Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney 11:42 pm, 26th June 1985

I am coming to that shortly. I had passed to the admissibility of confessions. The present practice was endorsed by Sir George Baker. I feel inclined to reflect in section 8 of the Act the principles that the judges now apply.

The last of the major changes recommended by Sir George Baker was that the temporary provisions of the Act should be reviewed annually by Parliament, and should have a maximum life of five years without re-enactment. In this, Sir George follows the pattern that Parliament has already adopted in respect of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984. His recommendation is a welcome restatement of the clear responsibility of Parliament and of the Government to consider afresh whether any emergency provisions should continue and, if so, in what form, and I accept his recommendation.

I should like to touch on another set of recommendations contained in the review. I have studied carefully those recommendations that bear, or could bear, upon the problem of delays in the judicial system, including his recommendation of a time limit of 12 months on the period between committal and trial. I am considering this and other possible ways of reducing the length of time between first remand and trial because I accept that this is a vulnerable aspect of the present judicial system. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has decided, as the House knows, to mount field trials in England and Wales on a system of statutory time limits. I am not sure that all the same considerations and all the same possibilities exist in Northern Ireland, but I am in touch with my right hon. and learned Friend, and I will watch progress with the trials with interest to see whether there is scope for doing something similar in the different circumstances of Northern Ireland.

I am also giving thought to the proposal by Sir George Baker that some way should be found to increase the maximum remand period in scheduled cases to 28 or 30 days. The current situation is unsatisfactory, as hon. Members with direct experience will know. At present, all such persons have to be produced before a magistrate once a week, but the magistrate has no power to grant bail and can only remand the accused persons for a further period. Thus the process is largely, in Sir George Baker's words, "meaningless" and a waste of time, money and resources". Following the precedent in England and Wales, we are already considering separate legislation that would extend from 14 to 28 days the maximum period for which, if he agrees, an accused person may be remanded in custody. There would be attractions in amending the emergency provisions Act 1978 so as to remove in respect of scheduled cases the requirement for a person to give his consent. Taken together, these changes would give magistrates the discretion to remand persons accused of scheduled offences for up to 28 days. This would save a good deal of unnecessary court time and other resources—resources that could be better used in minimising the length of time between first remand and trial. Defendants who did not make weekly remand appearances would still have regular access to their solicitors and other visitors, and could make bail applications in open court at short notice. I recognise that the arguments are not all one way, and that is why I have laid both sides of the argument before the House, but I believe that the balance of the argument points to an amendment along the lines that I have described. When the time comes, the House will have ample opportunity to look in detail at the proposals because they will require changes in the law.

I have been unable, in the short space of time available, to do full justice to each of Sir George's recommendations, but I hope what I have said illustrates the broad thrust of our response. The Government will put legislation before the House when they can, certainly during the lifetime of this Parliament.