Clause 27

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 25 April 2006.

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Extension to Northern Ireland of provisions of SOCAP 2005

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 27, page 18, line 27, at end insert—

‘(1A) Section 112 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (power to direct a person to leave a place) extends to Northern Ireland.'.

I am delighted to speak to yet another miscellaneous provision in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The clause covers for the first time a subject that has not been mentioned—the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. The amendment is fairly obviously a probing amendment. It proposes extending to Northern Ireland section 112 of that Act.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Before Lady Hermon resumes, I shall say that I intend to adjourn the Committee for a short period for a dinner break at 7 o’clock. I hope that that might focus minds.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I apologise, Mr. Atkinson, if I appeared to hesitate earlier. I had not heard the Division Bell because I was so excited by the anticipation of what the Minister would say aboutthe delay in extending to Northern Ireland sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, and in particular sections 60 to 67, 69 and 70, which are belatedly being extended by clause 27.

I have considerable concern about that point. The Minister, who is a diligent Minister and takes his responsibilities seriously, will have noted that immediately before the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill came before the House there was yet another report from the highly respected and regarded Independent Monitoring Commission, which he and his colleagues are so keen to quote to us. They will doubtless do so again before the end of the week.

I shall quote from the November 2004 IMC report, which I recommend to all members of the Committee if they have not already read it. Paragraph 5.5, on page 27, is pertinent to discussion of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It states:

“The Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force has stated that there are some 230 organised criminal gangs believed to be operating in Northern Ireland.”

I shall repeat that: 230 organised criminal gangs.

“We have been advised that about 60 per cent. or some 140 have paramilitary links and that, of the top 25 criminal gangs involved in international activities operating in early 2004, 17, some two-thirds, had paramilitary associations.”

The next sentence is the most striking on the entire page.

“Seldom in the developed world has this high proportion of the most serious criminals been associated with groups originating in terrorism, with an organisational structure and discipline, and the experience of planning, learning and conducting sophisticated clandestine operations, methods of handling money, and with traditions of extreme violence.”

That was the report as recently as November 2004.

I was astounded that, in 2005, despite that report having highlighted the seriousness of the situation in terms of organised criminals and the gangs that operate in Northern Ireland—let me remind all members of the Committee that Northern Ireland is a small part of this United Kingdom—many provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act were not immediately extended to Northern Ireland by way of primary legislation. It concerns me greatly that now, two years later, clause 27 belatedly extends to Northern Ireland only sections 60 to 67, 69 and 70.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State described the chief purpose of the Bill. He said:

“The Bill will chiefly allow maximum flexibility in the arrangements for the future devolution of policing and justice functions to the Assembly”.—[Official Report, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1167.]

Had it not been for their overriding purpose of devolving to the Assembly the decision about when it wishes to take responsibility for policing and justice, when in heaven’s name would the Government ever have got round to extending to Northern Ireland the important provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which ought to have been extended at the time of that Act in 2005?

The amendment would extend to Northern Ireland section 112 of the 2005 Act, which deals with the  ability of a constable to order a person to leave an area. For example, there has been a series of high-profile cases in Northern Ireland in which men—and let us assume that the vast majority of people who commit domestic violence are men—have been released, had their names included on the sex offenders register there, and gone on to commit serious offences. My amendment would extend to constables in Northern Ireland the section’s powers in, say, the case of a convicted criminal who had been told to stay away from the victim of sexual abuse. The key question is when the Minister intends to extend the other key sections of the Act to Northern Ireland. When will the Government get their minds around to that? I shall listen intently to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I welcome the hon. Lady’s amendment and the debate that she has raised. Unfortunately, we are not able to accept the amendment, but perhaps I may crave her indulgence for a moment, so that she will understand why—and why, none the less, we are interested in her ideas.

The powers referred to in the amendment are part of a package of exclusion powers that include exclusion orders and, where appropriate, electronic monitoring, all of which, as the hon. Lady recognises, are available in England and Wales under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and previous legislation, but not currently in Northern Ireland. Although the amendment is well intended, it would, even if technically correct, raise practical issues about how to apply it.

At present the necessary legislative building blocks are not in place in Northern Ireland to allow us to adopt the amendment as it stands. To extend section 112 of the 2005 Act to Northern Ireland now could require the creation of a much more substantive package of sentencing powers in the Bill, which is not what the Bill was designed for. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is now carrying out a review of the sentencing framework for Northern Ireland, including consideration of, for example, electronic monitoring. We hope to publish proposals for separate measures in due course, and in that context we shall of course carefully consider what the hon. Lady has said.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I appreciate the assurance that the Minister has given. I posed two questions, and I accept the answer about why the amendment cannot now be accepted, but my first question was why the provisions that clause 27 extends to Northern Ireland were not extended to it when the Act was first passed.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Because at the time the exclusion orders were being developed for England and Wales, Northern Ireland was in the process of a criminal justice review, in the wake of the Belfast agreement. It was therefore deemed inappropriate to proceed with those powers for Northern Ireland. Things have clearly moved a long way since then. That is one reason for the review being conducted by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

We are very mindful of the fact that the success of some of the relevant powers here could apply in Northern Ireland, and we are taking that into  consideration. We do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle for a comprehensive set of measures, which would be necessary in the case of exclusion powers and exclusion orders. There is a better place to do that in light of the fuller sentence review. That is why, given those assurances and the fact that we are conducting the review, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 6:15, 25 April 2006

I am sorry that I seem to have given the Minister the wrong impression in my intervention. I warmly accept his assurances. I am surprised, as we draw towards the end of our consideration of the Bill, to have had an indication that a Minister—one, at least—has been listening to our suggestions as to how it can be improved for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland.

My intervention concerned the extension, under this clause, of the SOCAP provisions to Northern Ireland. The investigatory powers of the Director of Public Prosecutions—the powers spelled out in sections 60 to 67 and 69 and 70—were available to be extended to Northern Ireland in 2005. My question was, when on earth would they have been extended to Northern Ireland had it not been for the fact that the Government were adhering to a commitment to Sinn Fein to give an indication that they would devolve policing and justice to the Assembly?

That was the chief purpose of the Bill, but it has turned into a ragbag of all sorts of things. Of course I welcome the extension of some parts of SOCAP to Northern Ireland, albeit so late in the day. I am just sorry that the Minister did not take the opportunity to explain to me why the measure was so delayed, when it was meant to concern just the DPP—not exclusion zones; not legislation that did not extend to Northern Ireland; and not the review that is currently being undertaken by the Minister of State.

However, the Minister has given me an undertaking that a review is being conducted and that he will look positively at our suggestions for further action. With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 28 to 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.