Restricted eligibility for early release of terrorist prisoners: Northern Ireland

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 2nd July 2020.

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Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:15 pm, 2nd July 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The main focus of my contribution to the Committee as the shadow Security Minister will be on part 3 of the Bill, but for reasons obvious even to the untrained ear, I have been asked to speak on some of the Northern Ireland aspects of the Bill.

May I crave your indulgence for a moment, Mr Robertson? While the Committee has been sitting, it has been announced that the largest ever law enforcement operation in the UK took place today. Operation Venetic has seen 746 arrests, with £54 million of criminal cash seized, along with 77 firearms and 2 tonnes of drugs. The whole Committee will want to pay tribute to Lynne Owens and the National Crime Agency and all the police forces involved in that fantastic operation. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I am always concerned when I hear Ministers talk about Northern Ireland being brought into “conformity” with the rest of the United Kingdom, because although it is an integral part of the Union, and that is indisputable under the terms of the various agreements that have been reached, it is not the same as other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly when it comes to measures relating to tackling terrorism, because there is a long history there that has evolved over how to address that, particularly when it comes to sentencing, rehabilitation and the particular licensing arrangements that there are.

I have had, as I know the Minister has had, extensive discussions with the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive on this clause in particular. We have tabled a new clause to ask for all the provisions to be reviewed, so I do not intend to speak on all the Northern Ireland measures contained herein until that is debated, but I did think it important to draw attention to this matter, particularly after discussions with Naomi Long on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive.

There is real concern about the retrospective removal of the automatic right to release. The Justice Minister in the Department is very clear that that will require amendments to sentence-calculation processes and, critically, the power of the Department to refer cases to the parole commissioners and the powers of the commissioner to direct early release for offenders subject to determinate custodial sentences. The concerns can be condensed down to some key points.

The first is about—I was interested to hear what the Minister said about this—attracting legal challenge on ECHR-compatibility grounds. There is a belief in the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland that these measures will attract that. In addition, there is concern that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland will be a respondent to any challenge that is made in the Northern Ireland High Court or subsequent proceedings in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, which could be a significant drain on its resources.

There is concern about the risk of destabilising the separated regime. The Committee might not be aware that paramilitary prisoners or those convicted of terrorist offences in Northern Ireland are separated. They are held in specific circumstances and subjected to specific programmes, on the basis of their perceived paramilitary affiliation.

Another worrying element is the potential increased risk to the safety of prison staff as a result of the reaction to these measures. In recent years we have seen David Black and Adrian Ismay, two prison officers in Northern Ireland, murdered by dissident republicans. That is something that we need to be very cognisant of: in making laws here, we have a direct impact on the people who we are asking to carry them out. They have to live in the community in Northern Ireland and face the threat that they, along with our brave police officers and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, do every day.

There is also a concern—shared by colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party as well as by the Justice Minister—that this has the potential to lead to currently serving terrorist offenders being released without licence supervision. It undermines the public protection arrangements currently in place and goes against the ethos and principles of the Northern Ireland sentencing framework. In taking these measures to avoid a cliff edge in England and Wales, we may inadvertently introduce a cliff edge to Northern Ireland that is mitigated by arrangements that are already in place there.

There was a more general concern about the erosion of the principle of judicial discretion to set appropriate custodial and licence periods. I thought it important that the Committee heard those concerns, because we, as the official Opposition, share some of them and want to work, as we always have done, in a bipartisan manner—not just on issues of national security, but on matters pertaining to Northern Ireland. It was important from that perspective and because we do not have Northern Ireland Members here to make those arguments. We do have, after years of painstaking effort by Governments of all hues, the restoration of the Executive, so it was important that the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland—in addition to the influence she is bringing to bear in discussions with the Minister—had those concerns publicly recorded with the Committee.