Oral Answers to Questions — Justice

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 17th February 2020.

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Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP 2:45 pm, 17th February 2020

1. Mr Stewart asked the Minister of Justice, following the announcement in 2012 of a review of sentencing guidelines for convictions of murder, to outline any subsequent changes to the tariffs for mandatory life sentences. (AQO 124/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The ministerial commitment of the time was to a wider review of the legislation governing the determination of tariffs for mandatory life sentences. In Northern Ireland, a person guilty of murder must receive a life sentence, and the sentencing judge must set an appropriate tariff. The tariff is the minimum period the person must remain in prison before being considered for release by the independent Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland (PCNI).

The tariff is determined by the judge considering sentencing guidance, generally from judgements delivered by our Court of Appeal. Sentencing guidance is distinctly different from "sentencing guidelines" or a statutory structured approach for tariff setting as exists in England and Wales. The Department initiated a review of sentencing policy in 2017 and undertook a public consultation on a wide review of sentencing issues, including whether approaches to tariff setting that occur elsewhere should be developed in Northern Ireland, in October 2019. The consultation closed on 3 February with over 200 responses having been received. The responses are being considered.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I welcome the Minister to her position and wish her the best of luck in the years ahead. I appreciate that she is only one month into post, but she will know that both her predecessors announced reviews of sentencing tariffs for murders. Does she agree that it is an absolute disgrace that, in 2017, the average sentence for a murder in Northern Ireland was 11 years and 4 months, some 10 years less than the equivalent in England and Wales? When is Northern Ireland going to lose its reputation for being soft on murderers?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his supplementary question, and I want to say a few things in answer to his question.

First, it is worth considering that there is no major disparity in sentencing guidance covering such offences and tariffs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The tariff is the first point where someone may ask for parole to be considered, but it is not, if you like, automatic that the person will be released from custody.

Secondly, it is very difficult to do the comparative analysis that the Member is suggesting could take place, because, due to the small number of cases in Northern Ireland, very small differences in sentencing can skew the results. We will be considering whether or not we need to go for a more structured sentencing approach in light of what has come back from the consultation. However, when this was last considered, significant value-for-money concerns were raised in the responses. Those two things do need to be balanced.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Again, I welcome the Minister to her first Question Time.

In evidence that the Chief Constable gave to the Justice Committee, he indicated a concern about the lack of deterrent value in the current legislation for assaults on police officers. Can the Minister look at this area to provide additional protection by way of deterrent value?

Secondly, in respect of murder, we recognise that police officers and prison officers represent all of us. An attack on them is an attack on democracy. Is the Minister in favour of introducing whole-life sentences so that, when those individuals are murdered, life actually means life?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. First, the review that was undertaken was of tariffs for mandatory life sentences, so that has already gone ahead. On the issue of wider sentencing, there is an issue of aggravated offences that needs to be considered. There are a number of different ways that people can be judged for murder, because some are whole-life sentences, some are indeterminate, some are determinate and some have tariffs applied.

If the Member would like more detail, I am happy to write to him with more information about how it is applied. However, I do not want anyone to go away from the Chamber feeling that, in any way, there is a huge disparity between the sentencing in Northern Ireland and sentencing elsewhere. It has to be borne in mind that we have a very small number of such offences in any one year. Therefore, the much larger pool of offences in England and Wales means that very small changes in Northern Ireland can produce big anomalies in the comparative analysis. People need to be careful about drawing the comparison out too far.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

Given that Westminster has just brought in legislation to fill a gap in terrorist laws, can the Minister outline the engagement that her Department had with the Northern Ireland Office on the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill that saw Northern Ireland omitted from the Bill?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Yes, I can. With respect to the provisions that have been made in Westminster under the emergency legislation, we consulted with the Ministry of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office and indicated that, whilst there were a number of issues about how sentences are constructed in Northern Ireland and, specifically, about any retrospectivity that might be incurred as a result of the changes proposed in Westminster, there was no barrier to the legislation being applied UK-wide. We made it clear that that was our preference. Indeed, in a conversation with the Justice Minister for England and Wales, Robert Buckland, I made it clear that that was my preference, because I was concerned about the risk of a two-tier system of approach being set up in the UK when it comes to the paroling of terrorist prisoners.

At the end of the day, the decision was taken by the Ministry of Justice. It is not a decision for the Department of Justice here. The decision was to exclude Northern Ireland from that. Our first sight of that decision was the press release about the legislation that was issued by the Ministry of Justice. There will be other opportunities for Northern Ireland to be included in the counterterrorism Bill that is about to come through Westminster, so the door, if you like, has not completely closed on that chapter. I have written to the Ministry of Justice and to Robert Buckland to make it clear that, in future, we expect a higher level of exchange of information between Departments before announcements of that gravity are made.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Does the Minister intend to review the structure of the Lord Chief Justice's sentencing group?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Lord Chief Justice's sentencing group was set up in 2016 to provide guideline cases that could then be considered as part of the overall consideration that judges would make when they were doing sentencing. In addition to the legal members on the panel, lay members were added in, I think, 2018. At the moment, whilst we continue to review its operation, there are no firm proposals for change.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Many answers have already been forthcoming, so I ask the Minister to bear with me and give me some latitude. Is the Minister prepared to review sentencing for the offence of death by dangerous driving?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

First, I thank the Member for raising the issue, because it has been a major feature in the recent consultation. I am aware, obviously, that there was particular public interest in that, as a result of the accident involving Enda Dolan, where he died as a result of quite an appalling case. First, I express my sympathy to Peter Dolan and his wife, Niamh, for the experience that they have had since Enda was killed in 2014. I know that they have been looking, as part of the sentencing review, to see whether there is a possibility of having a view on the maximum sentencing for death by dangerous driving. As you will appreciate, I cannot prejudge the outcome of the consultation. We need to look at all the responses being analysed. I have to say that a significant number relate to that particular offence. I express my thanks to the Dolan family for their efforts, which clearly highlighted the consultation and encouraged the public to get involved in that and to send very detailed responses on those matters that we are now considering.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Can I take the Minister back to Mr Beattie's question? Is she saying to the House that there is no opportunity for her Department or the Executive to bring in legislation altering the parole provisions and when they kick in, in respect of terrorist offences?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Terrorist offences are for the UK Government to legislate on because they are a reserved matter. However, there is, of course, the opportunity for us to look at when parole kicks in with respect to those offences. As I said in answer to Doug Beattie's question, the issue is that this was driven by an imperative in England and Wales with respect to a particular issue that was arising. When the MOJ introduces UK-wide legislation on counterterrorism later in the spring, there will be an opportunity to address the wider issues, including the one that the Member raised. It is my hope that, at that stage, we will have better engagement with the MOJ, the Department of Justice and the NIO to ensure that we regularise what has become an anomaly in the system. However, I am clear that it is our preference that the UK-wide approach to this is consistent and that a two-tier system — one administered in Northern Ireland and one administered in the rest of the UK — does not develop.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I welcome the Minister to her place and wish her well in her new role. Does she agree that whilst always wanting to be merciful and allow people the opportunity of redemption, there are some crimes that are so despicable that life should mean life, specifically the murder of a child? I am sure all Members will agree that, as part of any review of sentencing policy, anyone who engages in such a heinous act should spend the rest of their days in prison.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his point. A number of elements have to be considered by judges when they are deciding on the tariff to apply in life sentence cases. However, to be clear, if someone commits murder in Northern Ireland, they will automatically receive a life sentence. The tariff is not the point at which someone is released on parole; it is the first point at which they can apply to be released on parole. Therefore, even someone who is given a life sentence with a relatively low tariff can continue to remain in prison if the parole commissioners judge that that person remains a threat to society.