

Terrorism Act 2000

  8.  Although the lead for the Terrorism Act lay with the Home Office, the Act repealed some provisions of the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA) and thus has an impact on Northern Ireland. The Terrorism Act 2000 came into force on 19 February 2001.

  9.  Some EPA provisions ceased to have effect on Royal Assent on 20 July. The repeals were:

    —  Section 26(1)(b) of the EPA—the power of entry on authority of the Secretary of State—ceased to have effect by virtue of paragraph 1(2)(a) of schedule 1;

    —  Section 35—the wearing of hoods offence—ceased to have effect by virtue of paragraph 1(2)(b); and

    —  Section 50—explosive factories—was repealed by virtue of paragraph 1(2)(c).

  10.  In addition to three repeals, schedule 1 amended a number of EPA provisions, mainly to ensure ECHR compliance. This was necessary because the Human Rights Act came into force prior to full commencement of the Terrorism Act on 19 February this year. Schedule 1 therefore ensured compliance during the transitional period. These have been replicated in part VII, therefore ensuring continued ECHR compliance.

  The amendments to the EPA effective on Royal Assent of the Terrorism Act were:

    —  Under Section 19 of the EPA, a member of HM forces could arrest a person and detain him for up to four hours. Section 19(2) of the EPA provided that a soldier making an arrest acts lawfully if he states that he is executing the arrest as a member of HM forces. Paragraph 8 of schedule 1 to the Terrorism Act provides that section 19(2) will not apply so as to override the Convention;

    —  Under section 20 of the EPA, a person may have been required to remain in a location during a premises search. Although in practice the requirement would have had effect for a relatively short time, the provision was capable of being read as open-ended. Paragraph 9 of schedule 1 to the Terrorism Act provides that the police will have the power to extend the original four-hour time limit for the requirement by a further four hours, but no more. This places a reasonable, absolute time limit on the requirement;

    —  Under paragraph 10 of schedule 1 to the Terrorism Act, the Secretary of State's power to authorise the police or Army to take possession of property or land under paragraph 26 of the EPA can only be exercised where necessary for the preservation of peace or the maintenance of order. This clarifies the legal basis for an interference with property rights and ensures compliance with article 1 of protocol 1 to the ECHR;

    —  Paragraph 11 provides procedural safeguards in relation to a court order for forfeiture of documents useful to terrorists, ensuring ECHR article 6 and article 1 of protocol 1 rights of a person with an interest in property; and

    —  Substantial changes were made to part V of the EPA (private security services) by virtue of paragraph 12 of schedule 1 to the Terrorism Act. These enable conditions to be attached to licenses and the Secretary of State may refuse to revoke a licence where a condition has not been complied with. A right of appeal to the High Court is put in place, available where a certificate is refused, revoked or where a condition is imposed. Finally, where it is necessary to protect information from disclosure during High Court proceedings, the Secretary of State may issue a certificate which in turn triggers a right of appeal to the Tribunal established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Tribunal procedural rules were amended by paragraph 12(8) to the Terrorism Act so that they applied immediately to private security appeals on Royal Assent.

Firearms (NI) Order 1981

  11.  Under the current firearm legislation appeals against the RUC Chief Constable's decisions on firearm certificate and firearm dealers' certificate applications are considered by the Secretary of State.

  12.  The Secretary of State also considers applications for the removal of the statutory ban on prohibited persons (a person who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment or a suspended sentence). The current Firearms (NI) Order 1981 is under review and we propose to change these arrangements and move appeals and applications for removal of statutory ban to the courts to accommodate Article 6 of the ECHR. The draft order and implementation plans are not yet finalised and with the prospect of a General Election announcement in the next few months, it is unlikely that the new order will come into effect before next year.

Release of information by the police to Victim Support

  13.  The Home Office has informed us that the practice of referring victims details to Victim Support can continue. Victims will however, have to be given the opportunity to opt out of the scheme. The NIO are considering this with Victim Support NI and are in contact with the Home Office about the new administrative procedures to be introduced to comply with the opt-out clause.

Criminal Injuries Compensation

  14.  Current legislation on criminal justice injuries compensation contains a possible point of vulnerability regarding the right of appeal against the refusal of a Minister to exercise the Secretary of State's discretion to make a payment to an applicant who has been refused compensation because of previous involvement in terrorism. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's report following his review of the scheme recommended a change in procedures, which would remove this vulnerability. We have accepted this recommendation and, once the new scheme is introduced (currently planned for April 2002), terrorist convictions will be treated on a par with all criminal convictions, allowing appeals to be made to an independent appeals tribunal along the lines of arrangements in Great Britain.

Life Sentences Arrangements

  15.  Draft proposals for a Life Sentences (NI) Order are currently at consultation phase. The proposals will introduce new Human Rights compliant arrangements for the review and release of life sentence prisoners.


  16.  There have been no court judgements significant to the NIO since the Act came into force on 2 October.


  17.  It is not possible to isolate the impact of the Human Rights Act as such. With the ECHR in being for so many years, and the already high profile of rights issues within Northern Ireland, human rights issues have tended to become mainstreamed within the Department.


  18.  Prior to the introduction of the Human Rights Act, the Northern Ireland Office and its executive agencies had begun to scrutinise its policies and legislation to ensure compliance with the Act as per the Home Office guidelines. This enabled statements of compatibility to be made on both Acts (the Police (NI) Act 2000) and (Disqualification (NI) Act 2000) which have been passed since the Human Rights Act has been introduced.

John Reid

5 March 2001

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