Clause 9

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 18th January 2007.

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Restrictions on disclosure of juror information

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 9:00 am, 18th January 2007

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, leave out

‘in the course of his functions as’ and insert ‘whilst’.

I am delighted to sit under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Anderson, as we resume this interesting Committee on the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill. Clause 9 deals with restrictions on disclosure of juror information. It adds an important restriction to the Juries (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 on the disclosure of juror information that has come into the possession of various people through, for example, the electoral office and their work.

Committee members will have noticed the significant penalty. Proposed new article 26A(8) says:

“A person who contravenes paragraph (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable” to a hefty fine or six months’ imprisonment, or indeed to both. The penalty for any criminal offence committed in contravention of proposed new paragraph (1) is severe.

My amendment relates to some rather curious wording. It pertains to

“a person who is or has been an electoral officer or a court official”.

Proposed new paragraph (2)(b) means that an offence is committed only if the person who is or has been an electoral officer or a court official obtained the juror information

“in the course of his functions as an electoral officer or court official.”

I dislike that wording because it is ambiguous. It implies that the person was acting appropriately when they obtained the information.

My amendment represents no slight on, or criticism of, the staff of either the courts or the electoral office. It attacks the Bill’s wording, because it implies that a person in either the electoral office or the court obtained the information relating to juries in the course of his functions. It implies that they have obtained it appropriately.

It is possible for an electoral officer or a court official to obtain juror information inadvertently, or of course deliberately, not in the course of his functions, but in  walking past a desk and appropriating it. I have tabled the amendment to tease out the Minister’s explanation about why

“in the course of his functions”

is set out only in proposed new paragraph (2)(b), and not elsewhere when it qualifies the other people and the work that they do in obtaining juror information.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. You are always firm and fair, although I suspect that the former will be unnecessary because the Committee has made good progress in a co-operative fashion.

I have thought deeply about the amendment, and I would very much like to grant the hon. Lady the opportunity to amend the Bill. I have asked detailed questions about it because she has scrutinised the legislation assiduously. It would have been a pleasure to tell her that the amendment was satisfactory. Sadly, that will not be the case, but I hope that what I say will reassure her about why the wording is as it is.

Proposed new article 26A makes it an offence for certain officials who obtain information in the course of their employment to disclose any of it without lawful authority. The amendment would shorten the wording so that instead of specifically referring to obtaining information by the electoral officer or court official in the course of their duties, it would refer to their obtaining it while the person in question was an electoral officer or court official.

The reason for the restriction on disclosure of jury information is that we want to give greater reassurance to people who are called on to serve in the criminal justice system, and, in turn, to promote greater confidence in it. That is why we want to make the arrangements as robust and precise as possible. The provisions have been crafted deliberately to ensure that the restrictions apply to officials who come into possession of the information in the course of their duties. That, of course, would be while they were in their official posts, but the wording in the amendment is less precise.

Perhaps I can give an example. An electoral officer who was in court as a defendant would not be there in the course of his or her duties. Often in England and Wales, electoral officers have other duties besides their electoral officer’s duties. It is important to define the provision so that it relates to what is done in the relevant post, while performing the relevant duty. Having considered the matter for some time, I think that the clause gets the right balance and the amendment would not add anything to the proposed arrangements.

As a final point, the inadvertent obtaining of information would be specifically dealt with under data protection legislation; there is already legislation to cover people who either inadvertently or deliberately obtain the relevant information by the wrong means.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I welcome the Minister’s presence this morning. She has been in attendance before, but did not have the opportunity to speak. Will she confirm that the punishment under the data protection legislation would be equivalent to that set out in the Bill—that is, a hefty fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I cannot give the hon. Lady the exact sentencing guidelines for the data protection legislation, but six months, a fine or both on summary conviction is a pretty standard form of sentencing. I should be surprised if the sentences available under the data protection legislation were anything less. However, I shall write to her if there are significant differences in the sentencing procedures.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am grateful for that explanation, but I am slightly at sea in responding. I think that I took down the Minister’s words exactly and that she said that the provisions had been crafted deliberately and were “as robust as possible.” My concern is that the wording

“in the course of his functions” pertains only, in clause 9, to an electoral officer or a court official. When the provisions of proposed new article 26A(4), for example, were crafted deliberately, and as robustly as possible, in relation to

“a person...who is...a member of the police service”,

the drafting was altogether different. The provision applies to a member of the police service,

“who obtained the juror information for or in connection with the making of checks, in accordance with jury check guidelines”.

It is not similar to the drafting with respect to electoral or court officials, with its reference to information obtained

“in the course of his functions”.

I am somewhat bemused by the differences in the carefully crafted drafting of the Bill. The Minister indicated that it is to be “as robust as possible,” but one would have thought that consistency of language between the lines of one clause would have helped to make it more robust and give the appearance that it had been deliberately crafted to be robust.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Let me clarify matters. Other officials are also included for specific purposes in relation to jury checks. All those officials are dealt with in specific ways relating to their duties in respect of checks on juries, so there is consistency.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

That is extremely helpful, and it is good to have it on the record. I appreciate the Minister’s point, which supports the conclusion that I had already reached, which is that I shall seek the Committee’s permission to withdraw the amendment. The discussion on the clause has been helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clauses 10 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.