Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. John M. Taylor: What is not clear is whether the hon. Member for East Londonderry would like it to be included in the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Ingram: I assume that that was an intervention on me. I try to read the mind of the hon. Member for East Londonderry, but I do not always succeed. He could intervene on me and say whether or not that is the correct interpretation—I would recommend that he says yes. It is not for Ministers to go about looking for additional work, but that important examination of the corpus of law in Northern Ireland has been warmly welcomed. The Government are committed to bringing forward that legislation, but I cannot say when.

The hon. Member for East Antrim asked about the commission's membership. All of its members will be appointed independently, but one must be an officer of the court and it will include a barrister and other professionals. I listed earlier some of the professions that would be asked to serve. We want it to provide a breadth and quality of assessment when dealing with sensitive and difficult cases. The commission's role will never be easy; it will have to make fine judgments about difficult cases. It will be acting in the name of the wider public and society. We must put certain specialist expertise in place so that the commission's decisions are made in the interests of all, and not only of those who are being considered.

Mr. Robert McCartney: The Minister will be aware that, whether or not it is justified, Northern Ireland appointments to the Human Rights Commission are seen as unbalanced. As a result, wide sections of the community have lost confidence in it. I subscribe to that view: I have no confidence in it. I therefore suggest to the Minister that the review commission is seen to represent the whole community in a way that the representations of the Human Rights Commission do not.

Mr. Ingram: I shall not rise to the bait. That matter has been debated elsewhere. However, I take on board the importance of trying to establish a commission that has the confidence of the wider public. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that it is better to put the emphasis on the quality of the commissioners rather than on their perceived religious or political affiliations. We are dealing with the processes relating to normal society, not those relating to criminality in the guise of terrorism or paramilitarism. The hon. and learned Gentleman's point will be made when we consider who should serve as commissioners. Given the problems that commissioners will face and the hostile reactions that there may be to some of their decisions, it might be difficult to get people to serve.

The hon. Member for East Antrim referred to the length of the appointment. We are considering five years, but will deliberate on the matter. He raised a point in relation to article 6(6) and referred to prisoners at large. That part of the order provides that, in exceptional circumstances, for example, if a prisoner is in prison elsewhere, the Secretary of State may take that period into account. In any legislation, it is necessary to allow some scope for discretion to allow for mitigating circumstances.

The assessment of the provision made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry was correct. There are two parts to any sentence by the courts, including a punitive element, but that is a matter to be determined by the court. I did not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Does he think that it should not be a court-based decision, and if so, whom does he think should make the decision? Should it be politicians or the Secretary of State? I caution the hon. Gentleman against following that course because that decision should rest with the court, so that everyone's rights are protected.

He also asked how the Secretary of State's judgments will apply to juveniles in the system and whether mental age will be taken into account. The answer is not per se. Mental age will not be taken into account in determining criminality, but the mental health legislation will apply, so there will be some protection. I understand the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, and it might help if I write to him and set out the situation in detail.

On the debate about the release of terrorist prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, it is worth putting in context how that Act relates to this proposed order. Any life prisoner currently on licence under the 1998 Act will continue to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State and the sentence review commissioners, who will be responsible for taking revocation decisions. If someone on licence under the 1998 Act were to have his licence revoked, he would continue to be allowed to apply to the commissioners if his circumstances changed or fresh information came to light. However, there needs to be a routine vehicle for considering the release of such prisoners. That will be the draft proposed Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 and the Life Sentence Review Commissioners. Therefore, there will be two avenues for considering the re-release of recalled prisoners who were on licence under the 1998 Act. Indeed, that is already the case.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry also raised the matter of prisoners who might have escaped from prison in Northern Ireland and are outwith the jurisdiction and recent decisions relating to them. Are we rewarding such individuals? No, we are not. They are being dealt with in a manner that is entirely consistent with the way in which we have dealt with those already released under the sentences Act. They will all have served sufficient time to meet the minimum requirements of that Act; in some cases significantly more. On outstanding cases, the Chief Constable has stated that his officers will continue to pursue with zeal those people who have committed offences but have yet to be brought to justice.

The arrangements that have been announced by the Government following the decision not to pursue the extradition of certain convicted fugitives do not apply to people sought by the police but not yet convicted. I know that Committee members will agree that it would help the process of making Northern Ireland a better society if anyone with information on any of those unsolved crimes would come forward. If we are to become a new society based on the rule of law recognised by everyone, linked to the political process, then everyone has obligations. Genuine democrats, if they know where the miscreants are, should say so. There is a lot of pain and grief out there, as well as many unsolved crimes. That is not because of a lack of effort on the part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the various agencies that work alongside the police, but because people will not come forward with evidence. Sometimes it is because they are intimidated—we can understand that that can be a very real threat—but we want to build a new, different and better society in Northern Ireland and we need everyone who has information and evidence to help us to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) made a very thoughtful contribution, for which I am grateful. I take on board his points about specific details, including the comments of Professor Livingstone. I have said that we are in listening mode—any contribution that will enable us to refine and better define the purpose of the order will be carefully considered. If I do not change the order in the way in which he suggested, I shall let him know the reason in writing.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) made a number of points, some general and some specific. He ran through the arguments in relation to Orders in Council and the way in which such issues are dealt with. I do not necessarily disagree with him in general. As a democrat, I am not comfortable with the Orders in Council procedure. I should prefer to see matters fully debated and completely subject to a debate in which they can be changed. However, that is not the way in which the current provisions apply.

We have always looked at ways in which we can take the matter forward. That is why, if we introduce legislation that falls into the non-devolved area under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we are obliged by law to consult the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is appropriate. It is right that there should be consultation and that it should make observations.

The Assembly has expressed concern that the consultation period is 60 days. It made that observation in relation to this order, and to the one that we shall consider later today. No doubt it will be said in relation to every consultation that we have. Sixty days seems to me to be a reasonable length of time. Special pleading was made that there were difficulties associated with a particular piece of legislation. We are mindful of the difficulties that legislative bodies might experience, so what I have said is not necessarily the top and bottom of the matter. However, we need a period in law that conditions everyone's minds. Sometimes Governments, acting in response to pressure—maybe from the Assembly—enact a piece of legislation. If we allowed for open-ended consultation there would be a tendency for that to drift.

Another area to be considered in relation to Orders in Council is this Committee. We meet four times a year. I take on board the point about where the meetings should be. The decision is not mine, but as I have said I am not unsympathetic to the idea that it is important for deliberative bodies to be brought closer to the people. On the body that concerns us, the Government are not hostile to the view that has been expressed, but the overall decision rests elsewhere.

I hope that I have covered the gamut of the points that were raised—or maybe not.

Mr. Thompson: I understand the Minister's arguments, but they are weak. Why could not the order have begun as a Bill and passed through the House to become an Act? It is not mandatory for the Government to deal with the matter by way of an order. Passing an Act would be a more suitable way to deal with a part of the United Kingdom than the colonial system of Orders in Council.

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