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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Gardiner, Barry (Brent, North) (Lab)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey (Coventry, North-West) (Lab)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 28 April 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2008.
Paul Goggins: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson, to oversee our proceedings this afternoon.
Before speaking about the measures that we are considering, I shall briefly explain the reason for the correction slip that members of the Committee will have seen alongside the main draft order. Although the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments recognises our full compliance with the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, it felt that we should have included a slightly fuller text in the preamble and recital powers of the order. The correction slip tidies that up, and will become part of the final order when it is printed.
Our main focus this afternoon is the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. It is a huge piece of legislation and a major step forward in sentencing law for Northern Ireland. It removes the much criticised and outdated automatic 50 per cent. remission. I should explain to the Committee, particularly to those who are not Members of Parliament in Northern Ireland, that currently in Northern Ireland, unless a prisoner is given a life sentence, release at the halfway point of sentence is automatic, regardless of offence or risk.
The order will provide tougher sentences for the most dangerous offenders, who can be locked up for longer, and sometimes indefinitely. Their release will be controlled with public safety at the core—if there is a danger, they will not get out. The order delivers a more balanced set of powers to deal with offenders. It reserves custody for the most serious offenders and provides a range of community-based alternatives for the less serious. That includes increased opportunities for curfews, which are backed for the first time in Northern Ireland by electronic tagging, and a community-based alternative to prison for not paying a fine.
The order provides additional powers to deal with knife crime and drinking in public, and puts Northern Ireland’s road traffic law on a par with England and Wales. It paves the way for greater levels of joint working throughout the criminal justice system. Prisons and probation already work closely together to deliver programmes and manage offenders, but the new custody arrangements will mean more effective work before release and close supervision on licence when offenders return to the community.
The order will bring an even higher level of professionalism to Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system. Risk assessment reports will be provided to courts and the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland—the new body we are creating to assess risk before the more dangerous prisoners can be considered for release. Sex offender management in the community, known in Northern Ireland as the multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management arrangements, will be put on a statutory basis. Prisoners will be supervised by the probation service on release.
In creating the order, the Northern Ireland Office has undertaken one of the most inclusive policy development exercises that it has ever initiated, and it has received strong and widespread support. It consulted extensively both on the policy proposals and the draft legislation. We received 54 responses to the draft legislation. The Northern Ireland Assembly considered it in great detail, and I was particularly pleased to receive its support. I put on record my appreciation of Alban Maginness, who chaired the ad hoc Committee that was established in the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider the draft order in detail. A number of Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have also expressed their support. In fact, most, if not all, of Northern Ireland’s political parties had already been calling for the new sentencing powers.
The public have also supported our proposals. A major public campaign resulted in a petition, signed by more than 35,000 people, to end automatic 50 per cent. remission, although tragic events were a factor in the public’s mind. The horrendous murder of Attracta Harron by Trevor Hamilton while he was out on remission—although I emphasise that he is now in prison serving a life sentence with a whole-life tariff—brought into sharp relief the need for a new form of prison sentence. Our proceedings are being watched closely by Mr. Harron, and I am pleased that he is in a position to do so.
There have been a number of high-profile sex offender cases in which post-release supervision and monitoring have been difficult. I place on record my thanks to the family and friends of Harry Holland, a well-known and popular west Belfast man killed in violent circumstances last year. I have met his family on a couple of occasions for discussions, and have corresponded with them, and I know that other hon. Members have received correspondence from representatives of the family. A community consultation event was held in west Belfast during which the order was supported. I support those representations. To all those people and many others, the gaps in our legislation were clear.
I have been keen to ensure that Committee members are fully informed about the content of our proposals. The order is a large and complex piece of legislation, and although explanatory notes are usually associated with Bills rather than Orders in Council, I have had a full set prepared and made available, because I want to ensure that the process is as informed and inclusive as possible. It would be better, of course, if the legislation were being passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly itself; although we have received considerable support for the order from Assembly Members, the sooner the powers to determine criminal law lie with them rather than here at Westminster, the better it will be for all.
Having explained the policy background of the order, I turn to its content. The main order has three major themes: public protection, community safety and improving the criminal justice system. Chapters 2 and 3 of the order will redefine the nature of imprisonment; chapter 2 will remove 50 per cent. automatic remission and chapter 3 will create two new sentences to deal with dangerous sexual and violent offenders. One is the indeterminate custodial sentence, under which an offender will not be released until it is safe to do so and could be on licence for the rest of his life. The other is the extended custodial sentence, under which an offender who has served the custodial part of his sentence will be subject to an extended licence period—not for life, but for up to a maximum of eight years. Once an offender is convicted, a full risk assessment will be completed. If the offender is considered dangerous, one or other of those sentences must be imposed.
Chapter 7 is closely connected to chapters 2 and 3 and will ensure that release involves the newly created body, the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland, which will assess prisoners, with safety and public protection as the main focus of its work. The parole commissioners will be fully independent of Government. The creation of a parole body is a major step forward in prisoner release and recall powers. Through the public protection sentences and the changes to standard imprisonment, automatic 50 per cent. remission for sentenced prisoners will disappear.
Chapter 4 will ensure that all released prisoners are put on licence, subject to statutory supervision in the community, and liable to recall to prison if they fail to comply with conditions. They will serve in full the custodial part of their sentence, usually the first half, followed by a statutory licence period lasting until the end of their sentence.
Part 3 of the order will enhance powers to deal with and manage sex offenders in the community. The MASRAM arrangements, to which I have referred, will become statutory. A range of agencies will be required to work together to share information, increase protection and reduce the risk posed by sexual and violent offenders. Even sex offenders currently on licence will face stiffer penalties if they fail to comply. The powers will allow electronic monitoring or tagging of offenders in the community as a bail condition, licence condition or part of a community order. Committee members representing constituencies in England and Wales will be familiar with electronic tagging, which is now a standard way of enhancing the supervision of offenders in the community. We propose to extend it to Northern Ireland.
Although it is impossible completely to eliminate risk, post-release supervision will provide an important level of protection and reassurance to communities. It will also provide continuity of offender management and help prisoners to resettle in community life. The provisions will ensure that offenders are properly supervised, managed and rehabilitated.
Parts 4 and 5 of the order tackle specific and current concerns for communities. They deal with knife crime and they improve the law in relation to alcohol, particularly under-age drinking, which is so often the cause of antisocial behaviour. The order also updates road traffic legislation.
Knife crime powers deal with the possession and supply of knives and offensive weapons; they create a strong package of sentences, with up to four years’ imprisonment across the board.
On alcohol, the order gives powers to deal with drinking in public and the sale of alcohol to minors. In consultation with the police, councils will be able to designate areas, which will allow drinking in public to be better regulated. Age restrictions on off-sales will be policed through a new test purchase power. As a result of consultation, I undertook to re-screen the test purchase powers in terms of equality and to publish draft guidance on their use. I am pleased to say that I have completed those requirements, and I published them today on the Northern Ireland Office website.
On road traffic, we are creating additional police powers to tackle drink driving and speeding, and to deal with the seizure of vehicles such as quad bikes and motorised scooters, which can be such a plague on many estates and in communities. Sentences for driving while disqualified or without insurance—two things that frequently result in multiple offences coming before the courts—have been increased.
One of the order’s main aims is to ensure that the criminal justice system works effectively. Services and punishments need to be targeted at the right kind of offender. We are expanding police powers to attach conditions to bail. We are modernising the law on prisons and enhancing powers over illegal articles. Most important, we are changing the provisions under which 17-year-old girls can be held in adult prisons. That is no longer acceptable; they will in future be dealt with by the Juvenile Justice Centre. We are also expanding the use of live video links between prisons and courts, improving flexibility in the execution of arrest warrants and creating more efficient systems to deal with breach proceedings.
Perhaps one of the most significant improvements will be the power of the courts to impose a form of community service on those who default on fines. In chapter 6, the order recognises the fact that for too long numerous fine defaulters have ended up in prison. There is increasing concern about that in Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recently looked into the matter. Last year, about 2,000 offenders were sent to prison for defaulting on fines—about a third of all prison admissions. That is no longer acceptable. The order is a substantial step forward in developing alternative punishments for those who default on fines. Prison should be used for more serious offences. The supervised activity order, supervised in the community by probation officers, will be constructive, restorative and more effective in dealing with the problem of fine defaulting, and we will publish further proposals in the summer.
The Committee will want to know whether we have put in place the resources needed to implement the reforms. Almost £40 million has already been allocated for their implementation. Over the next three years, £5 million will go to the prison service, £6 million to the probation service, with £3 million for other support services. The probation service in Northern Ireland will be appointing more than 50 additional probation staff.
The new sentencing framework represents a much needed and momentous change. I have established an implementation team to bring together the key agencies, including the police, the probation service and the prison service, to ensure that all the measures are phased in and managed effectively.
The protection of the public from dangerous violent and sexual offenders is my top priority. That is why the process for appointing parole commissioners and the availability of public protection sentences to the courts will happen within weeks of the order receiving Royal Assent. Other powers will be rolled out progressively over the next year or so.
The main focus of my speech has been the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order. We will debate the consequential amendments order later in our proceedings. I am pleased to bring before the Committee a range of sentencing powers to deal with dangerous violent and sexual offenders, to strengthen post-release supervision across the board and to remove automatic 50 per cent. remission. The Government are delivering a balanced package—widely consulted on and widely supported—to toughen the sentences available to courts, to deal with dangerous offenders and to enhance public protection. It also provides credible alternatives to custody for those whose offences are less serious and who are less risky. I commend the order to the Committee.
The Chairman: May I inform the Committee that a Division is anticipated shortly? If there is a Division, I will suspend the Committee for 15 minutes.
4.45 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Atkinson? I thank the Minister for his detailed introduction to the order, which was useful. I also thank his team for briefing me fairly recently in Belfast. Indeed, I thank him for allowing me access to them. He always does that and I am very grateful for such help. I also welcome the input that the Northern Ireland Assembly has had into the debate. We are, of course, discussing a reserved matter, but the report was extremely helpful and interesting and it is very good that there has been such extensive consultation in Northern Ireland.
We generally support the order. I understand that it basically tracks the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and I have one or two questions about the workings of that Act, which I think are relevant and which I trust you will find to be in order, Mr. Atkinson. I understand that there have been some problems with the workings of the Act. I accept that there has been some recognition of that and an attempt to fill the gaps with this order, but I understand that some parts of the Act have not been implemented in England and Wales. Which parts have not been implemented and what is the reason for that? Have the weaknesses of the Act in that respect been corrected with this order?
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The case affected my constituency and not everybody was satisfied with the suggestion that the legislation should be blamed.
Mr. Robertson: I am terribly sorry, but I did not hear the final part of the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
Alun Michael: I was saying that although there were suggestions that legislation was to blame, many were not convinced by that explanation of what appeared to be an unduly lenient sentence. Of course, many sentences end up with a higher judiciary finding them to have been lenient. I think that the situation is a little more complex than the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Perhaps the Minister can referee on that one. I would be interested to hear what he has to say.
Another criticism was that the prison service and the probation service in England and Wales were initially overwhelmed by the imposition of, in particular, short-tariff indeterminate sentences. How does the Minister think that that might be avoided in Northern Ireland?
The Government response to the Select Committee report, which the Minister touched on, accepts that the prison population could increase quite significantly. The intention is to replace the Maghaberry prison, but the Minister said that just £5 million extra would be given to prisons as a result of the proposals. That does not seem an awful lot of money, given the problems that the report highlighted in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and I wonder whether the Minister will go into the issue in a little more detail.
Will the Minister also give us an estimate of how much the prison population will increase by as a result of this measure? Presumably, people will go to prison for longer and stay there for longer because remission arrangements will be changed. I would be interested to get some figures on that if there are any available.
The Minister spoke about the high level of fine defaulters, and the report says that the figure at receptions into Northern Ireland prisons is 59 per cent. He and I have discussed the issue before, and whether the figure is 33 or 59 per cent. is not entirely the point because the number is very high. I am therefore grateful to him for answering the question that I was going to ask, which was how are we going to deal with the problem? People can sometimes be in prison for as little as 24 hours, and they should not really be there. I am therefore pleased that he is tackling the problem.
The high level of remand prisoners is also a concern. Given the nature of the prison estate, it is extremely difficult to handle so many different categories of prisoners. As well as fine defaulters, remand prisoners and what might be termed ordinary prisoners, there are paramilitary prisoners from both sides in Maghaberry, which adds to the difficulties. I therefore return to the question of resources. Will there be adequate resources to cope with an already difficult situation? The extra measure before us is welcome in general terms, but will the resources be there to allow us to handle the new situation?
There will be a big knock-on effect on the probation service. Again, the Minister referred to an increase—£6 million—but that does not seem an awful lot of money in the scheme of things. Perhaps he could go into more detail on that, too.
As regards the time that people spend on probation, I understand that there is a problem with getting prisoners to undertake courses and resettlement work in prison. Does the Minister have any plans to increase participation so that the release of prisoners will be a greater success?
Generally, we welcome the orders. I would be grateful if the Minister could address some of my questions, but if the information is not available now, he could perhaps write to me, as he frequently does. With those few points, I give a general welcome to the order.
4.53 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the orders on behalf, I think, of all the parties in the Assembly. The orders are perhaps a bit unique in so far as they are the first measures to come through Parliament since the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland which the Assembly has had an input into. The other significant point about them—
4.54 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
5.9 pm
On resuming—
Sammy Wilson: There has been an opportunity for the measure to be debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly, where it has received support from all the parties, albeit with some qualifications, and that is an important step forward. Of course there are some people who are now in political positions in Northern Ireland who would in the past have preferred to be able to dole out justice and set sentences, rather than having them set through the course of law. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved in that respect as well.
I welcome the measure, including the main or headline provision, which relates to the sentencing of people found guilty of serious sexual and violent offences. I pay tribute to those who campaigned for the change in the law. I know that, as the Minister pointed out, our proceedings are being watched with interest by one of those people, who campaigned tirelessly after the atrocious murder in Northern Ireland of his wife by someone who was released despite being deemed a threat to the public; under the law as it stood, nothing could be done. I suppose that for many who may not understand the parliamentary process, the passage of the measure has been frustratingly long, from the time when Northern Ireland Office Ministers first promised a change in the law, to today’s discussion of provisions that will hopefully soon be law.
We must, however, note some concerns about indeterminate and extended sentences. I suppose that the responsibility now falls on the courts and those who service them to ensure that when someone comes before them, having been charged with such serious offences as those to which the indeterminate and extended custodial sentences relate, the cases are dealt with thoroughly. A person must first be assessed either as a danger or as presenting a serious threat. As to the assessments and the court’s view, I suppose that a degree of subjectivity is involved, and it will be important to give a proper reading, and proper weight, to the reports.
There is also an important role for the new parole commissioners, who will consider the cases of those with extended sentences, to decide whether they should be released during the second half of their custodial sentence. Supervision afterwards is also a consideration; there is no point in releasing people under licence if their behaviour once they are released back on to the streets is not closely supervised. There is a big role to be played by all the relevant groups in ensuring that people who have been proven to be a danger to society are properly supervised even when they get out of prison. There is a responsibility to get that right.
On supervised activity orders, when the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee prepared its report on prisons in Northern Ireland, it struck all of us that about a third of prison turnover was taken up with fine defaulters. Apart from the question of the prison resources tied up in that way, that seemed totally inappropriate, especially when it was taken into account that some people found guilty of operating massive fuel laundering companies along the border with the Irish Republic either simply had assets taken from them or were given huge fines to make them repay the tax they had evaded. Yet some smaller-scale fine defaulters finished up serving time in prison. If we are going to keep some people in prison for longer, the places freed up by supervised activity orders will be important. I will make two points about that. First, there must be proper supervision of the orders to ensure that they are followed through. Anecdotal evidence on some non-custodial sentences suggests that they are not as rigorously enforced as people would like. If we are going to use such penalties for more offences, they must not be seen as soft options. Secondly, whatever the activity is, it must be related to the crime and it must be seen to bring benefit to the community. That would send an important message to people who break the law and do not pay fines, but escape going to prison.
On road traffic offences, it is appropriate that the order is going through this week. Just last Friday, I met police in my constituency about two or three areas where young people riding about on quads, scooters and scramblers are causing an immense nuisance. They know that the police can do very little about it because there has never been an ability to seize such vehicles in Northern Ireland.
Some parents are irresponsible in purchasing such “toys”, as they regard them, without giving any thought to where their children—some as young as seven and eight—will drive them. They are certainly not toys, considering the annoyance and danger that they cause in some areas. The most that the police can do is take the youngster home and tell the parent off. I do not know whether this is true of other parts of the UK, but we have an odd situation in Northern Ireland where the police have been discouraged from chasing youngsters because of the fear that the youngsters might crash and injure themselves. The youngsters know, therefore, that provided that they are quick enough to get away from the police, whether in a car or on a quad, which some police supervising woodland areas have, they do not have to worry about being taken home to their parents.
I wonder how effective the order will be because it requires the police to catch the people who are using such vehicles on the public road. Much of the nuisance and danger are caused on private land or parkland owned by councils. If the powers of seizure apply only to the public road, will the nuisance continue in places where it still puts people at risk, including the users of the vehicles? Will the Minister clarify whether the power can extend to other public places, which might not be public roads, but are public places owned by the council?
On alcohol consumption in designated public places, currently, under byelaws, councils can declare areas alcohol-free. Alcohol can be taken from those who drink it in such places. The order is a bit more restrictive than the byelaws available to councils. It indicates that an area can be designated only after it has been shown that drinking there is likely to lead to disorder. Currently, councils that identify areas where they think disorder is likely—because they are hidden, because other antisocial behaviour has happened there or because new premises selling alcohol have opened there—can set byelaws declaring them alcohol-free areas where people cannot drink in the street. Under the order, councils will be able to do so only after there is a record of antisocial behaviour identified with drinking. What will happen if a council anticipates that the opening of a nightclub, club or shop selling drink in a particular area will lead to people coming out into the street or a nearby park and drinking? Will it have to wait until there is a record of disorder—according to the order, it will have to consult the police anyhow—or will councils still be able to anticipate problems and take action to deal with them?
Penalties for people guilty of knife crimes will increase. That is important at a time when casual violence with weapons seems to be increasing. On prison security offences, when the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visited prisons in Northern Ireland, we were told that the drug problem in prisons was increasing, although it may not be as big as in other parts of the United Kingdom. I welcome the fact that anyone who helps to bring drugs into prison will now face a heftier sentence.
Overall, I echo what the Assembly says about the order. We believe that it is timely. We are glad that the provisions have been introduced. There has been a huge public campaign in Northern Ireland for the order’s main provision, and I believe that everyone there will welcome the fact that serious violent and sex offenders will not have the easy opportunity in future that they have had in the past.
5.24 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.
I, too, welcome the order. I support the vast bulk of the measures in it and thank the Minister for introducing and explaining it, but I want to raise one or two questions. The first concerns the introduction of indeterminate sentences. I am pleased to note that lessons have been learned from the experience of England and Wales before the implementation of indeterminate sentences in Northern Ireland, and that there will be a minimum tariff of at least 12 months for an extended custodial sentence and of two years for indeterminate custodial sentences. However, even with the minimum two-year tariff, the list of specified serious offences for which indeterminate sentences would be given, which is in schedule 1 of the draft order, is broad. The schedule lists 73 offences, which gives cause for concern because of the potential for differential interpretations of what constitutes a serious offence that may carry a life sentence, an extended custodial sentence or an indeterminate custodial sentence; for example, a wide range of offences listed as serious in schedule 1 includes riot, affray and false imprisonment. Those offences cover a wide range of offending behaviour with differing degrees of seriousness.
I draw the attention of the Committee to one of the Assembly Committee’s recommendations:
“The Committee suggested that the development of guidelines and courses by the Judicial Studies Board for the judiciary would be crucial to ensure that the new public-protection sentencing arrangements are implemented strictly in accordance with the legislation and that the judiciary are fully aware of the problems and experiences of inappropriate indeterminate sentences in England and Wales.”
Will the Minister assure us that the recommendation will be accepted?
I presume that there will be requirements on prisoners to complete courses such as behaviour management before they become eligible for release. I draw the Minister’s attention to an English High Court decision of 31 July 2007 in which two prisoners won rulings that it was unlawful to hold them when they could not access courses designed to redress their behaviour, and so help them to prove that they were fit for release. It is important that steps are taken to ensure that a similar situation does not develop in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure us that the requisite courses are in place in all Northern Ireland prisons where those who are serving indeterminate sentences will be held?
Due consideration must be given in advance as to whether the Northern Ireland Prison Service is equipped to deal with the provisions of the order. Can it meet the needs of prisoners who are to be in custody for an indeterminate period, who must prove that it is safe for them to be released? Will the Minister explain to the Committee what work has been done on that?
The Assembly Committee also recommended that the new sentencing and licensing arrangements should be subject to ongoing review by the Government, in consultation with other key agencies, so that any implementation problems can be rectified quickly and, if necessary, policy and legislation can be amended. Will the Minister assure us that that recommendation will be accepted?
Like the Assembly Committee, I welcome the supervised activity orders that are introduced in article 45, particularly as an alternative to custody for fine default. As the hon. Member for East Antrim said, a high number of people in prison are there for such offences. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee commented on the high number of fine defaulters who received a prison sentence compared with the number in England and Wales. It concluded that the imprisonment of fine defaulters represented a disproportional demand on scarce resources. Supervised activity orders are the key to tackling that issue.
Schedule 3, paragraph 1 of the order states that an SAO will be made only if
“arrangements exist for persons who reside in the petty sessions district in which the offender resides, or will be carry out the requirements of a supervised activity order”.
That could lead to a situation in which an offender does not have the opportunity to participate in an SAO through no fault of his or her own, but simply because there are no suitable arrangements in the locality in which he or she lives. Will the Minister ensure that arrangements will be put in place and that, where necessary, additional resources will be identified, so that there is access to suitable supervised activities throughout Northern Ireland?
I was pleased to see in the Assembly’s report that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland has had lengthy discussions with the Northern Ireland Office about the resources needed to carry out its new responsibilities. Can the Minister inform the Committee of any conclusions that have been reached on providing the Parole Board with proper funding to ensure that SAOs are implemented throughout Northern Ireland as a viable alternative to custody?
The challenge for penal policy in Northern Ireland is to make alternatives to custody a reality and to restrict custody to those who merit it. As part of our commitment to ensuring that community sentences are given where appropriate, we believe that more training initiatives should be put in place to increase sentencers’ awareness of the benefits of non-custodial sentences for fine default offences. Will the Minister tell us whether such courses will be developed in relation to SAOs and other community sentences?
The final issue that I want to address relates to youth justice, where I oppose the Government’s proposals. I wholeheartedly agree with the Assembly Committee and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the presumption should be that 17-year-old males will be sent to the Juvenile Justice Centre, unless there is no room for them or they are so difficult to manage that the JJC cannot cope with them. The emphasis in the order is entirely the wrong way round. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who was my party’s Northern Ireland spokesman, visited the JJC in Bangor at the beginning of February, and he was impressed by the work being done with the children detained there. The presumption should be that 17-year-olds will be accommodated in a facility specifically designed for children, not adults. Obviously, that is not always possible, and provision must be made to accommodate children if there is no room in the JJC. Surely, however, the presumption must be that we should look first to the JJC for accommodation and only then to the young offenders centre at Hydebank, which is managed by the prison service and accommodates adults up to the age of 21—rather than the other way around.
The issue is important. I understand that there might be accommodation problems at present, but the solution is surely to deal with them and ensure that the presumption in law is that 17-year-olds, whether male or female, are sent first to the JJC. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that important issue and introduce legislation in the near future to change that part of the order.
5.32 pm
Paul Goggins: I shall try to keep up with all the notes that have been ferried to me while members of the Committee have been making their remarks. I am grateful for all the comments that have been made about the order.
I begin with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who thanked the officials who have worked so hard to develop the detail of the order. I think that I speak on behalf of the whole Committee when I pay tribute to them not only for adopting the professional approach that one would expect from civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office, but for showing a real sense of commitment and dedication to the issue before us, which they, like all of us, know is important.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the details of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. He is right to suggest that many of the provisions in the order relate to those in the Act. Most of the sentencing provisions in the Act came into operation in 2005, but I need to go away and check whether there are particular sentencing arrangements that have not yet commenced. Further consideration is under way on a range of sentencing issues in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, currently before the House. As I shall explain in a second or two, some of the changes to the indeterminate sentences in that legislation will improve the management of such sentences in England and Wales. I hope that we will have the opportunity to learn from that so that we can get things absolutely right first time.
On indeterminate sentences for public protection, there were difficulties with the orders that originally came into operation in 2005. There are a number of reasons for that, and the review undertaken by the Ministry of Justice revealed some of them. The 2003 Act allowed the presumption that if a certain type of serious violent offence had been committed in the past and the offender was back in court, an indeterminate sentence could be imposed. However, the number of such sentences far exceeded what was anticipated, and the sentencing tariff was much lower than would have been considered relevant when dealing with high levels of risk and serious behaviour. The order, therefore, does not include a presumption that indeterminate or extended sentences can be imposed if certain offences have been committed in the past.
The order also allows extended or indeterminate sentences to be given only on indictment. That was not the case under the 2003 Act. We are introducing a two-year minimum tariff, so an offence has to have a certain level of seriousness before an indeterminate sentence can be given. In essence, we have given the judiciary more flexibility and space to determine whether a public protection sentence is appropriate. We believe that leaving it to the judges achieves the right balance; the risk assessment is obviously important in helping them to determine whether someone poses a substantial risk of causing serious harm to the public. That is the key criterion.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, who is no longer in the room, asked whether sentences would be adequate. Ministers, as Members of Parliament, are frequently tempted by commentators to give our view of particular sentences. Frankly, the role of the Minister is to bring forward the framework and to put in place powers for the judiciary to exercise; it is for judges and magistrates to determine the appropriate sentence in the particular circumstances. None the less, for certain offences it is possible for the Attorney-General to challenge a sentence as unduly lenient. That is an important safeguard, particularly for more serious offences, as it ensures that the punishment fits the crime. I shall avoid commenting on particular sentences or circumstances. My role is to ensure that the powers are in place and that the judiciary are able to exercise them in all circumstances.
The prison service will have an additional £5 million to run the programmes. In addition, we will be building 400 additional prison places in Northern Ireland over the next two years to ensure that the service has the necessary capacity to cope not only with the new indeterminate and extended sentences but with all prisoners in Northern Ireland. Our projections show that the additional space will be ample. The £5 million will enable specific and targeted work to be done. We anticipate that the new indeterminate and extended sentences will result in a net increase in the prison population of about 60 over the next 10 to 15 years. Overall, there could be a higher number of prisoners—about 120 more—but the new measures for non-custodial alternatives will bring that number down. We expect the net figure to be about 60, but the provision of extra places will allow it to be catered for fairly easily.
I turn to fine defaulters. The supervised activity order is important, but it is only a first step, and we will need to do other things. It is right to say that we need strict enforcement of fines, so we need to ensure that a power that is not in place in Northern Ireland is brought in as soon as possible; it will allow deductions from earnings or benefits if people refuse to pay fines. The supervised activity order should be a last alternative—it goes beyond those other measures. We need dramatically to reduce the number of fine defaulters going to prison. It is outrageous that so many of them go to prison—it costs about £1 million to administer those admissions. Prison wipes such debts clean, so it is a dodge for many. However, defaulters must be made to face up to their responsibilities and pay their fines.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury asked about probation. There is an additional £6 million. It has all been fully costed with the probation service, which will be able to employ an additional 50 or so members of staff to undertake the additional supervision work it will have to do. Of course, there will be considerable additional work. We have discussed it in detail with the probation service and are confident that the additional resources will be sufficient.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about participation. That is absolutely essential. If prisoners are to reduce risk and if people when released from prison are to remain law-abiding members of society, they will need to engage in the programmes that are on offer. In the first instance, those who pose the highest risk—those on indeterminate and extended sentences—will have to show that they are reducing risk. If they do not participate in programmes, it will be difficult for them to persuade the parole commissioners that they are reducing risk, so that ought to concentrate their minds on the need to participate. If, when they are released from prison, they do not participate in programmes that are stipulated in the licence, they can be recalled to prison. A licence condition and the power of recall will extend to the majority of prisoners when they are released. The fact that they must participate or suffer a consequence will concentrate the minds of those coming out of prison.
The hon. Member for East Antrim was right to say that this is the first major legislation to go through the Westminster Parliament since devolution last year. Our deliberations and our draft order have been improved because of the scrutiny and the consideration that has been given by the Assembly. The hon. Gentleman reminded us that the legislation is not an academic exercise but is rooted in experience, in the harsh suffering that individuals, families and communities have had to confront. He is wise to remind us of that. The legislation deals with the issue of public protection and safety, which is dear to all of us whichever constituency we represent, but which is especially dear to the constituents of hon. Members from Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of fine default. It is important to have that rigorous enforcement and the other options, as well the supervised activity order. We can then get the prisons and the prison officers to focus on the people on whom we really need to focus—the most dangerous and most risky, who need to be out of the community and properly supervised—rather than administering all these people coming and going who do not pose any risk and are just getting around paying the fine that they ought to be paying.
The hon. Gentleman asked about road traffic offences. There are new offences in the order, including causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless or inconsiderate driving. We have had an offence of dangerous driving but not of careless or inconsiderate driving, so it is welcome that that offence can now be tried. There are new powers to seize vehicles, and it is possible to seize them on the highway and also on private land. The only place where a police officer could not seize a vehicle would be someone’s private dwelling. I am sure that a police officer, having observed the activities of particular individuals who might have come out of that dwelling, would no doubt take an active interest in what happened beyond that occurrence. The police officer could not go into the property to seize the vehicle, but could go on to private land or into a garage.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned drinking in public. He is right that there has to be a record of nuisance or disorderly behaviour before a public space can be designated in that way, but we believe that that is a sufficient power. We will have a speedy process in place for designating those areas and ensuring that the law is properly enforced. It will also be important, in particular in relation to drinking legislation here, to have an ongoing review. Indeed, I have been in discussion with Ministers in the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland about how that review might proceed. Of course, the designation will be done by a local council under the reforms recently announced by the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. There is going to be a change in the framework of councils. As those changes occur, we must ensure that we keep all of this under active review to see whether there are other powers that we need to take.
The hon. Gentleman is right about prison security. I am not complacent about the fact that the level of drugs coming into prisons in Northern Ireland is not as great as it is in England and Wales. It is far too high in both. I recently ordered a complete review of drugs in prisons in Northern Ireland. Robin Masefield, the director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, is due to report soon. We will take whatever action we need to take to keep drugs out of prison where they can do so much damage and harm. Indeed, they can become a source of criminality within the prison itself. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that that will be a priority for me.
The hon. Gentleman is also right on costs. I know this is an issue that has focused the attention of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee over a long period. We know that running the separated regime with paramilitary prisoners, which is still the case in Northern Ireland, and all the other considerations over many years have made the Northern Ireland system very expensive. I am determined to bring those costs down and we are taking steps to ensure that that happens. Indeed, as he says, the extension of video links to circumstances other than those currently permitted will help and will also add to security. It adds to public safety if prisoners are not being carried around Northern Ireland from prison to court but remain in the prison doing a live link-up to the court.
I shall deal with the last point made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute first; I know he feels strongly about it. The simple fact is that there is provision for 17-year-old males. There is a youth offender centre in Northern Ireland with capacity for 300 young offenders. We already have that in place. That regime is appropriate for young males. But the only option for a 17-year-old girl who is remanded into custody or given a custodial sentence is to put her into the women’s prison in Northern Ireland and that is inappropriate. That is why we have made it clear that any 17-year-old girl who is either remanded or sentenced would go to Woodlands. I hope that he appreciates the distinction between the two. It certainly is a priority for me to ensure that that happens as soon as possible. Woodlands is an excellent centre. It is still very new but it is doing a very good job. It would be far more appropriate for 17-year-old girls to be there rather than in the women’s prison at Hydebank Wood.
The hon. Gentleman pressed me in a number of ways about indeterminate sentences and extended sentences. I can reassure him that all the risk assessments that are done in terms of the judge’s decision to give one of those sentences will be adhered to very carefully. As I said, previous offences will be considered, as well as the circumstances of the current offence. There is a long list of offences, as he said, but that strict process and procedure has to be followed. It is open for any prisoner who has been given a sentence to which he profoundly objects to challenge it and to appeal if he thinks there are reasons in law why it has not been properly made. I believe that that combination of the legislation plus the experience and the good sense of the judiciary in Northern Ireland will mean that the system will work.
I am familiar with the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred of prisoners in England bringing a case against the Ministry of Justice. I am very confident that the programmes will be in place in sufficient capacity to deal with the new indeterminate sentence prisoners when they come through. Much of the provision will be an extension of what is already delivered for life sentence prisoners, sex offenders and others, but we will need to ensure that the capacity is in place, and the extra £5 million that we are investing in that will, I believe, be sufficient.
The hon. Gentleman asked us to keep all the provisions under review. Of course we will do that. Quite properly, we need to review any new legislation to see what the impact is and whether further changes should be made. I offer him the guarantee that that will continue in this case. He also mentioned fine default. I will not repeat my earlier comments, but there is now a real groundswell of opinion in that respect. Who knows? Following the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, perhaps the Assembly can also champion that issue and press for action on it. I am referring to proper enforcement and other measures, such as supervised activities, but not prison, except as a backstop—a very last resort. That is the only circumstance in which it can be justified.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.

Draft Criminal justice (NOrthern Ireland consequential amendments) Order 2008

That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 2008.—[Paul Goggins.]
Committee rose at eight minutes to Six o’clock.

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