Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I shall explain the relationship between prisoners such as Fisher and Wright and the decisions made under the agreement reached last week in

20 Apr 1998 : Column 920

Belfast. There will be established, subject to legislation, a sentence review body which will consider the situation of all prisoners who have been convicted of scheduled offences. Fisher and Wright were convicted of scheduled offences. Therefore this process will be subject to the decision of the sentence review board. We hope that the legislation, subject to Parliament's wish, will pass through Parliament by the end of June this year. It will then be for the independent sentence review body to decide in what order and under what priorities it proceeds to consider various prisoners' cases.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, on a point of clarification, I seek an assurance. I listened with the greatest attention, but surely the noble Lord can give that assurance in view of his answer.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, if we leave the decision to an independent body it is difficult for me to give an assurance as to how that independent body will work. However, in general terms the answer is yes. If the sentence review body takes a long time to reach the case we are discussing, the Government have already given a commitment that the Life Sentence Review Board--which will stay in existence--will reconsider the case in October 1998. I gave an undertaking that 12 months after the previous occasion on which the body considered the case, the Secretary of State would ask it to reconsider the case. That still holds good. These bodies are independent. The decision about Fisher and Wright will not be delayed as a result of the peace process; indeed it may be accelerated.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, will the Minister concede that the embarrassment which has arisen out of the case of the two guardsmen is the inevitable consequence of a politician exercising the judicial function of deciding how long a person convicted of murder should stay in prison?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, no, I would not concede that point.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, should the sentence review body make a decision which was not in favour of the early release of the two guardsmen, would Her Majesty's Government consider putting the case to the Sovereign so that she could exercise her prerogative of mercy?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I have indicated that two procedures will be running in parallel: the Life Sentence Review Board procedure which is already in existence; and, subject to new legislation, the sentence review body. Either will be able to make a decision about the two guardsmen. In the circumstances, I think that it would not be appropriate to refer the case elsewhere.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, how can soldiers do their duty if, in the course of doing it to the best of their ability, often in very difficult circumstances, they are rendering themselves liable to be sued for murder if they kill someone in error?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I agree that of course our soldiers and the RUC in Northern Ireland have carried out

20 Apr 1998 : Column 921

a very difficult task over many years in a brave and exemplary manner, and that their lives have been at risk. Indeed quite a few of them have been killed in the course of doing their duties. That has to be clear and accepted by all, as I am sure it is.

However, we also have the rule of law. We also have independent courts. It was the court that decided that these two men were guilty of murder. It is part of our system that the courts make those decisions and not governments.

The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, it is all very well to reply, as the Minister has done, but we who have served in the Army ourselves are taking a great interest in the lives of the two guardsmen. I am proud to have marched with the infantry for 30 years of my life. We do not wish to have the judicature interfered with in any way, but these two guardsmen have been in prison for five years. They did an act in the heat of the moment in the discharge of their duty. We should like the Government to recommend to the judicature that those guardsmen should get off as soon as possible.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, when prisoners are given life sentences in Northern Ireland the Life Sentence Review Board normally does not look into their cases until they have served 10 years. In this particular case, and quite exceptionally, the LSRB was asked to look into the case after five years. It will be asked to look again at the case a year later--that is, next October. I should have thought that that goes quite some way towards meeting the noble Duke's point. Each case has to be considered in the particular circumstances relating to it. That has been done in the case of Fisher and Wright.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, in the light of what the Minister said, on the last occasion of a judicial review of these cases, which was some time in the middle of last year, was not the recommendation that the two guardsmen should be released last October? Was that recommendation turned down by the Secretary of State and not by the judges?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, last October the Life Sentence Review Board gave its confidential recommendations to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State considered those views and all other facts relating to the case and asked the Life Sentence Review Board to look again at the matter a year later. As I said earlier, that is next October. I do not think that the judicial review decision urged release. I believe that the decision related to the procedures surrounding the way in which the case had been handled.


Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend Lords Dubs will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that has been made in another place on the Irish settlement.

It may also be for the convenience of the House to know that some additional business has been tabled for Wednesday, 22nd April. At the end of business on that

20 Apr 1998 : Column 922

day, that is to say after the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, and the Private Member's Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, my noble friend Lord Dubs will move two affirmative orders arising from the peace settlement in Northern Ireland. These orders are being laid today.

Social Security Bill

3.4 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 1:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Adjudication Standards Commissioner

(" .--(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint an Adjudication Standards Commissioner.
(2) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall keep under review the exercise by the Secretary of State of the functions transferred to him by paragraph (a) of section 1 above and in particular the accuracy of decisions made by him or on his behalf under sections 9, 10 and 11 below, and the time within which such decisions are made.
(3) The Adjudication Standards Commissioner shall report annually to the Secretary of State in the light of the review referred to in subsection (2) above and the Secretary of State shall lay a copy of his report before Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 1 in a House which, although rapidly emptying, is still somewhat fuller than it has been for almost the whole of the previous debate on the Bill.

The amendment brings back part of an amendment that I moved at Committee stage. In its original form, the amendment made the adjudication standards commissioner responsible for giving guidance on law and for ensuring the proper training of persons making first tier social security decisions as well as for reviewing the standards of decision making. The additional guidance and training functions were criticised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. On reconsideration, I believe that he was correct to criticise them. Therefore this amendment drops those functions. The present amendment leaves the adjudication standards commissioner responsible only for reviewing and reporting on standards of first tier adjudication.

Adjudication standards are, sadly, low. The chief adjudication officer's report for 1996-97 found that there were adjudication deficiencies in 45 per cent. of income support cases examined by him, and in 37 per cent. of family credit cases. The chief child support officer found that there were deficiencies in 57 per cent. of child support cases examined by him. That is a lamentable record and indicates that close and continuous monitoring of standards is essential.

How is that to be achieved? At col. 50 of Hansard of 30th March, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that agency chief executives would be responsible for the monitoring and general oversight of the system. She continued that there would also be external monitoring of that system. But the only external monitoring that she mentioned was by the National Audit Office and by the president of the appeal tribunals. National Audit Office

20 Apr 1998 : Column 923

monitoring is mainly concerned with the audit of the accounts of the Department of Social Security. The National Audit Office is quite plainly a body which is unsuitable to review adjudication standards.

The president of tribunals will report only on those cases which go to appeal. That is useful so far as it goes, but he will be dealing only with a limited and unrepresentative sample. It follows therefore that the main responsibility is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, on the chief executives to monitor their own agencies. Chief executives, like the rest of us, are only human and it is an inevitable tendency, of which I think we are all aware, that when we report on the performance of our own organisation we aim to present it in the best possible light.

At Committee stage I quoted from the comments of the presidents of the Independent Tribunal Services of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I shall do so again. The quotation appears at col. 46 of Hansard of 30th March. It states:

    "'Once the Chief Adjudication Officer ... ceases to exist, there will be no independent means of assessing consistency and reliability of decision-making. If such a system is not established, and it is left to the Chief Executive of the relevant agencies, we fear that it may not achieve the priority it deserves when competing for funds in a pressured business environment. The absence of such a system may actually threaten achievable efficiency at first-tier level'".
External monitoring of the performance of those responsible for taking the first year decisions is of the highest importance to the maintenance of proper standards of adjudication. The Government's proposal in Amendment No. 68, grouped with this one, is for internal monitoring only. The proposal for an independent adjudication standards commissioner is a better way of achieving the higher standards which I am sure all of us in this House wish to ensure. I therefore ask the Government to think again on this question.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page