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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

Northern Ireland

Grand Committee

Thursday 22 March 2001



[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that the debate may continue until 11.15 am. I have no power to put a time limit on speeches, but brief contributions will enable me to call as many hon. Members as possible. I also remind hon. Members that debate is limited to the order.

9.15 am

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

    That the Committee has considered the proposal for a draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order.

I will take on board what you said about being brief, Mr. McWilliam, but it is an important order and worthy of a full explanation. I hope that my explanation will help the Committee to understand it.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): This is indeed an important piece of legislation, but are we not wasting our time today if no changes can be made? Is that correct?

Mr. Ingram: I had hoped to explain the process by which we want to conduct this morning's business. If I had been allowed to do so before the hon. Gentleman intervened, I would have explained that we are meeting today because the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, wrote to my Department requesting that the order be considered by the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. It is in compliance with that request that we meet today. The hon. Gentleman is right that the order cannot be amended, but the Assembly has commented on the order, my Department has received 18 representations from individuals and organisations, and any views expressed by the Committee will be taken on board.

This is not the final order, but a draft. We want to hear the Committee's views on the order because it establishes new principles in legislation applying to Northern Ireland. It is right that we should consult widely and that we should respond to points of substance that will assist in the final form of the order. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. I repeat that we are dealing with the order today at the request of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It would have been inappropriate to have ignored that request.

Another aspect is the timing of the debate. We could have left our consideration until the Grand Committee's next quarterly meeting in June. However, if another equally or more pressing matter needed to be dealt with, the order would not have been considered until the Committee's next quarterly meeting unless an emergency meeting was called. That would have delayed the final production of the order and its consideration by the various Committees of the House. We want to put this important piece of legislation on the statute book for reasons that I shall set out in my explanation. I am grateful to the Grand Committee for convening this sitting and allowing hon. Members the opportunity to expresses their views.

I appreciate what you said, Mr. McWilliam, about sticking to the order, but it is appropriate for me to draw the Committee's attention to the draft statutory rules, which are the Life Sentence Commissioners' Rules 2001. They will underpin the operation of the legislation. Although the Committee has no locus on such instruments, I have made them available, as I did during the wider consultation process, to ensure as much understanding as possible of the draft proposed order.

I do not intend to deal in any detail with the proposed rules, which are comprehensive. It may be inappropriate for me to do so given your earlier ruling, Mr. McWilliam. Separate procedures cover the processing of such instruments. However, I need to deal with some of the main features of the schedules of the draft order and, depending on what issues are raised, I may have to draw on the rules in response as they relate to the schedules. I hope that the Committee and you, Mr. McWilliam, agree with that approach.

Let me deal with the order and the background to it. The draft proposals for a Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order were published on 15 January, and, as I mentioned, they were referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly for consideration.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): The Minister has already explained that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has deferred consideration of the order to our Committee. The documentation made available to members of our Committee refers to the consideration of the order by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Will the Minister now, or when he replies to the debate after having had an opportunity to reflect, tell us the respective roles and competences of the Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly? Which of those deliberative bodies has the competence to shape these measures? Do we have primary or secondary competence, in relation to the Assembly?

Mr. Ingram: Let me try to explain, as it will be useful for me to do so now. There is a statutory responsibility on the Government through the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to consult the Northern Ireland Assembly. The 1998 Act specifies a minimum 60-day period for consultative purposes. On matters that relate to the governance of Northern Ireland, the Government are duty bound to hear what the Assembly has to say. However, it does not frame the legislation, as this is a reserved rather than a devolved matter. We are obviously obliged to take into account any views expressed, or the consultation would not be meaningful. The Northern Ireland Assembly has commented on four key aspects of the order, some of which may be touched on in the debate.

The Government have no obligation to consult the Grand Committee but, when dealing with important legislation, it is advisable to do so if the time is available. The hon. Gentleman will have taken on board what I said earlier, which was that we could plan legislation for the Committee to consider, but it could fall if the Committee had to consider an emergency issue. We could not hold up the process of legislation, especially on something as important as the order, which will have a significant impact on the administration of law in Northern Ireland. It must be processed anyway due to human rights considerations.

On many occasions, we will adopt the suck-it-and-see approach of whatever is best in the circumstances. We always benefit from debates in the Grand Committee, as they can help the development of specific pieces of legislation. The Order in Council process is always criticised because there is no opportunity for amendment. The opportunity for early input into that process is desirable, but cannot always be provided, because of emergency or other factors.

The draft proposals were referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to all Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, all party spokespersons on Northern Ireland affairs and all members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Everyone in those groups had notice from 15 January of the proposed draft order. As well as being placed in both Houses of Parliament, copies of the proposals were distributed widely across the Northern Ireland criminal justice system and among interested parties.

I explained earlier about the 60-day consultation period required under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It must be allowed before proposals can be laid before Parliament. For the life sentences order, that period ended one week ago today, on Thursday 15 March. By that date, the Secretary of State had received the report of the Northern Ireland Assembly. My officials had additionally received comments from 18 other parties, groups or individuals. If any further comments are received in the next week or so they will of course be taken on board. The views expressed in this Committee will also be fully considered.

The order is necessary for two reasons. The first is the commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998 on 2 October last year; the second is the report of the Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland. In anticipation of the implementation of the Human Rights Act, the Government undertook a review of prisons legislation with a view to ensuring compliance. An important aspect of the review was a consideration of the arrangements to deal with prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment. The review revealed that current procedures in Northern Ireland for the review and release of discretionary life sentence prisoners and juveniles who have been sentenced to be detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure may be inconsistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act. Legal advice suggests that HRA compliance would require that, following completion of the punitive element of the sentence, such prisoners' cases should be made subject to periodic review by a judicial body. To have judicial character, such a body should be independent of the Executive and of the parties concerned. It should be impartial and have the power to give a legally binding direction concerning prisoners' release.

The recent report of the Northern Ireland criminal justice review endorsed that view. The review group commented on the lack of openness of current procedures—the executive Life Sentence Review Board advises the Secretary of State on release. He then consults the Lord Chief Justice. The review group recommended that an independent body should base its decisions on release mainly on whether a prisoner was a risk to the public. Such a new body should be empowered to make decisions on the release of all life sentence prisoners. The Government accepted the review group's recommendation. They propose arrangements to identify clearly in law a punitive period in all sentences of life or detention at the Secretary of State's pleasure. The relevant prisoners' case for release would be independently assessed and directed at the appropriate time by an independent body of judicial character.

The draft proposals before the Committee today will, subject to the agreement of Parliament—they must still go before the appropriate Committee in both Houses—introduce such arrangements. The Government are introducing the proposals as a sign of our commitment to human rights standards and principles, and as a positive response to the voice of Northern Ireland. The criminal justice review undertook wide ranging and international research into the relevant matters, and none of those who responded—including Northern Ireland political parties—disagreed with its recommendations in this context. The public consultation period for our draft proposals has just ended, and I believe that there has been widespread welcome for what we are intending to do.

Now that I have given the background to the order, let me deal with the specifics. The explanatory document sets out the key features of the proposals before the Committee. Those features are the appointment of Life Sentence Review Commissioners to consider the cases of life sentence prisoners; the setting of a tariff by the court, after which release can be considered by the commissioners; the power of the commissioners to direct the release of a prisoner on completion of the tariff period, subject to the requirement that release would not present a risk to the public; the entitlement of the prisoner to a hearing of his or her case, including legal representation, when being considered for release by the Commissioners; the attachment of licence conditions on release and the power of the Secretary of State to revoke a prisoner's licence and recall him or her to prison. Those are the key measures. I shall identify additional features of the proposals as I outline the main provisions.

Part I—articles 1 and 2—introduces the order and defines key words and phrases used in the draft proposals. Part II includes article 3, which gives the Secretary of State the power to appoint Life Sentence Review Commissioners. Hon. Members will note our approach to the creation of a review group with specific expertise in the key fields of law, psychiatry, psychology, criminology and the rehabilitation of offenders. The Government consider those skills necessary for the assessment of life sentence prisoners for release. The requirements are in accordance with the recommendations of the criminal justice review.

The key principle governing the Commissioners' functions is the need to protect the public from serious harm. That must be the basis on which all life sentence prisoners are considered for release. Commissioners must also have regard to the desirability of the rehabilitation of life prisoners and of preventing further offences.

Part III contains all the major provisions of the draft proposed order on the review and release of life sentence prisoners. Article 5 provides for the setting of the tariff by the court. The tariff is a period of retribution and deterrence—sometimes known as the ``punishment part'' of the sentence—which is ordered by the sentencing judge on conviction. The effect of the provision is to separate a life sentence into two parts, the ``punishment part'' set by the court and based on the seriousness of the offence or offences involved, and the ``risk'' period, which falls to the Life Sentence Review Commissioners for consideration. The article also provides the court with the power to order that no tariff be set. That is sometimes known as a ``whole life tariff''. The Government believe that the court should have a full sentencing range available.

There may be occasions when the offences or series of offences are so heinous that a punishment period cannot be set. Although such cases would be extremely rare, we do not think that we should tie the court's hand in the decisions that it can take in that area. To cater for such rare occasions, and to ensure that such prisoners have their sentences reviewed, we have included a provision for the Secretary of State to refer such cases to the Life Sentence Review Commissioners. Referral will be mandatory in the case of a juvenile—we feel that the age of the prisoner is crucial—and discretionary in the case of adults. It will be for the Secretary of State to decide on the point of referral but, in both adult and juvenile cases, if the commissioners direct release, the Secretary of State has a duty to comply.

The proposal for the introduction of tariff setting by the court is in accordance with the recommendations of the criminal justice review. It is a fundamental building block in the construction of an independent review process governing life sentences in Northern Ireland.

Article 6 proposes arrangements for the release of life prisoners. The core provisions are that, once the tariff period of the life sentence has been served, a prisoner may require the Secretary of State to refer his case to the commissioners. If, on consideration of the prisoner's case, the commissioners direct that he should be released, the Secretary of State must release the prisoner on licence. In considering release, the commissioners must be satisfied that confinement is no longer necessary to protect the public from serious harm.


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Prepared 22 March 2001