Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): At the beginning of these deliberations I mentioned that in Northern Ireland we do not like Orders in Council. In fact, we thought that under the new arrangements there would be very few, and that new measures would proceed in the normal way through Parliament as for Scotland and Wales. The draft order is made under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, but section 84 states:

    ``(2) Her Majesty may by Order in Council make such amendments of the law of any part of the United Kingdom as appear to Her Majesty to be necessary or expedient in consequence of any provision made by or under-

    (a) Northern Ireland legislation; or

    (b) any Act of Parliament passed before this Act in so far as the provision is part of the law of Northern Ireland.

    (3) An Order in Council under subsection (1) or (2) may contain such consequential and supplemental provisions as appear to Her Majesty to be necessary or expedient.''

That suggests that new legislation should go through Parliament in the usual manner, and that only a consequential change to an Act or a supplemental provision should be enacted through Order in Council. As the measure is not consequential or supplemental to the Act, it should go through Parliament as a Bill and be debated in the House. That is what we would like.

The Minister said that this is a draft order. He indicated that he would consider representations; presumably, he will allow amendments. Does that mean that the order will be laid again in Parliament and debated in the House? Perhaps he will clarify that.

It appears that there will now be three parts to a sentence: the retribution and deterrent parts, which will be decided by a judge when a person is sentenced; and a subsequent risk period after the sentence is completed, which will be determined by the new commissioners. Are the three parts included when a judge passes sentence at present? In future, will judges give reduced sentences? For an offence that would currently receive a sentence of 20 years, will a judge pass a sentence of 15 years, with the additional part for risk to be decided by the commissioners? In practice, that will mean that judges will pass lesser sentences and prisoners will be released earlier. I do not think that the people of Northern Ireland would look favourably on that.

Part of the order deals with release on compassionate grounds. Criteria whereby the Secretary of State might judge what are compassionate grounds would be desirable. There have been cases of prisoners being released on compassionate grounds because of terminal illness who, on release, miraculously recovered and now live perfectly healthy lives. We need some criteria as to what is meant by ``compassion''. Changes might be necessary to the system due to human rights legislation, but the Minister should consider the excellent report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it makes several worthwhile recommendations. I hope that he will assure us that they will be considered, that changes will be made if he thinks them necessary, and that a new draft order will be made.

10.30 am

Mr. Ingram: I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I apologise for any faults on the Government's part that led to the brief moment when we were inquorate. We shall have to think about how we deal with that in future, as it is important to retain a quorum when tackling important issues. All the substantive points made by hon. Members will be considered in full.

I am genuinely in listening mode. We have gone to consultation and are beginning to absorb all responses from it, not least that received from the Northern Ireland Assembly. In my opening comments, I said that submissions made in the next week or so will equally be taken on board. The consultation period has not concluded, but we must get the order drafted finally.

I shall deal with some specifics, first those arising from comments made by the hon. Member for East Antrim and others, including the hon. and learned Member for North Down. The order should not be confused with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 on the early release of terrorist prisoners. When Northern Ireland matters are considered, our debates tend to cover a gamut of issues that relate to the Belfast agreement, divided between those who support its principles and recognise the difficulty of implementing it, and those who oppose it and do not want it to succeed.

I have said time and again that the release of prisoners was not an easy process for the Government to address. It does not mean that the Government have a lesser view of the severity of the crimes carried out by those individuals, nor that we are unaware of the affects of those crimes on individuals, families and the wider community in Northern Ireland. For that reason, we have introduced a progressive series of initiatives to try to deal sensitively with victims. Those victims were forgotten about for the previous 30 years, but the Government have taken the issue on board.

I regret that others sometimes tend to exploit people's victimhood and try to ignore what the Government have done. I am not referring specifically to the hon. Member for East Antrim, but making a general point. I do not accept any criticism of the Government's handling of the issue of victims. We continue to seek imaginative ways to deal with the serious trauma and grief in the community. The hon. Member for East Antrim and I had a helpful and purposeful meeting the day before yesterday with some of his constituents, to deal with some of the difficult issues currently in play in his constituency.

The order is not about the early release of prisoners. It is about the transparency of the sentencing process in court and the entitlement to a point at which the punishment part of a sentence has been spent so that release can be considered. The order is not a soft option; it does not say that prisoners are somehow society's fault, so we should be soft on them. If anything, the reverse is the case: introducing a tariff process makes the punishment part of the sentence transparent. However, as was mentioned, that will always fall to the court to determine. The tariff process is a matter for courts to determine, not politicians.

Life imprisonment is for life. Let me put it this way; there is a tariff—the prisoner will be released at some point—and at the end of the punishment period, judgment will be made about whether the prisoner constitutes a risk to the public. If, in the judgment of all expert advice, the answer is no, the prisoner can be released, but importantly, it is release on licence. That licence runs for the rest of their lives and conditions can be set—I explained earlier that those conditions may be varied or dropped. On many occasions, people who have committed the most terrible crimes have recognised the error of their ways, changed their lifestyle and made a useful contribution to society. However, if they are out on licence, that licence remains with them.

I am sure that all hon. Members recognise that people can change their lifestyle. They may have carried out acts as a young person because they were misled or encouraged by others down a certain path, but, when they are older, realise that they should not have done so. There must be compassion within the system; we must at all times consider the rehabilitation of those who have committed crimes. That is a purpose of the Prison Service, but it must also be addressed by society. We should not turn our face against people, no matter what their crime. We should consider whether we could rehabilitate them and give them a way back into normal society. All of society should be engaged in that process; but politicians have an important role in that regard.

The role of victims in the judicial process was considered by the criminal justice review. That is an important matter that is not addressed by the order; but, of course, submissions on victims' issues can be considered by the court when sentencing. We are now considering how best to take forward the detailed consideration undertaken by the review; a Bill to give effect to its recommendations will deal with the issue of victims.

Mr. McWalter: Might not it be possible to use the system of antisocial behaviour orders in that regard? The commissioners could be empowered to impose an antisocial behaviour order with appropriate terms, which could be sensitive to the fears of victims and would be an easily revoked condition on the licence.

Mr. Ingram: That is a good point, but I would hesitate to agree to it now. That falls to be considered by the proposed justice Bill, which will deal with the recommendations of the criminal justice review. The review considered how best to deliver justice, with all its ramifications—punishment, rehabilitation and the needs of victims. That Bill may not address my hon. Friend's specific point but will touch upon such matters. I am grateful for his comments.

Mr. William Ross: Is the proposed Bill a United Kingdom Bill?

Mr. Ingram: No. I do not want to talk about a Bill that has not yet been mentioned in a Queen's speech.

The criminal justice review made more than 300 recommendations. If the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has not an opportunity to read the report, I suggest that he does so. He may even want to talk to those who were consulted; as a Member of Parliament, he is a consultee and can make submissions. We are currently considering those consultations, and a Bill will be published in the normal course of events. It will be drafted on the back of the recommendations. We shall then consult on it and allow a full examination of its provisions on the administration and delivery of justice in Northern Ireland. It comes out of the Good Friday agreement. The Belfast agreement recognises the need for a Bill. It is another matter that the Government have taken forward under that agreement.

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