Criminal Justice: Murder of PSNI Officers
Private Members’ Business
William Hay (DUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Before we begin, I advise Members of the need to take care in their contributions today. The first part of the motion refers to the sentences that were handed down for the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll. The House will know that the Director of Public Prosecutions has indicated his intention to refer matters to do with the sentencing of that case to the Court of Appeal for review. Although the referral has not yet been made, I ask Members to be mindful that those matters are expected to come before the Court of Appeal. I am sure that Members will be careful not to stray into the domain of the courts in Northern Ireland.
I also caution the House that I will expect the debate to focus on the key purpose of the motion, which is to call for a review of sentencing for the murder of PSNI officers, or on the amendment, which calls for a sentencing guidelines council. I ask Members not to stray into any other issue or refer to matters that are not directly related to the motion or the amendment, both of which are very clear-cut. If Members stray too far, I assure them that I will intervene very quickly.
Finally, the motion deals with sensitive and serious issues. I expect Members to be mindful of the dignity of the Assembly at all times. Let us move on.
Jonathan Craig (DUP)
I beg to move
The DUP believes that this issue is of significant importance. On 9 March 2009, Constable Stephen Carroll was in the twenty-fourth year of carrying out his duty as a police officer and was brutally murdered in a terrorist plot in Craigavon. The whole community was stunned and had to come to terms with the first killing of a police officer for 11 years in Northern Ireland. At the end of March, Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton received minimum sentences of 25 years and 14 years respectively for their parts in that callous murder. In the case of John Paul Wootton, the minimum sentence was lowered by Lord Justice Girvan to coincide with the ruling of Lord Woolf in the McCandless case of 2004. Clearly, it is thought that those under the age of 18 should be handed a lower sentence in contrast to adult perpetrators of murder. Although that may be true, the sheer belligerence of the act of killing a serving police officer demonstrates a distinct knowledge and understanding of how to commit such an atrocious act.
Although that English ruling has been superseded by a newer framework in England, Northern Ireland does not fall under the new remit for longer tariffs to be administered. Subsequently, a lighter sentence was recently handed down. It should, therefore, be proper that Northern Ireland should have the same legislation as England in that regard. A minimum of 30 years is the sentence. In fact, in the Republic of Ireland, a similar conviction for the murder of a police officer could see a period of imprisonment of at least 40 years. The difference in those sentence periods in comparison with the actual sentences that were handed down suggests that PSNI officers do not hold the same degree of importance as their counterparts in England and the Irish Republic. A concern —
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
The Member makes an interesting point, which is that we should have the same sentencing framework as in GB, which is set down in statutory form in the 2003 Act. Would he care to comment that, under the 2003 Act, the starting sentence for someone aged 17 at the time of committing the offence is not 30 years, but 12 years?
That is the current position under the 2003 Act. If the Member is advocating the 2003 Act, he is advocating exactly the de facto situation that we have. Is that not right?
Jonathan Craig (DUP)
The Member has raised a good point, and that is why, if he reads the motion carefully, he will see that I did not advocate an exact copy of the legislation in the rest of the UK. It is up to this House to decide what value we put on the life of a police officer. I agree with the Member if he is disagreeing with the minimum sentence of 12 years; I also disagree with that.
The sentence handed down to those who were responsible for the murder of Constable Carroll should act as a deterrent. In recent years, that, to my mind, has not been the case. It should be seen as a way to influence positive change in the sentences handed down to those who carry out horrific acts such as the murder and attempted murder of members of the security forces. It is important to highlight that the motion does not aim to create tension across the Benches. Rather, it is aimed at seeking clarification and assurances that any act of terrorism that attempts to claim or claims the life of a PSNI officer will be treated with severity through the judicial system.
The practice statement from the Court of Appeal in 2002 by Lord Woolf specifies the variation of starting points for life sentence offenders depending on their age and other mitigating factors that hold influence. A starting point of 15 to 16 years in the statement applies to cases where the killing was professional and politically motivated. The unfortunate reality in March 2009 was that this murder was carried out in a professional manner and had political ramifications, despite widespread condemnation from all sides of this Chamber.
The victim, Constable Carroll, was providing a public service and was specifically lured into position for the planned killing to take place. These factors all point towards this case being the most serious murder case since the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The recent Public Prosecution Service news release on the Wootton and McConville trial stated that it hoped that, following the trial process, the verdict:
“will bring a measure of comfort to Kate Carroll”.
Inevitably, the outcome of the trial has demonstrated a concern, which many will recognise, about the sentence handed down to the offender. At the moment, there is, unfortunately, still a threat to police officers and members of the security forces. Those individuals are clear targets for dissident republicans, who are attempting to kill them. There is a feeling that the murder of a police officer or a member of the security forces should command the highest sentences possible.
The undue leniency of the sentence in this case leaves an open door to review, as I mentioned earlier, through the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal has a wide remit, and further consideration can be given to an increase in the sentence handed down. The seriousness of the offence and the widespread coverage that this case received should act as a precedent to demonstrate that future attacks or attempted murders of police officers should receive as high a sentence as possible from the judicial system.
The support of Lord Justice Girvan and the Police Federation of Northern Ireland’s chairman, Terry Spence, for a review of sentencing policies is to be welcomed and demonstrates the collective view from both sides — the judicial system and the Police Federation — that new measures should be implemented to bring sentencing into line with law on the British mainland. In light of that, my party believes that it is of significant importance that a review of such sentences affecting attacks and attempted murders of police officers is carried out to give assurances to those who are presently affected and to support those who may become victims in the future.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of detail around the area, the DUP will not support the SDLP amendment calling for an independent council on sentences to be established. However, I have no difficulty whatsoever in commending the motion to the House. It is a motion that goes to the heart of policing in our community. What value do we put on the life of officers who we send out daily to take risks on our behalf so that our community will be safer? Unfortunately, I had to go to an incident last week where an attempt was made on the lives of two officers. That brought home to me the risks that those people take daily on our behalf to serve us, so it is only right that I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert
“; and further calls for the establishment of an independent sentencing guidelines council for Northern Ireland.”
I do not think anybody in the House could fail to be moved by the reaction of Mrs Carroll to the murder of her husband, a serving police officer, and to the sentencing. Most, if not all, in the House would share that sense of concern and outrage about what happened. That highlights the need for us, as legislators and public representatives, to send a very strong message to the community that we support the PSNI and officers in carrying out their duty serving the public. There is a need to send out a very strong message to those who attempt to murder and injure or do murder and injure police officers. It is very important that we send the very strong message that these are officers who serve and protect this community and uphold the law. Therefore, we are very supportive of the DUP motion.
The SDLP amendment also highlights an important issue to address now in a timely fashion. The Stephen Carroll case highlights the issues of public confidence and consistency in sentencing. It is important for us to remember that the public at times do not share the confidence that maybe we have in the justice system. Indeed, the 2008-09 Northern Ireland crime survey found that only 24% of respondents believed that the courts were effective at giving punishments that fitted the crime. Only 24% felt that the criminal justice system achieved the correct balance between the rights of offenders and victims. When asked what the criminal justice system could do to improve its public confidence rating, the largest proportion of respondents cited the need for tougher sentences. The case of Stephen Carroll highlights that. We believe, therefore, that it is appropriate to raise the issue in the House today. We regret the fact that the DUP will not support us in relation to that, but it is important to highlight the issue of a sentencing guidelines mechanism or council. Of course, the Department of Justice has conducted a consultation on that.
It is our view that a council should be the preferred method of dealing with sentencing and sentencing guidelines. That is because the council that exists in Britain serves a very useful public purpose in giving confidence to the public that sentencing will be appropriate and consistent. The Sentencing Council in Britain states that it will:
“promote a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing; produce analysis and research on sentencing; and work to improve public confidence in sentencing.”
It will also:
“prepare sentencing guidelines; publish the resource implications in respect of the guidelines it drafts and issues; monitor the operation and effect of its sentencing guidelines and draw conclusions; prepare a resource assessment to accompany new guidelines; promote awareness of sentencing and sentencing practice; and publish an annual report that includes the effect of sentencing and non sentencing practices.”
That council was chaired by a rather obscure Lord Justice, Lord Justice Leveson. He is not so obscure now. That council was important in informing the judiciary in relation to what the public felt. One of its functions is to help to educate public opinion on the difficult issue of sentencing. That should be the preferred option of this House, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, who set up a sentencing group in 2009. That group has been working, and he has expanded it. The group has been doing good and valuable work, but it is at the lower end of things. We believe that there is an added value to establishing a council similar to the one in Britain. The council would be a combination of judges and laypeople and would be independent. There would be no political interference in that council, and it would have an educational role here in Northern Ireland. We ask all colleagues in the House to think carefully about our suggestion that that should be the preferred option.
I know that there are different views in the House, and I know that all of us are united in trying to move this forward and to win public confidence on sentencing. Let us go for the best option rather than for a mechanism that may not be fully effective in dealing with the issue that is so clearly highlighted by the Stephen Carroll case. That option is public confidence in sentencing and consistency in sentencing. I do not think it is up to us as legislators, at this point, to directly legislate on the sentencing of those convicted of the murder of a police officer. It may well be that, at some time in the future, we will have to legislate, but it is preferable that the Court of Appeal and the judiciary take into account the public views and the public concern of the Assembly in relation to the murder of police officers.
We in the SDLP have worked hard to support the PSNI. We believe that many young men and young women have joined the PSNI to serve the public valiantly and dutifully, and they deserve our utmost support. They should not be sold short, and, therefore, we are supportive of sending a very strong message to those who would seek to attack or murder police officers. There needs to be deterrence, and a very strong signal needs to be sent out that the murder of police officers will not be tolerated and that those who carry out and are convicted of those murders will face a very long and tough sentence.
This is a timely and proper motion to bring before the House. We are supportive of it, and we hope that colleagues will consider what we say, so that we can move forward on the issue together as a united House.
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Beidh mé ag labhairt ar son an leasaithe agus in éadan an rúin. Sinn Féin will support the amendment tabled by the SDLP. We thank the Members who brought the motion and the amendment to the Assembly today. Sinn Féin tabled an amendment calling for the establishment of a sentence guidance council because we believe that such a body would provide a fair, equitable, open and transparent process for producing appropriate sentences once a person is convicted. The DUP motion, in our opinion, moves away from those principles.
In the case of Stephen Carroll, I, like others, add my sympathy to his family and my condemnation of those who carried out his murder. Concerns have been raised by his widow, Kate — I acknowledge her presence in the Assembly today — and those concerns will now be addressed by the Court of Appeal. It is her right to do that, as it for any person who believes that a sentence is not appropriate. There is an ability to challenge that. In this instance, I believe that the mechanism has been employed correctly by the Director of Public Prosecutions. However, that in itself does not address the wider concerns in society about sentencing guidelines. Indeed, many people query the sentencing processes.
We have to ensure that the justice system and all its processes are based on equality and fairness. At present, anyone convicted of murder receives a mandatory life sentence, and we have to ensure that people are not confused about what is a tariff and the fact that a person has been sentenced to life and that such a sentence is mandatory. As I have previously stated, criticism of the judicial systems and sentencing processes are not new, and one has only to consider the case of Harry Holland to verify all aspects of that concern and, in particular, some of the issues that we will address today.
Sinn Féin believes that there is a need for a clear and consistent approach to sentencing under the principles of fairness and equality. In our opinion, that will ensure maximum public confidence. Sentencing councils work successfully in other jurisdictions because they ensure that one of their core functions is to promote awareness among the public of the complexities and often the realities of sentencing. The Minister has stated his intention to set up a sentencing group as initiated by the Lord Chief Justice, and, although that may address some concerns, it is our belief that the Minister should go to the next level and put in place the mechanism that will inspire maximum public confidence, namely the sentencing guidance council model. That is the case because it is on a statutory footing.
In some ways, I am disappointed — I am sure that the DUP will respond to the contentions of Alban Maginness, who proposed the amendment — because, in my opinion, the House should not divide on this issue. The SDLP has proposed a fine amendment, and the original motion brings too narrow a focus to a very complex and sensitive issue. The SDLP amendment allows for all the issues raised today to be addressed though a sentencing council.
It is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that everyone is treated equally before the law, and the best method of delivering that in sentencing is, in our view, the model of the sentence council. Such a body should be placed on a statutory footing, covered by legislation, with guidelines that cannot be departed from without judicial explanation. In our view, that will address the many diverse and complex issues that the sentencing procedure entails and that have been brought to public attention. Indeed, such a council will cover all the issues arising from the Stephen Carroll case and will not prevent appropriate sentences when someone is convicted in the future. Therefore, we will support the amendment.
Ross Hussey (UUP)
Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The American declaration of independence, written in 1776, states:
“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations declared:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Therefore, there is no argument that an individual has the right to life and, of course, that no individual has the right to take a life.
The human rights legislation goes further and dictates how someone who takes another person’s life should be treated. It is within that that we have the call for the removal of capital punishment. Capital punishment is no longer an option open to the courts for the murder of a police officer or of any other individual. Some will agree with that restriction, and others will not. In our history, in 1973, the last man to be sentenced to hang was William Holden, and his death sentence was commuted.
We are aware of the policy of England and Wales in relation to the murder of a police officer. Schedule 21(5) to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, states that, if the offender is over 18 and the court considers the offence serious, the starting point for sentencing is a minimum term of 30 years. In the Republic of Ireland, the sentence is a minimum term of 40 years. Offences that would satisfy English law include:
“the murder of a police officer or prison officer in the course of his duty”
“a murder involving the use of a firearm or explosive”.
So, clearly, in another part of this kingdom, the starting point would be more than 30 years’ imprisonment for a person over 18, who, by use of a gun or explosive, chooses to murder a police officer, and, in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, the starting point is 40 years.
I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board and as someone who had the honour to wear the uniform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Someone who is prepared to protect this community deserves the right to expect that this society treat those who murder police officers as being beneath contempt. I also believe that murder is murder is murder and that a murderer should go to jail for the remainder of their natural life. The term “life imprisonment” should mean life imprisonment. In New South Wales, life imprisonment for murder is generally for the remainder of the prisoner’s life, unless clemency is granted by the governor or governor-general.
Normally, we are looking at an offence committed by a person aged 18 or over because they are classed as adult. So, where do we go if the murderer is under 18? In the specific case that we are looking at, one of those convicted was 17 when the offence was committed. Was he any different then than he is now? As the case is subject to DPP review, I cannot comment further on his specific actions; however, had he been 21 at the time of the murder, his intent would have been exactly the same. People have to accept that in a civilised society it is not acceptable to murder a police officer in cold blood. At 17, you can legally marry, join the army, drive a car — in fact, our Environment Minister is considering reducing that age to sixteen and a half — so you are no legally different from someone who is 18. Most of your mental faculties and reasoning power would have been formed many years previously.
I believe that our law in relation to the murder of police officers must mirror that in England, as we are part of the United Kingdom. I also believe that, given similar circumstances, the age of the perpetrator of the murder of a police officer is irrelevant. I would even be prepared to support the view that the law that applies in the Republic of Ireland should apply here and a 40-year tariff should apply.
Have the perpetrators learned anything from their act of terror? Mrs Carroll will never again have the opportunity to open the door to her husband, and it is Mrs Carroll who we need to have in our thoughts when we reach a decision on this matter. All those who are prepared to stand out on cold, dark nights when we are tucked up in our beds and, as members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, put their life on the line for us deserve our support. The victim is the one we must remember at all times, not the perpetrator. As I said, human beings are endowed with reason, and nobody with a conscience would set out to murder anybody in cold blood.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
I begin by once again expressing my sympathy to Mrs Carroll and paying tribute to her husband, Stephen, a dedicated police officer who lost his life serving the whole community. His willingness to serve the public every day, including the night that he was murdered, contrasts so intensely with the cruelty and cowardice of those who carried out that attack. The events of that night have been repeatedly discussed in recent weeks. This cannot be an easy day for Mrs Carroll. Indeed, many more days will not be easy for her. I pay tribute to her dignified response to the sentencing and subsequent developments in the debate.
The Alliance Party supports the motion and opposes the amendment. In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about sentences for the murder of police officers and comparative sentences in England and Wales. Of course, one of the great benefits of devolution is that we no longer have to rely on other politicians when we respond to this type of public discussion in Northern Ireland. Devolution allows local representatives to engage with local people and give much greater consideration to their concerns.
As other Members have said, few crimes are as serious and as offensive as murder. Taking a life causes not only short-term distress but long-lasting pain and anguish for all those affected. It is important that such an offence is met with sentences that reflect the severity of the crime and the disgust with which it is regarded by society. Therefore, the Alliance Party supports a review of sentencing guidelines for all cases in which a life sentence of murder has been passed, including the murder of police officers.
I am somewhat surprised that an amendment was tabled by the SDLP. The Department of Justice’s consultation on sentencing guidelines was issued in October 2010, and I note from the summary of responses of March 2011 that the SDLP did not respond, despite having ample opportunity to do so.
The Alliance Party is not prepared to support the establishment of an independent sentence guidelines council. On 23 June 2011, the Justice Committee was briefed on the responses to the consultation, and it was explained that there was overall support for a structured mechanism to deliver on sentencing guidelines. During the consultation process, it was estimated that a sentencing guidelines council would cost Northern Ireland nearly half a million pounds annually. The majority of respondents agreed that, in a tough financial climate, a council or panel model does not represent value for money. The Alliance Party agrees that the adoption of either model cannot be justified when the objectives agreed for a sentencing guidelines mechanism can arguably be achieved by using existing structures. Moreover, there is an absence of evidence that such models boost public confidence in sentencing.
My party wants the views of victims to be represented. We want the provision of more information to allow for a better understanding of sentencing among the general public, and we want the public to be better engaged in the debate. To those ends, the Minister rightly put forward proposals to have a victims’ representative on the judicial sentencing group, to install an interactive guide on sentencing on the NI Direct website and to develop a community engagement strategy on sentencing.
I am encouraged by the Department’s intention to hold forums in the community. The response to the sentencing of Constable Carroll’s killers once again shows that there is strong community interest in sentencing. Therefore, the Department’s proposal for a representative of the judiciary and the main criminal justice agencies to attend those forums and engage directly with the public on sentencing is an important step that should be welcomed by the House. We also welcome the Lord Chief Justice’s programme of action on sentencing. It is helping to improve transparency, consistency and public confidence and intersects, on many levels, with what the Minister is doing. We are moving forward effectively within the existing structures and without the need for a council that would cost —
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
— half a million pounds.
We should not lose sight of why we are having the debate. I finish by paying tribute to Mrs Carroll and her husband, Stephen. I welcome the public interest in sentencing and express my party’s support for the original motion.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
This debate is taking place against a backdrop of some glaring inadequacies in the present legislation that are, in particular, evidenced by the sentences handed down to those who murdered Police Constable Stephen Carroll. Two individuals are now serving prison sentences for that dastardly crime.
The question is: why is there no specific offence of murdering a police officer? The murder of a police officer is treated in the criminal justice system as a normal murder of a person whose occupation happens to be that of police officer. In determining the sentence of a person who murders a police officer, the judge will consider aggravating factors to the crime, and being a police officer is one of them. However, murdering a serving police officer does not, under the guidelines, automatically bring a mandatory life sentence; rather, the starting tariff is 30 years. Discount will then be given for mitigating circumstances such as a guilty plea, etc.
There needs to be a debate on legislation for assaults and attacks on public servants performing their duty or linked to the performance of it: when they are attacked when not at work but over something that is, in some way, linked to their work. At present, there is a separate charge definition for assaulting a police officer, so why not a separate definition for murdering a police officer? In respect of the murder of a police officer, a separate offence of “police murder” should be created and should carry a mandatory whole-of-life sentence. That offence would be committed when a person unlawfully kills, knowing that their victim was a police officer and intending to kill that person or is reckless as to whether death results.
We should look at legislation in the Republic of Ireland. The position there is set out in the Criminal Justice Act 1990, which places the requirement of a mandatory life sentence of 40 years, without the chance of parole, for those convicted of murdering Garda officers, prison officers or murder committed in an act against the state on behalf of a proscribed organisation for a political purpose.
Recently in my constituency, district judge Mr John Meehan sentenced a man to four months’ custody for attacking two police officers. One was punched on the forehead and spat on; another, a female constable, was bitten on the arm. Judge Meehan remarked that although some may think that assaulting a police officer is not as bad as assaulting a civilian, he took the opposite view. So here we have a judge taking a stronger line because the victims were police officers.
As I have stated, a relevant specific charge of assaulting a police officer already exists. However, there is no specific charge of murdering a police officer, and that, in my opinion, needs to be urgently addressed. There is a fundamental discrepancy in this sphere of the justice system when the murder of a police officer carrying out the rule of law is not treated as a specific crime.
As the law stands, the gravity of the offence of murdering a police officer is understated in any sentence that will be parallel to the statutory murder tariff. It offers no additional deterrent to those who would seek to carry out their murderous activities, as we have witnessed with the dissident republicans who are becoming more active. Therefore, Northern Ireland in particular requires a change in the law, given the dissident republican threat against the police, the justice system and those who enforce it. We are fully aware that they remain the target. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Assembly and of the Justice Department to give full protection by legislation to our serving police officers.
Sean Lynch (Sinn Féin)
I support the motion and the amendment. My party colleague Raymond McCartney outlined some of the key issues, particularly in relation to Constable Stephen Carroll. Likewise, I send my condolences to his wife and family, who are here today.
I do not propose to repeat what Mr McCartney outlined; rather, I will deal with the issue of an independent sentencing guidelines council for this part of Ireland. In my opinion, a sentencing guidelines council would be the best vehicle to deal with the complex and often emotive issue of sentencing, especially for those families affected by the murder of a loved one, whether the person is a public servant or a member of the community.
It must not be forgotten in the context of sentencing that everyone is equal before the law and that everyone has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law. Courts are often not best positioned to establish a complete system for dealing with sentencing, since they deal with cases one by one. Experience of other jurisdictions proves that even well-developed criminal justice systems eventually need a sentencing guidelines framework of some kind to guide the sentencing discretion.
The criticism, as outlined by my colleague Raymond McCartney, of judicial decisions and sentencing predates the case of Constable Stephen Carroll. Similar concerns have been raised in relation to such cases as Harry Holland and other high-profile cases. There is certainly a need for a clear and consistent approach to sentencing to improve public confidence in the criminal justice system. The 2010 Hillsborough agreement contained the commitment to establish a sentencing council. The DOJ recently published a consultation document on the issue, which presented three different models. The establishment of such a body would promote consistency in sentencing, deal appropriately with concerns that particular offences are not regarded with the appropriate degree of seriousness, bring greater transparency to sentencing and increase confidence in the criminal justice system, all of which should be based on the principles of fairness and justice.
The establishment of such a council would be a much more productive way to address the Holland and Carroll cases, rather than knee-jerk responses from politicians. I ask the House to support the motion and the amendment.
Sydney Anderson (DUP)
I support the motion in my name and those of my colleagues. The motion has been brought because of the deep feelings of outrage, revulsion and disgust that were felt and expressed right across the community at the 14-year sentence handed down to one of those convicted of killing Constable Stephen Carroll. Constable Carroll was a dedicated police officer and a family man, who was shot dead by terrorists in my constituency. He was the first PSNI officer to be murdered. I am glad that the Director of Public Prosecutions has referred the case to the Court of Appeal. In light of that, I will try to confine my remarks to the broader issue.
We need to have a very tough sentencing regime to act as a deterrent against the crime of murder. Those who murder get off far too lightly. When we come to the murder of police officers, the crime somehow seems to be even worse and even more unforgivable. Police officers are the custodians of the rule of law, they put themselves on the front line against lawbreakers and criminals, and they do so to protect the whole community. That is why the murder of a police officer is greeted with revulsion and anger in any democratic society. Such a murder is a direct challenge to the rule of law.
In Northern Ireland, we know all about the murder of police officers. Some 300 RUC officers died at the hands of ruthless terrorists. Surely, the early release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement was a studied insult to the memory and gallantry of all those brave officers. Thankfully, the murder of police officers is no longer a frequent or regular occurrence. However, two PSNI officers — Constable Stephen Carroll and Constable Ronan Kerr — have been murdered by dissident republican groups, and that is two too many. They were killed because they dared to want to serve the community. The community must unite as never before to demand tougher sentences for those who, for whatever reason or for whatever warped cause, go out and murder police officers.
Kate Carroll, in stark contrast with those who murdered her husband, has been an example to us all. I had the sad task, as the then Mayor of Craigavon, of having to visit Kate and her family at her home just after Stephen was killed. She has been given a life sentence, and will never see her husband again. However, she has shown enormous courage, restraint and dignity in coping with her loss. My thoughts and prayers are with her as she tries to come to terms with that great loss.
Although a justice of sorts has now been done, Mrs Carroll has rightly described the 14-year sentence handed down to one of those convicted, who has shown no remorse, as “disgusting”. She said:
“It gives the message out that it is fine to kill a policeman here because you get a rap on the knuckles.”
In England, you get the full term. It does seem absurd that sentences for the murder of police officers are not as tough here as they are in England, where the minimum term is 30 years.
Mrs Carroll also made the valid point that it is the younger and more impressionable who are being sucked into terrorist activity. Stiffer sentences would surely act as a deterrent to that particular group. How tragic that such young people are being drawn towards terrorism. What a contrast with those young people joining the ranks of the PSNI. Dissident republican terrorists are intent on deterring young people, mainly from the Roman Catholic community, from joining the PSNI because of fear of assassination. It is, therefore, vital that we do all we can to ensure that they do not succeed with this aim. If we want to encourage young people to choose policing as a career, one way of doing that would be to ensure that that career is made safer because those who murder police officers will go to prison, and go to prison for a very long time.
Our motion calls for a review of sentencing. The judge in the murder trial has himself called for such a review. There has already been some debate about who should take the lead in this. The DPP and the Court of Appeal have a role, but I feel that the Justice Minister cannot and must not sidestep the issue. He has the power and the duty to look at that legislation.
Turning briefly to the amendment, I do not believe that we need to establish yet another body. Surely, the DPP and the Department of Justice should be able to work together and with other relevant parties to ensure that something is done. Justice demands a tougher sentencing regime. Sentencing demands it. Action must be taken, and taken soon. I support the motion.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
I thank colleagues and Members for bringing forward the motion today for debate in the Assembly. Like all other Members who have spoken, I pay tribute to the late Constable Stephen Carroll for being the dedicated police officer that he was serving this community. I pay tribute to his wife and family, who are now left without a husband and a father. Many of us in this community know what that has been like down the years. Many of us have visited the homes of those families. All we can do is hope and pray that that will come to an end and we will no longer have to continue to carry out that role.
Sentencing guidelines is a huge issue. I listened to Mr Maginness talk about the proposed amendment to bring forward a sentencing council or something to that effect. I listened to others talk about what is required and that those who are under the age of 21 can be sentenced for only so long. I have to tell you, this is not rocket science. Everybody knows what is required. I do not think that we need commissions, quangos or councils to tell us. The general public know what is required. They know that if somebody murders a policeman in cold, brutal terms, having gone out with the idea and mentality to do that, they should be sentenced to the longest term possible. Whether that is 30 years or 40 years, I think the longer the better. We should not be in the situation where we are delaying any longer. I look forward to hearing with what speed the Minister will bring forward proposals. We do not need any more delays. We have had our debate. We have had our consultation. We know what the public are thinking. This has been about for a long time now. We just need to get on and do it. We need to react to what people believe and think.
There needs to be deterrents. There needs to be deterrents for those who have murder on their mind; for those who have taking life from other human beings on their mind; for those who take the life of people and good citizens who go out to serve the community and who want to serve all the people here in Northern Ireland. There are some people who need that deterrent. They need to know that they are going to be punished, whether that is for the murder of Stephen Carroll, Ronan Kerr or anybody else. They certainly need to know that they will suffer severe consequences. To me, life should mean life.
I know that people make mistakes in life. They do not go through life without making those mistakes. If they were to show some remorse and indicate how sorry they were, maybe there could be a more lenient look at it. Down the years, however, I have seen that many of the people who carry out those murders and those terrible acts and deeds show no remorse. They show no feelings for the grieving family who have been left behind. That is the huge difficulty.
Some of those people will be released within 11, 12, 13, 14 years to, perhaps, live a very comfortable life beyond that. If they showed remorse and wanted to help society move forward, maybe we could look at that in a more positive vein. Without that, no sympathy should be shown to those people; they should get a life sentence, and a life sentence should mean a life sentence. They should stay in jail until their life is ended, so that they know exactly what it is like for the people who have been left on the outside.
George Robinson (DUP)
The sentence that was handed down recently to someone convicted of the murder of courageous PSNI officer Stephen Carroll is a disgrace and should be interpreted as lowering the value of a police officer’s life. All our police officers must be highly valued, so a life sentence must be the only tariff, with life meaning life. In other words, there must be a strict and absolute deterrent.
I have been approached by serving and former officers who feel that anything less than life imprisonment for the killer of a police officer is totally unsatisfactory. I urge the Minister to review the current sentence guidelines and to seek to greatly strengthen them in line with English law, under which a perpetrator aged over 18 attracts a 30-year sentence. I sympathise with Mrs Carroll and her family. As far as I am concerned, we are all part of Great Britain, so the laws here in Northern Ireland should be the same as those in GB.
As many points have been covered, I state my support for the DUP motion and urge all MLAs to support this very worthwhile motion in support of all our dedicated police officers who protect life and property day and night.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
The murder of Constable Carroll was foul and wicked in every sense, and I am sure the thoughts of us all continue to be with his family. However, the murder was no more foul and wicked than the murder of 300 members of the RUC down through the years. There are Members who should hang their heads in shame with regard to the protestations they make about the inadequacy of the sentencing of those convicted of the murder of police officers. Some of them are the same people who campaigned for, supported and demanded the introduction of the early release scheme under the Belfast Agreement, when the murderers of many police officers had their sentences cut short and were released back into the community. Those who, today, call for stiff sentences for the murder of police officers, should, therefore, examine their past commitment on the issue in respect of what they had to say and what they campaigned for.
The sentences are often inadequate, but they are at their most inadequate when that which is imposed is terminated by a release policy, the gates are opened, and they are ushered out at the behest of a political process. That is a classic illustration of the corruption that is brought to a sentencing process when it is politicised, and politics demand that sentences are cut short. That was wrong then, and it is still wrong.
Many people have said that the present sentencing regime should be as it is in GB. I have a lot of sympathy and empathy with that. Let us be clear: if Constable Carroll had been murdered in England or Wales, some people seem to think that under the 2003 legislation, the sentence would have been 30 years, but, in fact, it would probably have been a whole life sentence. Under schedule 1 to the 2003 Act, it is provided that, where the motivation is political, a whole life sentence is available for such a person. Where it is not political, and the murder is that of the police officer, the sentence available is 30 years. However, the 2003 Act makes a distinction in respect of young people. Indeed, historically, for as long as one can go through many of the statutes in this regard, that distinction has been made. Those who say that we should have had the English system should reflect on the fact that under the 2003 English Act, the starting point for someone who is under 18 when they murder is in fact 12 years. It is a surprise to me that we have had this debate given that the real focus of dissatisfaction flows from the sentence of one of the persons who was under 18. We have had this debate, and no one has addressed that issue. Is it right or wrong that the sentence for a young person should be less than that for an adult? This House can talk about all these issues, but unless it addresses that issue, it is not addressing the crux of the matter whatsoever. Therefore, that is something that needs to be carefully addressed.
In this case, I feel that the judge was acting within the parameters that he had to act within. He took the starting point, added a little to it and gave the sentence that he gave. However, our system allows a review, and the review has been activated. The opportunity now exists for the Court of Appeal to examine what has been happening in England, to draw as it did on the McCandless case and the English experience at that time and to say what the experience is now, in light of what should now be the approach to this issue, and it can review the sentences in that regard. It has that facility so we do not need a sentence advisory council. That would be an unnecessary encumbrance on the system. It is not necessary.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
A scope of sentences is available that can be made adequate, and if it comes to it, let us put it in legislation, but let us deal with the issue, rather than run away with it, which some have.
David Ford (Alliance)
I congratulate Jonathan Craig and his colleagues on obtaining this debate and welcome the interest that has been expressed all around the Chamber in these very important issues.
Like others, I will start my speech by paying tribute to the work of Constable Stephen Carroll and his colleagues in the PSNI and express my sympathy to Mrs Kate Carroll for the dignified way in which she has responded to her tragic circumstances. The fact that the circumstances of Stephen Carroll’s murder have now been rehearsed so openly in recent weeks can only have added to her pain and grief. I have had the opportunity to speak to her over the weekend and this afternoon, and I want to pay tribute to her and acknowledge the courage and dignity with which she has put forward her case and represented many other police families at the same time.
No decent person could be unmoved by the emotive yet always dignified response that Kate Carroll has made to the sentencing issue of Stephen’s murderers. What she has said has struck a chord with many people and has been reflected in every part of the House this afternoon.
As has been said, it is certainly the case that the devolution of justice powers gives us the opportunity to be more responsive to the concerns of people in this jurisdiction, and we need to give serious consideration to the views that have been expressed. We in the Chamber do not always agree easily on approaches to justice matters. However, it seems that there has been very strong support for the points made by Jonathan Craig, in proposing the motion, and Alban Maginness, in proposing the amendment: we need to send a strong message of support for police officers in general and recognise the gravity of the crime that was inflicted on Stephen Carroll. I have been greatly concerned about this subject for some time.
The legislation governing the determination of tariffs that applies to us is the Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001. Under that legislation, the setting of a tariff is at the discretion of the court, guided by sentencing guidelines. As others have reflected, that has been updated in other jurisdictions since then. Lord Justice Girvan has already said that he believes that the current guidelines require reconsideration. I certainly welcome what was possibly a unique statement for a trial judge, reflecting his concerns about that. The guidelines have been in place for some time. We have seen different guidelines developed in England and Wales, our most comparable jurisdiction. Others have referred to the situation in the Republic in relation to the murder of police officers or prison officers, or other particularly serious categories of murder. We should reiterate the point that has just been made again by Jim Allister: Members can quote 30 years, or perhaps 25 years or a whole life for the murder of police officers, depending on the motivation, in England and Wales, but the tariff for anybody who is under the age of 18 when they commit a murder there is 12 years. I must say that I share the view that Kate Carroll expressed to me, which is that it is very difficult to tell the difference between somebody who is 17 years and 10 months and somebody who is 18 years and one month.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has quite properly referred Wootton’s case to the Court of Appeal, which means that the court will now have the opportunity to consider those matters. I do not think that it would be right for me as Minister to take any precipitate action before the court has had the opportunity to rule. It is the role of government to determine the legislative framework within which courts make their decisions. Other jurisdictions have legislated for different minimum tariffs. That was not the case 11 years ago, but I believe that the time is now right to review the arrangements in Northern Ireland. Therefore, once the Court of Appeal has had the opportunity to consider the Wootton case, my Department will put in place a wider review of the legislation governing the determination of tariffs where the court has passed a life sentence for murder.
The review will include, but will obviously not be limited to, the murder of police officers. In the context of today’s debate, it is clear that the issue of police officers will be a significant part of that review. At that stage, I will want to hear all relevant views on what sentencing should be. This case, while demonstrating all too clearly the impact that an individual case can have on public confidence, has shown the level of interest and engagement that there now is in justice issues under devolution.
Members raised a number of issues about how —
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
In relation to the Minister’s announcement about a review, is he saying that he will wait until the Court of Appeal rules on the Stephen Carroll case before he initiates a review or that he will do that immediately?
David Ford (Alliance)
I am saying that I believe that it is appropriate to wait for the formal outcome of the Wootton referral to the Court of Appeal. However, preparatory work is under way in the Department to ensure that we can move speedily when that case comes through.
I am glad to say that we now have an environment in which we can discuss openly and frankly issues such as this. I believe that the debate in the House this afternoon has been very positive. I want to build on that by taking the issue to the wider public, rather than just confining it to the Chamber, in order to have a consultation on an appropriate sentencing guidelines mechanism, with greater transparency, consistency and community engagement to ensure that sentencing applies in a way that promotes public confidence.
Justice Committee members will be aware, following discussions with my officials, that I was influenced by two particular factors as I looked at the outcome of the consultation on sentencing guidelines. There was a specific issue around value for money and another around the specific development, unique to Northern Ireland, that is coming forward from the judiciary.
The amendment calls for an independent sentencing guidelines council. That is something that, in the past, I have spoken about the need to consider. Indeed, it arose during the Hillsborough Castle discussions that led to the devolution of justice powers. However, we have to acknowledge that such models can be costly to establish, costly to maintain, and in the current financial climate, it would be remiss of any Minister to ignore those kinds of concerns if we can provide an appropriate way of addressing sentencing mechanisms that provides confidence without the formalities of a bureaucratic system.
The separate judicial development to which I just referred is the programme of action initiated by the Lord Chief Justice. That is something that contains a number of measures to enhance the structures by which the judiciary ensures consistent and fair sentences. For the first time, we will have sentencing guidelines for the Magistrates’ Court, which was not previously acknowledged. Guidelines for 67 offences have been developed and published, covering both the Magistrates’ Court and Crown Courts. Although Alban Maginness said that they were mostly at the lower end, they cover crimes such as manslaughter, child cruelty, hate crime, tiger kidnapping, duty evasion and serious sexual offences. Although there was certainly a need for guidelines in the Magistrates’ Courts, the work being led by the Lord Chief Justice covers a range of serious offences.
There is also, for the first time, public consultation on areas where guidelines should be developed. Those are really the things that I would wish a guidelines council to produce. The others around community engagement can and will be led by the Department. I believe that what I am proposing as Minister can meet what we would have hoped to have seen from a formal sentencing guidelines council without unnecessary expenditure. I have not picked up any particular evidence internationally that a formal statutory council would do anything more to improve public confidence.
I believe that the judiciary has shown that it is not unresponsive to public concerns, and the Lord Chief Justice’s programme of action is a clear indication of that. So, too, was the response of Lord Justice Girvan to the concerns expressed by Kate Carroll and the wider public on the Wootton case. I believe that those are significant steps forward in this jurisdiction, providing for improved consistency and transparency in sentencing. However, I believe that we also need to do more.
One of the key gaps that needs to be addressed is the issue of community engagement, which is why I can announce today that the Lord Chief Justice has agreed to my request that he should include lay members on the judicial sentencing group, a group that he has established under his programme for action to identify areas where sentencing guidelines are required and to oversee the development of guidelines. There will be two lay members appointed through a public and transparent process, one of whom will represent the views of victims, because that is a particularly important perspective. We all know that, far too often, victims feel that their views are not recognised and their voices are not heard. I hope that the outcome of this debate will show that that is not the case. I believe that introducing lay members will open up the process, which has been seen as something of a closed shop until now. Sentencing benchmarks will be transparent. They will enable informed debate on sentencing issues outside the context of an individual case.
In tandem, I propose to develop a community engagement strategy to ensure a two-way flow of information on sentencing issues. We will pilot open forums in the community on a range of justice issues, attended by representatives of the judiciary and the main criminal justice agencies. It will be a two-way process, providing the opportunity to inform community representatives and others about sentencing practice and also, importantly, enabling communities to let us know about the issues of concern to them and allowing open and frank discussion of those issues.
As I have said, I am convinced that information on sentencing practice is central to the success of building public confidence in sentencing. Enhanced provision of data to the public on the NI Direct website and to the judiciary will also form part of the strategy. Those data will include sentencing statistics and information on work with offenders, on the effectiveness of various disposals and on ongoing developments across the justice system. The strategy will be an involving process, responding to the needs identified from ongoing community liaison and liaison with the judiciary.
I believe that the proposals that I am announcing today, which are tailored to local needs, will use local strengths. Alongside the work of the Lord Chief Justice and through existing structures and partnership working, I believe that they will enhance consistency, transparency and understanding of sentencing practice in a way that will promote public confidence, delivering the objectives set for a council, but without the need for a separate and costly body. I believe that the measures that I have announced should address the concerns raised by those who supported the amendment.
As I said, the mechanisms will be reviewed within two years to assess their effectiveness in achieving these objectives. If a case exists for a formal sentencing guidance council with statutory powers that go beyond what we have done, I will be prepared to look at that on the basis of the evidence.
I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate this important issue and, again, I acknowledge Kate Carroll’s bravery and determination. We should not forget that although we have debated general issues today, the motion was brought about through one particular set of tragic circumstances.
I certainly support the thrust of the motion in calling for a review. All those convicted of murder are given a life sentence. That legislation does not require review, but what is needed, and what I have undertaken to do, is to review the legislation covering the setting of tariffs where the court has passed a life sentence for murder. I trust that I have explained why I believe that an independent sentencing guidelines council is neither appropriate nor necessary at this time, and I hope that Mr Maginness will consider not pressing his amendment in order that the House can be unanimous in its support of the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. As we speak today, we are united in our sympathy for Mrs Carroll and her family. In their loss, she has become a figure of great dignity and great courage and, more recently, of reconciliation. That has come from her loss, and I thank her for that.
I welcome the motion and support the amendment. In sentencing those responsible for the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, it is clear from the reaction of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the trial judge, Lord Justice Girvan, that the current guidelines require reconsideration. Lord Justice Girvan stated that the guidelines needed:
“to properly take into account the argument that there is a heightened need for deterrence and retribution in the fixing of tariffs, at least in relation to certain categories of murder including, in particular, the terrorist murder of a police officer.”
One of those sentences has been referred to the Court of Appeal, where, hopefully, a more appropriate term may be applied.
We note the Justice Minister’s announcement today of the inclusion of two lay members on the judicial sentencing group established by the Lord Chief Justice, and the fact that they will be appointed through a public appointments process. I welcome the news that one of them will represent victims. It is a small move; it is welcome, and it has to be seen as such. However, we do not believe that it goes far enough in establishing an independent sentencing guidelines mechanism.
At the outset, Mr Craig, who is always very wise in the case that he presents, said that what my colleague Mr Maginness proposed lacked detail. The consultation document on a sentencing guidelines mechanism contains quite a bit of detail, from page 26 onwards, on how the mechanism should and would work. The idea was put out for consultation, and my colleague went through the results in some detail in Committee.
In opposing our amendment, Mr Dickson said that existing structures should be used. Unfortunately, those existing structures do not appear to be working too well; otherwise, we would not be having this type of debate today. The Hillsborough agreement in 2010 contained a commitment to establish a sentencing guidelines council. The establishment of a clearly independent sentencing guidelines council would be the best way to achieve the high level of public confidence in our courts system that we all want to see.
Sentencing bodies across the world can and do carry out a range of functions, including drafting guidelines, public education, disseminating information and resource management. Information on those bodies is contained at the beginning of the consultation document. When the Department of Justice consulted on the options for a sentencing guidelines mechanism, an independent sentencing guidelines council clearly appeared to be the preferred option among many respondents, yet it has not materialised. Instead, as I said, the Minister appears to be tinkering with the notion of the judicial sentencing group, with some additional measures.
Mr McCartney spoke extensively in favour of the amended motion, as did Mr Lynch, who also referred to the DOJ consultation document and the detail of models contained therein.
There is a cost to maintaining an independent sentencing guidelines council. Nobody disputes that: that is why it is supposed to be there. However, the long-term cost of failing to address a lack of public confidence in the court will inevitably be much higher. The costs involved concern the associated secretariat and support function, including legal expertise, research and analysis, community engagement and public education and administration. Some of those support functions are included in the proposals being made by the Minister but they come without the benefits of having an independent council.
I welcome the motion and support the amendment. Establishing an independent sentencing guidelines council, as set out in the Hillsborough agreement of 2010, would be the best way to review individual sentencing issues and ensure that a robust and independent sentencing guidelines mechanism exists that can secure and improve public confidence in our judicial system.
Paul Givan (DUP)
I thank everyone for their contributions this afternoon. Constable Stephen Carroll was brutally and callously murdered on 9 March 2009 by republican terrorists. The police were deliberately lured into the area, and using an AK-47, the terrorists killed Constable Carroll. He served for over 20 years in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and was the first officer to be killed serving in the PSNI. He joined the service on 13 March 1986.
Sadly, like Constable Carroll, so many of our gallant men and women serving in the police, in the then Royal Ulster Constabulary GC and in the PSNI, have been and continue to be the target of terrorist organisations. We in this House have a duty to defend those who have defended, and continue to defend, us and wider society.
Having been found guilty, Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton were sentenced to 25 years and 14 years respectively. The response to the inadequacy of those sentences, particularly in respect of John Paul Wootton, has been almost universal consternation across our society.
Kate Carroll has shown great dignity and determination. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done in leading this campaign, and I recognise her presence here today. I also thank the Minister for taking the time today to meet us. Kate Carroll has led the calls for a review of those sentences and a much greater and fundamental review of sentencing generally. Those calls have resonated across our community.
John Paul Wootton was found to be actively involved in that murderous act and wider activities of republican terrorism, specifically seeking to obtain personal information about police officers for use by terrorists. He also made a cold-hearted comment, which dehumanised police officers: “a cop is a cop”. That clearly inferred that police officers were legitimate targets. The fact that that individual received a 14-year sentence has caused distress to the family and concern across our community about the leniency of the sentence, the message that it sends to terrorists targeting police officers, and the message it sends about the value that we place on the life of a police officer. Specifically, there are concerns about the message that it sends to terrorists: that they can actively recruit our young people to carry out those acts because of the lenient sentences that they will get because of their age.
I corresponded with the director of the Public Prosecution Service on behalf of Kate Carroll on this matter, seeking a referral to the Court of Appeal on the grounds that the sentence was unduly lenient. Significant discount was given to take account of the defendant’s age, resulting in a reduction of 11 years, compared with the sentence given to Brendan McConville. I believe that the director would have had sufficient grounds to refer this without being invited to do so by Lord Justice Girvan when additional sentencing remarks were made. Those additional remarks were highly unusual, and I welcome the move by Lord Justice Girvan to seek his decision to be referred to the Court of Appeal, which the director of the PPS subsequently confirmed he will do. We await the grounds upon which he seeks that referral, as the general sentencing guidelines used need to be considered for future cases.
Equally important is the opportunity for the Court of Appeal to deal with the leniency of the 14-year sentence given in the case of Wootton. I agree entirely with Lord Justice Girvan’s comment, which Mr McGlone also quoted:
“I feel bound to express the view that the current guidelines and the case law based on them do require reconsideration to take account of modern conditions and to properly take into account the argument that there is a heightened need for deterrence and retribution in the fixing of tariffs, at least in relation to certain categories of murder including, in particular, the terrorist murder of a police officer”.
After the case of R versus McCandless in 2004, the Court of Appeal failed to update the sentencing guidelines in Northern Ireland when it had the opportunity to do so to reflect the mandatory minimum terms prescribed in England and Wales through the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Instead, the Court of Appeal chose to continue to follow the 2000 practice direction of Lord Woolf that prevails today and to which Lord Justice Girvan felt constrained to adhere.
Paul Givan (DUP)
I will not because I have a lot more to say.
I trust that the Court of Appeal will now make the appropriate changes. Under the current law, it is for the Court of Appeal to consider this matter. The Assembly cannot answer for what happened prior to the devolution of policing and justice. However, the option is now available to this place to create legislation that can provide the legal framework for sentencing similar to that which was passed in the 2003 Act at Westminster or, as many on this side of the House would argue, that goes much further. This option should be kept open as we await the response of the Court of Appeal.
Ultimately, it is the politicians who must be satisfied that the appropriate laws are in place to ensure the protection of our society. That is why I have concerns with the amendment. In principle, I have no objection to the establishment of an independent sentencing guidelines council, which was discussed in Committee a number of times. However, we feel that it is necessary to have much more information about how independent that council would be. We believe that we, the legislators, are ultimately responsible for defining the law. If we are not satisfied with sentencing guidelines, whether they are created by the Court of Appeal or a sentencing guidelines council, this place can take those decisions.
I have concerns about how the amendment is worded and about what exactly is meant by “independent”. Would the House have the right to change a decision if a sentencing guidelines council decided something that we did not agree with? I am concerned about the detail of the amendment and that it would tie the Assembly’s hands in looking at this issue in the future. Alban Maginness said that we should maybe not legislate now but left it open that this place could legislate on these matters at a future point.
The Court of Appeal now has an opportunity not only to deal with this specific case but to set a wider sentencing framework for this type of crime. Let it carry out that work, but let us be satisfied that what is put in place is what the people want. If we are not satisfied, let this place show that it is up to the challenge of creating legislation that introduces specific time frames that satisfy what I believe the public wants when it comes to the murder of a police officer.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on the appointment of two lay members to the body that the Lord Chief Justice has established. It has been tasked with reviewing sentencing not only for murder but for a whole range of crimes and should be given the opportunity to do that work. We will await that body’s response and production of a framework, and depending on whether we are satisfied with it, we can come back to it.
I thank everyone for their contribution. I will conclude by again commending Kate Carroll for the way in which she has led this campaign. I trust that the House will be unified. Hopefully, I have explained our position on the amendment. We have technical considerations rather than a fundamental difference in principle. Nevertheless, we do not feel that we can support it at this stage. I trust that the Assembly will, however, be able to come together to support the substantive motion.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned at 5.50 pm.