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13 Dec 2006 : Column 958

That definition has been available since 2003, when the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives voted against it. The Northern Ireland Select Committee has taken evidence about jury intimidation, so it is extraordinary that the DPP in Northern Ireland has never activated the provision in the 2003 Act that I have just mentioned.

I know that the Minister cannot account for the DPP’s decisions, as the prosecution is independent. I respect that independence, but the Minister can do the House a courtesy when he winds up the debate by explaining why the 2003 provision has never been used—given that paramilitary intimidation was reported by the Independent Monitoring Commission and by the Northern Ireland Select Committee’s investigation into organised crime. Why in heaven’s name has the DPP never sought to use the powers that have been available since 2003? I am really very concerned about that.

The Bill considerably extends the DPP’s powers. Unlike the 2003 Act, it does not extend the power of judges. Will the DPP ever exercise the new powers, given that the powers contained in the 2003 Act have never been used?

Paul Goggins: I shall do my best to try to shed some light on the matter. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, the new powers in the Criminal Justice Act to which the hon. Lady refers have not been available to the public prosecutor in Northern Ireland, but they will be available from early January. I hope that the hon. Lady will take heart from the fact that the powers that she has supported—not least in the Select Committee and in many debates in the House—will be available in Northern Ireland and, as I shall explain in the winding up, they should complement the powers in the Bill.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister. May I paraphrase what he has just indicated to the House? Even though the House extended to Northern Ireland three years ago a provision for non-jury trials where there was intimidation of witnesses, that provision has never actually come into force in Northern Ireland and will not be available until January 2007.

Paul Goggins indicated assent.

Lady Hermon: The Minister nods, but I can tell him for free that that is absolutely shameful. In the face of repeated intimidation—as shown in the evidence published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the degree of intimidation by loyalist as well as republican paramilitaries, whether dissident or not, to which the IMC has testified in report after report—it is shameful that the provision is not in force after three years.

Paul Goggins: The hon. Lady has strong views on the matter, but she knows from her involvement in the legislation that it was a huge piece of criminal justice reform and that much of it has been introduced in stages over a long period. Some of the provisions have yet to be introduced. We must have capacity in the system to deal with the introduction of new powers. I ask the hon. Lady to consider that.

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Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister, but is he saying that the office of the DPP did not have enough capacity to activate the powers at a time when it was being expanded significantly? No longer is the Public Prosecution Service confined to Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland; it has regional offices west and south of the Bann and, I think, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for North Antrim—that was certainly the intention. There has been a huge increase in the number of staff employed by the DPP, yet the Minister is still trying to convince me that we did not have adequate resources. I am sorry but I am not buying into that argument.

Will the Minister consider another serious issue? The delays that still pertain in the prosecution service in Northern Ireland are a huge embarrassment and an absolute disgrace. When justice is delayed, justice is denied. We can all nod in agreement about that, but it is not words but actions that count. There are huge delays in the prosecution service despite the additional resources in terms of finance and staff. In the winding up, perhaps the Minister will have another think about the excuse that can be offered to the House and, more importantly to the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve better than that. They deserve to be free from paramilitary intimidation, so I should prefer the Minister to give a better reply in his winding-up speech.

There is a contradiction in trying to persuade Unionists that all will be rosy in the garden by 2008.

Dr. McCrea: The hon. Lady should not be surprised by the Secretary of State spinning anything. He spins himself around so much that he does not know whether he is coming or going, so when we were told earlier that he was saying one thing to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and a different thing to Unionist Members, that seemed par for the course.

Lady Hermon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that it is extremely naive of me to think that the Secretary of State meant what he was saying, but in an effort to respect the spirit of good will that prevails at this time of year, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The difficulty is that when the Secretary of State is, on the one hand, trying to persuade the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and, indeed, my colleagues that all will be well for devolving policing and justice by 2008, yet on the other hand is extending the provision for non-jury trials, something does not add up. It does not convince me.

Dr. McCrea: Cloud cuckoo land.

Lady Hermon: Moving swiftly on to the second curious aspect of the Bill, there is another inherent contradiction within it. If I quoted the Secretary of State correctly, his praise for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was warm, lengthy and extensive. I am not here to have a go at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and I believe that one of the best things that the Labour Government ever did was to bring home the European convention on human rights and make it part and parcel of our domestic law. Respect for human rights is something that I and, I hope, my other Unionist colleagues—

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Dr. McCrea: The real Unionists!

Lady Hermon: The alternative Unionists. I hope that they also respect fundamental human rights. It is a curiosity to me that the Bill purports to extend the powers of the NIHRC. I have already mentioned the Secretary of State’s warm and glowing praise for the “major role” of the current commission. The Government have given the impression through the Secretary of State that they pay great attention to respect for human rights. That being the case, may I draw attention to the fact that it takes five pages in the explanatory notes alone to explain about that? There is a heading of “European Convention on Human Rights” on page 25, and the section continues on pages 26, 27, 28 and 29 through to page 30. I have never seen the like before in any explanatory notes, because it takes five pages to justify how the Bill has sailed so close to the wind in terms of compatibility with the European convention on human rights.

On the one hand, the Bill seems to say that it is right to increase the powers of the NIHRC because the Government believe that it is a really important thing to do. On the other hand, the Government have had to justify how what most of the Bill does is compatible—in respect of arrest, detention and the very serious ouster provision in clause 7—with the European convention. I do not think that I have ever seen an ouster clause that makes it so explicit on the face of a Bill that the Human Rights Act 1998 does not apply. I am talking about clause 7: I have not made it up; I am reading it.

As I said, when I read the Bill I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Clause 7(3) says:

In other words, the discretion of the Director of Public Prosecutions is beyond challenge: unless there is “dishonesty or bad faith”, it cannot be challenged at all. We have thus made part of our Human Rights Act—I paid tribute to the Labour Government for introducing it in the United Kingdom and extending it to Northern Ireland—subservient to a discretion exercised by the DPP. That is an extraordinary change for the Government now to introduce. In the Minister’s winding-up speech, will he comment on whether the Lord Chancellor or, indeed, the Attorney-General were consulted on that change? What were their views on clause 7, particularly subsection (3)?

Finally, on the increased powers given to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, many Members representing English, Scottish and Welsh constituencies will, like the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, be rather bemused and perhaps concerned when they read the Bill. Most right hon. and hon. Members will be hard pushed to name any individual member of that commission, but, courtesy of the Bill going through this evening—I take it that no one is going to vote against it, but I hope that we can get it changed and improved in Committee—the NIHRC will be able to call for documents and take oral evidence from people within constituencies outside Northern Ireland. If that is the case, perhaps the Government could pay some attention to it before Committee stage, as the Bill provides a clear vehiclefor it.

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The Bill makes provision for increased powers for the chief inspector of criminal justice—Kit Chivers, who does a tremendously good job. He is one of my constituents, but apart from that, his office of the criminal justice inspectorate does an enormously good job. The Bill will extend his remit to the Northern Ireland Court Service.

The Minister and his colleagues might well bear something in mind if people are to have confidence in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. One section of the community—the nationalist and republican section, I am sorry to say—has confidence in the commission, but the Minister will be well aware from the comments that have been made by the DUP Members who have spoken at length this evening that that confidence is not shared across the Unionist community. The Minister may well like to take on board the suggestion that, if the commission’s increased powers involve any matter of import in the criminal justice system in determining whether there are abuses of human rights, the chief inspector of criminal justice’s jurisdiction should also be extended to cover the commission.

Before the Minister tells me that the commission is an independent statutory body, I will remind him that the police ombudsman’s office is also an independent statutory body, but it comes within the remit of the chief inspector of criminal justice. Therefore, to be consistent and logical—I know that that is difficult for the Northern Ireland Office, but I wish that it was logical—the inspection format of the chief inspector should be extended to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. With that, I will wish everyone a happy Christmas.

6.6 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): They always leave the best wine to the last.

Lady Hermon: That was me.

David Simpson: No, but I have been warned to make my speech short and brief, because the Minister will have a lot of responding to do on many questions. I noticed that, whenever the hon. Lady was speaking, paper was flying back and forth from the officials to the Minister. Perhaps, when I have finished, there will be a book full of it, by the time that I get answers to some questions. Again, I want to clarify that I support the hon. Lady, but I emphasise that I will do so as long as her policies are in line with the DUP—the main party in the Province, and I am sure that she would agree with that.

I was in and out of the Chamber, but I have listened to a lot of the comments that have been made on the Bill. Therefore, I should also like to make a number of comments, but I shall try to put them across to the Minister and frame them in question form. Perhaps, when he comes to respond, he will give us some straightforward answers, not the spin that he has been accused of. Some of my colleagues said earlier that he was spinning so much that he got dizzy.

Dr. McCrea: That was said of the Secretary of State.

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David Simpson: I thought that my hon. Friend was referring to the security Minister, but perhaps he might yet put a bit of spin on things.

Mark Durkan: Later.

David Simpson: Yes, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) suggests that we might get a bit of spin later.

I will put my comments in the form of some questions, and perhaps we will get some clarity on a number of them. Clause 1(6) and (7) relate to the issuing of certificates stating that a trial is to be conducted without a jury. Subsection (6) refers to offences

I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members can remember the case of the late Mr. Harry Hammond, who was arrested and fined for public order offences in 2002, after holding up signs in Bournemouth that said “Stop immorality” and so on. Despite the fact that it was he who was attacked, it turned out that it was he who was prosecuted. If a Christian were to do something similar in Northern Ireland, consistency in law would demand that they too be prosecuted. Therefore, will the Minister confirm that, under the Bill, any Christian doing what the late Mr. Hammond did would be prosecuted under a certificate issued by the DPP, with the result that they would be prosecuted in the same manner as if they were a terrorist?

In the same subsections, the Bill states that not only would this kind of non-jury prosecution occur for those who incited a crime or who were proactive in committing a crime, but that a non-jury trial certificate would also be issued for those who breached the law in responding to or reacting to an attack. Will the Minister confirm what would happen if a resident in south Armagh, for example, were to find his or her home under attack—I can assure him that that still happens from time to time in that area—and were to defend himself or herself and his or her family, and property, from the thugs who sought to do them harm on the grounds of their religion? Will the Minister confirm that, if the person under attack were to breach the law, he would be tried under the same measures as if he were the paramilitary organisation that sought his hurt, and that he would be treated in law like the very terrorist who sought to terrorise him and his family?

Clause 5(4) states:

Will the Minister outline exactly how he intends to ensure that that will be the case in practice? What criteria will he put in place to assess that that has been the case? How does he propose to review decisions and judgments passed down by the courts to ensure that no inference has been drawn? Who will be responsible for reviewing the court proceedings to ascertain whether any inference was drawn in contravention of the wording of the Bill and what powers will that person have?

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Clause 28 deals with taking possession of land. It states:

or cause it to be removed. Would the Minister consider the gentleman called Mr. “Slab” Murphy’s continuing criminal empire in south Armagh to be a threat to the peace of south Armagh? Will he give tonight a categorical and unequivocal pledge that, if the Bill becomes law, he will, within a stated time frame, order the seizure of Mr. Murphy’s land and the destruction of whatever buildings are necessary, including the farm house and barns? After all, those powers are afforded to the Secretary of State in the Bill and if he is not prepared to use them against one of the most notorious and ruthless criminal gang leaders and terrorist godfathers in Northern Ireland, what is the point in his having those powers in the first place?

Finally, paragraph 4(1) and (2) of schedule 3—I can see the Minister writing anxiously; I hope that he is getting all the details—deals with the powers to stop and search people. That was referred to earlier in relation to the Army and the police. Will those measures apply to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly when they are at Stormont? Given the events of the past, when major spy rings were in operation, and given that it seems that senior members of Sinn Fein/IRA are still working for British intelligence, surely the provisions would be important.

I said at the beginning of my speech that I would be brief. I hope that the Minister has written all my questions down, and I look forward to some straightforward answers.

6.15 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Yet again, we have had an interesting debate on yet another Northern Ireland Bill. It makes a change to be debating a Northern Ireland measure on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee. Long may that continue, at least until the Assembly is up and running, as we hope that it will be very soon. I will return to that prospect in a few moments.

Let me run through some of the comments made by hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) again spoke in a Northern Ireland debate and gave us the benefit of his experience of being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has also been representing the Liberal Democrats on the Welsh Grand Committee today, so he has done well to be in two places at once. He made detailed comments about the problems that the DPP might face when deciding whether to issue a certificate for certain offences because of the vague guidelines. He also objected, as we do, to the absence of any appeal mechanism. I am sure that we will return in Committee to the good points that he made.

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