Codes of Practice: Police Powers

Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 20th June 1991.

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Lords amendment: No. 13, in page 42, line 19, leave out from ("State") to ("the") in line 26 and insert ("shall make codes of practice in connection with the detention, treatment, questioning and identification of persons detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and may make codes of practice in connection with—

  1. (a) the exercise by police officers of any power conferred by Part II of this Act of by that Act; and
  2. (b)").

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney , Peterborough

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

On Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, concern was expressed from a number of quarters about police procedures at the terrorist holding centres. I repeat that the Government are wholly committed to ensuring that the highest standards apply in the conduct of police interviews with terrorist suspects. We have listened carefully to the anxieties that were expressed, and have decided to make a number of important changes.

First, we have decided to create a code of practice under the powers in clause 60, dealing with the detention, treatment, questioning and identification of terrorist suspects. The amendment would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to produce such a code; it would also leave intact the enabling power in relation to the other matters currently specified in the clause as possibilities for codes of practice.

The Government also announced in another place on 13 May that we were considering the appointment of an independent commissioner to monitor procedures at terrorist holding centres. While our ideas on that remain at a formative stage, it is possible to envisage a scheme with certain general features.

First, the commissioner would be appointed with the remit to visit holding centres and to have access to those centres at any time of his or her choosing. Secondly, the primary task of the commissioner would be to ensure that the proper procedures relating to the treatment of terrorist suspects were being followed. Thirdly, the commissioner would, therefore, be concerned with such matters as the proper completion of custody records, the procedures under schedule 3 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, the proposed code of practice on detention to be made under the Bill, the provisions of part VI of the Bill, the continued supervision of the closed circuit monitors and, generally, to see that the arrangements for the detention of suspects were satisfactory. Fourthly, the commissioner might have the duty to report periodically to the Secretary of State and could be required to draw any matter of immediate concern to the attention of the Chief Constable.

It will take some time to work out the details of the scheme. We are currently having discussions with the RUC, the police authority and the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, among others, on those matters. I hope that the House will feel able to welcome those developments. They demonstrate that the Government have given serious consideration to the concerns that were raised in the House and are prepared, wherever possible and practicable, to introduce new measures to enhance confidence in police procedures and to enhance further the rights of persons arrested and detained under the terrorism provisions in Northern Ireland. I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

The main purpose of the amendment is to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State in connection with the making of codes of practice concerning detention, treatment, questioning and the identification of people detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989. That is to be welcomed.

There exists an internal contradiction, however, because whereas the codes of practice dealing with the Army and so on will be discretionary, the code that we are discussing will be mandatory. That requires explanation. When will the code of practice be published? It is important for it to become available as soon as possible because of continuing complaints and controversy surrounding matters at holding centres.

We greatly welcome the decision announced in the other place about the possible appointment of an independent commissioner to examine matters at holding centres. Under what power will the independent commissioner be appointed? Will it be under this or other legislation, or will the appointment flow from the publication of the code of practice?

Issues such as visits to holding centres to see the procedures that are followed, and other aspects of the independent commissioner's remit, are also important. Will the report to the Secretary of State and documents calling matters to the attention of the police constable be publicly reported? Is there likely to be a report to Parliament, as has been suggested under the procedures for the Army complaints system?

I appreciate the difficulties involved and I welcome the general thrust of what is proposed, but are we likely to receive further information on this issue before the House rises towards the end of July? Or shall we have to wait until after the House reassembles in the autumn?

The Minister should be aware that, no matter how much we welcome the new procedures, by far the best safeguard would be to adopt the suggestion of Lord Colville, against which the Government and the RUC have steadfastly set their faces, for the videoing of all interrogations and occurrences at holding centres. That would be the greatest safeguard. Indeed, if what is proposed were coupled with the full sound and video taping and recording of interrogations, that would go a long way towards overcoming many difficulties and suspicions. Even so, we welcome the step that the Government are taking.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon , Newry and Armagh 6:15 pm, 20th June 1991

I, too, welcome the code of practice, but I hope that the Minister will use all his courage and make the provision statutory rather than mandatory. Such an approach would go a long way towards helping to ease the minds of people concerned with the code of practice.

While I welcome the appointment of an independent commissioner, I believe that the commissioner should have the power to speak to the person or persons being held. If not, it will seem that he is hearing only one side of the story. Three criteria must be met in that connection. First, only by speaking to the person being held can he know whether and at what time a request for legal advice was made.

Secondly, he could be told whether a request had been made for a visit from the person's own medical practitioner. No amount of oversight of the documentation could establish properly in the mind of the commissioner the facts about that. Without that criterion being met, the commissioner will have to go on the word of, say, the senior police officer, who may have denied such requests for legal advice and the presence of a medical practitioner. To be properly convinced, the commissioner should have the right to talk to the person or persons being held.

Thirdly, the commissioner should know precise), how and when the next of kin was notified of the fact that the person concerned was detained in a holding centre. Without the right to speak to the person in detention, the commissioner will have to accept the word perhaps of the person who made the decision in question.

There seems no reason why such power should not be given to the independent commissioner, remembering that the person concerned is in a police station or holding centre. That person should have the right to say to the commissioner, "I asked for a legal adviser at a certain time; I asked for a visit from a medical practitioner at a certain time; and may I be told whether my parents or next of kin have been notified, as required under the legislation, and at what time that was done?"

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney , Peterborough

With the permission of the House, I will speak again.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for welcoming the amendment. The Government are not currently convinced of the case for making codes of practice in connection with the exercise by the police and armed forces of the emergency powers conferred by part II of the Bill. However, we shall be updating the guide to the emergency powers and will keep the case under review. The hon. Gentleman knows from our exchanges in Committee and on Report that when I say that we will keep the matter under review, that is not just a form of words.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has misunderstood the difference between mandatory and statutory. The code of practice will be statutory. The Bill would impose a mandatory requirement on the Secretary of State to make such a code.

Both hon. Gentlemen mentioned a number of points about our thinking concerning a commissioner. Though valid points, I cannot respond to them today, for obvious reasons. As I said, we are still at the formative stage of our thinking, but I undertake to draw the attention of my noble Friend to the comments of both hon. Gentlemen, although I must tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North that I doubt whether we shall be able to conclude our thinking and consultations on the issue before the summer recess.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendment agreed to.