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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Video Recording of Interviews) Order 2000

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 15 November 2000

[Sir David Madel in the Chair]

Draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Video Recording of Interviews) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Video Recording of Interviews) Order 2000.

The Terrorism Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 20 July, makes provision for police interviews to be video recorded with sound and for the video recording arrangements to be governed by a code of practice.

At present, interviews with persons held under counter-terrorist legislation in Northern Ireland are subject to two distinct forms of electronic recording. Silent video recording of police interviews with terrorist suspects became mandatory on 10 March 1998, although the police had been operating the system administratively since 12 January 1998. The operation of the video recording system is regulated by a code of practice. In addition, an audio recording system was introduced on the authority of the Chief Constable from 10 January 1999, and became operable formally from 24 May 1999. That system is also regulated by a code of practice.

The introduction of these additional safeguards has seen a significant reduction in the number of complaints of ill-treatment at the holding centres and has provided impartial and accurate records of interviews, which may be relied upon in subsequent criminal proceedings. All parties to the process have welcomed those developments. However, the Government believe that the effectiveness of the existing systems as safeguards could be further enhanced in a way that is fully consistent with our human rights obligations and provides additional protection for both interviewees and police interviewing officers against claims of verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment. Therefore, video recording with sound will be introduced in Northern Ireland when the Terrorism Act comes into force on 19 February 2000. Separate audio recording will continue.

As hon. Members will know from previous debates on the subject, the Government's aim is to ensure that the treatment of persons charged with terrorist crime in police custody is fair, professional, transparent and accountable. The new video recording system will also assist the judicial process by providing an additional record of interviews in the event that a criminal case ensues or there is a complaint of ill-treatment.

For many years, the independent commissioners for the holding centres argued the case for video recording with sound. The Government are grateful to Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and Dr. Bill Norris for their work as commissioners and for their thorough reports; we are pleased to be putting in place measures that they have long advocated. They argued for video recording with sound because there were significant safeguards attached to it; it will add to the range of existing safeguards and show that the Government continue to attach the greatest importance to the protection of the rights of those held in police custody.

The draft order requires interviews of persons detained under schedule 7 or section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 that are conducted by a police constable at a police station in Northern Ireland to be video recorded with sound and also requires that the video recording is conducted in accordance with a code of practice. The Act provides that the compliance order must be debated first, because the power to require sound and vision video recording is optional; we are exercising that option now in Northern Ireland. We are concerned with whether sound and vision video is right in principle. If the order is accepted, the code will be considered in greater detail under affirmative resolution procedure at a later stage.

The draft code sets out a range of requirements that must apply when interviews with terrorist suspects are video recorded. It also gives guidance for police officers and others on the application and interpretation of the code. The code of practice will be made under paragraph 4 of schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act. Paragraph 4(2) of schedule 8 requires the Secretary of State to publish a draft code and invite public representation. The publication of the draft code was announced on Monday 6 November. The closing date for comments on the code is 29 December.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): Sir David, this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. If I am allowed to say so, you have been my friend as well as my hon. Friend for a long time. This is therefore an especial pleasure.

The Minister was talking about comments and consultation. The Opposition would be particularly interested to learn the views of the Lord Chief Justice and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We do not want to stand in the way of good practice. I would personally be influenced by what they have had to say.

Mr. Ingram: As, indeed, would the Government. Those are important elements within the judicial process from different ends of the spectrum. The Chief Constable is very supportive of these measures, including the safeguards for interviewees and police officers who may then be subject to a complaint of mistreatment, for some of the reasons that I have set out, and others that we could go into. We have had no adverse comments from the Lord Chief Justice, but we are not out of the consultation period yet. Clearly, any views that he expresses would be fully taken into account because of the importance of his role in that part of the judicial process. The indication is that he would welcome this for the same reasons as the Chief Constable, but I cannot speak for him. To date, we have received no adverse comments or heard of any concerns on this important issue.

The closing date for comments on the code is 29 December. It will be laid before both Houses after comments have been considered. The Committee will wish to note that the Government are taking this step today to bring the new system and the draft code of practice into operation on 19 February 2001. The Government take the view that the many benefits of video recording with sound make this a worthwhile step. Many people have argued for it. I have indicated the view of the Chief Constable and the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) will remember some of the discussions we had when the Terrorism Bill was in Committee. Particularly strong arguments that this matter should be looked at sympathetically were advanced by the Opposition. We have responded sympathetically and effectively in the order and the code of practice. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): It is not my intention to detain the Committee long. I was content with the way in which the Minister presented the matter and with his answers to my intervention. If a way might be found for the Executive to contact the judiciary—I realise that that is a sensitive matter—and if at some stage his Department might have an informal word with the Lord Chief Justice, I should be grateful. I am not asking for anything to be put on the record. At the risk of repeating myself, contact between the Executive and the judiciary must observe certain protocols, and rightly so.

When I was a junior Minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department in the early 1990s and Sir Brian Hutton was the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, he told me how much time he spent listening to tapes and watching videos so that the proprieties of the interviews could be established or, in appropriate cases, the proprieties of the interviews could be challenged as oppressive or overbearing. Quite clearly, if the sound system and the visual system are bound together, that is a great deal more convenient than trying to synchronise a sound tape with a video tape. That point makes itself without any additional labour.

I wish to draw the Committee's attention to two matters in the code of practice. The first is in paragraph 3.3, which anticipates possible objections by the detained person. It states the prescribed way in which the police officer is to draw a reticent interviewee's attention to the purpose of the video recording. It states that he should make it clear that the interview is being recorded

    in order to protect both the detained person and the interviewing officers.

That is an important point, and Committee members may not be too surprised that the second point commends itself more strongly to Conservative Members. In criminal proceedings, it is not only police officers who subsequently abuse interviews; it can be the interviewee. It is not unknown for the defence to use trumped-up charges accusing the policeman of behaving aggressively or browbeating the interviewee to challenge the evidence against the accused. If the video tape shows that the officer has behaved with complete propriety, that nonsense is nipped in the bud. The Committee should bear in mind the fact that the guidelines are intended to protect not only the detained person, but the interviewing officer.

My final point takes the form of a question. I do not insist on receiving an answer this afternoon, and I am not sure whether I insist on an answer at all; I just want to make the point. [Interruption.] Clearly, I am not putting on as much pressure as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran) would like.

Paragraph 9 deals with master tape destruction. It states:

    All master tapes without exception will be retained for a minimum period of six years.

All I can say is that, based on our recent experience of the reopening of certain trials and activities of times gone by, I would urge the Minister to keep those tapes for a great deal longer than six years.

4.42 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We support the document and what the Minister is trying to do. His purpose is pretty straightforward, and we Liberal Democrats have been campaigning and chuntering on about this for a long time. It is good to see that, once again, we have influenced Government policy in a positive direction. We are well aware of the concerns that have been raised in the past regarding the circumstances in which some interviews have taken place, and it is clear that the Minister has been aware of those as well. It is common sense, for the reasons already outlined, to introduce the measure. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) rightly said, it provides a form of insurance for the interviewer as well as for the interviewee.

Of the 70 or so episodes of ``Star Trek'' that were made, one was not shown because it was considered too obscene for the British market, and another because it was regarded as too boring. If we are successful, the videos will all fall into the second category—they will be extremely dull to watch. If that is the case, the video process will have done its job. I suspect that few people will oppose the measure. Those who might wish to do so probably would not dare to, because it is for that very reason that it is being introduced.

4.43 pm

 
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