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11.34 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): May I pay tribute at the outset to the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler)? I believe that the following debate will be his last appearance at the Dispatch Box. Being on the Front Bench and having responsibility for security is not in the normal run of political experience, and I pay tribute to him for his unfailing courtesy and helpfulness. His respect and admiration for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the security services were evident in his speech: he has come to have a deep respect for those at the sharp end in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that they will hold him in deep respect for the contribution that he has made.

In the present circumstances, there might be a tendency, especially at this time of night, to nod through the continuance order and move on to other matters, but that would be wrong, because of the importance of the issues and because it would certainly be discourteous to the advisers to whom the Minister referred, who have invested a great deal of time in considering how the legislation has operated.

As the Minister said, we are aided by four pieces of research: the Lloyd review; J. J. Rowe's report; the report by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and Dr. Norris, the independent commissioners for the holding centres; and Mr. Hewitt's work as the independent assessor of military complaints procedure. The most important, ultimately, will be the Lloyd review.

This is not a criticism, because we did not make the point at the time, but in retrospect it seems unfortunate that the Lloyd review's terms of reference were so predicated on the continuation of the ceasefire. When the ceasefire did not continue, the tendency was to think that the review was not immediately relevant; that is not so.

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In setting up the review we had the knowledge that terrorism is endemic in the modern world; we want legislation that responds to that fact. Unfortunately, the threat of all kinds of terrorism may be there in perpetuity. We should also remember that terrorism, using the definition of it as the use of violence for political ends, continued during the ceasefire.

The Government's response to Lloyd has been disappointing. Lord Lloyd himself said that many of the procedural provisions in the Emergency Provisions Acts might have taken a different form given the existence of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. He also said that once lasting peace had been established in Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom there would be no need for separate Acts: one would suffice.

Of course we all hope that there will be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire, but if there is not, what have the Government learnt from the Lloyd review which would lead to a change in the legislation? One of Lord Lloyd's useful contributions was to formulate a set of principles about anti-terrorist legislation.

Lord Lloyd said that legislation against terrorism should approximate as closely as possible to the ordinary criminal law and procedure and that additional statutory offences and powers may be justified, but only if they are necessary to meet the anticipated threat; and that, as the Minister acknowledged, such measures must strike the right balance between the needs of security and the rights and liberties of the individual.

Lord Lloyd said further that the need for additional safeguards should be considered alongside any additional powers and that the law should comply with the United Kingdom's obligations in international law. Those are useful yardsticks against which to judge the Emergency Provisions Act.

I found J. J. Rowe's assessment of the working of the EPA disappointing this year. I understand the constraints to which the Minister referred, but it is a thin document and often simply describes background events or the contents of the Act. There is little that is analytical or reflective. For example, nothing is said about internment, except that the power should remain lapsed. However, let me take particularly the section on scheduling.

Scheduling takes an offender into the Diplock court procedure rather than into the normal criminal court procedure. We and others in the past have suggested that instead of cases being automatically scheduled unless the Attorney-General certifies them out, the presumption should be that they would normally be dealt with by the criminal courts unless certified in to the abnormal procedure of the Diplock courts. Rowe says:

However, appendix D of the report shows that a remarkable change has occurred between 1990 and 1996.

In 1990, 51 per cent. of 908 offences were taken out of scheduling. In 1996, 85 per cent. of 1,522 offences were taken out of the Diplock procedure and out of scheduling by the Attorney-General. Unless I have misread it totally, that seems significant. However, the matter is even more significant than that. The principal characteristic of the Diplock courts is that the judge sits without a jury to avoid intimidation of jurors, but in 1996, out of 170 offenders, 128 pleaded guilty. Those people were dealt with under

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the Diplock procedure, so in a sense, the services of a jury would not have been necessary anyway. Only 42 people pleaded not guilty, of whom 21 were found not guilty.

Although J. J. Rowe seems not to have noticed, the Attorney-General appears to have moved to certifying in. Only a tiny number of people in the Diplock procedure would need juries because 75 per cent. of the offenders involved pleaded guilty. It is almost as if the Attorney-General has taken the suggestions that we have been making--and we are not against this--and is moving the procedure away from the Diplock system.

I have a question about waiting times. With smaller numbers, waiting times for trials have fallen slightly, but the average time from remand to committal is 27 weeks, or just over six months. The average wait for trial, as far as one can tell from the figures, is 45 weeks, or just under a year. Averages can conceal a great deal. Would it not be valuable to include in the statistics the spread of times that people waited? We should know the maximum and minimum times waited for trial, and not only the average figure. The average seems large, although movement is in the right direction.

I commend Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and the assistant commissioner, Mr. Norris, for their report on the operation of holding centres. It is a model of what Parliament needs to consider--whether we need holding centres and what their regime should be. When Sir Louis Blom-Cooper pays tribute to the RUC by saying that over four years

we have confidence in his statement because the rest of the report is so questioning and probing.

Can the Minister give us answers to the following questions set up by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper's report? Just what plans do the Government have--just what plans are the Government leaving--about the future of Castlereagh holding centre? This is the fourth time that Sir Louis has said that it should be closed. He has said:

Sir Louis says that even if a new building is not planned, as he believes that there should be--probably for joint use with a new police station--it would be better to close Castlereagh now that the numbers are so much reduced and use Gough barracks and Strand Road. The Government should have a position on that.

Why have the Government been so slow on the issue of silent video recording? The Secretary of State said on 12 June 1995 that he intended to introduce electronic recording. That is not far off two years ago. We considered the Report stage of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill on 19 February 1996, exactly 13 months ago, so why has the consultation period only just come to an end on a code of practice on silent video recording? No installation of the equipment has taken place yet.

When will Sir Louis and the rest of us receive a reasoned answer to his proposals on the circumstances in which disclosure of audio tapes could be allowed?

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He made detailed proposals for safeguards. Silent video recording is restricted in what it can tell you. Sir Louis in his report used a football analogy about what one can tell about what might have been said by one person to another during a football incident. One cannot tell accurately what was said. Audio recording would be much more useful. It has particular appeal because it would deal smartly with the problems associated--the Minister will remember our interchanges in previous discussions on the Bill--with what is known as the voir dire argument and would save weeks of court time. Is it not time that Sir Louis had an answer to his proposals?

I should like to put to the Minister a couple of points made by the independent assessor of military complaints in his report. Mr. David Hewitt remits his post at the end of this month. I sincerely thank him for his work, which has been valuable to us. We thank him in particular for the work that he did in 1993 and 1994 in revising the complaints procedures. He pays tribute, with which I concur, to the Army for improving its procedures. I have only one question and it relates to appendix C, but Mr. Hewitt does not concern himself about it in his text. There is a large difference between the number of informal complaints lodged against 3 Brigade, as compared to 8 Brigade and 39 Brigade. In 1996, there were 192 informal complaints against 3 Brigade, compared with 36 each against 8 Brigade and 39 Brigade. What were the reasons for that? I appreciate that there may be reasons of geography, or the tensions of the time, although the complaints seem to be fairly well spread throughout the year.

I regret that I have raised so many issues on the Minister's last day at the Dispatch Box, but he would not have expected anything else of me. They are important issues, in terms of justice and civil liberties. Even if the Minister cannot fully answer the points that I have raised today, I have at least told the civil service the questions that an incoming Labour Government will want to have answered.

We shall not vote against the order because it is important to safeguard the people of Northern Ireland. I should like the Minister to respond to the points that I have raised.

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