Seventh Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 3 April 2003
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Draft Terrorism Act 2000
(Code of Practice on Video
Recording of Interviews)
(Northern Ireland) Order 2003
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Code of Practice on Video Recording of Interviews) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
It is a pleasure to be back in Parliament on a Thursday afternoon in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Pike.
The order puts into practice a revised code of practice governing the video recording of interviews under the Terrorism Act 2000. Its purpose is to provide protection to both the person being interviewed and the officers conducting the interview, and ensure that no one can mistreat or falsely accuse the other. The main revisions have been made at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to allow greater flexibility in the practical application of the code without diminishing the security that it provides.
The code will be put into practice at the new dual custody suite at Antrim, which opens this week. It will be ready to receive its first terrorist suspects on 11 April. The text that previously referred to the recordings being made on super VHS has been changed to say that recordings shall be made on super VHS or an equivalent or superior format. That will allow the police to use digital tapes, discs or improved technology in future. Several necessary changes in language have flowed from that basic change.
A new paragraph has been added saying that, when possible, the recording equipment shall keep an audit trail of who views and copies the recordings. Of course, such an audit has been kept manually under the existing code, but that allows for the equipment itself to keep the audit automatically. The usual procedures for sealing video tapes have been kept for individual tapes or discs, but the code also allows for the police to introduce an alternative system without using seals, so long as it ensures the same or higher levels of security and accountability.
The Government have also taken the opportunity to update the code, changing one or two names, as necessary, and extending the list of alternative formats in which the text can be made available. In line with the Home Office's draft amended Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes, the statutory term ''mentally disordered'' has been widened by the addition of the term ''mentally vulnerable''. The notice of the destruction of recordings given to those who were
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formerly detained has been extended from two weeks to four.
Members of the Committee can see that the amendments are small. They do not alter the substance of the code, but make it more adaptable to the realities of technological change. They also allow for future developments, without requiring the code to be amended further in a rather cumbersome fashion.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as she is about to finish her opening remarks. We are discussing the rights of detainees. The hon. Lady rightly referred to special protection for those who are mentally incapacitated in some way, however minor that may be. Given that the human rights of individuals will be affected, has the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission been formally consulted, the remit of which is to consider the adequacy and effectiveness of the law that protects human rights in Northern Ireland?
Jane Kennedy: A wide consultation exercise took place. I cannot say with confidence that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was consulted, but we received a range of responses from several people. I should be surprised if it were not consulted. I have a list of those who responded. That inspiration has just come to me. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Lady.
I am confident that the revised code will serve the Police Service in Northern Ireland well as it carries out its sensitive counter-terrorist responsibilities.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Pike. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) for his absence: for constituency reasons, he had to return to the midlands at lunchtime. I apologised to the Minister for that before this sitting commenced.
This is a nice Thursday afternoon and I understand that the Labour party has a one-line Whip, but the Conservatives have every intention of pressing for Divisions on many occasions tonight, so perhaps Labour Members will have to return. I also appreciate that early trains will be leaving shortly so I understand why the Minister is keen to whiz this order through. However, parliamentary scrutiny is an important issue and, having consulted the clerks, it is my understanding—although I am sure that you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Pike—that the whole of the code of practice is debatable because it is a matter that we are being asked to take note of. We can consider not only the changes, but everything that is in front of us.
I am disappointed in the way that the Government have handled this. We have had two stabs at it, and they have got it wrong on both occasions and have had to withdraw it. Therefore, there is every reason why every member of this Committee, having noted that this has been bungled twice, should have made a great effort to come and see whether the Government had got it right on this occasion.
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It would have been relatively straightforward to do that if the usual channels had supplied us with a copy of the code of practice when they sent us our copies of the paperwork ahead of today's sitting, but they did not. We were provided with the order and some brief explanatory notes, but not with the code. I, therefore, assumed that the obvious thing to do was to go to the Vote Office, but when I went there and asked for a copy, I was told that the Vote Office did not have one. Not only were we not supplied with a copy of the revised code of practice, but the Vote Office did not have it either. Those two occurrences are regrettable if we wish to have proper scrutiny in Parliament of such matters.
The Library was required to do a fair bit of research to track down the copy of this document that was laid on the Table on 7 March. However, between then and now it has become an invisible document. I will not embarrass hon. Members by asking them this question because I am sure that they would not want to answer it, but I wonder how many of them have a copy of the document. I notice that none are provided in the Room.
The Minister has brought us along here this afternoon to approve a document that she has not seen fit to provide us with copies of, which is somewhat undemocratic. Therefore, as the Government have bungled this twice and hidden the third attempt, there is every reason why we should now approach with a degree of caution.
I have another complaint. As the Minister said, the explanatory note stated that this revision of the code of practice was drawn up partly at the request of the police and partly to make changes that the Secretary of State wanted. That is helpful, but it was a pity that nobody went on to explain in advance which of the changes the police had asked for and which of them were thought up by the Secretary of State. Therefore, we had neither the documents, nor an explanation before we arrived here this afternoon. However, it would be churlish of me not to say to the Minister that I was at least grateful for her explanation of the difference between the Government charges and the others.
The whole of this process is not at all democratic. I find myself wondering what on earth we are doing here on a nice sunny afternoon: perhaps all of us could have caught our trains, because we are not entitled to do anything with this draft revised code of conduct apart from note it. We can debate it until the cows come home—for two and a half hours if we wish, and I am minded to do just that to make the point that there ought to be a better way of doing these things. We can debate this until we are blue in the face, and we can decide that things are wrong. The Minister might even agree with me that some things are wrong, but there is nothing we can do about that. Even if I can persuade the Minister to agree to make a change, there is no procedure this afternoon to do that. We are being asked to note this order only, and it simply states that this revised code of practice comes into effect.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. What would be the effect of us voting against this, in constitutional terms—[Interruption.] I
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see, that would be if a majority of the Committee voted against it. I am confused by what the hon. Gentleman said and I do not understand—
The Chairman: Order. If the Committee voted against the order, it would reject the revised code of practice—that is what we are debating.
Mr. Wilshire: I was coming to that. The hon. Gentleman has made my point. I was talking about altering the code. The problem is this: we may not want to reject it, but what is the point of discussing something if we cannot put right mistakes that we find?
Lembit Öpik: With the clarification that you have given me, Mr. Pike, I must say that while the hon. Gentleman is entitled to take issue with this, I am not sure what he is getting at, unless we are once again hearing the same point about doing too much with statutory instruments. If that is his point, I agree with him. However, I wonder whether I am missing something. Is the hon. Gentleman trying to say something of more profound significance about the limitations of the process?
The Chairman: Order. The exact position is that hon. Members would be voting against the question that they have considered the order—they would not be rejecting the code of practice. I hope that helps clarify the position. I am advised that that is a technical question. The Committee would be voting against the question I put.