Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

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Mr. Robinson: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 77, in clause 9, page 6, line 31, at beginning insert

    ‘Except as provided by subsection (5A)’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 72, in clause 9, page 6, line 34, at end insert—

    ‘(5A)   Where a person on licence under this section had pleaded guilty at his trial to the offence, the Secretary of State may reduce the duration of the licence by up to a quarter of the sentence.’.

No. 78, in clause 9, page 6, line 35, leave out subsection (6).

No. 79, in clause 9, page 6, line 41, leave out ‘(6)’ and insert ‘(5A)’.

Lembit Öpik: Amendments Nos. 77, 72 and 79 relate to providing incentives for people to come forward to admit their crimes. As we have done in previous amendments, we are trying to provide a defendant with an incentive to admit to what they have done.

There is nothing in the Bill that would provide an incentive for someone to admit to committing any crime or any of the serious offences with which they might be charged. That is because it is up to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to state the offences that it thinks are relevant to a particular individual rather than it being up to the applicant to state the offences. It is also because a person cannot be detained or questioned. No powers of entry or search are allowed. As a result, the prosecution case will potentially be very weak. In addition, if a person is found guilty at the tribunal they can appeal. As we know, they will not serve a single minute in custody or in jail. Given all those provisions, what possible reason would anyone have to come forward to admit to what they have done?

I would understand any concern in the Committee about the amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on it. I do not particularly like proposing that a person’s time on licence may be shortened, but it provides some kind of incentive for a defendant to stand up to admit that they have done wrong. The Government have argued about bringing closure through this Bill. How can that be done if lots of people are simply unwilling to come forward?

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Lady Hermon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as currently worded, clause 9 gives one group of people an incentive to come forward: those who are at present languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure but who can apply for a licence under the clause and get their sentence commuted to an amnesty?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady is right. I had not considered that. People who are in prison could use the provision as a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Minister might want to comment on that.

Amendment No. 78 has widespread support. I tabled it because I wanted an explanation from the Government as to what subsection (6), particularly its paragraph (b), means. Does it mean that where someone should have been sentenced in 1970 to 20 years, for example, the fact that more than two thirds of 20 years has already passed means that they will not have to be subject to the licence?

Mr. Hanson: I will ask my hon. Friends to oppose the amendment, but the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is interesting, and I do not reject it out of hand. The idea behind it might be considered in the future, but sadly, there is a technical defect in the amendment itself; because of the way that it is phrased, it will not achieve what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve, and I cannot accept it for that reason. The amendment is intended to ensure that, following a guilty plea, the duration of the sentence is reduced. However, it would reduce the element of licence, but the sentence would remain. Therefore, if an individual were to plead guilty and their licence was reduced or removed, at the end of that licence period he or she would have to serve a period in prison.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am sorry that I had to dash out of the room, Mr. Taylor. My cold is getting worse.

According to the Library notes on the Bill, there are 127 failed applications from the original Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned, a lot of people are currently in prison. How does this Bill affect those people?

If I could—

The Chairman: Order. We will take one intervention at a time.

Mr. Hanson: If I may, I will address the point raised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) shortly, after I have dealt with the first part of the amendment.

Despite the amendment’s technical failing—it would have the opposite effect to what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire wants to achieve—I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s proposals. However, let me explain the guiding principle of our scheme: as far as possible, within the terms of the Government’s commitment of 2003, we would have a judicial process, and what Members have said about that process will also be taken into account. Seeking a guilty plea as the hook on which to hang the special
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remission of sentence, rather than seeking a confession or statement of remorse, would make things much harder to quantify in due course.

The amendment has technical problems, and sentencing should not be placed directly in the hands of the Secretary of State, which the amendment would effectively do, instead of in the hands of the judge. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has made suggestions for a judicial solution: as I have said, I am not cool towards that, and I will reflect on his proposals.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised a question about clause 9(6). That provides that if an individual gets a licence, the licence and sentence last only as long as the sentence, if the person gets time off for remission, as in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If an individual is already in jail, they can apply for the scheme under clause 3(2)(c), but it will only apply to those who are already eligible for the early release scheme after two years, under the 1998 Act. Again, the defining moment in respect of offences is 10 April 1998.

I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will not press his amendment to a Division. There might be some merit in it—I can say no more than that—but I want to examine the issues, and the current amendment is technically incapable of achieving his objectives.

Lembit Öpik: I am not completely clear about the Minister’s explanation in respect of amendment No. 78. I was following what he was saying—but, obviously, not closely enough.

Mr. Hanson: I have just ripped up my notes on that. For the first time in Committee, I must say that, for that reason, that is a matter that I will reflect on in future. If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard and reflects on what I have said, he will realise that the points that I brought before the Committee are valid. I think that he will subscribe to the comments made on clause 9(6), which he mentioned, when he reflects on them.

1.45 pm

Mr. Ellwood: May I press the Minister on that? There are a number of people who have not been released from prison, as we have established—127, according to the Library research paper. It seems strange that we are inviting on-the-runs, some of whom have committed heinous crimes, back into Northern Ireland when others who may have committed lesser crimes are being made to continue their punishment. The concerns being expressed under the amendments are about seeing justice done, and about the fact that we are inviting back people who are on the run, but there seems to be a discrepancy. If I were to come forward and say—

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Hanson: There are a number of categories of individual that will qualify under the Bill. There are those outside the jurisdiction who will qualify; there are those before the historic inquiries team who will qualify; and there are those in the security forces who
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will qualify. At some point in future, depending on the time scale of the introduction of the scheme, individuals in jail may reach the stage at which they can apply for the scheme. I do not have the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned on the number of individuals.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether someone who fails to get a licence under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 can get a Northern Ireland (Offences) Act licence. That depends on whether they are eligible, and that takes us back to the eligibility criteria in clause 3; they may qualify for the scheme at the time of its introduction. I hope that that answers his point.

Lady Hermon: For the record, will the Minister confirm that certain prisoners are now eligible, under clause 9, to apply for the scheme and to have their sentence commuted to an amnesty? Also, will he confirm that Mr. Sean Kelly and Mr. Johnny Adair et al. can have their current licence commuted to a preferable licence under the scheme?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady is correct, in so far as individuals who are in jail when the scheme is introduced can avail themselves of it, just as they can, at present, avail themselves of the early release scheme if their offences were committed prior to 10 April 1998. Again, I cannot yet tell the hon. Lady when that will be effective, because we cannot at this stage give a date for the introduction of the scheme, because it depends on parliamentary procedure, and the approval and introduction of the Bill. An individual would need to be eligible for the scheme—that is, they would need to meet the conditions, which are similar to those in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 for the early release scheme. That would ultimately be a matter for the certification commissioner to determine.

Mr. Donaldson: Does this mean that Ken Barrett, for example, who was convicted of the murder of Pat Finucane, and who is serving a prison term, but whose crime was committed before 10 April 1998, would be eligible to apply for a licence under the Bill? Given that he has been refused early release by the Sentence Review Commission, will similar criteria be applied, and how will his case be handled under the criteria?

Mr. Hanson: I do not want to comment in detail on individual cases, because it is not appropriate to do so in this discussion. However, when the scheme is operational, individuals will be able to apply for it, and if they are eligible under the certification commissioner’s guidance, they will qualify for the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on individual cases at this time.

Mr. Ellwood: I am concerned that there is a loophole. I could come forward and say that I committed the crimes attributed of one of the 127 people who failed to qualify for the early release scheme, and who said that they were innocent. I could come forward and say, “I committed that crime; that person in jail should really be free.” I could then be granted a licence, and I would go free. I would then have a document that I cared about less than I do a few
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points on my driver’s licence. The person in prison, who did commit the murder, would then also be set free, because it would be thought that he did not take part in the murder.

Mr. Hanson: There were several suppositions in the hon. Gentleman’s argument that I cannot go into, but one was about an individual who says that he has undertaken a crime for someone who is in jail for it at the moment. In all such matters, there must first be an investigation by the police. Under clause 3, people need to have a certificate of eligibility. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has to state in writing reasonable grounds for the charge. People need to be outside the jurisdiction and must satisfy other criteria. A range of issues must be examined by the police and others. Again, under earlier provisions, the certification commissioner’s approval must be obtained for the individual to qualify for the scheme. Given the examples that have been put forward, I cannot suppose either generally or specifically what the certification commissioner will decide nor whether the individuals will qualify for the scheme in those circumstances.

The Chairman: Order. I do not intend to accept any more interventions on that particular point, as they are not aimed at the amendment itself.

Mr. Hanson: On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to withdraw the amendment.

Lembit Öpik: I am flabbergasted. The Minister has more or less conceded that, on amendment No. 78, he has ripped apart his own defence. He has thrown it on the ground and cannot read it back to me. I shall read what was said in Hansard, but I need assurance on a core point. If a person ought to have been sentenced in 1970 to, say, 20 years in prison and, in theory, will have served more than two thirds of his time, is the hon. Gentleman saying that that will not prevent the person from ending up with a licence and so on? I should be grateful if he would clarify matters.

Mr. Hanson: The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no. A fixed-term prisoner outside the scheme will have his sentence reduced by remission. He will be released at the two-thirds point. Clause 9(6) is designed to ensure consistency with that principle.

Lembit Öpik: Perhaps I am being thick about this—[Interruption.]—if such a thing were possible, but I am still not clear whether, under subsection (6)(b), someone who is found guilty through the process would actually not end up having to serve time on a licence at all. The Minister read out something that was connected with the matter, but it was not a direct answer to my question. I am pursuing this because I would have a major problem if—

Mr. Hanson: As I have said that I am not unwarm to some of the hon. Gentleman’s points, would it be helpful if I wrote to him to clarify matters? I know that that is always the defence that is used when answers are
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not clear, but it is the first time that I have made that suggestion in the Committee. If he withdraws his amendment now, he will still be at liberty to table it on Report if he is unhappy with my clarification.

Lembit Öpik: That is a helpful suggestion. If that unintended consequence is indeed inherent in the clause, the Government would probably want to consider it. On that basis, I shall not pursue amendment No. 78 to a vote.

As for the other amendments, and how we might incentivise individuals to come forward and take responsibility for proactively admitting to serious offences, I am encouraged by the fact that the Minister is willing to reflect on these matters. I see no party political element to this. On reflection, he may find the suggestion helpful and want to introduce it on Report. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 9—Disqualification from district policing partnership—

    ‘(1)   Paragraph 8 of Schedule 3 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 is amended as follows.

    (2)   In sub-paragraph (4) after “licence” insert “under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998”.

    (3)   After sub-paragraph (4)(a) insert—

      “(aa)   the lapse of his licence issued under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Act 2006.”.’.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister might wish to consider the new clause in the same frame of mind as he did the previous group of amendments. Currently, a person who has benefited from the prisoner early release scheme is entitled to become an independent member of a district policing partnership, if nominated, by virtue of their licence. I am concerned that the same principle will apply to anyone who receives a licence under the scheme in this Bill, as there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that.

I imagine that, by definition, if someone receives a licence under the Bill, it will have been proven that they committed an offence in relation to terrorism. But they will not have been to prison and they may not therefore have been seen to have been rehabilitated, which, after all, was one of the elements that was assumed to have occurred with individuals who end up on district policing partnerships having served time for their offences.

As the Minister knows, there are already serious concerns in Northern Ireland at paramilitaries being allowed to serve on DPPs; I believe that there will be even more concern about anyone who is granted a licence under the Bill doing so. The new clause does not prevent a person with a licence from ever serving on a DPP, however. They will be able to do so once their licence expires. I assume that they would not have broken the conditions of their licence by that time or,
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if they had, they would have been detained. So that is an insurance policy to ensure lawful behaviour by the individual before they become a member of a DPP.

The new clause would ensure that there is confidence in such appointments, should they ever occur. I seek the Minister’s views on that.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing the new clause in the way that he has. We have had a reasonable discussion on the provisions of the legislation and I hope that clause 9 will stand part of the Bill.

New clause 9, which the hon. Gentleman tabled, raises an important issue. I know that he raised it in a genuine, productive and constructive way. The effect of the new clause would be to permit someone convicted and released on licence under this scheme to be a member of a DPP once their licence has expired. It closely reflects provisions made in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 that would allow those convicted of an offence and released on licence under the early release scheme to join a DPP.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will know that the Government have not currently commenced that provision. We have not done so because we made a decision not to do so until such time as we judge it right to introduce the provision. We have not yet made such a judgment and will not do so at least until the Assembly has been restored and possibly until, at some future point, criminal justice matters have been devolved to it.

2 pm

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister just put it on the record that the Government’s position on allowing those with criminal records to take their places on DPPs as independent members is completely contrary to the recommendation in the Patten report? They have driven a coach and horses through that report. Will he confirm that point?

Mr. Hanson: As the hon. Lady knows, I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for the police, and I would not wish to give the Committee an answer that proved subsequently to be false. I am not aware of the Patten report’s recommendation on this matter. I am being open and honest with the hon. Lady in saying that. It is not my direct area of responsibility.

I can say something that is within my area of responsibility, however. The provisions for serving on the DPPs under the legislation that I mentioned have not been commenced by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), for the simple reason that we have not yet judged that the time is right for us to do that as a Government.

My hon. Friend will consider when the time will be right at some point in the future. That judgment will depend on two conditions: a restoration of the Assembly and other issues such as a return of policing responsibilities to the Assembly. We have to make a judgment on the issue as a Government, and I do not
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wish to mislead the hon. Lady on a question to which I do not know the answer because it is not within my direct area of responsibility.

The Government have identified the subject of the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire as an issue for possible examination in future. However, again, they have not made a decision on that. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the new clause.

Lembit Öpik: I understand what the Minister says about the non-commencement of the core legislation. If that legislation were commenced and if new clause 9 were not agreed to, would not the consequence be as I described in my opening comments? In other words, at least in theory, somebody could apply for and be successful in being taken on by a DPP even while they were serving a licence.

Mr. Hanson: Indeed, the scenario painted by the hon. Gentleman is correct. I say to him again that the Government have identified that issue; we are reflecting on it at the moment. We have not commenced the clauses in other legislation that would give rise to the anomaly that could occur in this legislation for the reasons that I have outlined. There may be opportunities, either during the passage of this Bill or during consideration of further Northern Ireland legislation that may come forward in the next 12 months, to examine that issue in the event of our determining to implement the original legislation in the 2000 and 2003 Acts.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made. I cannot give him a definitive answer because we have not yet determined whether to progress the scheme as a whole in relation to previous legislation. If we do, an anomaly will be created, and that is one element on which the Government will have to reflect during the passage of this Bill—and, if this Bill is passed in its current form, during future legislation—to address that anomaly.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister’s comments are helpful, but slightly disturbing for the following reason. He said that he would like to reflect on the issue now, but also implies—in fact, says explicitly—that if the other legislation were commenced, then, and only then, would this legislation be altered.

Mr. Hanson: I am saying that, under previous legislation, there is already provision to allow individuals to take part in the DPPs once their licence has expired under the early release scheme. That provision is in place, but has not been commenced because the Government have not judged that the time is right to commence it. At some point in the future, we may judge that the time is right. If, two or three years down the line, the scheme is introduced, the anomaly may well arise. Before that, there will be opportunities to consider whether to extend the legislation to cover this scheme, and whether to introduce the scheme at all.

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The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that interventions, particularly ministerial interventions, should be short.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr. Taylor; the dialogue is constructive and helpful. My concern continues to be that although the Minister says that the anomaly—this loophole—will be addressed when other legislation is commenced, there is a risk that it will be forgotten. My concern is that if we do not provide for it in this Bill now, we shall end up with an anomaly, an unintended consequence, that we are in a position to fix now.

I was hoping that the Minister would say that he would reflect on the matter and consider tabling, if necessary, a Government amendment on Report, to close a loophole about which neither of us disagree, but which I feel we could reasonably address now.

I have one other thought. I do not see how resolving the issue now would involve any cost to the Government. If I understand things correctly, putting such a provision in the Bill today would in no way cause the commencement of the legislative procedure that allows those under licence to enter DPPs.

Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman presses his amendment, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to reject it.

Lembit Öpik: I know. I was not expecting to win. I am not trying to beat the Government; I am trying to help them.

To be equally direct to the Minister, I wish that he would say, “This is a fair point, the Government will look at it and we’ll table a Government amendment on Report; then we can close the loophole.” It is not complicated.

Mr. Hanson: I thought that I had said that, but if I have not I shall try again at some point in future.

Lembit Öpik: I am deliriously enlightened by, and grateful for, what the Minister says.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 10.

[Division No. 37]


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


Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M.
Durkan, Mark
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Hermon, Lady
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Öpik, Lembit
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Wilson, Sammy

Column Number: 346

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Conditions of licence

Mr. Robertson: I beg to move amendment No. 135, in clause 10, page 7, line 9, leave out from beginning to second ‘the’.

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