1.7 pm

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 15th December 2005.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 131, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, at end insert—

‘(2A)A person subject to a sentence of life imprisonment is not eligible for a licence under this section until he has served at least two years of his sentence.

(2B)A person sentenced to a period of imprisonment of five years or more is not eligible for a licence under this section until he has served at least one year of his sentence.’.

No. 30, in clause 9, page 6, line 28, leave out subsection (4).

No. 132, in clause 9, page 6, line 28, at end insert

‘other than a sentence of life imprisonment or one of five years or more.’.

No. 133, in clause 9, page 6, line 31, leave out subsection (5).

No. 134, in clause 9, page 6, line 41, leave out subsection (7).

The recording equipment is now back in working order. I pass on the apologies of Hansard for any inconvenience caused to the Committee.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

At the end of this morning’s sitting I was making the point that the Bill creates a further anomaly: people who were convicted before the Belfast agreement will have served some time—perhaps a substantial part of their sentence—in prison, whereas those who have been on the run or who have come before the tribunal as a result of ongoing police investigations will serve no time. In future those who did not benefit from this scheme might claim that they were treated differently and unjustly, and that might need to be dealt with—perhaps, going by our experience of republicans and others, in the form of compensation. The amendment would remove that anomaly and ensure that those who are guilty of murder or multiple murders served at least some time in prison. That might be of little comfort to those who would like proper justice to be meted out to such people, but it would at least ensure that they pay in some way for the crimes that they committed.

I am sure that some hon. Members will point out that the sentences that we have suggested—

“five years, or one third, of his sentence”— are tougher than they would have been under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, but they are designed to reflect the fact that many who will benefit from the scheme have compounded their offence by having sought to avoid the courts and prison.

The amendment is sensible. It would remove the anomaly created by the Bill and its contradiction and inconsistency with previous treatment of those found guilty of terrorist offences. It would also give some comfort to victims by saying that at least those guilty of the crimes will serve time in prison.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I welcome you back to the Committee, Mr. Taylor. Our amendments Nos. 131, 132, 133 and 134 are along the same lines as amendment No. 29.

The people of Northern Ireland are insulted by the Bill and although the Minister says that he may correct the provision, people who have committed the most terrible crimes will not have to appear in front of a court. There will not be a court, but even if there were and people appeared in front of it, they would not have to serve a single day in prison for the crimes that they had committed. That is a terrible insult to the survivors and people whose relatives and loved ones have been murdered. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) says, the Bill is inconsistent with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, under which there was a minimum requirement. It was not long considering the seriousness of some of the crimes, but it was a requirement of sorts.

The Secretary of State’s explanation on Second Reading was that the Government want to get people through the system, as if that will correct everything. It may make it legally tidy. As I said on Second Reading, if the Prime Minister is considering retiring before the next election, it puts everything neatly together for him—in a box, all done with. However, it is not all done with for the survivors and those who must live with the consequences. It is not done with for the people who suffered the pain. We should be thinking about them.

I am sorry to say that none of us in Committee has been able to extract from the Minister or the Secretary of State the reason for the Bill. We have asked about the consequences if it were not introduced. We were told that the IRA is disarming, or even that it has disarmed and stood down its units, but to the question, “What will be the consequences if we don’t introduce the legislation?”, there has been no answer. We have asked who the legislation is for. Surely the victims and the relatives of the victims are those who matter, yet they do not want the legislation, so what is it for?

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked why it was necessary for these people to come back. Will a great success have been achieved if people come back to Northern Ireland from abroad or beyond the jurisdiction, obtain a certificate and get a licence? Will we really have achieved that much? Why go through all the pain? What will be achieved?

The Secretary of State also said on Second Reading that there is a sort of acceptance that there would be no punishment. He said that people are not being punished now because they are on the run. If we follow   that argument through to its logical conclusion, we could say here in Great Britain that if a murder is committed and the police know who committed the murder but have not caught that person, after a while we can say, “Okay, we have not caught that person and brought him to justice, so let us write the crime off completely.” That is the logic conclusion of the Bill.

We tabled amendments similar to that tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim. We are short of time in Committee, but the fact that I have made a brief speech should not be taken to mean that I and the other Conservative members of the Committee—when they turn up—are not worried about this aspect of the Bill. We are most concerned. We are offended by it. During my eight years in the House, there have been times when legislation passed in connection in Northern Ireland has almost made me ashamed of my profession, and today is one such day.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I welcome you back to the Chair for the Committee’s final sitting, Mr. Taylor.

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim would require a convicted certificate holder to serve up to five years of his sentence before becoming eligible for release on licence. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) would require a person who is sentenced to life to serve at least two years and a person who is sentenced to five or more years to serve at least one year. I ask my hon. Friends to reject the amendments, and I shall explain why.

I shall deal with the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for East Antrim first, and I hope that the Committee will reflect on a point that I made to him this morning. We need to address position of people who are outside the jurisdiction, which was an anomaly left over from the Good Friday agreement. Hon. Members may not accept that, but that is the Government’s position.

I cannot believe that individuals outside the jurisdiction will return to Northern Ireland if, at the end of the special tribunal, they face a potential prison sentence for the crimes that they committed. I understand that that may cause the hon. Gentleman some difficulty, in terms of the conditions that individuals will face when they return, but the purpose of the scheme is to tie up that anomaly and to ensure that individuals come back and face trial in the special tribunal. During that court case, victims and their families can find out what happened and, ultimately, an individual can be convicted for his crime and be released on licence. The hon. Gentleman’s amendment would mean that those outside the jurisdiction would not return, which would make the process meaningless.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The Minister is basically reiterating the position. He is not telling us why it is so important that these people come back. He mentioned the victims, but the victims do not want this legislation. I know that he has promised to review the non-appearance part of the Bill, but the whole Bill was put together with non-appearance in mind. It could not   have been in the Government’s mind that the victims would know who committed the crime when the Bill was drawn up.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am trying your patience, Mr. Taylor, but let me go back a stage, briefly. Under the Bill as originally published, individuals did not have to appear before the special tribunal. I have agreed to review that matter and to reflect on it, but even if we maintained the original position in which individuals would not attend court—and I am not suggesting that we do that—the individuals would still be known. A named individual would face trial in a special tribunal, he would receive a conviction if found guilty, and he would ultimately be released on licence.

The purpose of the scheme is to ensure that the victim knows that a named individual had been convicted of a crime that involved their loved ones. The named individual would have a criminal record and would serve a sentence released on licence. The fact that I am reflecting on the question of appearance in court may change that aspect of the matter, but it does not change the argument that I put to the hon. Member for East Antrim, which is that if a prison sentence of five years or more awaits those who are outside the jurisdiction, they will not return, so there will be no criminal conviction, no individual with a criminal record, and no individual appearing in court for that crime. I accept that the hon. Gentleman wants justice, but I respectfully tell him that no justice will be served by non-appearance in court.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the Minister accept that if the perpetrators of crimes decide to remain outside the jurisdiction—they are the ones who want to get back in—that, to victims, would be far preferable to seeing them waltz back in and get a licence without having to appear before a tribunal?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If we do otherwise, the individuals who are outside the jurisdiction would not have a conviction—they would not be convicted of crimes for which they would have to face trial if they were brought back to the jurisdiction. I accept that they will not face a prison sentence because they will be released on licence, but the hon. Gentleman has to make a judgment. Does he wish to put in place with the amendment a minimum five-year sentence, which nobody will have to serve because no one will return to face the tribunal, or does he want individuals to return, face the tribunal, be sentenced and given a conviction on licence? That is the choice in his amendment.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

With respect, the Minister is beginning to sound ridiculous. He is attempting to tell the Committee that although we are dealing with the very people who have bent the Government’s arm up their back to produce the Bill, because they hate being fugitives so much and hate not being allowed back into Northern Ireland, he is prepared to go through the ridiculous process of introducing legislation allowing them to get a get-out-of-jail-free card. They want to get back; they are the ones who are pursuing the matter and who do not like the situation. The victims do not want it.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the agreement published in May 2003, which indicated the nature of the scheme.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

An agreement with the terrorists, not the victims.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The point is that the hon. Gentleman and the victims will not have an individual in court, being convicted and being released on licence, because people will not return if they face a five-year prison sentence. That is a simple fact.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he has been extremely generous throughout the entire Committee. He keeps saying, “The victims will not have,” but the victims do not want the Bill. Will he deal with that?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I accept that the victims I have spoken to are sceptical about many aspects of the Bill, but I say openly and honestly to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that they ultimately want to see a conviction for the offence committed against their loved ones. I might be wrong, but in my judgment the proposal made by the Member for East Antrim will mean that, however much individuals want to return to Northern Ireland, they will not return to face a tribunal to be convicted and sentenced to five year years in jail. [Interruption.] They may return to the jurisdiction if they face the tribunal as planned under the scheme that we propose, to receive a conviction on licence and to be able to work in society.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

My hon. Friend may have just heard hon. Members saying, “So what?” from a sedentary position. Does he agree with me that the divisions that we have seen on the Bill and on this amendment are very much about saying “So what?”? We believe that the Bill will push the process further forward, which is necessary. The answer to, “So what?” is “So that the process is pushed forward and delivers some form of justice, albeit diluted, and a record of criminal intent and terrorist activity.”

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I have said all along that the purpose of the Bill, distasteful and unpleasant though it is, and let no one in the Committee accept that it is not so, is to ensure that we—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Mr. Taylor, It is difficult to continue to speak to the Committee when there are a lot of sedentary interventions. As you have seen, I am happy to take interventions. If the hon. Member for Belfast, East wants to put his comments on the record, let him do so.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Thank you, Mr. Taylor, I am delighted to see you in the Chair this afternoon.

The Minister has tried to persuade the Committee to reject the amendment moved by the Member for East Antrim, on the basis that when the on-the-runs return they will, to paraphrase the Minister, receive a sentence and will be convicted. With the greatest   respect to the Minister, he cannot persuade the Committee that the special tribunal—one person, retired or otherwise—will convict anyone, particularly since clause 7 means that there is a stop factor when the certificate of eligibility is issued and no further police investigation may continue.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Order. That is a long intervention. Let me also say that I deplore the scale of sedentary interventions. Will hon. Members please make an appropriate request to intervene to the Minister?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that I cannot guarantee that anybody will be convicted. However, the individuals who are likely to return are likely to face conviction and the mechanism is there if they are convicted of the crime. I cannot prejudge a court case. However, the fact that there will be a considerable amount of evidence in the hands of the police against the person who applies for a certificate and that person would have been arrested had they not been outside it means that the police will have a good opportunity to take forward a number of successful cases. I hope that I have covered the points raised by the amendment.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Is the Minister saying that victims would prefer the perpetrators of a crime to be able to walk up and down their street after coming back and getting a licence to having them outside the jurisdiction as fugitives on the run? That is the choice offered by the Bill. I believe that victims would rather the fugitives were outside the jurisdiction than walking up and down their streets.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I would never presume to speak on behalf of the victims of crimes in Northern Ireland. I simply make a judgment on whether there should be a potential conviction for a crime to help to resolve some of the issues that we have faced in the past. Under the scheme, the potential for conviction means that an individual will return and face a trial, and if they are found guilty, they will be convicted. It should be self-evident—distasteful though it may be—that if people face a five-year sentence on return, they will not return, and if they do not return, there will never be a conviction, nor will the person in question be held on licence for that crime.

There is an honest disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and me, but I am trying, on behalf of the Government, to resolve some of the anomalies outstanding from the Good Friday agreement. At the same time, I hope to offer some comfort to relatives if, at the end of the day, an individual has been convicted of the murder of their loved ones.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government have now suspended or ended all their extradition treaties with all the foreign countries in which such fugitives may be residing? It seems that we are not able to bring them back except through this legislation.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My understanding is that, if extradition treaties exist, we are exercising that power when that is possible. We have been trying to do that for years. We are where we are.

Questions were also raised about what would happen to the subjects of current inquiries by the historic inquiries team. In addressing the status of those who are currently outside the jurisdiction, the Government are committed to granting licences without any time being served in prison—difficult though that may be. Given that we have made arrangements for returning on-the-runs, it is only reasonable that the same conditions should be available to those who come after them. Again, that relates to offences committed before 10 April 1998 and the Good Friday agreement.

Finally, I confirm to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) what I have just said to him. Nothing in the scheme detracts from our international obligations on extradition.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister has emphasised the need to bring people back to Northern Ireland to face justice. The justice that they will face is, of course, not the justice that the victims ever wanted. It seems that the only defence for imposing no prison sentence on such people is that it is the only way to get them back into Northern Ireland. They will go through a charade, get a licence and walk free. I believe that the victims would much prefer those people to stay on the run and remain fugitives. After all, the Bill was designed and requested to allow people who are outside the jurisdiction to come back to Northern Ireland free from prosecution. That was the driving force. The Bill is a reward to those who cannot return to Northern Ireland because of the crimes they have committed or because they have escaped from prison and know that they would face a prison sentence if they came back. Given that they sought to avoid convictions for the crimes that they committed, it is only right that they should receive some degree of punishment.

It is important to note the inconsistency. The Minister has not mentioned the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who might be covered by the cold case review, and who will not have to be brought back into the jurisdiction because they are already in the jurisdiction. If their cases were to come before the tribunal, why should they not serve a sentence on the grounds of consistency, given that some of their colleagues serve prison sentences even under the Belfast agreement?

This is an important amendment. The Minister cannot make a defence for opposing it, other than to state that the terrorists have demanded that they should not serve a day in prison. In order to give some recognition to victims, we in this Committee and in this House should not be prepared to accede to that demand.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 19.

Division number 3 Nimrod Review — Statement — 1.7 pm

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 18 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, leave out ‘non-intimate’.

We have reached the stage where we must impose upon ourselves some serious time strictures, so I will attempt to deal with the amendment in one minute, and I am sure that the Minister’s response will be equally brief.

This is a probing amendment. It would remove the word “non-intimate” from clause 9(2), which states that the Secretary of State is entitled to require those who are accused, and are benefiting from having been granted a licence, to provide fingerprints, to be in attendance themselves, and to provide “non-intimate samples.” Does that mean that there is a prohibition on the police being given the DNA of the individual? According to the explanatory notes, such samples will be supplied “for identification purposes”, although that is not included in the Bill. Does “for identification purposes” mean that the authorities can take such samples only to make sure that they have the person who is named on the original certificate, or can they take them to identify whether they have been involved in other crimes—or, indeed, in case they become involved in further crimes? No restriction should be applied in respect of samples.

As I have said, this is a probing amendment; I hope that that is not an unfortunate phrase to use, as we are talking about non-intimate samples. Whatever samples are required by the police should be available, not only because it will allow them to determine whether there are other charges that the individual should face historically, but because in the event of future actions the samples—fingerprints and so on—will be available to them, so that they can ensure that the person does not offend in future.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on the points that he raised. The amendment is unnecessary for the purposes of identification. The special tribunal may have to take non-intimate samples. Such samples include a range of matters that I could read into the record if it would help the hon. Gentleman. The essential thing is that DNA can be taken from a non-intimate sample, and   such a measure is therefore an appropriate one for future involvement in a range of issues.

Non-intimate samples include the following: a sample of a person’s hair, other than their pubic hair; a sample taken from a nail or under a nail; a swab taken from a part of the person’s body, including the mouth; saliva; and a footprint or similar impression. That will allow for DNA to be taken as a non-intimate sample. I hope that that will assure the hon. Gentleman and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I beg to move amendment No. 77, in clause 9, page 6, line 31, at beginning insert

‘Except as provided by subsection (5A)’.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 72, in clause 9, page 6, line 34, at end insert—

‘(5A)Where a person on licence under this section had pleaded guilty at his trial to the offence, the Secretary of State may reduce the duration of the licence by up to a quarter of the sentence.’.

No. 78, in clause 9, page 6, line 35, leave out subsection (6).

No. 79, in clause 9, page 6, line 41, leave out ‘(6)’ and insert ‘(5A)’.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Amendments Nos. 77, 72 and 79 relate to providing incentives for people to come forward to admit their crimes. As we have done in previous amendments, we are trying to provide a defendant with an incentive to admit to what they have done.

There is nothing in the Bill that would provide an incentive for someone to admit to committing any crime or any of the serious offences with which they might be charged. That is because it is up to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to state the offences that it thinks are relevant to a particular individual rather than it being up to the applicant to state the offences. It is also because a person cannot be detained or questioned. No powers of entry or search are allowed. As a result, the prosecution case will potentially be very weak. In addition, if a person is found guilty at the tribunal they can appeal. As we know, they will not serve a single minute in custody or in jail. Given all those provisions, what possible reason would anyone have to come forward to admit to what they have done?

I would understand any concern in the Committee about the amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on it. I do not particularly like proposing that a person’s time on licence may be shortened, but it provides some kind of incentive for a defendant to stand up to admit that they have done wrong. The Government have argued about bringing closure through this Bill. How can that be done if lots of people are simply unwilling to come forward?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as currently worded, clause 9 gives one group of people an incentive to come forward: those who are at present languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure but who can apply for a licence under the clause and get their sentence commuted to an amnesty?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Lady is right. I had not considered that. People who are in prison could use the provision as a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Minister might want to comment on that.

Amendment No. 78 has widespread support. I tabled it because I wanted an explanation from the Government as to what subsection (6), particularly its paragraph (b), means. Does it mean that where someone should have been sentenced in 1970 to 20 years, for example, the fact that more than two thirds of 20 years has already passed means that they will not have to be subject to the licence?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will ask my hon. Friends to oppose the amendment, but the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is interesting, and I do not reject it out of hand. The idea behind it might be considered in the future, but sadly, there is a technical defect in the amendment itself; because of the way that it is phrased, it will not achieve what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve, and I cannot accept it for that reason. The amendment is intended to ensure that, following a guilty plea, the duration of the sentence is reduced. However, it would reduce the element of licence, but the sentence would remain. Therefore, if an individual were to plead guilty and their licence was reduced or removed, at the end of that licence period he or she would have to serve a period in prison.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am sorry that I had to dash out of the room, Mr. Taylor. My cold is getting worse.

According to the Library notes on the Bill, there are 127 failed applications from the original Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned, a lot of people are currently in prison. How does this Bill affect those people?

If I could—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If I may, I will address the point raised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) shortly, after I have dealt with the first part of the amendment.

Despite the amendment’s technical failing—it would have the opposite effect to what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire wants to achieve—I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s proposals. However, let me explain the guiding principle of our scheme: as far as possible, within the terms of the Government’s commitment of 2003, we would have a judicial process, and what Members have said about that process will also be taken into account. Seeking a guilty plea as the hook on which to hang the special   remission of sentence, rather than seeking a confession or statement of remorse, would make things much harder to quantify in due course.

The amendment has technical problems, and sentencing should not be placed directly in the hands of the Secretary of State, which the amendment would effectively do, instead of in the hands of the judge. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has made suggestions for a judicial solution: as I have said, I am not cool towards that, and I will reflect on his proposals.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised a question about clause 9(6). That provides that if an individual gets a licence, the licence and sentence last only as long as the sentence, if the person gets time off for remission, as in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If an individual is already in jail, they can apply for the scheme under clause 3(2)(c), but it will only apply to those who are already eligible for the early release scheme after two years, under the 1998 Act. Again, the defining moment in respect of offences is 10 April 1998.

I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will not press his amendment to a Division. There might be some merit in it—I can say no more than that—but I want to examine the issues, and the current amendment is technically incapable of achieving his objectives.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am not completely clear about the Minister’s explanation in respect of amendment No. 78. I was following what he was saying—but, obviously, not closely enough.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I have just ripped up my notes on that. For the first time in Committee, I must say that, for that reason, that is a matter that I will reflect on in future. If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard and reflects on what I have said, he will realise that the points that I brought before the Committee are valid. I think that he will subscribe to the comments made on clause 9(6), which he mentioned, when he reflects on them.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:45 pm, 15th December 2005

May I press the Minister on that? There are a number of people who have not been released from prison, as we have established—127, according to the Library research paper. It seems strange that we are inviting on-the-runs, some of whom have committed heinous crimes, back into Northern Ireland when others who may have committed lesser crimes are being made to continue their punishment. The concerns being expressed under the amendments are about seeing justice done, and about the fact that we are inviting back people who are on the run, but there seems to be a discrepancy. If I were to come forward and say—

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Order. Interventions should be brief.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There are a number of categories of individual that will qualify under the Bill. There are those outside the jurisdiction who will qualify; there are those before the historic inquiries team who will qualify; and there are those in the security forces who   will qualify. At some point in future, depending on the time scale of the introduction of the scheme, individuals in jail may reach the stage at which they can apply for the scheme. I do not have the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned on the number of individuals.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether someone who fails to get a licence under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 can get a Northern Ireland (Offences) Act licence. That depends on whether they are eligible, and that takes us back to the eligibility criteria in clause 3; they may qualify for the scheme at the time of its introduction. I hope that that answers his point.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

For the record, will the Minister confirm that certain prisoners are now eligible, under clause 9, to apply for the scheme and to have their sentence commuted to an amnesty? Also, will he confirm that Mr. Sean Kelly and Mr. Johnny Adair et al. can have their current licence commuted to a preferable licence under the scheme?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Lady is correct, in so far as individuals who are in jail when the scheme is introduced can avail themselves of it, just as they can, at present, avail themselves of the early release scheme if their offences were committed prior to 10 April 1998. Again, I cannot yet tell the hon. Lady when that will be effective, because we cannot at this stage give a date for the introduction of the scheme, because it depends on parliamentary procedure, and the approval and introduction of the Bill. An individual would need to be eligible for the scheme—that is, they would need to meet the conditions, which are similar to those in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 for the early release scheme. That would ultimately be a matter for the certification commissioner to determine.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Does this mean that Ken Barrett, for example, who was convicted of the murder of Pat Finucane, and who is serving a prison term, but whose crime was committed before 10 April 1998, would be eligible to apply for a licence under the Bill? Given that he has been refused early release by the Sentence Review Commission, will similar criteria be applied, and how will his case be handled under the criteria?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I do not want to comment in detail on individual cases, because it is not appropriate to do so in this discussion. However, when the scheme is operational, individuals will be able to apply for it, and if they are eligible under the certification commissioner’s guidance, they will qualify for the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on individual cases at this time.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am concerned that there is a loophole. I could come forward and say that I committed the crimes attributed of one of the 127 people who failed to qualify for the early release scheme, and who said that they were innocent. I could come forward and say, “I committed that crime; that person in jail should really be free.” I could then be granted a licence, and I would go free. I would then have a document that I cared about less than I do a few   points on my driver’s licence. The person in prison, who did commit the murder, would then also be set free, because it would be thought that he did not take part in the murder.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There were several suppositions in the hon. Gentleman’s argument that I cannot go into, but one was about an individual who says that he has undertaken a crime for someone who is in jail for it at the moment. In all such matters, there must first be an investigation by the police. Under clause 3, people need to have a certificate of eligibility. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has to state in writing reasonable grounds for the charge. People need to be outside the jurisdiction and must satisfy other criteria. A range of issues must be examined by the police and others. Again, under earlier provisions, the certification commissioner’s approval must be obtained for the individual to qualify for the scheme. Given the examples that have been put forward, I cannot suppose either generally or specifically what the certification commissioner will decide nor whether the individuals will qualify for the scheme in those circumstances.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Order. I do not intend to accept any more interventions on that particular point, as they are not aimed at the amendment itself.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am flabbergasted. The Minister has more or less conceded that, on amendment No. 78, he has ripped apart his own defence. He has thrown it on the ground and cannot read it back to me. I shall read what was said in Hansard, but I need assurance on a core point. If a person ought to have been sentenced in 1970 to, say, 20 years in prison and, in theory, will have served more than two thirds of his time, is the hon. Gentleman saying that that will not prevent the person from ending up with a licence and so on? I should be grateful if he would clarify matters.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no. A fixed-term prisoner outside the scheme will have his sentence reduced by remission. He will be released at the two-thirds point. Clause 9(6) is designed to ensure consistency with that principle.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Perhaps I am being thick about this—[Interruption.]—if such a thing were possible, but I am still not clear whether, under subsection (6)(b), someone who is found guilty through the process would actually not end up having to serve time on a licence at all. The Minister read out something that was connected with the matter, but it was not a direct answer to my question. I am pursuing this because I would have a major problem if—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

As I have said that I am not unwarm to some of the hon. Gentleman’s points, would it be helpful if I wrote to him to clarify matters? I know that that is always the defence that is used when answers are   not clear, but it is the first time that I have made that suggestion in the Committee. If he withdraws his amendment now, he will still be at liberty to table it on Report if he is unhappy with my clarification.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

That is a helpful suggestion. If that unintended consequence is indeed inherent in the clause, the Government would probably want to consider it. On that basis, I shall not pursue amendment No. 78 to a vote.

As for the other amendments, and how we might incentivise individuals to come forward and take responsibility for proactively admitting to serious offences, I am encouraged by the fact that the Minister is willing to reflect on these matters. I see no party political element to this. On reflection, he may find the suggestion helpful and want to introduce it on Report. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 9—Disqualification from district policing partnership—

‘(1)Paragraph 8 of Schedule 3 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 is amended as follows.

(2)In sub-paragraph (4) after “licence” insert “under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998”.

(3)After sub-paragraph (4)(a) insert—

“(aa)the lapse of his licence issued under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Act 2006.”.’.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Minister might wish to consider the new clause in the same frame of mind as he did the previous group of amendments. Currently, a person who has benefited from the prisoner early release scheme is entitled to become an independent member of a district policing partnership, if nominated, by virtue of their licence. I am concerned that the same principle will apply to anyone who receives a licence under the scheme in this Bill, as there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that.

I imagine that, by definition, if someone receives a licence under the Bill, it will have been proven that they committed an offence in relation to terrorism. But they will not have been to prison and they may not therefore have been seen to have been rehabilitated, which, after all, was one of the elements that was assumed to have occurred with individuals who end up on district policing partnerships having served time for their offences.

As the Minister knows, there are already serious concerns in Northern Ireland at paramilitaries being allowed to serve on DPPs; I believe that there will be even more concern about anyone who is granted a licence under the Bill doing so. The new clause does not prevent a person with a licence from ever serving on a DPP, however. They will be able to do so once their licence expires. I assume that they would not have broken the conditions of their licence by that time or,   if they had, they would have been detained. So that is an insurance policy to ensure lawful behaviour by the individual before they become a member of a DPP.

The new clause would ensure that there is confidence in such appointments, should they ever occur. I seek the Minister’s views on that.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing the new clause in the way that he has. We have had a reasonable discussion on the provisions of the legislation and I hope that clause 9 will stand part of the Bill.

New clause 9, which the hon. Gentleman tabled, raises an important issue. I know that he raised it in a genuine, productive and constructive way. The effect of the new clause would be to permit someone convicted and released on licence under this scheme to be a member of a DPP once their licence has expired. It closely reflects provisions made in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 that would allow those convicted of an offence and released on licence under the early release scheme to join a DPP.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will know that the Government have not currently commenced that provision. We have not done so because we made a decision not to do so until such time as we judge it right to introduce the provision. We have not yet made such a judgment and will not do so at least until the Assembly has been restored and possibly until, at some future point, criminal justice matters have been devolved to it.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 2:00 pm, 15th December 2005

Will the Minister just put it on the record that the Government’s position on allowing those with criminal records to take their places on DPPs as independent members is completely contrary to the recommendation in the Patten report? They have driven a coach and horses through that report. Will he confirm that point?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

As the hon. Lady knows, I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for the police, and I would not wish to give the Committee an answer that proved subsequently to be false. I am not aware of the Patten report’s recommendation on this matter. I am being open and honest with the hon. Lady in saying that. It is not my direct area of responsibility.

I can say something that is within my area of responsibility, however. The provisions for serving on the DPPs under the legislation that I mentioned have not been commenced by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), for the simple reason that we have not yet judged that the time is right for us to do that as a Government.

My hon. Friend will consider when the time will be right at some point in the future. That judgment will depend on two conditions: a restoration of the Assembly and other issues such as a return of policing responsibilities to the Assembly. We have to make a judgment on the issue as a Government, and I do not   wish to mislead the hon. Lady on a question to which I do not know the answer because it is not within my direct area of responsibility.

The Government have identified the subject of the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire as an issue for possible examination in future. However, again, they have not made a decision on that. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the new clause.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I understand what the Minister says about the non-commencement of the core legislation. If that legislation were commenced and if new clause 9 were not agreed to, would not the consequence be as I described in my opening comments? In other words, at least in theory, somebody could apply for and be successful in being taken on by a DPP even while they were serving a licence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Indeed, the scenario painted by the hon. Gentleman is correct. I say to him again that the Government have identified that issue; we are reflecting on it at the moment. We have not commenced the clauses in other legislation that would give rise to the anomaly that could occur in this legislation for the reasons that I have outlined. There may be opportunities, either during the passage of this Bill or during consideration of further Northern Ireland legislation that may come forward in the next 12 months, to examine that issue in the event of our determining to implement the original legislation in the 2000 and 2003 Acts.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made. I cannot give him a definitive answer because we have not yet determined whether to progress the scheme as a whole in relation to previous legislation. If we do, an anomaly will be created, and that is one element on which the Government will have to reflect during the passage of this Bill—and, if this Bill is passed in its current form, during future legislation—to address that anomaly.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Minister’s comments are helpful, but slightly disturbing for the following reason. He said that he would like to reflect on the issue now, but also implies—in fact, says explicitly—that if the other legislation were commenced, then, and only then, would this legislation be altered.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am saying that, under previous legislation, there is already provision to allow individuals to take part in the DPPs once their licence has expired under the early release scheme. That provision is in place, but has not been commenced because the Government have not judged that the time is right to commence it. At some point in the future, we may judge that the time is right. If, two or three years down the line, the scheme is introduced, the anomaly may well arise. Before that, there will be opportunities to consider whether to extend the legislation to cover this scheme, and whether to introduce the scheme at all.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Order. I remind the Committee that interventions, particularly ministerial interventions, should be short.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr. Taylor; the dialogue is constructive and helpful. My concern continues to be that although the Minister says that the anomaly—this loophole—will be addressed when other legislation is commenced, there is a risk that it will be forgotten. My concern is that if we do not provide for it in this Bill now, we shall end up with an anomaly, an unintended consequence, that we are in a position to fix now.

I was hoping that the Minister would say that he would reflect on the matter and consider tabling, if necessary, a Government amendment on Report, to close a loophole about which neither of us disagree, but which I feel we could reasonably address now.

I have one other thought. I do not see how resolving the issue now would involve any cost to the Government. If I understand things correctly, putting such a provision in the Bill today would in no way cause the commencement of the legislative procedure that allows those under licence to enter DPPs.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If the hon. Gentleman presses his amendment, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to reject it.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I know. I was not expecting to win. I am not trying to beat the Government; I am trying to help them.

To be equally direct to the Minister, I wish that he would say, “This is a fair point, the Government will look at it and we’ll table a Government amendment on Report; then we can close the loophole.” It is not complicated.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I thought that I had said that, but if I have not I shall try again at some point in future.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 10.

Division number 37 Nimrod Review — Statement — 1.7 pm

Aye: 15 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.