HC Deb 09 July 1986 vol 101 cc410-9 10.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I beg to move, That the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, which was laid before this House on 24th June he approved. Before dealing with the content of the order, I should perhaps explain that following publication of the proposal a number of amendments have been made to the order. One of those relates to the retrospective nature of the continuing offence of wrongful occupation of premises. The draft order, as originally published, provided that even where the wrongful entry to premises took place before the order became effective an offence would nevertheless have been committed if that entry were combined with a failure to leave on being requested to do so after the commencement of the order. As a result of representations, we have amended the application of the new offence to relate only to entries after the commencement of the order.

In the same article we have now extended the power of magistrates to stay the issue of warrants in cases involving publicly-owned property from a maximum of four weeks to one of three months. We have also amended the reference to a stay or suspension of the execution of warrants in such cases to refer to a stay or suspension of issue of warrants. That was to clarify and remove misapprehensions that had become apparent and may have inferred some new direct police involvement rather than construing that the enforcement of warrants would still be subject to the existing enforcement of judgment office procedures in Northern Ireland.

The House may also wish to note that provision has now been made in the renumbered article 5, which deals with the duration of training school orders, to allow for their suspension during a term of detention in a young offenders centre. That has been introduced to avoid the complications caused by dual liability in cases where young people are being considered for compassionate or other home leave from centres.

A further amendment to this article limits the type of orders under which persons are liable to be detained in training schools, which will cease to have effect. We have basically drawn a line here so as to include those involving findings of guilt and to exclude orders imposed on young people requiring care and protection or for persistent truancy, and so on. It was felt that the exercise of administrative discretion with regard to cessation was more applicable to the latter types of case.

Two items have been omitted from the order because of technical reservations expressed during the consultative process. One involved the clarifying provision relating to duration of sentences where committals to prison for contempt of court were involved; the other provided for extended remand periods where persons were already serving sentences for contempt of court. We have decided, in the light of comments about difficulties with the practical operation and interpretation of these provisions, that they should no longer be included in the order. A further minor change has been made to the amendments and repeals provision by the addition of a correction of a printing error in the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.

These changes in the content of the order since publication have, through deletion and the consequential renumbering of articles, altered its format to some degree. The amendments, which we consider to be improvements to the order, reflect the benefits to be gained from the consultative procedure for Orders in Council under the 1974 Act.

Having dealt with the amendments since publication of the proposal, I now wish to cover the main content of the order which makes provision for a miscellany of necessary alterations in the administration of criminal justice in Northern Ireland. Some of the provisions that are included are designed simply to bring criminal law in Northern Ireland into line with similar measures introduced in England and Wales over the past few years. Others are planned either to clarify or to strengthen existing law in the light of experience; while the remainder are steps to set right minor defects in earlier legislation.

One of the significant features is the alteration of the mode of trial for a range of offences. At present these offences are subject to trial only on indictment by a Crown court. The provisions of article 3 allow for summary trial of offences such as unlawful carnal knowledge and some types of burglary detailed in schedule 1 with the consent of both the accused and the prosecution. In addition, article 4 makes some less common offences contained in schedule 3 punishable on summary conviction only and sets new maximum penalties. These provisions should assist in reducing the number of cases, generally of a less serious nature, coming before Crown courts in Northern Ireland and they relate to provisions introduced in England and Wales by the Criminal Law Act 1977.

The primary purpose of article 5 is to remedy a current defect in Northern Ireland law affecting training school orders. These provisions now ensure that such orders imposed on findings of guilt are not rendered ineffective by orders for detention in a young offenders centre either as a result of non-payment of a fine, or which are suspended or quashed on appeal. As I mentioned earlier when dealing with the changes to a proposal, provision has also been made to suspend training schools during terms of detention in young offenders centres.

Article 6 amends the powers of Northern Ireland courts to order a convicted person to compensate the injured party; reflecting similar changes made in England and Wales. Compensation orders will be able to be made instead of, as against in addition to, any other penalty. Preference is also now to be given to the payment of compensation orders where fines are also imposed and where the offender is unable to pay both.

I shall now turn, if I may, to a number of provisions which are included under the heading of "Miscellaneous" in the order. The existing maximum period for which a court can remand a defendant in custody where both the accused and prosecution consent is increased from 14 to 28 days by article 7. Under article 8 it is proposed that prisoners may be removed from a prison to a hospital, or similar institution for medical investigation or observation in addition to medical or surgical treatment. This amendment, which is by way of clarification, corresponds with one made for England and Wales by Criminal Justice Act 1982.

Article 9 makes a minor technical repeal consequential upon the provisions of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 in the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.

Article 10, read with schedule 5, in part re-enacts with amendments the existing law in Northern Ireland, which has been in force since 1946, regarding the wrongful taking possession or use of premises. These important provisions are specifically designed to provide a quicker and more effective means whereby those entitled to possession of residential premises can repossess them from those wrongfully occupying them. We are essentially dealing here with the problem of squatting. The House should take note of the safeguards contained in paragraphs (3) and (7) of the article, whereby protection is afforded to those with rights to possession. There are four main changes to existing law. These are the establishment of a continuing offence when persons fail to leave after being asked to do so by those entitled to possession; the mandatory issue of a warrant for repossession on conviction by a court, if appropriate, although the issue may be stayed; a general limitation of three months on a court's powers to stay the issue of such warrants in relation to premises owned and needed by certain public bodies—the Northern Ireland Housing Executive falls within this provision—and an increase in the maximum penalty on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £2,000 and/or up to six months' imprisonment. These are similar penalties to those already available to courts in England and Wales when dealing with the generally comparable offence of adverse occupation of residential premises.

A further parity measure with England and Wales, in food and drugs, is introduced by article 11 and the associated schedule 4. These major amendments to the Food and Drugs Act (Northern Ireland) 1958 allow for trial on indictment for some of the more serious offences with associated increased penalties, and also include and extension of the limiting period under which prosecutions must be brought. These provisions should be viewed as a major strengthening of the powers to deal with those who place the health of the general public at risk.

I do not propose to deal with the remainder of the order as it contains minor consequential matters and corrections of defects in earlier legislation. I hope that the House will feel that I have given a reasonable summary of the main provisions of this order, which is by nature one generated by an ongoing process of review and update of criminal law in Northern Ireland. It should contribute to the improvement of Northern Ireland legislation in a range of unconnected areas. I commend it to the House.

10.57 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The Minister began by saying that certain provisions would not be retrospective. We welcome and appreciate that announcement.

The proposed Order in Council would make several changes in the administration of criminal justice in Northern Ireland. I am reminded that a wag, who is not an hon. Member, has said that change and progress are not the same thing. Although the explanatory notes to the order refer to "improvements" in the administration of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, it is devoutly to be wished that they are improvements rather than changes.

I welcome the fact that some of the proposed changes correspond to those made recently in England and Wales. Others have arisen through the experience of operation of the existing law in Northern Ireland. I am not entirely sure where that leaves the constitutionalists. Does it mean that there is to be parity of law between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but that the administration of criminal justice in Northern Ireland will be delineated in accordance with experience?

In an abstruse way, we see that integration and devolution are not mutually exclusive. As long as Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, it is right that it should be governed by the same laws that govern the rest of us, and that, as it is separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, lessons should be learnt from the course of justice there.

The fact that the order also includes some minor or technical changes to remedy minor defects in earlier legislation is necessary, if incidental.

The parliamentary draftsmen of the Northern Ireland Office in the criminal law branch have, at least in the explanatory notes, unconsciously, no doubt, revealed how two opposite concepts can live side by side and make for better law.

Article 10 deals with the law governing protection against the Wrongful taking possession, or use, of premises. I note that it relates solely to the taking of premises rather than land. Although the image of the so-called peace convoy instantly comes to mind, it is not entirely apt, for those in the convoy were essentially looking for a home on land rather than in premises.

The Opposition were worried that those in Northern Ireland who have been in what might be described as unlawful possession of premises since the present troubles began in 1969 and 1970 might be caught by this Order in Council. They were the early victims of this last sectarian war between people of the same race, the same colour, the same language, the same religion—in that they worship the same God—and the same culture, but who, because of a gulf of history, are unable to live in a peaceable atmosphere as we understand it, buttressed in part by a sense of alienation, a lack of identity and, therefore, a common cause in life.

Those who lost their property in those days, and who have been squatting ever since, would have felt the scourge of the new regulations and might have been caught by the Order in Council. We welcome the Minister's statement that, after representations made to him, he has altered the terms of the order. That is in the best traditions of our democracy.

However, we must consider the provisions as they relate to squatting, as the Minister called it. He said that other changes had been made in the Order since its publication in draft form, and we welcome them, too. But we must ask whether it is desirable to criminalise squatting per se. After all, there are remedies in civil law, and, although it is often said that the law is an ass, essentially the law tries to keep a balance between the rights of parties. To come before the criminal courts for a civil matter — trespass upon property — would seem to be an infringement of one civil liberty in seeking to redress another. The object of the changes has been said to be a speedier and more effective remedy against squatting. We have expressed some of our doubts on the subject, while welcoming the Minister's statement that orders on publicly owned property will be extended to three months and his statement on the involvement of the police.

Article 7 amends article 47 of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, under which a magistrates court may remand an accused person in custody or on bail. In effect, the Government propose to extend the periods during which remand prisoners can be held with their consent without appearing before the courts. The period is extended to 28 days. I understand that the consent of the accused and the prosecution must be obtained. The prosecution will give its consent as a matter of practicality and convenience, but what of the accused? On what grounds is he likely to give his consent for a further 14 days in prison while his case is being prepared? Some remarkable reasons must be given to him, or he must be remarkably luckless or ill advised, for him to agree to spend another 14 days in gaol simply for administrative convenience. Of course, he can refuse, and will then spend only eight days in remand before being brought before a judge, except if he is already being detained under a custodial sentence.

We must be careful about the concept of administrative convenience. We must be careful that human rights are not further eroded. We must be careful that a person awaiting a proper trial should not be held in prison on remand for longer than is necessary. A remand prisoner is innocent until proven guilty and administrative convenience can lead to a lackadaisical approach to justice. The 28 days to which the order refers can so easily become the norm. I can imagine the view of the Northern Ireland Office that the purpose of article 7 is to reduce the necessary court appearances of the few prisoners who presently consent to appearance every 14 days. This measure might increase the potential for pressure to be put on prisoners to consent, and there is the additional danger that 28-day appearances may become the norm and find their way into later legislation, so eventually we find ourselves faced with the dropping of the concept of consent.

I seek not to draw the House into a discussion on its own legislative powers, however abundant they are, nor to query the vigilance of future legislators. But, with the mass of legislation by way of Bills and Orders in Council, it may be that in a few years consent is no longer a concept that drives along our administration of justice. The 28-day provision may become par for the course. If that happens, our system of justice will begin to silt up with its own delays. This institutionalisation of long periods of detention on remand will continue to cause us some anxiety.

I shall turn backwards again, no doubt to the confusion of the Minister and the House. We call it backmost, foremost where I come from. Article 5 deals with the duration of training school orders. The Minister has spent some time explaining to the House the precise nature of the article. It is designed to remedy a defect in the present law in Northern Ireland arising from the operation of section 87(3) of the Children and Young Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1986, which deals with the duration of a training school order. If a young person who is subject to a training school order appears in court on criminal charges and is found guilty, the court may decide to punish him in a number of ways.

This calls to mind the so-called Black report, which was the shorthand name for the report of the Children and Young Persons review group. I am not entirely sure whether the provisions of article 5 arise out of the report, but I am aware that on 30 March 1982 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior), made a statement to the House about progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the report. If the Minister has the opportunity to reply, perhaps he will enlighten the House on whether provision is being made for some of the recommendations. If not, when can we expect the Government to implement the recommendations? If that is not done in this Session, possibly it will be done in the next.

I note from a briefing document kindly issued to the Whips' Office that if the enactment of the extended remand provisions is delayed there may be difficulties in relation to the proposed Bill to amend the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978, which the Government hope to introduce in the next Session. We welcome the Secretary of State's statement that he will be implementing many of the Baker report's recommendations. We have long pressed the Government, including successive Secretaries of State, to do just that. I should like an explanation of how the present order relates to that proposed legislation as I wish to ascertain whether it will affect the bringing of that legislation before the House.

In the main, we welcome the order. We welcome the parity that is being brought about between Northern Ireland legislation and that governing the rest of the United Kingdom.

The debate provides us with an opportunity briefly to state that, although the Labour party believes in a united Ireland, an Ireland united by consent and through peaceful means, it also accepts that as long as Northern Ireland consents to remain part of the United Kingdom legislation affecting it should have parity with other legislation.

11.10 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

It is only right to acknowledge with appreciation the Minister's courtesy in supplying most of those taking part in the debate with an explanation in his letter of 13 June, which he has partly repeated tonight, of the differences between the proposal form of the order and the draft before us.

In every respect, it would appear that the changes made between those two stages are beneficial, and it is right that they have been made. But it should be put on the record that, whatever may be achieved by comments on proposals for an Order in Council, there is no substitute for the degree of scrutiny provided by the publication of a legislative proposal in Bill form or for its subsequent consideration in Committee and on Report. There is something about the Committee procedure, whereby queries, difficulties and objections have to be framed in advance in the form of amendments, which concentrates the minds of hon. Members and of the Government. It is unfortunate that under the Order in Council procedure, we have dispensed with the rigour introduced into legislation of the procedure by Bill, which applies to most of the substantive legislation that the House enacts.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) came near to making some assertions of principle about the relationship between the law of Northern Ireland and the law of the United Kingdom — or, rather, the law of England and Wales, not the law of England, Wales and Scotland, which is often different. I would associate myself with his view, that so long as Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the onus is on those who would argue that there should be a difference between the law applying to the subject in England and Wales and the law applying to the subject in Northern Ireland. Most of the order is concerned with assimilation of the law in Northern Ireland into the law as it has been produced in England and Wales by relatively recent legislation.

Perhaps I may briefly go through the order. Most of it is of an assimilatory character. For example, articles 3 and 4 refer to the mode of trial and involve assimilation wit h an England and Wales statute of 1977. Article 6 on compensation is an assimilation with an England and Wales statute of 1982. Article 8, on the removal of prisoners to hospitals, is an assimilation with an England and Wales statute of 1982. Article 9, involving forgery and counterfeiting, is consequential upon an England and Wales statute of 1981. Finally, article 11 on food anti drugs is consequential upon an England and Wales statute of 1982.

If the principle enunciated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough is generally accepted, I see no reason why Northern Ireland's citizens should have to wait nine years before the law applying to them is rendered uniform through changes made to the law in England and Wales. Convenience would accrue to the House and to all concerned, and would aid efficiency in the process of legislation, if changes to the law of England and Wales that inherently should apply in Northern Ireland were preceded by some thought during the, not brief, proceedings preceding legislation, so that the application can be made at the same time and in the context of a Bill, thus invoking those opportunities for concentration of attention on the part of those concerned which only procedure by Bill can provide. My emphasis upon that is reinforced by my study of article 13, entitled "Amendments and repeals." That is to put right acts or mistakes made on the occasion of legislation by Order in Council.

Perhaps tonight we are laying up work for a future sitting of the House in correcting mistakes which, unbeknown to us, we are making in this Order in Council. I wonder whether those mistakes in the legislation set out in article 13 would have escaped the proper scrutiny that the House gives to legislation before it in the form of Bills.

I have one substantive query to address to the Minister about article 10, Wrongful taking possession, or use, of premises. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough touched on that. As far as I can see from the wording of the article, there is nothing which restricts its application to residential property, although in the explanatory material that accompanied the Order in Council it was constantly referred to as "residential premises".

I do not know whether this enactment applies to all premises or whether there is some provision, not visible to the naked eye, that restricts n to residential property. On balance, I come down, as did the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, in favour of the improvement of the procedure for gaining possession of property. I assure the hon. Gentleman that where squatting takes place in contemporary circumstances, it can rarely be justified by the emergency conditions that he said had existed in earlier years.

Squatting is commonly due to an attempt to get ahead of the allocation procedures that are rightly followed by the public housing authorities and to steal a march upon one's fellow citizens. Therefore, it deserves no sympathy and the more swiftly it can be dealt with the better for all concerned — including the squatters. I find from experience in my constituency that a family that squats loses in the end because its opportunity of being allocated accommodation suitable to its needs is diminished rather than accelerated by the unlawful act.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Did the right hon. Gentleman notice the phrase "land adjacent to"? Does he agree that against the background of the recent squatting and peace convoy activities that have taken place in Great Britain, that power could usefully be used to ensure that people do not squat on land adjacent to residential property, thereby invading the rights of other people?

Mr. Powell

That is an interesting intervention by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). I hope that he will turn out to be right, all the more so since part of my constituency is suffering at the moment from a plague of itinerants occupying sites which, under the most generous interpretation, are in no way suitable, but perhaps that is not directly related to the purpose of article 10. I hope that the Minister will refer to the scope of the premises mentioned in that article.

11.18 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I shall not be other than succinct at this hour, and I certainly do not wish to emulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) in his skilful and lucid way of moving backwards through the order. Anything put forward by the Minister which eases the burden of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in its job of law enforcement will, I hope, be welcomed by the House. That is in contrast to the appeal made today by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who urged the RUC to rebel against the provisions that it is currently asked to enforce.

I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that we should examine Bills line by line and clause by clause. He is the lone voice among his Ulster colleagues, which may illustrate the fact that the undermining of that process has been encouraged by other hon. Members. Orders and legislation relating to Northern Ireland are introduced in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. To that extent, we welcome provisions which attempt to tidy up a miscellaneous conglomeration of issues.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred to remands. In previous debates I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to the long period that is spent on remand by many prisoners in the Province and said that it was excessive. He would welcome its reduction. Is the Minister able to say whether the order will lead to the time spent on remand being reduced? Is he also able to say whether the provision to extend from 14 to 28 days, by consent, appearance in court on remand will reduce the pressure to shorten the time spent on remand before people are brought to trial, or whether this is just a way of hiding from the prospect of shortening that period? I should deprecate an extension of that period. In Scotland there is a limitation by statute to 110 days. A similar limitation ought to apply not only in the Province but in England and Wales.

I hope that all hon. Members will welcome the order. I hope, too, that the Minister will be able to reply to my points.

11.21 pm
Mr. Scott

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) gave a general welcome to the order. In particular, he welcomed the elimination of the element of retrospection from its provisions. It is a fine balance, but I believe that it is right that no element of retrospection should be enshrined in legislation. Strong representations were made to us, and I am glad that we were able to respond to them.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough and the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) referred to article 10. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred to the criminalisation of squatting per se. The order seeks to strike a balance between the rights of different groups of citizens. The right hon. Member for South Down made it very clear that those who squat frequently deny access to more deserving cases.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive adopts a liberal and humane attitude towards those who squat. If premises are not immediately needed, in return for a modest charge for use and occupation that occupation is licensed until such time as the premises are needed. Where squatters are distorting the operation of the selection procedure for the allocation of housing, it is appropriate that the rights that are given to it by this order should be available to a public authority that is acting in the public interest.

Article 7 relates to the 28-day remand period. This is a modest proposal. It could lead to a useful saving of resources, as long as it is based on consent. Just under 10 per cent. of remands are, by consent, extended to 14 days. A somewhat smaller percentage may agree to an extension to 28 days. That would lead to a saving in the time of the court and also to a saving of both prison and police resources in Northern Ireland. It is a modest proposal, but I emphasise that in this case at least it is based entirely on consent. When we debate in the autumn the emergency provisions legislation, the principle of consent will not, as I made clear to the House on a previous occasion, be part of the proposals.

I was asked about training school orders and the Black report and progress on that. Consultations are still going on between the Government, those with training school interests, and those concerned with the care and welfare of young people. I appreciate that there has been a long delay in seeing how the principles of the Black report can be incorporated into the new arrangements for the treatment both of young offenders and care cases, and I hope that it will not be too long before we shall have proposals.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) asked about the provisions for 28-day remands and the delays in coming to trial, and I assure him that they have no link. I am extremely concerned about the delays in bringing cases to trial, although the delays are about the same as the average delay for those in England and Wales, and substantially shorter than the delays in the Metropolitan police district, part of which I represent.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has sought both the appointment of extra judges in the High Court and in the county court in Northern Ireland, and the appointment of a substantial extra number of Queen's Counsel in Northern Ireland to alleviate trial delays. We have likewise sought, by establishing a working party in Northern Ireland, to look into all the factors that make for delay in cases coming to trial to see how they can be minimised. Those of us who are familiar with the workings of the legal system in Northern Ireland know that in many cases the choice of defence counsel can be an important factor in the delays of some of the cases coming for trial.

I hope that I have dealt with all the specific points raised by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, which was laid before this House on 24th June he approved.