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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation




 
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Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

Mr. Mike Hancock

†Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
†Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
†Khabra, Mr. Piara S. (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
†Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
†McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
†Moffat, Anne (East Lothian) (Lab)
†Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
†Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Robathan, Mr. Andrew (Blaby) (Con)
†Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Shaw, Jonathan (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
†Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee


 
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Wednesday 6 July 2005

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

2.30 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. I draw your attention to a matter of process. I am increasingly frustrated and annoyed by the Government’s willingness to drive significant legislation affecting 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland through on the basis of a yes-no debate in a statutory instrument Committee. This legislation may not be that controversial, but it is important, and it is wrong that Members, especially those who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, do not have the capacity to amend it. I seek your guidance, Mr. Hancock, on whether I can do anything to require the Government to think again about how they run the Province.

The Chairman: Unfortunately not. I am not in a position to refer to that issue, but others in the Room have heard what you said, Mr. Öpik, and I am sure that they will take the message back to the right quarter. You ought to raise the issue on the Floor of the House at an early opportunity.

2.31 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I hope that it will be an orderly and pleasant Committee. A copy of the draft order was laid before the House on 28 June. I welcome the opportunity to put the Government’s legislative proposals before the Committee.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). He knows that we are considering a range of issues concerning accountability for the actions that I take in the Northern Ireland Office, both those that I take on behalf of the suspended Assembly and those taken as Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. I will happily discuss his concerns with him outside the Committee.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does not the Minister recognise that the matter is a serious and intricate one? It is not easy. We have had this situation since Stormont was prorogued. The issue cannot be solved just with a strike of the Minister’s hand. There are big issues involved. The main issue is that
 
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democratic representatives should have a say on any law that will govern the people whom they represent. The matter is not a simple one.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I ask Members to accept that the point of order was taken. I have made a decision on it. Members may refer to various issues relating to it in their speeches, but there is no value in pursuing it at this stage. The point is well made and I hope that, in his contribution, the Minister will refer to how it will be handled in future.

Mr. Hanson: The order contains a range of provisions designed to tackle crime, to provide further powers and procedures to deal with antisocial behaviour and to improve the criminal justice process. It is designed to improve Northern Ireland law in a number of areas and was subjected to consultation.

I recognise the points made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). Most of the proposals being brought forward today were developed at the specific request of the criminal justice agencies involved. Such agencies have been considering in detail how they can improve the law in their areas, how they can tackle crime more effectively and how, in doing so, they can provide a better service to society in Northern Ireland.

The order contains powers for the police, the Assets Recovery Agency, prisons and probation services. It provides for new court arrangements. It contains additional measures to address antisocial behaviour. Some provisions tidy up anomalies or shortcomings in previous legislation. In two respects, the order paves the way for the fulfilment of the criminal justice review recommendations that arose from the Good Friday agreement, which I am sure we welcome.

The order is designed to bring Northern Ireland up to speed with legislation in both England and Wales. Under my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), the proposals in the draft order were first published in March. I hope that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim in some way. We consulted for 12 weeks. That consultation ended in June. We received 15 responses to the draft order that contained a variety of comments, but most respondents welcomed the proposals.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister will know from reading the Hansard report of discussions in another place that his ministerial colleague in the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Rooker, gave a commitment that the consultation and replies of the 15 bodies or individuals concerned would be posted on the website before this Committee met. Has that been undertaken?

Mr. Hanson: I understand that it has been posted on the website. I have not actually seen it today because I have been in Trafalgar square, celebrating Northern Ireland’s contribution to London’s success in hosting the Olympic games. As yet, I have not had the opportunity to check the website. In due course, I will.
 
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[Interruption.] I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) in particular welcomes that contribution.

Lady Hermon: The Minister will be aware that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission expressly asked that, if its submissions and comments were not taken into account, reasons should be given for the Northern Ireland Office’s refusal to do so. Will the Minister explain what reasons his Department had for refusing the comments of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?

Mr. Hanson: Is the hon. Lady referring to antisocial behaviour orders?

Lady Hermon: Correct.

Mr. Hanson: We take very seriously the provisions on antisocial behaviour orders and the consideration of those. There are matters outstanding in relation to how antisocial behaviour orders will progress. I take the view, as I shall explain, that there are a number of related points on which we wish to see progression, but any issues relating to consideration at a later stage by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland or the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be examined in detail. I shall return to that matter later.

The order proposes to improve arrangements relating to antisocial behaviour legislation. It introduces a number of adjustments to prisoners law. It provides for increased powers for the Assets Recovery Agency to access financial information. It allows changes to the youth court to operate and for its proceedings to become more effective and efficient. It provides for road traffic law improvements, including police powers in respect of drink driving. It provides better service for victims by way of an information service for victims of offenders subject to probation supervision. It also includes several other powers, which make procedural and technical improvements to criminal justice procedure in Northern Ireland.

I now turn to the individual provisions of the order. By way of an overview on ASBOs, the new provisions are contained in articles 2 to 8 of the order. They give an enabling power to the Secretary of State to designate additional authorities that may make applications for antisocial behaviour orders once the order comes into effect and the date is decided. It also provides for an interim antisocial behaviour order on conviction, an appeal mechanism and arrangements for adjournment variation and discharge of antisocial behaviour orders on conviction. Additional provisions are included to protect vulnerable or intimidated witnesses in antisocial behaviour proceedings, and discretionary reporting restrictions will be extended to 17-year-olds when that age group comes within the ambit of the youth court.

Much of what is being proposed with regard to antisocial behaviour introduces equivalent powers to those ASBO provisions recently enacted in England and Wales by way of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Taken together, this package will strengthen the ability to protect people in Northern
 
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Ireland from antisocial behaviour, which can undermine the quality of life of individuals who face intimidating and distressing behaviour daily. The provisions will make the process of applying for orders more efficient for agencies and allow them to respond more quickly to people for whom they are responsible. The order will benefit victims and provide additional protection for witnesses to encourage them to have the confidence to bring offenders to court who live or work near them.

Our proposals relating to antisocial behaviour were subjected to extensive consultation during the 12-week period. In general, the consultation respondents welcomed the Government’s plans to build on current ASBO law. Support was given to the tackling of antisocial behaviour and to the support that it gives to communities and victims. It is the Government’s view that ASBOs remain a necessary component of the overall response to tackling growing incidents of antisocial behaviour in Northern Ireland. ASBOs will continue to help to safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens to live what I hope will be peaceful and law-abiding lives without the fear of harm or intimidation in their community.

For those who have concerns—I would be less than honest if I did not say that some people do have concerns—it is worth repeating that ASBOs will impact on any individual only to the extent that they choose to engage in antisocial or criminal behaviour. That is a personal choice for such individuals, like anybody else, to make.

Lady Hermon: Before the Minister moves on to another aspect of today’s order, can he explain to members of the Committee why it is that ASBOs became available to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, local councils and the Police Service of Northern Ireland on 24 August 2004, but to date only five have been issued? Is he pleased with that success rate?

Mr. Hanson: Indeed, only five orders been made so far. I agree that there may be a case for more, but, as I have tried to explain on numerous occasions, ASBOs are a matter of last resort. They are the end of the process for individuals who are involved in persistent, poor, criminal or antisocial behaviour, and they have been used as such against the five individuals. I want as few ASBOs as possible to be issued, but, if individuals persistently commit offences, ASBOs can effectively be used as a last resort by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and other bodies, as they were in the five cases so far. With the extensions that are proposed in the order, other agencies will be able to make an application for an ASBO to deal with antisocial behaviour.

ASBOs are a mechanism to stop persistent antisocial behaviour. They were introduced in August last year, and there have been instances in which persistent offending behaviour has resulted in an ASBO at the end of a process that has taken some months to come to a conclusion, which is fair to the
 
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community but also to the individuals on whom the ASBOs are served. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s point.

The provisions also deal with prisons and focus largely on improving and updating current prisons and life sentence law. They include renaming the prison boards of visitors as independent monitoring boards and the adjustment of rarely used and obsolete powers of the prison boards of visitors to reflect their new status. Article 11 removes a particularly outdated capacity that is still on the statute book for boards of visitors to administer what I would term “painful tests” to prisoners. I recognise that there may be people in the House who wish such tests to continue, but I believe that the order is an opportunity for us to remove ancient legislation and to make some changes.

There are also two separate and largely technical amendments to life sentence legislation and legal aid provision for life sentence prisoners, including the life sentence amendment, which arose at the request of the life sentence review commissioners, who perform in Northern Ireland a role equivalent to that of the Parole Board for England and Wales. They have asked that the risk test to be applied when considering recalled life sentence prisoners for release be expressed explicitly in the recall section of the life sentence law. That test is already available but its specific inclusion today means that the Government are happy to help with the interpretation of statute.

The legal aid change is a technical adjustment to ensure that legal aid provision continues for separated prisoners when the relevant provisions of the Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 come into effect. Legal aid provision allows for continued legal representation in areas where at present we have separated prisoners, including those with paramilitary affiliations.

The renaming of the prison boards of visitors and the removal of certain powers are in keeping with their revised status. They now come under the umbrella of the Northern Ireland prisons ombudsman.

The order also deals with proceeds of crime legislation, in which the Government propose additional powers for the Assets Recovery Agency, which has worked very well in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The order gives additional powers to provide the agency with the opportunity to obtain information and details on safety deposit boxes that may be held by an individual. It also allows the extension of solicitors orders in confiscation investigations in criminal matters to civil recovery investigations brought by the agency. Those powers are there to strengthen the agency’s powers in Northern Ireland to identify and, where necessary, to seize the appropriate proceeds of crime from safety deposit boxes.

The safety deposit provision closes off a potential anomaly by removing any doubt about the access to information in such facilities. Customer information
 
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orders will allow powers only available in criminal proceedings to be extended to civil matters. That is a key business area for the agency.

2.45 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Hanson: There are four provisions in the order on the subject of youth justice. There is one to facilitate court proceedings in youth conferencing and in similar proceedings. The others are to prepare for 17-year-olds entering the remit of the youth court. The proposals include an adjustment to the timing within which reparations, community supervision and youth conferencing orders must be provided to allow the court more flexibility. The second provision ensures that 17-year-olds can continue to be remanded where appropriate to young offenders institutions on the expansion of the youth court to service that age. Without that adjustment, almost all will be remanded to the juvenile justice centre, which does not have the capacity for them.

There are two small procedural adjustments to allow current provisions relating to pre-sentencing reports and antisocial behaviour order reporting restrictions to extend to 17-year-olds. The extension of the jurisdiction of the youth court to include 17-year-olds was a recommendation of the criminal justice review, arising again out of the Good Friday agreement. The Government are anxious to ensure that the agreement’s provisions are met. This provision will allow the youth court to be extended to 17-year-olds, thereby implementing a review recommendation and bringing youths in Northern Ireland into line with those in England and Wales.

There are several provisions relating to road traffic procedures. There is a provision relating to the taking of blood specimens for analysis in suspected drink-driving cases, similar to that which already exists in England and Wales. The public consultation I undertook on road traffic provisions which prompted these draft provisions received widespread support from almost all those who responded, which included district councils, statutory bodies and the criminal justice agencies. The power for funding derived from fixed penalty notices under the safety camera scheme to be used for the scheme and to reimburse public sector cost is also in statute in England and Wales.

Finally, there are miscellaneous provisions creating several new powers covering bail, legal aid in extradition, arrestable offences and information for victims. Examples of the provisions include bail adjustments that will facilitate those standing surety and will save court time; police powers of summary arrest for certain sexual offences, which will bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales; and the power for the Secretary of State to create a victims information scheme in probation cases, which
 
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will extend the services available to victims and strengthen the Government’s attempts to ensure that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for his patience with the number of interventions. On several occasions this afternoon he has mentioned that this legislation will bring Northern Ireland into line with that which prevails in England and Wales. Why did the Government not extend to Northern Ireland the road traffic provisions, the Proceeds of Crime Bill and so on at the time of the primary legislation’s passage through the House? Why were they not taken properly as primary legislation, instead of leaving them to an Order in Council this afternoon?

Mr. Hanson: I am in a difficult situation, as I have been at my post since the general election, so I am not quite clear about what discussions my predecessor had with fellow Ministers. I shall happily consider the issue and get back to the hon. Lady. I suspect again that on some occasions there were discussions between the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office about a range of issues, but I shall certainly look into the matter. It was before my time, and I was undertaking other matters on behalf of the Government.

These additional proposals shall strengthen the criminal justice system and provide additional powers to Northern Ireland to tackle antisocial behaviour and a range of important issues. I believe that they will be welcomed in Northern Ireland, and I commend them to the Committee.

The Chairman: Before I call you, Andrew, I should like to give notice to the Committee that Mr. Öpik has informed the Chair he must leave at 3.30 pm for a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr. Öpik has offered his apologies to the Chair and to the Committee. That saves you intervening on anyone else, Mr. Öpik.

3.5 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Hancock. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise for being a few minutes late back from the Division in the House. Forty further education college staff in my constituency are at risk of receiving redundancy notices tomorrow and I needed to speak briefly to an Education Minister.

We broadly support the order but we seek some clarification, which I hope the Minister will be able to give when he winds up the debate. The point has been made that the consultation on the order was posted late on the Department’s website, although it is there now. I echo the comments already made that it is important that consultation responses are posted as soon as possible to give all hon. Members a chance properly to scrutinise the views of interested bodies.

Will the Minister tell the Committee whether the Department will ensure that there is some monitoring of the length of time for which victims must put up with antisocial behaviour before an ASBO is put in place and they get some relief? Will he give some
 
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indication of which other authorities or persons will be able to issue ASBOs? I understand that housing associations will be added to the list, but not private sector landlords. Will he also give an assurance that representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly Members of this House and of the Assembly, will be among the first to be consulted on any additions to or deletions from the list of authorities and persons? It is particularly important that they, in addition to other interested bodies, are consulted.

On article 6 of the order and the provisions relating to witnesses, will the Minister say whether the Department has any plans to use professional witnesses if necessary? I note the provisions of the order to give protection to witnesses. That is important, but my experience is that, even with the protection that is rightly in the order, witnesses are often too frightened to come forward to provide evidence to make the order stick and work in the first place. The use of professional witnesses from outside the area can be useful and I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether the Department will at least consider that.

There is a genuine difference of view among hon. Members on reporting restrictions on ASBOs. One view is that if someone is named in the local paper with their photograph, it may be taken to be a badge of honour by those subject to ASBOs. I take the contrary view, namely that public identification of people subject to ASBOs is important for the prime reason that it alerts the local community to the fact that an ASBO has been put in place. The members of that local community can get in touch with the police or other relevant authority to let them know if the ASBO has been breached. I would be worried if the reporting restrictions on ASBOs were too great because the ability to give publicity is important.

I note that only five ASBOs have been issued in Northern Ireland and, significantly, only one is on a young person. We tend to assume that ASBOs are given mainly to younger people, but the experience in Northern Ireland is that four out of five have been given to older people.

On prisons, will the Minister confirm that the term “prison visitor” will be changed to “prison monitor”? Is the Department taking steps to give wider publicity to the change so that the public are aware of that and the introduction of independent monitoring boards?

Lastly, I deal with the testing of unconscious persons involved in road accidents in which there is the suspicion that alcohol may have been involved. I believe that the Minister in the other place said there must be reasonable grounds for a sample to be taken. Permission has to be given by the person for that sample to be analysed, but there have to be reasonable grounds for the blood sample to be taken in the first place. I am a little concerned about that, because there is a feeling—particularly among victims—that a person could feel very short-changed and cheated if a sample were not taken at a road accident in which, for
 
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example, their son or daughter had been killed. I should be grateful if the Minister threw some light on that issue.

3.11 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley: I give a general welcome to the order. It is largely a tidying-up exercise to ensure that issues that have arisen in the criminal justice system can be dealt with. Evidently, we shall have such issues from time to time. However, I underscore again what I have already said to the Committee: we must consider how we are going to be governed in Northern Ireland and the responsibility that those elected to office—Members of this House—have in regard to legislation for Northern Ireland. It would be a happier day for us if that could happen as it happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The order deals with a wide range of matters across a number of different areas. It appears to cover a significant number of areas. However, I should not be surprised if we were back this time next year with another set of changes—perhaps even changes to what we are doing today. It may be that, after experience, there should be another change.

Undoubtedly, this forum does not offer the opportunity to make any changes at all—we say either yes or no. Elected representatives, however, are very dilatory at saying no. I remember once having a constituent who said, “You voted for a particular budget but they did not give you enough money.” I said, “Do you not want any money at all? Do you want me to say, ‘No, give us nothing’?” Elected representatives of Northern Ireland have that difficulty.

I should like to press a point on the Minister. Surely there must come a day when he will be prepared to consult with the Members of the Legislative Assembly, even though they are not in office. Why should those who are doing constituency work and have a responsibility in their districts not be consulted separately from anyone else? They have a special standing, are elected and would be making decisions on such matters in another place if that other place were working. We should therefore give them their place and get them employed. The Minister knows that I have made a plea for that to his boss and will continue to do so. The Members of the Legislative Assembly should have their place, as well as Members of this House.

 
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