Clause 10 - Conditions of licence

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 15th December 2005.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 2:00 pm, 15th December 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 135, in clause 10, page 7, line 9, leave out from beginning to second ‘the’.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 137, in clause 10, page 7, line 12, at end insert—

‘(d)that he has never been convicted of a crime carrying a prison sentence of five years or more.’.

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

Clause 10 deals with the conditions to which the licence is subject. Subsection (2)(b) refers to:

“in the case of a sentence of life imprisonment, the condition that he does not become a danger to the public”

Amendment No. 135 would omit the words

“in the case of a sentence of life imprisonment”,

so that the provision would apply if the person became a danger to the public, regardless of whether was a life sentence. That is sensible. We cannot understand why that should be a licence condition if one has received a life sentence, but not if one has not. Surely, the critical point is whether the person is likely to be a danger to the public. To reject the amendment would be to say, “It’s okay if they are a danger to the public.” That cannot be the Minister’s intention.

We tried to introduce a similar condition in clause 3, but we did not manage to get the amendment made. We are not certain yet whether people returning to the jurisdiction will have to face court—indeed, there will not be a court, but a tribunal—or whether they will have to spend any time in prison. Surely we can expect that they do not become a danger to the public, having been given the get-out-of-jail-free card. That should be a minimum requirement.

Amendment No. 137 would add a further condition to ensure that the individual in question has never been convicted of a crime carrying a prison sentence of five years or more.

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

The amendments would place additional conditions on a person holding a licence. In normal criminal proceedings, the judgment on whether a person is a danger to the public is relevant in decisions on the passing of a life sentence, but it is not used in other circumstances. The proposal is therefore a departure from normal criminal proceedings.

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

If the Minister is saying that terrorists in Northern Ireland should be treated in the same way as murderers in Great Britain, I go along with that, but I do not think that that is what the Bill is about. It is about creating special conditions—letting people go free no matter what they have done. Surely we can then impose the restriction that they do not become a danger to the public?

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

I would be very hesitant about setting a precedent in the Bill on that matter.

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

I would be very hesitant about setting a precedent in the Bill in that respect.

I also point out to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that consideration of whether a person is a danger to the public is only a part of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 early release scheme in respect of lifers. The conditions of licence are to be kept broadly similar in the Bill so that similar terms and treatment can be applied to people convicted of pre-Belfast agreement offences. The Government prefer the conditions to be kept as similar as possible.

There is a clear distinction between the terms of the early release scheme and the conditions of the scheme in the Bill: we have added the condition that a person must not have received a sentence of five years or more for any offence. That has been done simply in recognition of the fact that the early release scheme has applied primarily to people who were in prison in 1998. The new scheme acknowledges that seven years have elapsed since then and that there needs to be some measure of an applicant’s behaviour. To keep the terms of the scheme as close as possible to the terms of the early release scheme, that condition in relation to other offences applies only to the period after April 1998.

We have taken steps to tighten the licence, and I urge the hon. Member for Tewkesbury to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

We have now reached the utterly absurd. I cannot understand why the Minister resists the amendment. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, it is similar to one that the Conservatives tabled to clause 3 on the certificate of eligibility and conditions that would be imposed on it, and to one that my colleagues and I tabled in respect of those certificates.

I want the Minister to be very clear about what he is saying to the public in Northern Ireland. He is saying that the only people who are a danger to the public whom he wants to stop having a licence are those who have been sentenced to life in prison. He is quite content to allow people who are a danger to the public to be released on licence provided that they have not been given a life sentence. That is a position that the Minister cannot possibly defend.

The Minister should not talk to this Committee about setting precedents. Every clause, every line and every word of this Bill has set precedents that I hope will never be followed in any other piece of legislation.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:15 pm, 15th December 2005

With respect to the Minister, I found his remarks about precedents astonishing. This entire Bill is a precedent. I have not come across anything like it in my short time in the House, and more experienced Members have also not seen a Bill that sets such a precedent in respect of dealing with criminals. The Bill is very controversial; that is why we have been given extra time to debate the entire Bill.

The Bill invites on-the-runs back to Northern Ireland. It invites criminals back into communities. Surely the Committee’s concern must be to make sure that those on the run who have not spent one day in jail and who are to go back to those communities will not be a danger to them. That is what the amendment is designed to achieve. It would make sure that, with all the wrongs in the Bill, we do not put those communities in any more danger. If the Minister is not willing to accept the amendment, I invite him to say on the record that he is not willing to accept the amendment, but he is willing to give a licence to on-the-runs who have not been given a life sentence but who are a danger to society, and happy to allow them to rejoin society.

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

What I have tried to do in the Bill is to mirror the early release scheme in respect of life sentences. That mirroring will ensure that, as is the case under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act early release scheme, consideration of whether a person is a danger to the public forms part of the scheme in respect of life sentences.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Why does the Minister insist on using terms such as “mirror the early release scheme” of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act? He is doing nothing of the kind. Under that Act, those who are responsible for murder had to stay in jail for a third of their sentence or serve at least two more years. It is not mirroring the Act to say, “Here’s your get-out-of-jail free card. Away you go, boys!”

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

Over the many hours that the Committee has sat, we have gone over how the scheme in the Bill compares to the early release scheme. I am talking about conditions of release in relation to that point. The hon. Gentleman and I know that there are qualitative differences between the early release scheme under the Good Friday agreement and the scheme that we are bringing forward today; but those differences relate simply to the passage of time, not the effect of, or entrance to, that scheme. Consideration of whether a person was a danger to the public was only part of the 1998 Act early release scheme. In the scheme before us, I am trying to mirror the conditions that applied in the early release scheme that operated 1998.

Let me put the issue in context. It is important that hon. Members take note of these figures: of the 447 prisoners released under the early release scheme, 15 have had their licences suspended and were recalled to prison. The same conditions that I am proposing in the Bill related to the Sentences Act, under which only 15 of 447 prisoners had their licence revoked. The assessment for the early-release scheme is similar to that for the scheme in the Bill.

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

The Minister says that only 15 prisoners have had their licence removed, but some of them were responsible for destroying the community in the lower Shankill and disrupting the lives of hundreds of people in that community. One person who had his licence revoked was found by the police to be responsible for stirring up interface violence at the   top of the Shankill road at the Ardoyne, which resulted in scores of people losing their homes, so let us not make light of the fact that only 15 licences were removed. People lose their licence because they are a danger to the public. Whether it is one or 100, tight conditions are essential.

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

What I have said to the Committee relates only to the amendment on whether the condition of being a danger to the public at large applies. That condition was part of the early release scheme, just as I propose that it should be part of the scheme in the Bill. The condition was applied to people with life sentences. All I said to hon. Members in my response was that I am trying to ensure the same conditions for the scheme in this Bill.

I mentioned the figures to show how early release scheme has worked and its impact. Some 447 people went through the early release scheme and only 15 had their licences revoked, and of those 15, 14 are in prison today. I simply tell the hon. Member for East Antrim that to give him a measure of how the previous scheme operated. Although I know that he and his party did not like the scheme and opposed it, I am seeking to replicate in the Bill the conditions in the previous scheme. That is why I ask my colleagues to reject the amendment if it is pressed to a Division.

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

The hon. Member for Belfast, East put it rather well when he said that we have reached the position of ultimate absurdity, or words to that effect.

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

The Minister has just stated that 15 people had their licences revoked, 14 of whom are in prison. I am aware of at least two of those cases. They involve Sean Kelly and Johnny Adair, who are both out of prison at the moment. The Minister’s figures cannot possibly be right and he has misled the Committee.

Mr. Hansonrose—

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

I shall reply to the intervention, then give way. I am unsure what the relevance of the figures was. They do not tell us anything. At a certain point in the process people were not arrested for being members of the IRA. That did not mean that the IRA had gone away; it just meant that it was politically convenient not to arrest them for that particular offence.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Perhaps the Minister is saying that if the amendment was agreed to we would be able to stop 15 people who went out and caused mayhem in the community from doing just that. He was probably willing to accept the amendment.

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

I cannot understand the Minister’s reasoning. Perhaps he will tell us what it is when he intervenes.

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

I am intervening only to say to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley that I have not misled the Committee. I gave out the figures that I have before me, which are Government figures.

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

I thank the Minister for that intervention. I feel a bit like a referee in this contest. Perhaps facilitator might be a better word.

May I suggest to the Minister that he asks his officials to check those figures and that he writes to members of the Committee? The hon. Member for Lagan Valley has named people who are not in prison. None the less, I do not see how the Minister’s point about the number of licences that have been withdrawn is that relevant to the point that I was making.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East said, to shy away from the amendments because they might set a precedent is beyond belief. The entire Bill is a precedent—an unwelcome one. To give just one example of many that can be found in the Bill, retired judges do not preside over murder cases in Great Britain.

The Minister says that he wants to be consistent with the position on life sentences in Great Britain, but to my knowledge, people who get life sentences go to prison. It is a condition of parole that people are not released until they are not a danger to the public, but such people are already in prison. The situation is completely different and we cannot put the two together. The people who will go through the tribunal will not serve a single day in prison.

All the amendment is asking is that people do not become a danger to the public. The clause does not say that the PSNI or anybody else should be involved. It states:

“does not become a danger to the public”.

The condition is not that such people might become a danger to the public but that they actually have become a danger to the public. Can the Minister say that that is okay? I cannot understand how the Government could reject this gentle and sensible amendment.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

There is a big distinction between on-the-runs and those who were part of the original 1998 agreement. We are dealing with hardened criminals. The Minister said that 15 out of 447 is not a bad number. We should be aiming for zero. We have a duty of care to ensure that whatever laws we pass will not impact on the community. I believe that the on-the-runs are hardened criminals. They are not going to join bridge clubs in communities.

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

My hon. Friend is right. I will tell him exactly what such people will do: they will rejoin the IRA if that is where their sympathies lie, because they will not lose their licence or be prevented from benefiting from the scheme if they do so. They will be prevented from entering the scheme if they rejoin or join a specified organisation, but not if they return, join the IRA and, presumably, even become a danger to the public.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 16.

Division number 38 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 10 - Conditions of licence

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 15 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 11.

Division number 39 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 10 - Conditions of licence

Aye: 15 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.