Review of legislation: Northern Ireland

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 7th July 2020.

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“(1) On an annual basis from the day of this Act being passed, a report that reviews the application of the provisions of this Act in Northern Ireland must be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament by the Secretary of State.

(2) Annual reports under subsection (1) must be produced in consultation with the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice and the Northern Ireland Executive —

This new clause ensures that all measures in the Bill as they pertain to Northern Ireland shall be reviewed annually with the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice and the Northern Ireland Executive, and a report shall be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, that the clause be read a Second time.

I will not detain the Committee too long. I have much sympathy with what the Minister says about the number of reviews that have been called for, but I hope, similarly, that he might have some sympathy with those of us on the Opposition Benches. While he, in government, gets to do, all we can do at the minute is ask to review. I hope that position might change after the next election.

On Second Reading, a number of hon. Members from Northern Ireland raised the critically important point that this legislation is clearly of great significance to that region. I think we would all wish to acknowledge that so many people there have lived and continue to live with the devastating consequences of violence in their communities. It is only following concerted efforts for peace and reconciliation, which remain so vital that, we see some of those scars starting to heal.

The Minister rightly said that the Bill was designed to deal with terrorism in all its forms and was a UK-wide Bill. However, given the unique and long-standing circumstances in Northern Ireland and the hard work done to build the Good Friday and subsequent agreements and the Northern Ireland Executive, it is important that we do not risk any unintended consequences from measures in the Bill, which could have an effect in Northern Ireland and could have damaging consequences.

To that end, on behalf of the official Opposition, I am tabling new clause 7 to ensure that all measures in the Bill, as they pertain in Northern Ireland, will be renewed annually with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive and that a report is published and laid before both Houses of Parliament. The Minister will know that the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, with whom he and I have had extensive discussions, has herself expressed some concerns about the extension of provisions in the Bill to Northern Ireland, and has raised some potential inadvertent and unintended consequences that would be undesirable.

It is vital to the success of the legislation in performing and fulfilling a UK-wide function that we seek the benefit of her expertise—or that of whoever holds that post—and continue to monitor the legislation’s implications in Northern Ireland. The structure of sentences in Northern Ireland, for example, differs from that in the rest of the UK, and there are special and unique circumstances there that mean that we ought to ensure we legislate specifically and responsibly. For example, post-sentencing regimes work in prisons for paramilitary prisoners and those in prison for reasons related to terrorist offending, and in terms of an approach to deradicalisation and the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West about young people. Just as the polygraph section of the Bill has been crafted to be permissible but not mandatory in Northern Ireland, so it is right that all aspects of the Bill should be subject to review through the unique prism of Northern Ireland.

As we heard in the evidence sessions, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission set out a number of concerns about the legislation, including the retrospective nature of some provisions, both in terms of sentencing and release, the polygraph test, as has been mentioned, and the impact of provisions on those under the age of 18. I will not revise all those arguments here—they are known to members of the Committee—but it does seem obvious to me that it would be more advisable for the Government to work constructively with the Minister for Justice, rather than to risk legal or human rights challenges down the line. We spoke about that earlier in the Committee.

Finally, it is right to give colleagues in Northern Ireland and the devolved Administration the respect and courtesy of formally seeking their views on the implementation of legislation in such a sensitive and important area. We would benefit from their expertise and input in monitoring the impact of this legislation, important as it is to Northern Ireland, just as it is everywhere else in the UK.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:45 pm, 7th July 2020

I thank the shadow Minister for introducing new clause 7, which would, along with other proposed new clauses, create a veritable snowstorm of statutory reviews. I appreciate the comments he made about the tools available to the Opposition, which I hope not to have to avail myself of in the near future—who knows what might happen?—but I would say that the Opposition have many tools at their disposal, which they frequently use, including debates, questions, parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information Act requests, and so on and so forth. There is no shortage of methods, quite rightly, by which any Government may be properly held to account by Parliament.

On Northern Ireland particularly, we fully recognise that it has a unique history and that terrorism is interwoven into some parts of that. We have taken very careful time—a great deal of time—to make sure that we have not in any way interfered with or unpicked the very important provisions in the Belfast agreement, because we do not want to do anything that interferes with or undermines that very important agreement. However, matters of national security and terrorism are reserved matters and, as far as possible, we would like to have a consistent position, which is broadly speaking what the Bill seeks to do.

I understand there are issues of sensitivity, which the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long, has raised with the Ministry of Justice here in London; it sounds as if she has also raised them with the shadow Minister. As I said in response to an intervention on our very first day of line-by-line consideration, we are in the process of having a very detailed, in-depth dialogue on those issues and are going through them one by one. Whether it is before or after the Bill is enacted, as I hope it will, I put on the record that we will always engage sensitively and deeply with the Northern Ireland Administration and, of course, the Government in Scotland in these areas, recognising how important they are to all parts of the United Kingdom. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will be done with sensitivity and receptiveness.

On a statutory obligation to conduct a further review, I have mentioned my general position. Given Parliament’s ability to question and debate, to FOI and so on and so forth—there is no lack of scrutiny—I do not think that a further statutory review would add anything to the process. I accept the point, however, that we need to keep a close eye on these matters and be in continued and close dialogue with all our colleagues in the various Administrations, in Belfast and Holyrood in particular.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I thank the Minister for his comments. The only part I would challenge is the claim that there is no lack of scrutiny in Parliament, as we have a body that is tasked with overseeing scrutiny and overviewing all these matters that has not yet been reconstituted—the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is clear to me from discussions with colleagues in Northern Ireland, and given the dialogue that the Minister has had with the hon. Member for East Lothian and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West that he is acting in good faith and is keen to resolve any outstanding matters with the devolved legislatures. It is important to put on record that that is very much the message that I have received. I encourage him to continue those discussions.

The Minister is right to assert that it is clearly a reserved matter, but there are elements that require a legislative consent motion, which will be difficult to get through the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Justice Minister has reservations about it, one can only imagine what other parties in the Assembly and the Executive might have to say. I encourage him to continue those discussions. I am happy to assist him in finding a resolution and a way forward, because it is important that we get it right. On that basis, I will not press the clause to a vote and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.