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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Column Number: 327

Standing Committee B

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Sir Nicholas Winterton, †David Taylor

†Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
†Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
†Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
†Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
†Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
†Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
†Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
†Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
†Harris, Mr. Tom (Glasgow, South) (Lab)
†Hendrick, Mr. Mark (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
†Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
†Hillier, Meg (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
†Hunt, Mr. Jeremy (South-West Surrey) (Con)
†Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
†McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
†McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
†Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
†Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
†Slaughter, Mr. Andrew (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab)
†Todd, Mr. Mark (South Derbyshire) (Lab)
†Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
†Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
†Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Column Number: 329

Thursday 15 December 2005

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Clause 9

Entitlement to licence

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 29, in clause 9, page 6, line 20, after ‘possible’, insert

    ‘, after having served either five years, or one third, of his sentence (whichever is the less),’.—[Sammy Wilson.]

1.7 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 131, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, at end insert—

    ‘(2A)   A person subject to a sentence of life imprisonment is not eligible for a licence under this section until he has served at least two years of his sentence.

    (2B)   A person sentenced to a period of imprisonment of five years or more is not eligible for a licence under this section until he has served at least one year of his sentence.’.

No. 30, in clause 9, page 6, line 28, leave out subsection (4).

No. 132, in clause 9, page 6, line 28, at end insert

    ‘other than a sentence of life imprisonment or one of five years or more.’.

No. 133, in clause 9, page 6, line 31, leave out subsection (5).

No. 134, in clause 9, page 6, line 41, leave out subsection (7).

The recording equipment is now back in working order. I pass on the apologies of Hansard for any inconvenience caused to the Committee.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): At the end of this morning’s sitting I was making the point that the Bill creates a further anomaly: people who were convicted before the Belfast agreement will have served some time—perhaps a substantial part of their sentence—in prison, whereas those who have been on the run or who have come before the tribunal as a result of ongoing police investigations will serve no time. In future those who did not benefit from this scheme might claim that they were treated differently and unjustly, and that might need to be dealt with—perhaps, going by our experience of republicans and others, in the form of compensation. The amendment would remove that anomaly and ensure that those who are guilty of murder or multiple murders served at least some time in prison. That might be of little comfort to those who would like proper justice to be meted out to such people, but it would at least ensure that they pay in some way for the crimes that they committed.

I am sure that some hon. Members will point out that the sentences that we have suggested—

    “five years, or one third, of his sentence”—

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are tougher than they would have been under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, but they are designed to reflect the fact that many who will benefit from the scheme have compounded their offence by having sought to avoid the courts and prison.

The amendment is sensible. It would remove the anomaly created by the Bill and its contradiction and inconsistency with previous treatment of those found guilty of terrorist offences. It would also give some comfort to victims by saying that at least those guilty of the crimes will serve time in prison.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you back to the Committee, Mr. Taylor. Our amendments Nos. 131, 132, 133 and 134 are along the same lines as amendment No. 29.

The people of Northern Ireland are insulted by the Bill and although the Minister says that he may correct the provision, people who have committed the most terrible crimes will not have to appear in front of a court. There will not be a court, but even if there were and people appeared in front of it, they would not have to serve a single day in prison for the crimes that they had committed. That is a terrible insult to the survivors and people whose relatives and loved ones have been murdered. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) says, the Bill is inconsistent with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, under which there was a minimum requirement. It was not long considering the seriousness of some of the crimes, but it was a requirement of sorts.

The Secretary of State’s explanation on Second Reading was that the Government want to get people through the system, as if that will correct everything. It may make it legally tidy. As I said on Second Reading, if the Prime Minister is considering retiring before the next election, it puts everything neatly together for him—in a box, all done with. However, it is not all done with for the survivors and those who must live with the consequences. It is not done with for the people who suffered the pain. We should be thinking about them.

I am sorry to say that none of us in Committee has been able to extract from the Minister or the Secretary of State the reason for the Bill. We have asked about the consequences if it were not introduced. We were told that the IRA is disarming, or even that it has disarmed and stood down its units, but to the question, “What will be the consequences if we don’t introduce the legislation?”, there has been no answer. We have asked who the legislation is for. Surely the victims and the relatives of the victims are those who matter, yet they do not want the legislation, so what is it for?

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked why it was necessary for these people to come back. Will a great success have been achieved if people come back to Northern Ireland from abroad or beyond the jurisdiction, obtain a certificate and get a licence? Will we really have achieved that much? Why go through all the pain? What will be achieved?

The Secretary of State also said on Second Reading that there is a sort of acceptance that there would be no punishment. He said that people are not being punished now because they are on the run. If we follow
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that argument through to its logical conclusion, we could say here in Great Britain that if a murder is committed and the police know who committed the murder but have not caught that person, after a while we can say, “Okay, we have not caught that person and brought him to justice, so let us write the crime off completely.” That is the logic conclusion of the Bill.

We tabled amendments similar to that tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim. We are short of time in Committee, but the fact that I have made a brief speech should not be taken to mean that I and the other Conservative members of the Committee—when they turn up—are not worried about this aspect of the Bill. We are most concerned. We are offended by it. During my eight years in the House, there have been times when legislation passed in connection in Northern Ireland has almost made me ashamed of my profession, and today is one such day.

Mr. Hanson: I welcome you back to the Chair for the Committee’s final sitting, Mr. Taylor.

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim would require a convicted certificate holder to serve up to five years of his sentence before becoming eligible for release on licence. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) would require a person who is sentenced to life to serve at least two years and a person who is sentenced to five or more years to serve at least one year. I ask my hon. Friends to reject the amendments, and I shall explain why.

I shall deal with the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for East Antrim first, and I hope that the Committee will reflect on a point that I made to him this morning. We need to address position of people who are outside the jurisdiction, which was an anomaly left over from the Good Friday agreement. Hon. Members may not accept that, but that is the Government’s position.

I cannot believe that individuals outside the jurisdiction will return to Northern Ireland if, at the end of the special tribunal, they face a potential prison sentence for the crimes that they committed. I understand that that may cause the hon. Gentleman some difficulty, in terms of the conditions that individuals will face when they return, but the purpose of the scheme is to tie up that anomaly and to ensure that individuals come back and face trial in the special tribunal. During that court case, victims and their families can find out what happened and, ultimately, an individual can be convicted for his crime and be released on licence. The hon. Gentleman’s amendment would mean that those outside the jurisdiction would not return, which would make the process meaningless.

Mr. Robertson: The Minister is basically reiterating the position. He is not telling us why it is so important that these people come back. He mentioned the victims, but the victims do not want this legislation. I know that he has promised to review the non-appearance part of the Bill, but the whole Bill was put together with non-appearance in mind. It could not
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have been in the Government’s mind that the victims would know who committed the crime when the Bill was drawn up.

Mr. Hanson: I am trying your patience, Mr. Taylor, but let me go back a stage, briefly. Under the Bill as originally published, individuals did not have to appear before the special tribunal. I have agreed to review that matter and to reflect on it, but even if we maintained the original position in which individuals would not attend court—and I am not suggesting that we do that—the individuals would still be known. A named individual would face trial in a special tribunal, he would receive a conviction if found guilty, and he would ultimately be released on licence.

The purpose of the scheme is to ensure that the victim knows that a named individual had been convicted of a crime that involved their loved ones. The named individual would have a criminal record and would serve a sentence released on licence. The fact that I am reflecting on the question of appearance in court may change that aspect of the matter, but it does not change the argument that I put to the hon. Member for East Antrim, which is that if a prison sentence of five years or more awaits those who are outside the jurisdiction, they will not return, so there will be no criminal conviction, no individual with a criminal record, and no individual appearing in court for that crime. I accept that the hon. Gentleman wants justice, but I respectfully tell him that no justice will be served by non-appearance in court.

Sammy Wilson: Does the Minister accept that if the perpetrators of crimes decide to remain outside the jurisdiction—they are the ones who want to get back in—that, to victims, would be far preferable to seeing them waltz back in and get a licence without having to appear before a tribunal?

Mr. Hanson: If we do otherwise, the individuals who are outside the jurisdiction would not have a conviction—they would not be convicted of crimes for which they would have to face trial if they were brought back to the jurisdiction. I accept that they will not face a prison sentence because they will be released on licence, but the hon. Gentleman has to make a judgment. Does he wish to put in place with the amendment a minimum five-year sentence, which nobody will have to serve because no one will return to face the tribunal, or does he want individuals to return, face the tribunal, be sentenced and given a conviction on licence? That is the choice in his amendment.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): With respect, the Minister is beginning to sound ridiculous. He is attempting to tell the Committee that although we are dealing with the very people who have bent the Government’s arm up their back to produce the Bill, because they hate being fugitives so much and hate not being allowed back into Northern Ireland, he is prepared to go through the ridiculous process of introducing legislation allowing them to get a get-out-of-jail-free card. They want to get back; they are the ones who are pursuing the matter and who do not like the situation. The victims do not want it.

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Mr. Hanson: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the agreement published in May 2003, which indicated the nature of the scheme.

Mr. Robinson: An agreement with the terrorists, not the victims.

Mr. Hanson: The point is that the hon. Gentleman and the victims will not have an individual in court, being convicted and being released on licence, because people will not return if they face a five-year prison sentence. That is a simple fact.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he has been extremely generous throughout the entire Committee. He keeps saying, “The victims will not have,” but the victims do not want the Bill. Will he deal with that?

Mr. Hanson: I accept that the victims I have spoken to are sceptical about many aspects of the Bill, but I say openly and honestly to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that they ultimately want to see a conviction for the offence committed against their loved ones. I might be wrong, but in my judgment the proposal made by the Member for East Antrim will mean that, however much individuals want to return to Northern Ireland, they will not return to face a tribunal to be convicted and sentenced to five year years in jail. [Interruption.] They may return to the jurisdiction if they face the tribunal as planned under the scheme that we propose, to receive a conviction on licence and to be able to work in society.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): My hon. Friend may have just heard hon. Members saying, “So what?” from a sedentary position. Does he agree with me that the divisions that we have seen on the Bill and on this amendment are very much about saying “So what?”? We believe that the Bill will push the process further forward, which is necessary. The answer to, “So what?” is “So that the process is pushed forward and delivers some form of justice, albeit diluted, and a record of criminal intent and terrorist activity.”

Mr. Hanson: I have said all along that the purpose of the Bill, distasteful and unpleasant though it is, and let no one in the Committee accept that it is not so, is to ensure that we—

Mr. Robinson: Appease the IRA.

Mr. Hanson: Mr. Taylor, It is difficult to continue to speak to the Committee when there are a lot of sedentary interventions. As you have seen, I am happy to take interventions. If the hon. Member for Belfast, East wants to put his comments on the record, let him do so.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Thank you, Mr. Taylor, I am delighted to see you in the Chair this afternoon.

The Minister has tried to persuade the Committee to reject the amendment moved by the Member for East Antrim, on the basis that when the on-the-runs return they will, to paraphrase the Minister, receive a sentence and will be convicted. With the greatest
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respect to the Minister, he cannot persuade the Committee that the special tribunal—one person, retired or otherwise—will convict anyone, particularly since clause 7 means that there is a stop factor when the certificate of eligibility is issued and no further police investigation may continue.

The Chairman: Order. That is a long intervention. Let me also say that I deplore the scale of sedentary interventions. Will hon. Members please make an appropriate request to intervene to the Minister?

Mr. Hanson: I say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that I cannot guarantee that anybody will be convicted. However, the individuals who are likely to return are likely to face conviction and the mechanism is there if they are convicted of the crime. I cannot prejudge a court case. However, the fact that there will be a considerable amount of evidence in the hands of the police against the person who applies for a certificate and that person would have been arrested had they not been outside it means that the police will have a good opportunity to take forward a number of successful cases. I hope that I have covered the points raised by the amendment.

Sammy Wilson: Is the Minister saying that victims would prefer the perpetrators of a crime to be able to walk up and down their street after coming back and getting a licence to having them outside the jurisdiction as fugitives on the run? That is the choice offered by the Bill. I believe that victims would rather the fugitives were outside the jurisdiction than walking up and down their streets.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I would never presume to speak on behalf of the victims of crimes in Northern Ireland. I simply make a judgment on whether there should be a potential conviction for a crime to help to resolve some of the issues that we have faced in the past. Under the scheme, the potential for conviction means that an individual will return and face a trial, and if they are found guilty, they will be convicted. It should be self-evident—distasteful though it may be—that if people face a five-year sentence on return, they will not return, and if they do not return, there will never be a conviction, nor will the person in question be held on licence for that crime.

There is an honest disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and me, but I am trying, on behalf of the Government, to resolve some of the anomalies outstanding from the Good Friday agreement. At the same time, I hope to offer some comfort to relatives if, at the end of the day, an individual has been convicted of the murder of their loved ones.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government have now suspended or ended all their extradition treaties with all the foreign countries in which such fugitives may be residing? It seems that we are not able to bring them back except through this legislation.

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Mr. Hanson: My understanding is that, if extradition treaties exist, we are exercising that power when that is possible. We have been trying to do that for years. We are where we are.

Questions were also raised about what would happen to the subjects of current inquiries by the historic inquiries team. In addressing the status of those who are currently outside the jurisdiction, the Government are committed to granting licences without any time being served in prison—difficult though that may be. Given that we have made arrangements for returning on-the-runs, it is only reasonable that the same conditions should be available to those who come after them. Again, that relates to offences committed before 10 April 1998 and the Good Friday agreement.

Finally, I confirm to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) what I have just said to him. Nothing in the scheme detracts from our international obligations on extradition.

Sammy Wilson: The Minister has emphasised the need to bring people back to Northern Ireland to face justice. The justice that they will face is, of course, not the justice that the victims ever wanted. It seems that the only defence for imposing no prison sentence on such people is that it is the only way to get them back into Northern Ireland. They will go through a charade, get a licence and walk free. I believe that the victims would much prefer those people to stay on the run and remain fugitives. After all, the Bill was designed and requested to allow people who are outside the jurisdiction to come back to Northern Ireland free from prosecution. That was the driving force. The Bill is a reward to those who cannot return to Northern Ireland because of the crimes they have committed or because they have escaped from prison and know that they would face a prison sentence if they came back. Given that they sought to avoid convictions for the crimes that they committed, it is only right that they should receive some degree of punishment.

1.30 pm

It is important to note the inconsistency. The Minister has not mentioned the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who might be covered by the cold case review, and who will not have to be brought back into the jurisdiction because they are already in the jurisdiction. If their cases were to come before the tribunal, why should they not serve a sentence on the grounds of consistency, given that some of their colleagues serve prison sentences even under the Belfast agreement?

This is an important amendment. The Minister cannot make a defence for opposing it, other than to state that the terrorists have demanded that they should not serve a day in prison. In order to give some recognition to victims, we in this Committee and in this House should not be prepared to accede to that demand.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

Column Number: 336

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 19.

[Division No. 3]


Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M.
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Hermon, Lady
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Wilson, Sammy


Anderson, Mr. David
Banks, Gordon
Brown, Mr. Russell
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Cooper, Rosie
Durkan, Mark
Foster, Mr. Michael
Hanson, Mr. David
Harris, Mr. Tom
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hillier, Meg
Irranca-Davies, Huw
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, Dr Alasdair
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Öpik, Lembit
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Todd, Mr. Mark
Waltho, Lynda

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Robinson: I beg to move amendment No. 47, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, leave out ‘non-intimate’.

We have reached the stage where we must impose upon ourselves some serious time strictures, so I will attempt to deal with the amendment in one minute, and I am sure that the Minister’s response will be equally brief.

This is a probing amendment. It would remove the word “non-intimate” from clause 9(2), which states that the Secretary of State is entitled to require those who are accused, and are benefiting from having been granted a licence, to provide fingerprints, to be in attendance themselves, and to provide “non-intimate samples.” Does that mean that there is a prohibition on the police being given the DNA of the individual? According to the explanatory notes, such samples will be supplied “for identification purposes”, although that is not included in the Bill. Does “for identification purposes” mean that the authorities can take such samples only to make sure that they have the person who is named on the original certificate, or can they take them to identify whether they have been involved in other crimes—or, indeed, in case they become involved in further crimes? No restriction should be applied in respect of samples.

As I have said, this is a probing amendment; I hope that that is not an unfortunate phrase to use, as we are talking about non-intimate samples. Whatever samples are required by the police should be available, not only because it will allow them to determine whether there are other charges that the individual should face historically, but because in the event of future actions the samples—fingerprints and so on—will be available to them, so that they can ensure that the person does not offend in future.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the points that he raised. The amendment is unnecessary for the purposes of identification. The special tribunal may have to take non-intimate samples. Such samples include a range of matters that I could read into the record if it would help the hon. Gentleman. The essential thing is that DNA can be taken from a non-intimate sample, and
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such a measure is therefore an appropriate one for future involvement in a range of issues.

Non-intimate samples include the following: a sample of a person’s hair, other than their pubic hair; a sample taken from a nail or under a nail; a swab taken from a part of the person’s body, including the mouth; saliva; and a footprint or similar impression. That will allow for DNA to be taken as a non-intimate sample. I hope that that will assure the hon. Gentleman and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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Prepared 16 December 2005