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Lord Campbell of Alloway: It seems to be a totally reasonable amendment, from reading the agreement. What has happened? Why have the Government moved away from the simple concepts in paragraph 3 on prisoners and embarked upon this complicated exercise? There must be some reason for it. Before making up my mind, I should like to know what the reason was and why the agreement, as it stands, is not good enough.
The Earl of Longford: I had hoped that the Minister would speak earlier. My attitude to this and other amendments will depend on what my noble friend, with the authority of his office and expert knowledge, tells us. As I have said previously, this agreement is the best thing that has happened to Northern Ireland in my lifetime. I have the utmost confidence in all those concerned. I would not put my judgment as regards what is within or outside the agreement against theirs.
As was explained in another place, there are good reasons for drawing a distinction between determinate sentences and life sentences. A life sentence is imposed automatically as the mandatory sentence for murder. It may also be imposed at the discretion of the court for other very serious offences. In these discretionary cases, the life sentence is likely to have been imposed precisely because the court considered that the risk of further serious offences being committed was an issue. It is therefore entirely proper that in such cases the commissioners should take account of any risk of danger to the public.
I can understand that because of the new release arrangements introduced by this Bill many would consider that additional protections are required before release may be considered. But I believe that the other criteria which determinate sentence prisoners must satisfy are extremely robust and are appropriate for prisoners who have not been given life sentences by the courts.
It also remains the case that a fixed term prisoner may not be released if the commissioners consider that he is likely to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. This means that every applicant must be assessed to determine whether he would be likely to re-engage in terrorism or acts related to it.
I shall now deal with the amendment that would extend the licence conditions for fixed term prisoners to include risk. With the exception of some sex offenders, prisoners serving fixed sentences for non-terrorist offences who are released in Northern Ireland are not subject to any licence conditions. If they commit further offences they are simply dealt with in the normal way and sentenced for the further offence. For cases that fall under the Treatment of Offenders Order 1976 a prisoner may be subject to a further penalty in respect of an offence committed after discharge from prison.
Under this Bill, which is primarily to do with terrorism and terrorists, a fixed term prisoner will be subject to licence conditions which allow his recall and return to prison if he becomes or is likely to become re-involved in acts of terrorism after release. This addresses the key concern regarding those released under this Bill that they should not be allowed to remain at large if they are likely to be involved in further acts of terrorism. As such, the Bill makes provision for the risk of involvement in further acts of terrorism.
In addition, to include such a condition goes beyond the terms of the paper placed in the Library by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on 20th April to which some noble Lords referred. That paper made clear that life sentence prisoners would be subject to a risk criteria and by implication suggested that other prisoners would not. Although that paper is not part of the agreement, it was made available to the parties in the course of the discussions that led to the agreement as an explanation of what the Government would be prepared to do to implement those parts of the agreement relating to prisoners. As such the Government consider that they should not depart from the terms of that paper at this time and that to do so would undermine confidence in the Government's commitment to making all parts of the agreement a reality, as was helpfully said by my noble friend Lord Longford.
Lord Monson: If a prisoner is sentenced to a fixed term of 25 years in prison for a serious terrorist offence--we can all think of a recent case--and is released in consequence of the Bill after two years instead of 16 years and eight months, as would normally be the case, is there not a serious danger that he might reoffend?
Lord Dubs: First, I do not wish to comment on particular cases. However, if someone has been given a 25 year sentence, the court has presumably taken a view as to the likelihood of reoffending; and that view influenced the court into giving a fixed term decision rather than a life sentence. It is on that basis that the distinction in the Bill continues. If the court had believed that there was a grave risk of that individual reoffending, the court would surely have imposed a life sentence.
I have to remind the noble Lord that the people it is proposed to let out of prison are not all first time offenders. A number of them have served sentences and have been suitably released, under the provisions of the Northern Irish jurisdiction, and the different and easier rules from those on the mainland which have been in place there for some time, and have been rearrested and reconvicted for committing new terrorist acts. So the Minister must be extraordinarily confident that as a result of this agreement there will be a change of heart on the part of men who have had no change of heart previously and have not been reformed in any way by their time in prison. Indeed, the latter is hardly surprising since most of their time in prison will have been spent in receiving instruction in the ways of terrorism from their camp commanders, as they refer to them.
I am saying that the Minister must be extremely confident of himself. I should also like to tempt him briefly. Of course he cannot see ahead as to how the review board will operate and what conclusions it will reach. But does the noble Lord believe that those who signed up to the agreement expect that most, some, all, or nearly all of the members of their terrorist group will get out? It will be intriguing to know. Will these commissioners, review board members--whatever we call them--rubber stamp? Or can we expect that in many cases they will consider a man's record and say, "No, this man is too dangerous to let out, whatever expectations were aroused by the agreement"?
Lord Cope of Berkeley: The Minister responded earlier with words that had probably been prepared before he heard the debate. He did not address the points which I and others made. Part of the argument was whether the amendment is consistent with the agreement. The Minister did not argue that it was consistent with the agreement; he said that it was consistent with the paper that was issued and placed in the Library, rather than the agreement.
My noble friend and I drew attention to the fact that the agreement specifically said that the review process would provide for the need to protect the community. In each case it appears that it should do so. I cannot see where the Bill does that in respect of fixed-sentence prisoners.
The Minister also spoke of the coherence of the Bill being damaged by these amendments. I do not agree. He said that there was a no-risk test for those serving determinate sentences. As I pointed out in my earlier remarks, there is a risk test as regards terrorist crimes. That is the third condition which the commissioners must address. There is a risk test as far as terrorist crimes are concerned. The Minister referred to it. It is true that in the Bill as it stands there is not a risk test in relation to crimes other than terrorist crimes. The point of the amendment is to insert such a risk test.
Is the Minister prepared to say that determinate sentence prisoners should be released earlier than the trial judge thought was the right sentence for their crimes, even if they would be a danger to the public?
Lord Dubs: I can only repeat what I said. For those prisoners released under the terms of the Bill, a condition of the licence will be that they do not re-engage in, or are not likely to re-engage in, the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. The licence conditions are surely one of the key safeguards that the noble Lord sought to establish.
We do not need the additional safeguard as regards the risk element to which he referred as the basis for his amendments. There are sufficient safeguards. Of course no one can predict what will happen in the case of every single prisoner released. I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the figures I gave the House on Second Reading in relation to the number of prisoners that had been released. I speak from memory, but of the several hundred prisoners released in recent years, only two
The argument that was advanced in the other place and which I advanced both at Second Reading and today is not one that I will live to regret.
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