Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 2:01 pm on 20th December 2005.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:01 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This short Bill extends the life of the provisions contained in Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000 until 31 July 2007, with an option to extend the provisions for one year only thereafter. Without this Bill, the provisions would lapse in February 2006.

The Part VII provisions are particular to Northern Ireland. They contain measures designed to tackle the threat of terrorism connected with the affairs only of Northern Ireland. That is distinct from the permanent counter-terrorism provisions in the UK, which are designed to tackle terrorism more generally.

The Bill also makes some changes to Northern Ireland counter-terrorism legislation. It permanently repeals some of the Part VII provisions that are no longer required. It also gives the Attorney-General greater discretion to certify cases out of the Diplock system of non-jury trial, and grants the Secretary of State the ability to make transitional provision for any of the Part VII provisions which cease to have effect.

I would particularly like to explain why the July 2007 date is contained on the face of the Bill. On 28 July this year, the IRA made an historic statement ending its armed campaign. In the light of that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced a programme to normalise security measures in Northern Ireland.

The security situation in Northern Ireland has improved significantly. Coupled with that, the permanent counter-terrorism legislative framework in the UK has become even stronger and more effective since the passing of the Terrorism Act 2000. These two developments together mean that the temporary provisions will no longer be necessary in the future.

Subject to a continuing improvement in the security environment in Northern Ireland, the normalisation programme envisages the repeal of counter-terrorism legislation particular to Northern Ireland in the final four months of that programme. If the security situation does not support it, normalisation and the repeal of the Part VII provisions will not go ahead. That is why the Bill contains a once-only power for the Secretary of State to extend the life of the provisions beyond 2007, for up to a year.

We have a duty to protect the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland and we will not do anything to jeopardise this. That is why, if the security situation does not support the repeal of the provisions in 2007, we will extend them for a further year. If that is not sufficient, then, of course, the whole thing will lapse, and we will return to Parliament and seek the retention of Part VII for a further period beyond that date. That, of course, would have to be done by primary legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who is the Government's reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, has said that this approach is:

"justified on the merits and proportional".

We are optimistic that the time is right for the repeal of Part VII and a return to normalised security arrangements, but we are also cautious. This Bill ensures that we can continue to protect the people of Northern Ireland by providing the law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 2:06 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, the Minister's speech has already dealt with many of my concerns, but I shall nevertheless reiterate them.

My chief concern with the Bill is to support the provisions which retain and strengthen the powers of the police and the status of the judicial system. I believe that the Diplock courts need to be retained, and those parts of Section 67 which provide that, because of the vulnerability of magistrates' courts, a magistrate cannot grant bail. Further, we should retain police powers for the prevention and investigation of terrorist crime; notably, the powers to arrest, stop, search and seize, and to examine documents. The Bill before us does that, and even extends such provision. As Gerry Adams famously said, the IRA has not yet gone away, despite some tardy decommissioning. The paramilitaries remain a serious threat to society.

It is fashionable to accept Sinn Fein/IRA's dissociation of itself from the Real IRA, INLA and the Continuity IRA. However, these so-called dissident groups would never be allowed to exist and continue to recruit and train even now, according to the Monitoring Commission, if they were really defiant, independent entities out of PIRA's control. They are, for the Provisional IRA, useful organs which can be disowned, as they were at Omagh, but are, in reality, still manifestations, and even creatures, of the IRA.

For the same reason, I am glad to see, if I have understood the Bill, that the oral evidence of a police officer will continue to be admissible as evidence that the accused was or is a member of a proscribed organisation.

I could wish that there were not the prospect that some Part VII provisions, though continuing in force after February next year, are to cease to have effect in July 2007, but the Minister has commented on that. It has taken eight years for the IRA to do some serious—although, in my view, almost certainly incomplete—decommissioning. HMG, for its part, has demolished border posts, disbanded regiments and removed protection from police posts.

The paramilitaries, however, are still there, dominating their communities. Those they exiled have not returned. They are not only, despite the good work of the Organised Crime Task Force, a serious threat to the economy of the country—and not just through the Northern Bank raid—but continue to prevent justice from being done, and try to exert undue influence through the so-called restorative justice networks. They have driven the McCartney sisters, good republicans, from their homes, and continue to deny them justice. The case of the McCartney murder has still not come to court, because the IRA refuses, as always, to allow witnesses to testify; another example of its total, continuing rejection of the justice system. As at Omagh, it does not recognise the British courts.

I hope that HMG continues to maintain, for as long as possible, a criminal justice system which can deliver justice. That will certainly be at risk if criminal justice in Northern Ireland is devolved too soon. Not least, we must not allow recent developments, which are by no means what they seem, to be exploited by Sinn Fein/IRA to bounce HMG into giving more concessions prematurely in the area of policing and criminal justice that are at present, I thank God, safe and in the public interest.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs 2:10 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill so succintly. There is a somewhat surreal quality to the debate today in the light of the recent Stormontgate revelations, but that is for another time.

During the progress of the Terrorism Act 2000 through Parliament, the Liberal Democrats welcomed the fact that those measures were to be in place only for five years and were to be subject to renewal by Parliament by statutory instrument every twelve months. Along with many other noble Lords, I have participated in many of the debates on the statutory instruments which renewed the provisions, and others who have listened to and read the debates will agree that it is very important that Parliament has been able to look at the provisions on a regular basis and to make its own judgement about the situation in Northern Ireland and whether those provisions remained necessary.

It has also been extremely useful in the run-up to these debates to have been able to study the annual reports of my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew. His work in this area has been invaluable.

Unfortunately, given the time-frame needed to have this Bill on the statute books before the provisions run out in February, we are unable to see his deliberations on the operation of Part VII of the 2000 Act in the current year, but we shall be looking very closely at his latest report when it is published.

It is still important to ensure that the measures we are debating today—which this Bill seeks to keep in force—are subject to a very specific time limit. We welcome the fact that Part VII is to be extended for only a very limited time—until 31 July 2007. There is provision in the Bill for the sections that are then in force to continue in force no later than 1 August 2008, but again with specific parliamentary approval by statutory instrument. I congratulate the Government on facilitating that. It is desperately important that Parliament is able to look regularly and closely at whether such measures are indeed necessary in Northern Ireland.

It is regrettable that insufficient progress has been made in Northern Ireland in the five years since the 2000 Act was passed to render the provisions of Part VII redundant. Although some progress has been made recently in Northern Ireland, there has been such turmoil in the intervening years that it is with much regret that we have to agree with the Government that the provisions of Part VII are still necessary.

While the IRA statement in July and the subsequent decommissioning of IRA weapons were significant events, the fact that it took so long to happen—five and a half years after all paramilitaries were meant to have completed decommissioning and seven and a half years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement—has meant that we have not yet had sufficient time to judge whether the IRA will be true to its word. The signs from the latest IMC report are encouraging and we look forward to its next report in January.

Although there has been progress in relation to IRA violence, there unfortunately has not been similar progress made in relation to loyalist violence or dissident republicans. The violence that we saw over the summer from loyalist paramilitaries was truly horrific and unfortunately demonstrated in no uncertain terms why it is necessary for Part VII of the 2000 Act to remain in force. In saying that though, we were very encouraged to see in October that the UDA was continuing to talk to the decommissioning commission. Can the Minister tell us if any progress is being made or if there have been subsequent meetings? Is the Minister hopeful that other loyalist paramilitaries might follow this example? Can he indicate to the House what the Government are doing to persuade loyalists to give up their arms?

We are pleased that in the past five years the Government have largely accepted the recommendations put forward in his annual reports by my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew. We are particularly pleased that the Government are not now seeking to resurrect Sections 70 and 71, which were repealed earlier this year. Those sections provided for the Secretary of State to make directions for young persons charged with a scheduled offence to be held in adult prisons while on remand. The power derived from a time when young persons were held in remand homes. These were insecure and presented serious problems in the management of some of the remand population. Thankfully, there have been great advances in the youth justice system in Northern Ireland in recent years, with Hydebank Young Offenders Centre and the Juvenile Justice Centre now being able to provide the level of security that is needed. These are welcome developments and the Government are right to ensure that those sections do not return to the statute book.

However, in his report on the operation of Part VII, my noble friend Lord Carlile raised some concerns in relation to Section 108 of the 2000 Act. It makes provisions for the evidence that may lead a court to conclude that a Section 11 offence—membership of a proscribed organisation—has been committed. Subsections (2) and (3) of that section render admissible under Section 11 charge hearsay evidence which would not otherwise be admissible. The evidence must be given orally by a police officer of at least the rank of superintendent. If it is his opinion that the accused belongs to an organisation which is specified, that statement "shall be admissible" as evidence of the matter stated.

In his 2004 report, Lord Carlile found that Section 108 had not been used. In paragraph 19.7 of that report he states,

"I am totally unpersuaded by the arguments for its retention . . . Section 108 could be repealed without any measurable disadvantage to the cause of public protection from terrorism. It is a provision that lies uncomfortably in the broader context of normalisation and the Good Friday Agreement".

By virtue of this Bill, Section 108 would continue to remain in force.

The issue was thoroughly debated in another place, where the Minister argued that only when the provision is tested will we know whether my noble friend Lord Carlile's concerns are justified. The Minister further argued that its repeal would undermine a prosecution case in relation to the Omagh bombing. We have considered those arguments very carefully. Can the Minister indicate whether, if it came to 2008 and the Government decided that the situation was such in Northern Ireland that Part VII was not on the whole necessary, they would keep Section 108 on the statute book if it had still not been tested?

Our other issue of concern raised in the other place related to Diplock courts. We very much welcome the assurances given by the Minister to consult on new arrangements and put them to pre-legislative scrutiny. On the basis of those reassurances we shall not be pressing this issue at this time.

It is important to ensure that the Part VII provisions of the 2000 Act remain in force for the time being. We shall, however, be studying with great interest and in detail the next IMC report and my noble friend Lord Carlile's next report. We sincerely hope that this is the last time that these provisions need to come before the House.

Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench 2:16 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Northern Ireland terrorism Bill. In the Province there are many like me who have difficulty coming to terms with the need for this Bill at a time when the "war is over" according to the Government.

In a Written Answer of yesterday the Government described the IRA statement of 25 September as historic. On the other hand, in the same batch of Answers to Questions I learn that to provide security for many homes has cost £45 million in five years and that the cost has gone up each year. The news is full of the fall-out from the Stormontgate spy issue and more is revealed each day. The legislation may unfortunately be required and I agree with its introduction in this form. However, the Government should have introduced measures to confront the new threat of white collar terrorism.

Earlier this year I informed your Lordships' House about a number of issues concerning IRA supporters in the Republic—in particular about Frank Connolly and the Centre for Public Inquiry. The events of the past few weeks have proved me to have been all too correct. But the last two weeks have also highlighted the possible extent of the web of IRA/Sinn Fein sleepers and spies in both governmental systems and in other places of influence.

How can measures in this Bill help to expose the many IRA sleepers who are in the decision-making process in Northern Ireland? Security sources tell me that they believe that there are about 200 sleepers and/or spies in high places in the Republic—right up to the Irish Prime Minister's office.

For decades the IRA and Sinn Fein have been infiltrating the media in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. One of the Republic's main graduate journalism courses, in Griffith College Dublin, is run by Niall Meehan, a long-serving Sinn Fein official, and by that party's general secretary, Robbie Smyth. Neither has worked on any mainstream newspaper or broadcasting station. The NUJ executive in Dublin also includes Ronan Brady, whose experience in journalism is largely limited to his time on Sinn Fein's newspaper Republican News, an organ which glorified the murderous exploits of the IRA in its "War News" section.

That much of the media is now infiltrated and influenced by Sinn Fein/IRA can be seen in the highly negative reaction in sections of the southern media, in particular the state broadcaster RTE, against the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, when he outed and denounced Frank Connolly—one of the Republic's most prominent journalists—as an IRA fellow traveller who, as I pointed out in your Lordships' House in June, joined one of the IRA's top bomb-makers, Padraig Wilson, on a secret trip to Colombia in June 2001 under a false passport. It is not a coincidence that, instead of being lauded for his actions, the Minister for Justice of the Irish Republic found himself the subject of a campaign of vilification in the Irish media. The worst example of biased coverage has been that of the RTE. In view of the past two weeks, perhaps it is time that two very senior RTE officials explained their extreme republican backgrounds.

Gerry Adams said recently that all British and Irish spies in the IRA/Sinn Fein must be removed. I say to Gerry Adams: what about the IRA/Sinn Fein spies in the establishment, who the Irish police, the Garda, call Gerry Adams's secret army? Will he be unveiling and removing his people?

I have been concerned for some time about an Irish-only policy being adopted by sections of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. This means that anything Irish gets support; anything that is not Irish is held up. The massive payments to nationalist festivals each year and very little to non-Irish events is an example that I have discussed with the Minister and shall return to again.

In broad terms, I support the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Police), Home Affairs, Whip 2:21 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, it is, of course, extremely disappointing that we are still here today debating the necessity for the Bill as it touches on terrorism matters in Northern Ireland. But, as we have heard, it is still important to ensure that terrorism is fought wherever it appears—and, sadly, Northern Ireland has known its full horror for far too many years. That is why we are here to extend, yet again, the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000 to Northern Ireland, and specifically Part VII of the Act which applies only to Northern Ireland, as the Minister outlined at the beginning of his speech.

As we have heard, the provisions are temporary. We have seen them before, always hoping it would be the last time. They are also time-limited, as my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton reminded us. We therefore agree that they need to be extended once again, otherwise they will expire on 18 February.

Progress is being made, slowly and painfully, but with some amount of good will here and there. It is to be hoped that politicians of all persuasions will work together so that these provisions may not be necessary for much longer. Perhaps this is a na-ve and wishful thought but it is the only way in which this part of the legislation will eventually be repealed.

As my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew noted in the introduction to his Report on the Operation in 2004 of the Terrorism Act 2000:

"Serious political parties can have no truck with organised crime or gang violence. This needs to be accepted without demur on a permanent basis by all parties in Northern Ireland. Those who oppose judge alone criminal courts there weaken their case dramatically by any involvement in the activities of ruthless criminals to whom intimidation of others is second nature. I cannot emphasise too much the importance of that observation".

We urge all parties to think carefully about that statement.

As it stands, those Part VII provisions extending only to Northern Ireland are to remain in force until 31 July 2007. If by then it appears to the Government that normalisation has taken place, then Part VII will be repealed, as we have heard. Of course, if normalisation has not taken place, then Part VII can be extended by order for a specified period up to 1 August 2008. Let us hope that will not be necessary.

The Bill also makes provision to add to the list of scheduled offences under Part VII of the 2000 Act other offences created by the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005; to repeal certain provisions which are not currently in force; and to retain parts of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2004 until July 2007, ensuring that breaches of bail on scheduled cases are dealt with in a similar way to non-scheduled cases and also to those cases to which my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton referred.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Bill is to retain the Diplock courts, a matter which has already been referred to. Sections 65 to 80 and Schedule 9 deal with this part of the Bill. This court system dates back to 1972 and it is indeed regrettable that we still have to refer certain—albeit very serious—and specific cases to such courts. These special judicial arrangements are for prosecutions relating to paramilitaries and the special situation in Northern Ireland. They may still be necessary to deal with cases of witness and jury intimidation, but until normality is reached the Government feel it is still necessary to retain them. It is vital, therefore, that Parliament keeps a very careful eye on how these courts are operating. We expect to hear more about this at a later date.

Section 108, which has been referred to, is a concern of ours and I look forward to the Minister's response to my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton, who raised the matter in his speech. For how long will this legislation stay on the statute books without its ever having been used?

This has been a short but important debate for the people of Northern Ireland and for their safety. But, as I said at the beginning, it is regrettable that the Bill has had to be brought before your Lordships' House. I reiterate that we hope it will be the last time we have to deal with these matters.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland 2:25 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for bringing forward the Bill today. I want to open by expressing on behalf of my party our almost unqualified support for the Bill. It gives the House an opportunity to take stock of all that has been achieved in the progress towards a peaceful Northern Ireland during the past decade, and particularly in the past five years since the Terrorism Act 2000 was passed.

The Belfast of today is far removed from the Belfast of 10 years ago. The police and the Armed Forces are no longer being routinely attacked and bombings have almost ceased. More recently, the statement by the IRA on 28 July this year, as has been said by other noble Lords, confirming that it would complete the decommissioning process was long overdue but has been welcomed, albeit cautiously, by most people. As I made clear in a debate in this House two months ago, that statement was only a first step on the road to building the trust and confidence that are necessary if we are eventually to see a restoration of devolved government. It is in the context of the start of the process of the restoration of trust and confidence that I suggest to your Lordships we consider the Bill, rather than view it as a concluding of the peace process.

We have yet to witness on the ground a complete cessation of military activity, whether by the Provisional IRA, the dissident republican paramilitaries or, indeed, loyalist terrorist organisations. It is against this backdrop that any measures to extend the Part VII powers of the Terrorism Act 2000 must be examined. The provisions of Part VII of that Act provide the security forces and the courts with the wherewithal they need to tackle terrorism and protect the people of Northern Ireland. We entirely agree with the Government that they are still vital and necessary in maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Sadly, violence has not ended in the Province and still blights the existence of the people of Northern Ireland. As the seventh report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated on 19 October:

"Paramilitaries exercise control over and exploit communities which they say they protect and from which they claim support. Their hold needs to be loosened so as to help create a 'culture of lawfulness' within which the normal democratic principles of law enforcement and human rights apply".

We recognise that normalisation has to begin and we support the attempt that this Bill signifies to create the enabling environment. For the two-year normalisation programme to progress, the Bill sets up a two-year timeframe by allowing the Part VII powers to be extended until July 2007 or, at the very latest, 2008. It is at this point that we differ from Her Majesty's Government on the question of how far into the future these powers should be extended.

The Government seem to view July 2007 as the time after which they believe the IRA involvement in terrorism will have effectively ceased. But this view seems to me—I know I am known as a pessimist by the Government Front Bench in these matters—to be overly optimistic. There is no guarantee that dissident republican organisations will have ceased their activities and the loyalists show no sign of decommissioning or ceasing their illegal activities. The threat from terrorist-related activities may, unfortunately, continue well beyond 2007. Therefore, one might question whether it is a little premature to place the criminal justice system of the Province on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom in 18 months or, at best, two and a half years.

It would be far more satisfactory if this type of legislation was not used as the driving force behind the normalisation programme but rather used to follow and support the programme. Amendments were proposed in another place that would have left the Government with more flexibility by allowing them to extend the legislation annually up to 2012. This approach would be preferable to us, as it would give greater comfort to the people of Northern Ireland and the special provisions could easily remain. If the Bill remains in its current form, all that the people of Northern Ireland will have to rely on is the possibility of the Government deciding to take action in 2008, as the Minister stated that they would intend to do. I hope that the Minister will give this House a firm assurance that the Government will come to an objective and fair decision on the need for these powers when their expiry time draws near.

We look forward to debating in Committee the details of the provisions relating to Part VII, as mentioned by noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. But at the outset of the Bill's passage through this House, it is right to mention one important aspect of those powers: the use of the so-called Diplock Courts. Despite concerns raised by, for example, the Northern Ireland Civil Liberties Group Committee that the risk of intimidation of jurors is not as great as the Government may suggest, we believe that it is vital to retain non-jury courts where there remains any possibility of concerted intimidation of jurors. Until such time as the terrorist infrastructures are dismantled for good, it would be folly to remove this unfortunate but necessary component of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

At the same time, I emphasise that conducting trials on indictment without a jury is not something which in any other circumstances I or my party would normally support. Given our support for the current Diplock system, we therefore fully support also the measures in Clause 3 to add the new offences created by the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 to the list of scheduled offences under Part VII of the 2000 Act.

The necessity of this Bill is regrettable but undeniable. In principle, the Government are right to introduce it. I look forward to discussing the exact details and the Government's precise intentions in Committee. The situation in Northern Ireland still requires extraordinary measures. In extending the time scale for these measures to remain in force, this Bill should be supported.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:33 pm, 20th December 2005

My Lords, I am grateful for the support—sometimes measured, sometimes almost unqualified, as the noble Lord just said—for the Bill. I shall do my best to answer some of the detailed points. We can address in Committee in the new year those that I do not cover.

In one respect, we are continuing existing law. We are not making major changes today. Therefore, I shall confine my remarks to the contents of the Bill, which maintains the status quo in some respects. There would have had to have been a deterioration of some substance if we had had to talk about even a one-year extension to 2008. On the basis of the significant progress that has been made, we are confident that 2007 is fine; 2008 is a longstop. Beyond that, fresh legislation would be needed to deal with what would be a fresh situation, because, quite clearly, things would not have worked out in an acceptable way.

The International Monitoring Commission's seventh report recognised the IRA's statement as being very significant. The report also states that initial signs, following the Provisional IRA's statement, are encouraging. The Secretary of State has drawn his conclusions from that. As has been said, it is not the end game. The report in which we will really be interested is due before the end of January, because that will cover a longer time span. The first report dealt only with the first few weeks following the IRA's statement of 28 July. The later report will deal with a further three months, so some important points are yet to be taken on board. Nevertheless, the IMC judged the IRA's statement to be significant.

We are putting what pressure we can—if "pressure" is the right word to use—on the loyalists to decommission. We want all groups to decommission, simply because we want to return to the rule of law, and not the rule of the gun and intimidation. We call regularly on those with influence to help bring this about. I fully accept that the Liberal Democrats agreed to five years in 2000, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said. The situation has been regularly scrutinised since then, and that has been useful.

I fully accept what has been said about the Diplock courts. There is no question that they have served the people of Northern Ireland well. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has recommended on several occasions that a three-judge court would be a potential replacement for Diplock courts, but no firm conclusions have been drawn. We are committed to the return of jury trials. That was implicit in what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, and it has obviously got to be the long-term aim. Subject to an enabling environment, the Diplock system will cease to have effect by the end of July 2007—that is, the expiry of Part VII—but we are looking actively at what may be required after that period for paramilitary-type trials where jurors could be subject to intimidation, because we want to ensure the effectiveness of the criminal justice system as we go forward. We do not want to prejudge, certainly not during the passage of this Bill. I freely admit that I will not be in a position in Committee to elaborate on what might be the replacement for Diplock courts. But we are mindful that to move from Diplock to no-Diplock for everything will not be possible. Therefore, we are actively reviewing the situation and looking at potential replacements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke strongly about the devolution of the criminal justice system. We could not devolve policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly if it returned tomorrow. The conditions are not right. Legislation will be required. That commitment was made as part of the peace process. In the early part of next year, the Government will indeed bring forward legislative proposals, and they will be subject to scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament, but they will lie unused until the conditions are absolutely right. So it does not automatically follow that if the Assembly returned tomorrow, we would devolve those functions. We need to pass the legislation first. The conditions would have to be absolutely right before both Houses of the Westminster Parliament devolved the criminal justice system to Northern Ireland. In the mean time, we are strengthening the criminal justice system so that it can tackle the issues of intimidation and organised crime which the noble Baroness mentioned, but a broader devolution will not happen overnight. Separate primary legislation will be brought forward for that. It will be given Royal Assent and then parked until the situation is more satisfactory.

One or two noble Lords mentioned Section 108. I shall quote the Explanatory Notes before I give a longer explanation. They state:

"Section 108 allows for the oral evidence of a police officer, of at least the rank of superintendent, to be admissible as evidence that the accused is or was a member of a specified organisation. The accused cannot be committed for trial, found to have a case to answer or convicted solely on the basis of this statement".

That is a very important caveat.

In moving towards a normalised security environment, as we hope we are in Northern Ireland, it would not be necessary or appropriate to maintain any of the special provisions contained in Part VII. As the House knows because of other legislation going through on a UK-wide basis, the UK has strengthened terrorism legislation. It is some of the strongest and most effective in the world, so we are fairly confident that the permanent counter-terrorism powers that apply throughout the UK will be sufficient to deal with any residual terrorist threat that may linger, because these things will take a while. I suspect the tail will be quite long when it comes to the total elimination of terrorism, but we are making good progress to date.

I shall respond briefly to what the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said about sleepers and spies in the Republic of Ireland—a European Union partner, but for practical purposes a foreign country, for which I do not speak at this Dispatch Box. Neither the British Government nor this Parliament have any responsibility at all for counter-terrorism measures in the Republic of Ireland. That is a matter for the Irish Government to address. As I have said, though, here in the UK—and obviously we work with our European partners and neighbours—we have some of the strongest and most effective counter-terrorism legislation in the world. We are satisfied that it is sufficient to protect the people of this country.

I have one more general point, following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. In renewing this legislation, including dates when it will completely expire, the Government and Parliament are sending a signal that things have changed; that progress has been made, substantially over the past 10 years and very substantially in the past five; and that the security situation has shown, in the words of the IMC, "significant improvement" since 28 July last year. But there is still a massive need to build trust across and within the communities. There is no question about that. To bring about a normal civic society in Northern Ireland, as well as a normalised security situation, will need men and women of substance in positions of leadership. They are needed to operate the normal processes that we take for granted in the rest of Great Britain, which either Northern Ireland has not been able to do, or for which, in recent years, only people of non-sufficient substance have been available. This will require many changes and many pressures.

As the Secretary of State has said, there are some corners to be turned. As we know from what is happening at the moment in the other place, there will be some legislation that is difficult to stomach. It is evil, but it is necessary because of the process we are engaged in. We hope that, at the end of the parliamentary process, and with the other actions taken, that extra trust can be in place. Without it, progress will not be made—it will be superficial. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the widespread support for the continuing of this legislation, and I look forward to debating in greater detail the contents of the Bill in Committee in the new year.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland

My Lords, before the Minister sits down and my noble friends get settled, will he try to persuade his colleagues, the Secretary of State and No. 10 Downing Street, to improve the spin so that, when we read the press about Northern Ireland and the Government's activities, we get more confident? We are still reading a negative press from the Unionist/Conservative point of view that the Government are doing deals all the time with Sinn Fein. I am not charging the Government with that at this time, but I am charging them with failing to communicate the real messages, if they are as I hope they might be, to the population.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I will transmit that request. The Government do not run the press. The press in Northern Ireland is fairly new to me, but I have gone into it in detail in the past seven months, and it has to be seen to be believed. You have to see it—that is the point. There is sometimes an obsession with the past, and with issues that people thought had been put to bed years ago; and a reluctance in some ways, even in the media, to debate normal society and normal issues.

Led by the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland team there, we are pushing on with a normal civic society reform programme. We are pushing on with the reform of local government with a new system of raising local government finance, the legislation for which will come to this House early in the new year, and water charges—all the normal things that happen. There is reform of the health service and the education service: all these transcend the issues around security and the constitution. We are going to get on with it. We hope that the penny will drop for the media in Northern Ireland that there are other things to report than the tittle-tattle from various street corners about which group is getting what over another, and that they can be debated in a more normal fashion. The Government do not own or run the press—heaven forbid that they did—but I will make sure that the "spinmeisters" in No. 10 are well aware of the noble Lord's request.

Noble Lords:


On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.