HC Deb 30 October 1995 vol 265 cc21-68

Order for Second Reading read.

3.34 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I shall describe the purpose of the Bill, the reason for its introduction now, the way in which its provisions would work, and the number of prisoners who would be affected.

The Bill has a simple purpose. It is to restore the practice which existed in Northern Ireland until 1989 and which had obtained since 1976, that all prisoners serving fixed terms of imprisonment, regardless of the nature of their offence, became eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentence.

The Bill will secure that in future, in Northern Ireland as in all other jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, all prisoners will be required to serve a minimum period of 50 per cent. of their sentence. But there is an important further purpose. The Bill provides that those in Northern Ireland released in accordance with the Bill's provisions will, like their counterparts in the other United Kingdom jurisdictions, now be liable for recall to prison. They will be liable for recall if at any point up to the two thirds point in their sentence their continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or if they are likely to commit further offences. That is a new provision for Northern Ireland, and a desirable one.

The reason for introducing the Bill now is that the reversion to the former practice that I have described has been made possible because the ceasefires have been maintained for more than a year. The risk of further terrorist-related offences being committed by those offenders whom the Bill affects is seen to be greatly reduced.

It is necessary to remind the House of the cumulative security background to the changes that were made in 1989. Parliament then changed the rules for remission of fixed sentences. The House will, of course, remember the IRA's horrifying bombing at Enniskillen in November 1987 of the crowd assembled for the Remembrance day service. Eleven people were murdered then, and many more by far were injured. That outrage was followed by a series of very serious terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, extending throughout the following year. Attacks upon the security forces, both on and off duty, featured especially in those.

We remember the deaths in June 1988 of six soldiers in bomb attacks after a "fun run" in Lisburn. We remember the deaths of eight soldiers in August, when their coach was bombed at Ballygawley, in County Tyrone. We remember some hideous attacks on civilians as well. Both the republicans and loyalists were responsible for a series of sickening sectarian attacks. The IRA murdered a six-year-old boy and his parents, and murdered three civilians in Londonderry with a bomb meant for the security forces. By the end of 1988, no fewer than 94 people had lost their lives by reason of campaigns of terrorist violence, and there was no sign of any let-up.

That was the background to a security review that was undertaken by the Government. In consequence, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, introduced in 1989, contained two provisions regarding sentences imposed upon offenders convicted of terrorist-related offences. The first provided that where a fixed sentence of five years or more had been imposed for such an offence, remission for good conduct should be restricted to a maximum of only one third of the sentence, instead of the previous one half.

The second provided that any such offender who, during a period of release through remission of sentence, committed a further terrorist-related offence, should be required to serve any unexpired portion of the remitted sentence before starting to serve the new one.

Parliament approved each proposal, and the resulting provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989 were continued in force by sections 14 and 15 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991. That Act was itself enacted at a time when the terrorist campaigns of violence were still raging. That covers the violent background to the present law, exceptional as it is to Northern Ireland.

The security situation in Northern Ireland today, while it is still horribly blemished, is nevertheless very different. The ceasefires have been maintained for more than a year. Instead of 94 deaths, in the past year two persons have lost their lives, one after being tragically injured in an attack some 22 years before. The risk of terrorist offenders committing further terrorist-related offences is seen to be greatly reduced now.

It is therefore now for decision whether the exceptional restriction introduced in 1989 on the release of such offenders needs to be continued in its effect. I would point out that the Bill leaves untouched the provision that I have just mentioned for serving out the unexpired portion of an earlier sentence.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Secretary of State redouble his efforts to educate the Home Secretary, so that he understands that the release and transfer of prisoners plays a crucial part in building confidence in the peace process and should not be regarded as a reward? In that context, will he put renewed pressure on the Home Secretary to agree to the urgent transfer of Patrick Kelly and Michael O'Brien from Whitemoor, to prisons either in the north or in the Republic of Ireland, in view of the very compelling and compassionate circumstances surrounding their cases?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but that is quite outside the scope of the Bill. However, I will just say that there is a clear policy regarding the transfer of offenders to the jurisdiction nearest to their homes and families and that the Home Office has pursued that policy consistently. The two prisoners whom he mentioned are prisoners who have never had any domicile in Northern Ireland, but whose domicile is in the Republic and who have not been able to be transferred to the Republic until such time as the Republic's ratification of the European convention on the repatriation of prisoners takes effect. That will be some time next month.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hope that it is something to do with the Bill.

Mr. Corbyn

With regard to what the Secretary of State just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), when the Dail Eireann passes the appropriate legislation to allow the transfer of prisoners to the Republic of Ireland, will he expedite the transfer of Patrick Kelly on humanitarian grounds, if for no other reason, because of Mr. Kelly's serious illness?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hoped that I had indicated that those two gentlemen, and Mr. Kelly in particular, are not in my jurisdiction but in that of the Home Secretary. I do not doubt that he will take account of all appropriate circumstances.

I was describing the security situation today. I said that it is for decision whether the exceptional restrictions introduced in 1989 need to be continued in effect. In August this year, in a speech at Queen's university, I drew attention to the transformation of life in Northern Ireland occasioned by the ceasefires. I said of the ceasefires that they had transformed the situation into which prisoners are released. For the first time in 25 years, our young people are growing up in a situation in which they are not tempted with the call for arms. They should not face the temptation of involvement in such criminal activity. The need for the increased measures of 1989 has therefore dramatically reduced. I continued: Provided there is not in the meantime the resumption of terrorist violence which would restore the need for stronger measures, I shall therefore seek early legislation which would enable those already serving sentences for terrorist offences to be released after they have served 50 per cent. of their sentences. I believe that that undertaking can properly now be implemented.

It is desirable that, in the light of the changed situation brought about by the ceasefires, the Government, in this field as in others, should not seem reluctant to respond in a positive manner consistent with their previous analyses and policy statements. But in so recommending such a response to the House, I want to emphasise the importance of understanding and respecting the feelings of the terrorists' victims, whether they are victims by reason of injury or bereavement, or in some cases both.

I tried to signal such emphasis when at Queen's I said: Time can never remove the hurt; for many it is as fresh and painful after 25 years as after one year … We must always feel with those who will always grieve. Yet I find that, quite often, it is those very people who have most to forgive who show inspiring hope and vision for the future.

I come to how the Bill will work. Clause 1, by its first two subsections, mitigates the effect of section 14 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991. That section limits to a maximum of one third the remission that may be granted to an offender convicted of a scheduled offence and sentenced to a fixed term of five years' or more imprisonment. I should explain that a scheduled offence is one contained in schedule 1 of the EPA, which has not been exempted from that Act's provisions by a certificate given by the Attorney-General.

The reason why the clause does not simply enlarge remission from one third to one half is that to do that would technically bring the sentence to an end at the halfway point, and thus prevent the release of the offender on licence—which we wish to provide for in subsection (3). I have already described the circumstances in which subsection (3) would permit the Secretary of State to revoke a person's licence. It is a necessary safeguard to cater for a situation in which a person under licence presents a risk to the safety of the public if he continues at liberty, or in which he appears likely to commit further offences. So, that safeguard is provided.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Since this power is quite unusual, as it is entirely subjective—it depends on the Secretary of State making a judgment that a person has become liable to commit further offences, which he was not liable to commit when he was released—is it assumed that it has arisen from a change in the political situation, a breakdown of talks, so that people become inclined to commit offences that they would not have done otherwise, or is it simply intended to meet a changed personal situation in which, perhaps, an individual joins a more extreme group?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The power is expressed in the words of the Home Secretary's directions some years ago to the Parole Board, to cover matters that it should take into account when determining whether to recall to prison somebody who has been released, having been sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Of course, the circumstances in each instance would have to be particular to the individual person on licence, and I would not wish to seek to circumscribe the appropriate circumstances.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the answer that he gave to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). But this is a different case, of course. The Secretary of State referred to the Parole Board, which is an arm's length body that exists to evaluate the evidence. In the Bill, all that exists is the Secretary of State, so it seems that the Secretary of State is concentrating all powers into his hands without any objective or distanced judgment on the available evidence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Secretary of State must do the best that he can. He is responsible for the safety of everybody in Northern Ireland. A proper safeguard is provided in subsection (4), which provides that the Secretary of State must give reasons for the recall and must, of course, notify the offender that he is entitled to make representations about that recall and about those reasons. Above all, there is the overarching safeguard that the Secretary of State's decision would be subject to judicial review and that any capricious, unreasonable or misguided recall decision would be liable to be overturned by the court.

It is a matter of regret that we have, for so many years, not been able to have something equivalent to a Parole Board system in Northern Ireland. The House will know why, for the moment, that remains the case.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has drawn attention to the stringent powers given to the Secretary of State in relation to the withdrawing of licence for someone who appears likely to commit further offences. Is it not the case that those further offences, in those circumstances, would, in effect, be scheduled offences? Should not the word "scheduled" be included in the Bill before the word "offences"? Or is the Secretary of State suggesting, as the Bill suggests, that someone who is released on licence can be returned on the decision of the Secretary of State because of a civil offence that has no connection with terrorism or any scheduled offence?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Naturally enough, the Secretary of State will wish to use his discretion in a sensible manner. The Bill does not provide that the offence shall be a scheduled offence. Many people would be upset if the Bill limited the offence to that. Here is somebody who, under the Bill, is being licensed at the 50 per cent.—halfway—mark, having been convicted of serious scheduled offences. That person may be committing other offences or may be likely to commit other offences of a serious nature. Many people would be extremely upset if such a person was not liable to be recalled. I believe that that is a fair reflection of how the public would respond.

Mr. Mallon

I regret the equanimity with which the Secretary of State assumes to himself the power to take away someone's freedom because that person has committed a civil offence for which he or she can be committed to prison only by a court. In this instance, the Secretary of State is granting to himself or his successor the power to remove someone's freedom and to put that person in prison for a civil offence. Surely that should be put right in the Bill. If it is not, the Secretary of State will not help the cause of justice, but will grant to his office the power to put a person in gaol on foot of a civil offence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not quite understand what the hon. Gentleman means by a civil offence. We are talking about an offence. The Bill deals with criminal misconduct and is limited to criminal offences. I do not know quite what the hon. Gentleman means. It is not a question of a debt or anything like that.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

The phrase "civil offence" used by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) is meaningless in law in this context. The hon. Gentleman means a criminal offence that is not a scheduled criminal offence—in other words, a terrorist offence. If someone, for example, had been charged and convicted of a scheduled offence of great personal violence, and subsequently became subject to remission at 50 per cent. of the sentence, but was subsequently involved in a crime of serious domestic violence, which was not a scheduled offence, for the protection of the public at large and to prevent the public from being exposed to any risk, the Secretary of State might well revoke that person's licence and bring him back into prison as a dangerous person per se, whether likely to commit scheduled offences or crimes of domestic violence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman has the position absolutely right. In those circumstances, I would be able to face the disapproval of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who would criticise me for not leaving at licence and at liberty such a person, notwithstanding the fact that a serious offence of violence was likely to be committed by him. I doubt that that would be in the interests of the public.

Subsection (6) provides for mandatory court orders requiring a person to serve out the unexpired portion of a previous sentence when he has been convicted and sentenced for a subsequent scheduled offence. It does so in effect by applying section 15 of the emergency provisions Act to the period of release on licence.

Clause 2 provides for the commencement of the Bill on such day as the Secretary of State may appoint. Clause 3 permits the Secretary of State to make orders suspending or reviving the operation of clause 1. The House will readily understand that circumstances might change in such a way as to make that necessary. We trust that they will not.

Clause 4 provides for the affirmative resolution procedure for approving a draft order of suspension, with an exception to take account of circumstances in which suspension would be urgently required.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Secretary of State assure me that the order will be brought into effect as soon as possible after the Act receives Royal Assent? Secondly, in the event of it being necessary to suspend the provisions of clause 1 during a period in which the House is not sitting, will steps be taken to allow the House to debate the suspension of clause 1 without our having to wait for the expiry period of 40 days, after which the House may still not be sitting?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

If the Act receives the approval of the House, the Government intend to bring it into force as soon as practicable and before Christmas. I cannot give an undertaking on the hon. Gentleman's second question, as that would be a matter for others. He points to a scenario in which it might be necessary as a matter of urgency to suspend the working of the Act without prior affirmative resolution approval having been given.

Lastly, the House will wish to know the number of prisoners whom the Bill would affect. If the scheme were introduced in early December, more than 90 prisoners would be released before Christmas. A further 88 prisoners would be released on licence during 1996 whose release otherwise would not have been due until 1997 or 1998.

By the end of the decade, about 340 prisoners out of the 471 to whom the Bill currently applies will have been released. The House will be reassured to know, however, that many of those who have been sentenced for the most heinous offences would under the provisions of the Bill remain in prison until at least the end of the first decade in the next century.

The Bill is not an amnesty. It makes no concession to people who falsely claim that those who are convicted of terrorist offences somehow become political prisoners. It makes no concession to terrorism at all. On the contrary, the Bill will enable the penal system in Northern Ireland to make a positive, but proportionate and prudent, response to the continuance of the ceasefires, and to the welcome reduction in risk that has been brought about over the past year. I commend it to the House.

3.57 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

The Opposition approach the Bill in the spirit of bipartisanship characterised by our support for the peace process, particularly since the ceasefires. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) has asked me to apologise for her absence today, which is the result of other urgent Northern Ireland business. My hon. Friend has said repeatedly that peace and the search for a constitutional settlement are far too important to be undermined by party political point scoring.

On no occasion was the importance of that more clear than during the regrettably cancelled British-Irish summit, where there was a great danger that the respective Governments would be seen as agents for one or other of the protagonists, rather than as facilitators for peace and a constitutional settlement that would meet with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Just as the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the Irish Republic must stick together, so must the Opposition do all that they can to ensure that the pressure for an agreed solution is maintained on all parties.

We have urged this measure on the Government since June. The Secretary of State promised to introduce it in his speech during the summer, after we had urged the change. It is clear that both traditions and both sets of protagonists regard the prisoner issue as key. One element in that is the beneficial role that prisoner groups played in bringing about a ceasefire. We must also pay tribute to the constructive part played by some ex-prisoners in supporting the peace process.

As the Secretary of State said, there are other important elements to be borne in mind. First, any approach must never forget the victims of the violence—those whose nearest and dearest were slaughtered and maimed although they were no part of any dispute. Unfortunately, the appalling indifference to suffering still seems to be around, as seen in the barbaric torture of a 16-year-old girl last week as part of the deplorable pattern of punishment beatings.

The crimes that were committed were heinous and the perpetrators must serve fair sentences. Even after the measure is passed, there will be large numbers of prisoners with considerable sentences to serve. Justice can be done only if the victims are not merely remembered but honoured by our passing legislation that respects their suffering.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My hon. Friend refers to honouring the victims. Is he aware—if he is not, I am sure that he will be pleased to learn—that those of us who have been campaigning for a proper memorial in Birmingham for the 21 victims of the mass murder that took place on 21 November 1974 have been told that such a memorial is now to be erected? I hope that it will be put up on the 21st anniversary of the atrocities. I am sure that that shows that we shall always remember and honour those who died—the victims of terrorism, whether on the mainland or, as so often happened, in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Worthington

I hear with great respect what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that both civic and national authorities will be listening to him.

The legislation must be fair and principled. It seems to us that the measure is so, although there are flaws, as I shall point out. The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) 1991, which the Bill supersedes, were introduced under conditions of emergency. They imposed more stringent conditions of imprisonment. The Government now propose, and we agree, that under conditions of peace it is appropriate to impose on those prisoners exactly the same conditions of imprisonment as if they had committed their crimes in Great Britain.

I recognise that exact equality is not possible, particularly because Northern Ireland does not have a parole system, but an imperfect peace is far superior to the alternative and it seems to us that the measure should be supported. However, the precedents for hurried legislation are not good. We can all think of examples, including contemporary examples, of legislation passed in haste and repented at leisure.

We have been able to consider the Bill only since late on Thursday. We shall make proposals for change which we hope that the Government will consider constructively. The Government have welcomed and, I hope, valued our bipartisan approach, but I remind the Government that bipartisan means joint and shared. It does not mean that the Secretary of State decides and we follow. The points that we are putting today are constructive and we put them in the knowledge that a Labour Government are likely to enact the legislation.

I shall make other proposals and comments which might not be appropriate as amendments to the Bill, but on which the response of the Secretary of State will be important. For instance, I understand that in the recent Pepper v. Hart judgment, seven Law Lords ruled that where there was doubt about the law—the Bill will result in many such doubts—the statements of Ministers about the intentions of the legislation acquire the force of law. Therefore, I hope that, on occasion, the Secretary of State will intervene to clarify his intentions.

I now arrive at one such point that is important in terms of the Government's bona fides. This is retrospective legislation, in that it alters the conditions under which prisoners were sentenced. It ameliorates the conditions of remission. If legislation can be passed to improve remission retrospectively, it follows that it can be passed to worsen it.

The legislation is going in the opposite direction to recent statements by the Home Secretary. For example, at the Tory party conference, he said that he would introduce a crime Bill before the next election which would give effect to his statements—for example, that five years should mean five years … No more automatic early release … And no more half time sentences for full time crimes … Persons serving 12 months … or more will be eligible for a small period of earned early release For the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland, it is important that the Secretary of State gives us the firmest of assurances that nothing that the Home Secretary is preparing will have any impact on this Bill or any of the prisoners affected by its proposals. As has been pointed out, it should be recognised that, written into the Bill, are considerable reserve powers for the Secretary of State.

Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman could give us some information on a closely related matter. The Bill applies only to determinate sentences, and not to life sentences. What impact do the Government envisage it having on the length of time served by lifers? The Secretary of State will be aware of the judgment of Mr. Justice Dyson that the Home Secretary's policy of delaying parole applications for five lifers, who had reached the end of the tariff part of their sentences, was "unreasonable and unlawful." The judge also described the policy as "manifestly unjust". Has a decision been made on whether to appeal against that judgment? It would be strange if the Government were introducing this measure at the same time as appealing against Mr. Justice Dyson's decision.

Mr. Madden

As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is implying that the matter has nothing to do with him, I must inform my hon. Friend and the House that the Home Secretary had until one day last week to submit notice of an appeal on the matter to which he referred. No such notice has been submitted and we can only assume that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not intend to appeal against that judgment.

Mr. Worthington

I hear what my hon. Friend says but, with all due respect, it would be good for Ministers to say so. I heard the Minister of State saying that it was nothing to do with this Bill, but, as we all know, the measure is part of a jigsaw—a constellation of factors affecting prisoners—and we want to know how it fits together.

On the specifics of the Bill, some of my remarks are on matters that would normally be mentioned in Committee, but I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that, due to the exceptional circumstances of this Bill, it will help the business of the House if I make those points now so that the Government can consider them and respond in Committee—hopefully, by accepting our proposals and using their drafting skills to improve the legislation. Hope springs eternal. After all, I expect that the Government hope for the minimum of amendment in the other place so as to avoid any complication in reporting back to this House, and I hope that they will be helpful in this matter.

Clause 1(2) states: A person to whom this section applies shall be released on licence". The Government's assurances on that are very important. Do the Government intend to impose any conditions on the licence beyond a general expectation that the person should be of good behaviour? For example, will there be any restrictions on freedom of movement or freedom of association?

At the moment, the Bill gives the Government the freedom to create whatever conditions they want. Given the sensitivities of the situation and the considerable powers in clause 1(3), it does not seem to be necessary to write in specific conditions of licence, but an assurance from the Government would be welcome.

Clause 1(3) is probably the most contentious in the Bill and I hope that the Government will be able to move some way to improve it. We fear that, if they cannot, it will cause problems. Especially difficult is the expression

The Secretary of State may revoke a person's licence … if it appears to him that a person is likely to commit further offences". The matter has already been mentioned in interventions. What sort of offences would be involved? Should there not be some sort of quality—or gravity—control? Surely the Secretary of State should not be given such carte blanche powers when he thinks that someone is likely to commit further offences". Is the Secretary of State willing to consider writing in scheduled offences or some other such seriousness threshold to give reassurance on the matter?

However, the worst part of clause 1 is the fact that the Secretary of State is policeman, prosecuting counsel, judge, jury and Court of Appeal. Will the Government give some undertaking to improve the clause? Let me suggest three improvements.

First, logically should not clause 1(4)(a) and 1(4)(b) be reversed? At present, a person may make representations in writing to the Secretary of State about the revocation and then shall as soon as is practicable be informed of the reasons for the revocation". Remember, that is after the licence has been revoked. Surely the first thing to do is to tell the person why the licence is being revoked and then tell him of his right of appeal to the Secretary of State.

If we reverse clause 1(4)(a) and (b), is there not also a case for amending clause 1 to say that the person should not be informed as soon as is practicable but should be informed immediately and in writing of the reasons for the revocation? At present, there could be a dispute about what a person was told when he was informed verbally. If it is right that a person should be able to make representations in writing to the Secretary of State about the appeal, surely it is right that the Secretary of State should tell that person in writing why the licence is being revoked.

Secondly, there has to be some judicial or quasi-judicial intervention in the matter to evaluate the evidence. I should welcome a response on the matter from the Minister so that we can decide what to do in Committee. What thought have the Government given to that?

If we were in Government, we would not want to assume all the powers in clause 1 because we would in so doing bring condemnation upon ourselves. There is certainly a case for creating an intermediary body. The Secretary of State may wish to respond as to the form of an intermediary body to give assurance, in a highly dangerous political situation, that there will be fair dealing. That is especially important because of the Government's sources of information.

When a prisoner in Great Britain breaches parole, it may come to light either through the police bringing charges via the courts or through the actions of the probation service. In Northern Ireland, there is no parole and the probation service has not been involved with supervising paramilitaries. The only sources of information for the Secretary of State are the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the security services, which do not have to bring a case to court. Mistakes can be made and the Secretary of State will be aware of the hostility of sections of the nationalist community to the RUC.

I make those points not out of sympathy—quite the reverse—for terrorist activity, but out of knowledge of how damaging to community peace it would be if mistakes were made on the basis of this procedure. It is crucial that the procedure is seen as fair.

The clause makes no reference to legal assistance being made available to the person whose licence is being revoked. Will the Secretary of State comment on that? Clause 1(3) also says that, if the Secretary of State recalls someone released on that type of licence, that person will then be detained in pursuance of his sentence". Does that mean beyond the period when the person would be released anyway under current law, and beyond the time when he benefits from one third remission? The preamble says that that is not intended and that all prisoners will still be entitled to one third remission, but the clause is not clear and I ask the Government to clarify it.

I do not understand why clause 2 exists. It says: This Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint. We are rightly considering the Bill as a matter of urgency and the other place will consider it on Thursday. Soon afterwards, it will go for Royal Assent and could be enacted on that date. The Secretary of State has said that he intends to have it in operation so that it affects people by Christmas. Why do the Government need a further stage—a statutory instrument at an unspecified date—before the Bill comes into force? What will be the content of the statutory instrument, apart from a date? Cannot the clause simply be deleted? The Secretary of State has all the reserve powers that he could possibly want in clauses 3 and 4. I am at a loss as to why clause 2 is needed.

Clauses 3 and 4 give the Secretary of State powers to cancel the whole Bill. The Government may feel that they need to retain that power, and I see little chance of persuading them to drop the clauses, even if one wanted to. Will the Secretary of State clarify one point and give an assurance on another? Although clause 3(2) says that the suspension of clause 1 will not apply to prisoners released on licence—they will not be brought back into the system—what about those who are sentenced after clause 1 has taken effect?

Let us suppose that someone is sentenced to 15 years for a scheduled offence, which could happen on the day after the Bill becomes law. If such a person were sentenced to 15 years, he or she would expect to be out in seven and a half years. Obviously, we hope that the Secretary of State will not suspend clause 1, but, if he did, that prisoner would be released only after 10 years. In 1989, when remission was cut to one third, the Government were careful to apply the provision only to those sentenced after 1989, so that those sentenced expecting half remission got to keep it. It would be interesting to know why the Government have taken a different approach in this case.

Clauses 3 and 4 appear to duplicate each other. I have been informed that clause 4, which proposes retrospective approval for action by the Secretary of State, has been included in case emergency action is needed during a summer recess. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) hinted, were the Government to consider revoking the legislation, the House should be recalled to discuss such an obvious crisis. Can the Secretary of State clarify the purpose of clauses 3 and 4?

The Opposition broadly support the Bill, which we want on the statute book quickly. We believe that the normalisation of the remission rates will help the development of the peace process. Surely the Government accept that the Bill could be improved to make it more effective. I look forward to the Government's response to the issues that I have raised.

4.20 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I welcome the Bill. I would like to think that the absence of so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends is confirmation that they share that reaction.

The substance of the Bill is justified in its own right, and the time is right for the changes that it initiates to be introduced. I believe that the argument is straightforward. In the first place, the Bill is a small but significant step in the normalisation of life in Northern Ireland. It has rightly been the Government's objective to see created the circumstances in which the fear of a terrorist outrage is relegated to the past; political differences are resolved exclusively by peaceful means within the democratic process and the emergency legislation that we deemed to be necessary is no longer considered so. The Bill is a move in that direction.

As the Secretary of State explained, in effect the Bill repeals the requirements of section 14 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 and section 22 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. The ultimate justification for those and other emergency powers was that they were needed to deal with exceptional circumstances. It has been argued, and I accept it, that the exceptional circumstances that justified our emergency powers in respect of those two sections no longer exist.

Despite, as the Provisionals predicted, a summer in which the streets echoed with the sound of marching feet; despite Mr. Adams' more recent assurance that the IRA has not gone away; and despite the fact that the IRA is still intact, is recruiting, training, targeting and raising funds and seeks to expand its influence through intimidation and violence, the ceasefires have thankfully held and the most horrific manifestations of terrorism are on hold. It is therefore right, as the Secretary of State has said on a number of occasions, to begin to look again at some of the features of our emergency legislation. That is the precise purpose of the Bill.

The Bill is acceptable, first, as it represents a move towards establishing normality in the life of the Province. Secondly, by making that move, the Government are acting positively on a subject that is important and sensitive to many people in the Province. Once enacted, the Bill is therefore likely to inject momentum into the search for a permanent peace and the achievement of overall political agreement.

To say that the prisoners issue is sensitive and important is not to condone what the prisoners have done; far from it. As the Government have repeatedly emphasised, there has never been any justification for violence in Northern Ireland. As the Government have emphasised, there are no political prisoners in the United Kingdom—only criminals, and the criminals who indulge in terrorist offences are punished, deservedly, for their crimes.

It would be entirely wrong to make any concessions on those issues. Our principled stand is right.

Nevertheless, the current terms of imprisonment and remission for scheduled offenders were determined when circumstances were different. We can acknowledge that. We can change those terms without compromising our position of principle.

As a result of doing so, the Government may well inject a further dose of momentum into that search for permanent peace and overall agreement, not least because the effects of the Bill will be felt on both sides of the community divide in Northern Ireland.

To achieve the normalising of life in the Province, self-evidently progress must be made on a wide range of issues at the right time and in the right way, and never at the cost of diluting, compromising or betraying principle. The Bill certainly does not do the latter. It acknowledges that the ceasefires have significantly changed the position in Northern Ireland, and that some of the strict demands of the emergency legislation can be modified.

A second reason for supporting the Bill is therefore the fact that it represents movement on what is an important issue to many people, and is likely to promote further peace and practical political agreement.

Thirdly, the Bill is consistent in one important respect with other measures that the Government have taken since and in response to the ceasefire: it can be reversed if circumstances so necessitate.

Let us consider the measures so far. A broadcasting ban has been lifted but, theoretically, that could be reimposed relatively simply. Some exclusion orders have been lifted. They also could, if so required, be reimposed. Border crossings have been opened, but they can be closed again. Military support for the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been downgraded; that could be countermanded. Troops have been withdrawn; they can be sent back. All can be reversed if previous levels of violence return.

It is the same with the Bill—it is reversible. In the case of individual licences, clause 1(3) allows the Secretary of State to revoke a licence if it appears to him that the licensee's continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or that he is likely to commit further offences. Clause 1(6) applies section 15 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 and part II of the Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 so that—I quote again from the explanatory and financial memorandum of the Bill: where a person commits an offence while on licence, a court may (and must, in certain circumstances where the offence was a scheduled offence) make an order requiring him to serve the outstanding period of his sentence. In the case of the proposed system of release on licence after half the sentence has been served until two thirds have been served, under clause 3 the Secretary of State can suspend release on licence if he believes that the position has so deteriorated that section 14 of the 1991 Act and section 22 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 should be reintroduced.

The more limited safeguard in respect of individual licensees and the general power to suspend clause 1 are reassuring.

The Bill merits support, and I hope that the House will support it. It helps to promote a central object of Government policy—to move towards establishing normality in Northern Ireland. By making that move, the Government are acting positively on an issue that is important and sensitive to many people, and may well inject momentum into the peace process as a result.

The Bill contains its own safeguards. Its provisions can be reversed if the security situation deteriorates. I hope that it will be supported by both sides of the House.

4.28 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I have good news for the Secretary of State: the Ulster Unionist party will not be opposing the Bill. It is obvious—as only one member of our party is present—that any such opposition would be quite weak.

We have some reservations about what is happening today. The Secretary of State will probably recall that, on Thursday 19 October, the Leader of the House confirmed that we would be debating the Disability Discrimination Bill this afternoon. Then suddenly, last Thursday, the Leader of the House announced a change in today's business.

At 3.30 pm on Thursday 26 October, I tried to obtain a copy of the Bill, but it was not available in the Vote Office and did not arrive in the post over the weekend. Like other Northern Ireland Members—only four out of 17 are present this afternoon—I did not see a copy until 2 pm today.

I do not understand why the Bill has been presented with such undue haste. There has been no proper consultation, and hon. Members have not had ample time to consider the Bill and the reaction to it. It may well be that, early last week, the Whips discovered that the Northern Ireland spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition and the leaders of the Ulster Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour and Democratic Unionist parties would not be present. They are all in Washington.

Notice of that was given well in advance. Perhaps the Whips Office decided to seize the opportunity and rush the measure through today, allowing it to complete all its stages. That is a most unparliamentary procedure, unless there is a strong reason for exercising such haste. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what the reason is.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned the Home Secretary's speech at the Conservative party conference, and gave us some excellent quotations from it. Let me give some more. The Home Secretary said: If prison—and the threat of prison—are to work effectively, there's a strong case for greater certainty in sentencing … I will tell you now, some people won't like it. They'll say it's too tough. I've got a simple answer, If you don't want the time, don't do the crime … There is no doubt that the fear of imprisonment is an extremely effective deterrent. The Home Secretary finished his speech by saying: It will put honesty back into the heart of sentencing. And it will help build a safer Britain. The philosophy of the Home Office seems very different from that of the Northern Ireland Office, as presented this afternoon by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Does my right hon. Friend think that the Northern Ireland Office also arranged for the absence of the Home Secretary?

Mr. Taylor

I shall not respond to that. My point is that, at a time when the Home Secretary is adopting a more hard-line attitude to the sentencing of criminals, a more liberal regime in regard to imprisoned criminals is emerging in Northern Ireland.

The Bill has been presented as part of the on-going political process in Northern Ireland since the ceasefire that was announced 14 months ago. Since then, spokesmen for the terrorists—terrorists from both communities, I might add—have demanded the early release of prisoners. It has been suggested that that could be disguised by an increase in the remission of sentences. That is what we are talking about this afternoon. When the ceasefire was announced on 31 August 1994, I said that my gut feeling was that the ceasefire was for real. Many people questioned it at the time, but I remain reasonably confident—I stress the word "reasonably"—that the ceasefire is for real. However, there must be caution and, as the Secretary of State said, there must be concern about the victims of the terrible, violent terrorism that we have suffered during the past 25 years.

The IRA is still there—the Government know it, the security forces know it and Mr. Gerry Adams has recently confirmed it—and it is targeting people for future assassinations and continuing to intimidate people. Only last week a young Catholic girl in Twinbrook was tarred and feathered and had a gun put in her mouth. A fortnight ago a young Catholic man fled to England after being expelled from the city of Londonderry by the IRA. Intimidation by the IRA continues.

The IRA also demands the right to retain its arsenal of firearms. Reports yesterday suggest that there are fairly large arsenals of IRA firearms in Cork and in Kerry. That is very interesting, as at least one elected MP in Kerry has somersaulted on the issue of the IRA handing in its firearms before all-party talks.

Mr. Mallon

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify what he means by "MP" in that context?

Mr. Taylor

In a language that the hon. Gentleman is more familiar with, "MP" means "TD". From his reaction, I suspect that he does not know the language as well as I thought.

The IRA is also reported to be questioning the ceasefire in east Tyrone, south Armagh and more recently in the city of Armagh. There are reports that the IRA is becoming restless. I must place on record the fact that the IRA still has the means and the potential to recommence violence without any advance notice to the Secretary of State. Therefore, the Secretary of State should not recklessly dismantle the physical security installations that it would take time to replace in the event of a new emergency.

Not only are we providing the early release of terrorist prisoners, but I am sorry to say that during the past 14 months of the ceasefire the process of prosecuting those who carried out terrorist offences but who are still not before the courts has stalled. No doubt hon. Members will be surprised to learn that, since the terrorist campaign commenced in 1969, 1,800 terrorist murders remain unsolved in Northern Ireland. Yet since the ceasefire 14 months ago only three persons have been charged with terrorist murders. Something very odd is happening. The people of Northern Ireland know that and they want answers from the Government.

The Secretary of State said that there are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland and the House agrees with that statement. However, we must also accept that people are in prison as a result of the political circumstances that have applied in Northern Ireland. Those on the nationalist and on the Unionist Benches know that. I have visited young loyalist prisoners in the Maze prison and, in many ways, they are like young republican prisoners: they did wrong, but in a normal society many of them would not be in prison. They had a cause and I believe that their roles contributed to the ceasefire. As the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said, prisoners played a role in bringing about the ceasefire and the approval for it by the main paramilitary organisations.

The Ulster Unionist party has several queries about the Bill. Under the Bill, release at the halfway point of a sentence for those sentenced to five years or more will now be automatic, but in England it is a matter of recommendation from the Parole Board and a decision by the Home Secretary. As a result, cases in England are considered on an individual basis. As has been pointed out, there is no parole board in Northern Ireland and we dislike the automatic nature of the release of all prisoners, irrespective of their individual circumstances.

Another reservation relates to the distinction that will continue to be drawn between terrorists—that is the scheduled cases—and other criminals. The latter will continue to be on automatic 50 per cent. remission with no licence requirement. I see no good reason why the regime should not be uniform for all prisoners in Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and England, as that would ease the potential problems of transfers of prisoners within the United Kingdom.

No mention has been made of the prison officers who have served Northern Ireland so well in the past 25 years. The number of prisoners who will now be released as a result of the measure could well mean a loss of jobs within the Prison Service. The Secretary of State owes it to the Prison Service to make a comment about the future security of employment for prison officers.

The Secretary of State mentioned the victims of violence and we must remember and honour them. As one of those who suffered from the IRA, I have noted over the years the great generosity and the admirable Christian response of those who have suffered as the peace process developed, especially during the past 14 months. Praise must be given to the victims throughout Northern Ireland who have shown such generosity of spirit and helped the present political situation to develop.

We shall not oppose the Bill. We very much regret the way in which it has been rushed through this afternoon with hardly any notice, but we hope that it will contribute to an improving political situation in Northern Ireland.

4.42 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Following the points raised by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), I am conscious that some Ministers prefer Northern Ireland debates to take place when I am not here, let alone when a number of other people are missing. On this occasion, however, they can relax. By my standards, I plan to be moderately helpful, which is probably a first, but I am disappointed that the media have trailed today's debate as legislation being rushed through. We have known about my right hon. and learned Friend's proposal for some long time.

For the benefit of the right hon. Member for Strangford, let me explain my understanding of why we are debating the Bill. I understand that the business originally planned for today was delayed because of what is best described as a little local difficulty within my own party. I may be wrong, but I have a sense that that might have something to do with it.

We are speeding up the process, as well as occupying today's business, because—at least in principle—the Opposition parties support the measure and are as happy as the great majority of Conservative Members to see the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible. I hope that that, rather than anything more sinister, explains why we are debating the measure this afternoon.

I hope that this afternoon's debate and the legislation concerned has nothing to do with a stalled peace process and President Clinton's visit. If I may invent a word, I do not believe that we should try in this way to "unstall" a stalled peace process. Any peace process does not require and must not be given such a gesture. If such a change in the arrangements for prisoners is meant as a gesture, that implies that it is acceptable to trade prisoners for arms or for talks and I am implacably opposed to that.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but there seems to be a difference of opinion between him and the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who suggested that one of the great benefits of the legislation would be that it would inject momentum into the peace process. Preventing it from stalling and injecting momentum into it are the same if they are seen from a different perspective.

Mr. Wilshire

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but I note that he has not been here very long. Had he been here longer, he would note that my disagreement with my hon. Friends is not unusual, and he must take that for what it is worth. I understand his point, but he must allow me to say what I believe to be the case.

If the measure is a gesture in a stalled peace process, it assumes that the peace process needs a big gesture, and that is wrong. According to my detailed knowledge from this side of the water, I do not judge the peace process in the Province to be as fragile as some would have us believe, so I hope that it is not a gesture along those lines.

I also oppose making gestures to President Clinton. This is a domestic British matter and the sight of politicians grubbing around for domestic votes by foreign intervention is not particularly edifying.

When the Bill was first announced earlier this year, my initial reaction was to say, "No, I do not support it." My deep reservations for thinking along those lines are well catalogued and I shall not rehearse them again this afternoon.

The peace process to date has been marked by one-sided concessions. Her Majesty's Government make the concessions, and Sinn Fein and the IRA continue to arm, to recruit, to target, to kneecap and to bomb. At least two murders in the past 12 months are down to terrorists.

For those reasons, I had reservations when I first heard the proposal, but over the years I have learnt to sleep on some of my initial reactions, so I thought the Bill through and persuaded myself that it was right to support it, provided that its purpose is to create the same prison regime throughout the United Kingdom, and treat all Northern Ireland prisoners in the same way, whatever the reason for them being in prison in the first place.

If that is the purpose of the Bill, even though there may still be some exceptions, I am happy to support it. However, I take issue with the points made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) and the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists.

The comments by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about crime are not relevant to the debate. If all prisoners in the United Kingdom are treated in the same way, his strictures apply to them all. We can have a separate debate about whether the Home Secretary's conference speech is correct, but, for today's purposes, the Bill brings Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

If I am wrong, however, and the Bill is the start of a process leading to special reductions in Northern Ireland over and above what is available for the rest of the United Kingdom or if it leads or is intending to move towards special parole or amnesty in Northern Ireland, I am unable to support it.

I seek some assurances from the Government. First, I hope that it will be possible to assure me that the Bill will not lead to concessions for terrorist prisoners. Crime is crime, and it cannot be excused by one's ideology. If I judge them correctly, the British people are not in the least bit interested in why people who are innocently drinking in a pub should be gunned down. They are not interested in the fact that it was done in the name of a united Ireland. It is just as wrong for that reason as if those people had been gunned down while someone was robbing a bank.

Motivation must not be allowed to cloud the issue: a crime is a crime. I make it crystal clear to the Government that under no circumstances will I ever support an amnesty for terrorist prisoners, be they in Northern Ireland or anywhere else.

The second assurance that I hope to get is that the Bill does not mean that the Government have decided to accept that there are political prisoners in this country. As I understand the situation, all those who are convicted of crimes are prisoners in exactly the selfsame way. I have heard that said before, but I should like to hear it again.

Refusing to negotiate on the issue of prisoners is therefore a matter of principle. I do not see it as a practicality: it is just as much a principle to say that we will not negotiate about criminals who are properly convicted as it is to say that we will not allow people with guns and explosives to take part in any sort of all-party talks. Both principles must be preserved.

The third assurance touches on the matter mentioned by the right hon. Member for Strangford—the question of those who have committed crimes but who have not yet been detected. I should like to be assured that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will continue to search out as vigorously as it did in the past all those who have committed crimes but who have not yet been detected.

It is just as important that the RUC will continue to search out and prosecute those who are still committing crimes. I have in mind what we heard last week about the brutal beating of a 16-year-old and those who, in the name of God knows what, drive 6 in nails through the kneecaps and ankles of innocent victims. Such acts must continue to be treated as crimes that are not excusable in the name of whatever the ideology might be.

I hope that I have made it clear that I do not think that the Bill is in any way about special cases. Terrorist prisoners and terrorist crimes are not special—at least in the sense that by being special they are excusable; Northern Ireland prisons are not special; and, most important of all, Northern Ireland itself is not special. It is an integral part of my country and is just as important and integral as Scotland, Wales and, dare I say it, England.

The Government are absolutely right to treat Northern Ireland in the same was as they treat the rest of the United Kingdom. It is right to seek the same protection for the victims of crime in Northern Ireland as for victims elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and it is right to treat criminals in Northern Ireland in exactly the same way as they are treated elsewhere.

The Government are also absolutely right to campaign to protect the Union. Would that they would campaign to keep Northern Ireland in the Union as vigorously as they campaign to keep Scotland and Wales. I like to think that the Bill will help to protect and enhance the Union, and that it has nothing at all to do with appeasing murderers, terrorists and bombers. If the Bill is intended to protect and enhance the Union and to protect victims of crime throughout the Union, it has my support.

4.53 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I welcome the Bill, and I am pleased to hear expressions of support for it from all parts of the House. I expect that it will also be welcomed by prisoners and their families, although I suppose that it will come in for some criticism, in that it does not go far enough.

It is a modest measure, because increasing remission from one third to one half is simply reverting to the status quo that prevailed from 1976 to 1989. Undoubtedly, over those years some terrible atrocities were committed and there must be unequivocal condemnation of those acts, particularly those that led to the loss of the lives of innocent men, women and children. Nothing can be done to bring back those lives, and, of course, loved ones will suffer the loss for the rest of their lives. In that sense, they are enduring a life sentence without any remission.

There have been some positive and welcome signs. Circumstances have changed in recent times. The ceasefire has now lasted for 14 months, and many people, particularly the young, are experiencing at least a semblance of peace for the first time in their lives.

It is important to recall how the ceasefire came about. I pay tribute to people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) in that respect, but I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) that prisoners and former prisoners also played an important part in initiating and approving the ceasefire and ensuring its maintenance. I am talking about prisoners of both loyalist and republican persuasions.

The ceasefire makes it much less likely that such prisoners, if released, will reoffend. It is in no way to condone what they have done to say that the time has surely come for the Government to adopt a more generous attitude by increasing the remission even more substantially than is proposed in the Bill.

We must remember that those prisoners were convicted under an inferior judicial system. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) spoke about all parts of the United Kingdom being equal. Sadly, they are not. Many of these prisoners—probably all of them—were subjected to an inferior judicial system which operated standards of justice, or so-called justice, that would never be tolerated in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wilshire

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and, like him, I very much hope that we can return to jury trials in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. However, he must not lose sight of the fact that we found ourselves in that position because terrorists, of whatever persuasion, were adept at terrorising, threatening, murdering and otherwise preventing people from serving on juries or giving evidence. As soon as we can get away from that, we can take another step on the return to integration within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Canavan

That emphasises the uniqueness of the situation in Northern Ireland. Whether we like it or not, it is different from other parts of the United Kingdom. The law does not recognise these people as political prisoners, but in many or most instances they had political motivation for what they did. With the advent of the ceasefire and the commencement, soon we hope, of talks with all parties committed to the peace process, that motivation no longer exists.

In giving the Bill a general welcome, I urge the Secretary of State to come up with some bolder initiatives on prisoner issues with regard to increased remission. I also urge him to facilitate the transfer of prisoners, so that they can serve their sentences in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced prisoners is soon due to be ratified, and can he say something about the implications for Irish prisoners who are serving their sentences in British gaols?

I also understand from the Secretary of State's earlier remarks that the Bill does nothing for people serving a life sentence in prisons in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether that is the case, or whether the status quo will continue? As I understand it, it is at the discretion of the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Life Sentence Review Board, to decide whether and when people in that category are released.

A few months ago, the Secretary of State used his discretionary powers to release Private Clegg, who served only three years of a life sentence after being convicted of murder. It is worth recalling that, since 1970, more than 350 people have been killed in Northern Ireland by the security forces, and more than half those victims were unarmed civilians. I am aware of only three convictions of members of the security forces for murder.

The release of a convicted murderer and his reinstatement in the British Army understandably raises accusations of double standards. Some of the prisoners who we are talking about under the legislation have committed less serious crimes than murder, and very few, if any, will be released after serving only three years of their sentences.

While welcoming the measures in this Bill, I urge the Secretary of State to consider increasing still further the remission available to prisoners, as a sign of good will and a positive contribution to the development of the peace process.

5.1 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The Secretary of State made it quite clear that he does not regard the prisoners with whom the Bill is concerned as in any way political prisoners, and that the introduction of the measure is not an attempt to engage in appeasement as part of the peace process. Because the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) suggested otherwise, while allegedly speaking in support of the Government, I thought that I would emphasise the fact that I accept the Secretary of State's assurance on these points. Indeed, we would not support the Bill if we thought that it was conceived in those terms. The Bill restores to Northern Ireland the pattern of remission which is normal in the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is very hard for any of us to support with any enthusiasm measures that might seem to lighten the punishment placed on those responsible for horrible crimes, as are some of the prisoners who will be affected by the Bill. The fact that they thought that they were pursuing a cause and were thereby justified is not something that we accept. It may be how they see it, but to us, murdering people, wreaking destruction, assisting in the process by which people are murdered, causing injuries and all the terrible consequences that flow from such actions, deserve severe punishment.

It is right, however, to introduce the Bill, because the kind of remission it offers fits reasonably with the system that operates in the rest of the United Kingdom. No one should underestimate the importance of some of those involved in the political process in Northern Ireland, which we wish to encourage. Loyalist and republican prisoners have been key players in securing and maintaining the ceasefires, and some of them carry significant authority in parts of their respective communities, whatever view we may take of their actions. It is therefore sensible at this stage in the process to restore that kind of remission to them.

There are, however, some worrying elements in the Bill, and some parts that I do not think are well drafted. Our exchanges over clause 1(3) will illustrate that. Clause 1(3) gives the Secretary of State the power effectively to send a person back to prison, not because he has gone on to commit a crime but because the Secretary of State thinks that he is likely to commit further offences or that his continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others". Even if one thinks that the Secretary of State is very unlikely to make the wrong decision in that sort of case, the law should be drafted properly, and should not open up absurd possibilities, which it does if drafted in this way. The Bill is subjective.

If the Secretary of State thought that somebody who was on licence in this way and who had opened a shop might sell goods in imperial rather than metric quantities, he, as a politician, would be permitted under the legislation to send that person back to prison. That is an absurd way to frame a law.

It is not what I could conceivably imagine the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ever doing. I have great respect for him, but one should not frame the criminal law in such a way as to put politicians in a position where they have the power to send people back to prison on a basis unrelated to the purpose of the legislation. Politicians might not use that power, but they might threaten to do so.

One can imagine a situation in which a politician could say to a prisoner, "You're enjoying your time out of prison, but we don't like the political direction you are now taking. Of course, there are one or two technicalities on which you might be liable to go back to prison." It is the sort of power that liberal democracies do not give to their Executives. Therefore, we should be very worried about its use in this form in this case.

There are many ways in which the power could usefully be qualified. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) suggested that it could be qualified by restricting it to scheduled offences. It could be qualified by being exercised by someone other than a politician. For example, it could be exercised by a commissioner, as there is at this stage no parole board in Northern Ireland. In any event, it is bad drafting to leave legislation so open and to place such powers in the hands of the Executive.

I can envisage another piece of legislation coming along some time in the future, and some Minister standing at the Dispatch Box, saying that the House was ready to accept it as a reasonable provision, because something similar was accepted in the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995. I do not think that we should set a bad precedent in that way.

Of course, there is more that could be done to assist in the peace process. Hon. Members have mentioned issues such as release at Christmas and the transfer of prisoners, which could be made much easier when, on Wednesday, the Republic signs the European convention on the transfer of prisoners. That could be an opportunity—I hope that it is not wasted—for the Ferrers report's recommendations to be actively pursued.

One has to judge the legislation, as a number of hon. Members have done, against the background of the Home Secretary saying that, in future, there will be no more half-time sentences for full-time crimes. I think that there is a warning to Governments that they must not engage in rhetoric in such a way as to make it difficult or even impossible to introduce legislation carefully constructed in the light of circumstances and needs, because, of course, that phrase "no more half-time sentences for full-time crimes" could effectively condemn the Bill. It will not do to, as happened in the case of the Secretary of State for Defence, to say that the speech was just for the rabble, that the phrases were trotted out for Conservative conference, and we know what a difficult lot they are.

Ministers are Ministers and they must make speeches which have regard to their responsibilities to the House. I have not heard the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland make a speech along those lines, and I do not expect him to do so, but he has to bring in legislation which already seems to have been condemned out of the mouth of the Home Secretary. Perhaps he is fortunate that so many hon. Members have given notice this afternoon that they do not intend to oppose it. We share that view.

5.8 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I, too, welcome the Bill, as it is a remarkable change—in the 10 years that I have been here, we have debated legislation of the most punitive type. I welcome it as it is the first time since peace broke out that we have in effect a slight movement in the opposite direction. I welcome it in those terms because it is crucially important. It is nonsense to say that prisoners in the north of Ireland have nothing to do with the political process. They are central to it, and we all know that. We all know that there would have been no Northern Ireland if the British Government of the day had not taken people out of Lincoln gaol in the Isle of White, and from various other places, and brought them to Pont street in London to take part in the negotiations that set up the state of Northern Ireland. We know that to be an historical fact.

We also know that, when it suits Governments, they will talk to prisoners and deal with prisoners under their right to do so if that will change the situation for the better. I know that, and I speak as a member of a party that has taken great risks in talking to people who have been involved in violence—but then, we are not alone, are we? It is not so long since the deputy leader of the Conservative and Unionist party released from prison the now president of Sinn Fein and flew him across to London in a British Air Force aeroplane to take part in discussions. Indeed, he was right to do so if it was going to improve the situation. So let us get rid of the euphemism that somehow or another the prisoner situation has nothing to do with the political life in the north of Ireland—it has everything to do with it.

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) himself—I remember the day well because I was not far away—was shot in an assassination attempt on the streets of Armagh. Thankfully, he recovered. I am quite sure that he has since passed those who planned his assassination. Perhaps he has even spoken to them—I do not know.

I had a chilling experience when I recently spoke with those who issued a sentence of death on me. They were able to tell me later who was supposed to carry it out and when. That is how the prisoner situation is linked with the political life of the north of Ireland. It has been linked, and is, but—thankfully—we are reaching a stage where we can move away from such identification of prisoners with the political process. We can do that only if we are honest and truthful enough to recognise how central is the issue. It is central because there would not have been peace had there not been people in those prisons who had time to think, who were free from some of the pressures outside, and, because of the impossibility of the situation, had the moral imperative in those prisons to say, "Hold on a minute, we may not be beaten, but we cannot win."

It is because those people in the prisons had the moral authority within their own organisations to say such things that we have had 15 months of peace. We know that, the Secretary of State knows that. Everybody in the House knows that there would not have been peace without those involved in prisons.

Prisoners are also important in terms of arms and munitions—decommissioning, one can call it what one likes—because again there is a harsh truth to it. There are two ways of getting rid of illegal arms, be it in the north of Ireland or in any other part of the world: either take them out or talk them out. Twenty five years was spent with armies, with police services, with emergency provisions Acts, with prevention of terrorism Acts, with all types of legislation, with all types of abnormal law, with all types of security operations, yet the objective was not achieved.

Is it not right now to give the talking out of illegal arms the same priority; to say that we recognise that if they cannot be taken out, since they were not taken out despite all those security operations, we should start seriously trying to talk them out? If we are going to talk them out, another harsh reality that must be recognised is that the prisoners are central, and what happens to the people in them is crucial.

The prisoners are crucial to building the political structures and arrangements that are required if we are to have a peaceful, permanent resolution of the problem without any more guns anywhere and without any more prisoners tied into the political process. Irrespective of what happens and irrespective of all the semantics in which we involve ourselves, prisoners are central—here is another harsh reality—for this reason: everybody has a veto.

There cannot be political arrangements if, in effect, we all choose to exercise a veto. We must try to clear the way so that it is easier for the Ulster Unionist party, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist party and those who speak or claim to speak on behalf of the loyalist paramilitary groupings to move down the road towards structures and arrangements. One of the ways in which to do that is to deal with the problem of the veto.

That is why the jingoism of Blackpool was so counter-productive. That is why it was so offensive. It was so selfish; it had nothing to do with solving the problems of the north of Ireland, and everything to do with party politics. That is why it went to the core of the problem and that is why the right hon. Member for Strangford was right to add another quotation to those ably presented by the deputy shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington).

Such politics will not solve the problem that we have had, not only since the state was formed but long before it. That type of jingoism should be disregarded totally when considering present issues. I have said that it is not a popular issue. It is not popular for me in the north of Ireland because I have to face victims of the problem every day of the week—God knows, there are enough where I live.

Also, it is not a populist issue, which is why Conservative Members who have spoken today should be congratulated on not falling into the trap and following the example of the Home Secretary and his jingoism. They did not fall into the trap of playing the populist card on such a crucial issue. I thank the Conservative Members for that and congratulate them on it because it is crucial if we are to resolve the problem.

Dealing with the problem of prisoners is a sign not of weakness but of strength. Vindictiveness in prisons is a sign of weakness because it means that the real question is not being faced up to. A strong Government and a strong person in any dealings with prisoners is the person who has enough strength of intellect and character, and an absence of vindictiveness, to grasp hold of the problem and to start to solve it.

I again thank Conservative Members for their absence of jingoism, as I do the right hon. Member for Strangford, for recognising, and saying very clearly in the House, that many of the people who are in prison for scheduled offences would not be there in any other type of arrangement or society. That point should be recognised because such an approach would loosen all the emotional valves in the north of Ireland and allow us to solve all the problems—arms included. I do not exclude the question of prisoners from the solving of the arms problems.

I welcome the return to 50 per cent. remission in the Bill, but—let me put it this way—it is no big deal. It is actually less than what was operated by the Conservative and Unionist Government led by Baroness Thatcher between 1979 and 1989. One can pose this question. If a Tory Government, during the war situation between 1979 and 1989, could live with 50 per cent. remission, cannot the present Tory Government live with it during peace? I make that as a serious point because it will be suggested to people within the Conservative party that the Bill is a sign of weakness. It is not; I see it as the opposite—strength. I do not detect any element of opportunism within it; I do not believe that there is any.

The Bill should not be portrayed by the media or by anyone else as the Government's political response to peace, because it is not. It is a recognition that the political problems are centred on the prisoners—that is different from making a political response to peace. There are and should be no bonuses for the Government in introducing the Bill or for any of us for supporting it. There should be no brownie points in supporting the Bill because it will ensure that those who have, as the right hon. Member for Strangford said, got caught up in something over which they had no authorship or control, can get into a normal situation as quickly as possible.

Nor will the Bill, as some newspapers will probably tell us tomorrow, lead to a mass exodus of prisoners who have been prematurely released from gaol—it will do nothing of the sort. It is simply a movement towards effectively lessening the problem.

I have reservations about the details. I do not think that any Secretary of State, whether this one or any other, should be able, in effect, to make the arbitrary decisions that the Bill allows him to make. This Secretary of State or another can decide that a licensee can be put back in gaol if he or she suspects that the person might be thinking of committing a crime—not committing a crime, but thinking about it—which does not even have to be a scheduled offence.

I take the distinction made by the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) between civil and criminal offences. However, can one imagine a person being returned to prison by a Secretary of State, without any judicial input, because that person had committed an offence such as, dare I suggest, smuggling? That is what the Bill would leave us open to.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The hon. Gentleman has picked up an important point. Smuggling might well be the smuggling of arms which would be an absolutely appropriate offence to cause the Secretary of State to revoke the licence.

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that he represents North Down. I represent an area of south Armagh where smuggling was never considered in those terms despite the fact that those involved in violence did carry out the crime to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I make my case—one can choose any other offence that one likes—that the Secretary of State should not have the powers of judge, jury, policeman and executioner, as hon. Members have said. There should be some independent input or some judicial input in the process, as we always thought there should be for the exclusion orders, although we never got that. There should also be some right of regular application by the licensee for re-release. I can see no reference to that in the Bill.

I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the points made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), the Labour deputy shadow spokesperson—what a terrible title! I shall now call him my hon. Friend, which is much simpler. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider those points not least because none of us really had a chance to table amendments. The right hon. Member for Strangford complained that he had not seen the Bill until very recently and neither had I. There was no time to table amendments.

This is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to show magnanimity. I should like him to show magnanimity towards the suggestions, which are sincerely made, and to do it before the evening is out so that those of us who have had to struggle with all such legislation can at least say that we have turned a corner, however slightly, and that when we started to turn the corner, the Secretary of State responded.

5.24 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I support the Bill because it is right in principle and right in the context of the politics of Northern Ireland. It is important that we do as the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), our Front-Bench spokesman did, and draw attention again to the victims of paramilitary violence, whether it came from the Unionist or the republican side. We should remember not just those who died or who were physically injured, but those whose lives have been emotionally destabilised and whose lives may remain so for the rest of their lives. There is no automatic remission for them; that is an important point that we should all make and have in our minds.

Having made that point, I am aware, as the Secretary of State said, that many of the people caught up in the violence are the people who are ready to show forgiveness. We ought to recognise the strength of that forgiveness and to recognise that it is built partly on people's desperate desire, which I have sensed in Northern Ireland for some years, to put the past behind them and to make a fresh start. If those people are prepared—many cases, if not all—to forgive, we should make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that the peace process continues.

The Bill is part of that process and we all know it; that is part of the reason why it is being proceeded with rapidly. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, I am concerned about fast-track legislation, on which the House often makes mistakes. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and one or two other hon. Members have drawn attention to some of the unanswered questions in the Bill.

The question which I identify, which the Secretary of State needs to address, is that of recall on licence. I remember, from the time when I operated as a probation officer in Britain, that when one recommended recall to prison—contrary to the present Home Secretary's view, that took place on many occasions—one was often overruled either by the Parole Board or by the Home Office. At least, however, one knew that there was a process and one could understand and convey those reasons. I am not convinced, as the Bill is presently drafted, that people would know the reasons why they were being recalled.

Although I am not a lawyer, my understanding is that the licence can have certain conditions attached to it which are part of the licence rather than part of the normal judicial process. If that is right, it is important that there is some way in which an alternative body can take a view about the actions of the Secretary of State. If not, we are doing what we have done too frequently in Northern Ireland, which is to invest a legal power in the hands of a politician.

It is on that basis that I shall address the wider issue of political prisoners and political motivation, which was raised by several hon. Members. It is right to say—it has always been my view—that we do not have political prisoners in Northern Ireland. I make that bald and bold statement because, whatever the political motivation, we do not in Great Britain or in Ireland—north or south—lock up people simply because of their political views or political behaviour. We lock up people who use unlawful means to support their political views. That is the difference between political prisoner status and non-political prisoner status.

One or two hon. Members have already said that it would fly in the face of reality if we were to lurch to the other extreme and say that there was no political motivation at all. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) has said that many of the Unionist prisoners sound and talk like many of the republican prisoners. In my judgment, that is true. They have been brought up in areas of Northern Ireland where they have been attracted into a particular type of crime because of the political breakdown of the Northern Ireland state. The system always had problems and never functioned successfully, which is one of the reasons why the House must now legislate directly.

There is a recognition of the underlying political problems that confront us, and we must address the needs of the prisoners in relation to the peace process. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that the measure must not be seen as a gesture to President Clinton. I feel that the hon. Gentleman would like to make a gesture to President Clinton, but not the one that we were thinking of when he spoke. The Americans should not have been drawn into the process, and I find it amazing that the Tory party has allowed that to happen. It would not have done so five or 10 years ago, but it has happened because the Tories have not handled the issue well.

The issue of the prisoners is now on the agenda, and it is important for two reasons. First, it is seen as a test of British willingness to move, but secondly, and more importantly in my judgment, it is a recognition of the fact that the prisoners are there largely because of the failure of the political system in Northern Ireland. If that is right, we shall need to bring the law into line with the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. If we are to allow the release of people who are no longer thought to be a danger to the public, we need a measure such as this on the statute book. That is entirely reasonable and proper.

I am a little concerned that we may try to skate around the issue of the importance of the prisoners in the peace process. While it is true to say that the process may have happened without the support of the prisoners, there can be no doubt that it would not have happened as rapidly if the prisoners had not been in support of it.

I chaired a meeting at the Labour party conference at which Unionist and republican ex-prisoners and a representative from the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders spoke. It was very moving to hear them describe how they had been caught up in the violence, what they thought had gone wrong and what they thought needed to be done to put it right. There is a recognition among both Unionist and republican prisoners that violence has failed. If they above all recognise that, we must reinforce that message strongly.

We need a flexible Prison Service and an element of flexibility in sentencing, a point that the Home Secretary does not take on board in Britain. I have never believed that longer sentences prevent crime, and Northern Ireland is a glaring example of that. If that were the case, many people who have received life sentences for crimes would never have committed those crimes. Factors that are far more important than the nature of sentencing drive people to commit criminal offences.

Above all, we must recognise two things. First, an aspect of punishment is to put on record society's response to an act, and to say, "We do not accept what you have done, and you must accept some punishment." Secondly, an aspect of sentencing policy, and punishment in particular, is that we lock a person up when he is a danger to the public. A strong aspect of the legal approach in Britain and many other countries is that if a person is no longer considered to be a danger to the public, it is not necessarily in the public interest to keep him in custody. That brings us to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

My feeling—shared by the Secretary of State, I gather—is that the process is more deeply rooted than many of us first thought. If that is the case, it is hard to argue that the people presently serving sentences for their involvement in paramilitary groups are still a serious danger to society. That does not mean that we should let them all out tomorrow morning, but we should look at the issue of the prisoners in both Britain and Northern Ireland in a way that recognises that people in Northern Ireland are attempting to forgive and forget. If we take a hard line or an over-legalistic approach to the problem, we do no credit to those people in Northern Ireland who have suffered far more than we have suffered, but are still prepared to move. If they are prepared to move, we should be prepared to move with them.

I urge the Secretary of State to listen carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said about some aspects of the Bill. Legislating in such a rapid way leads to mistakes. The prevention of terrorism Act went through quickly and—as I pointed out on many occasions during my opposition to the Act and to certain parts of the emergency provisions Act—lent credence to the argument that there were political prisoners in Britain. There were two reasons for that. First, the emergency provisions Act contains listed or scheduled offences, for which people are treated differently by different courts. In allowing that, we eroded the rule of law. Secondly, the prevention of terrorism Act did enormous damage to the concept of the rule of law by, for the first time in 400 years, giving a politician—the Home Secretary—the power to exclude a person from one part of the UK. That leant credence to the argument that there were political offences, and we must make sure that we do not make that mistake again.

I hope that the Bill goes through without any problems, and that the Government do not leave it there. They must continue to work—I know that this is the Secretary of State's intention—on the peace process. There is a movement afoot in Northern Ireland of which many people here are not fully aware. There is a grass roots feeling that the people of Northern Ireland must come to terms with what has happened in the past. Both communities have much to blame themselves for, as well as blaming the other side. But if they are prepared to move, we in the British Parliament would be very small minded if we were not prepared to move with them at a similar pace and with a similar feeling of generosity.

5.37 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Although it affects only convicted prisoners, I welcome and support the measure, which equalises rights between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The measure deals with integration, equality of rights and, I hope, duties and responsibilities that one can endorse. However, it seems to me—perhaps because I am new to the House—that some of the speeches are like the peace of God; they passeth all human understanding. I have heard statements about the situation in Northern Ireland which, as someone who has lived there for nearly 60 years, I find remarkable.

It should be borne in mind that, even with the benefit of the peace process, Northern Ireland is no utopia. There are members of Protestant loyalist organisations and the Provisional IRA who are still heavily involved in organised Mafia-like crime. Crime has not disappeared with the peace process; it has merely taken a different shape and form. Indeed, the nature of crime is closely associated with the political process. The peace process has tended to concentrate on the absence of the use of explosives or guns, but the most fearful injuries are being inflicted with baseball bats, clubs, hammers and nails, which some of my surgical friends in the major hospitals say are even more dreadful than the kneecappings that were inflicted with firearms.

So let us be under no illusion that suddenly with the peace process law and order has come to the Northern Ireland. It has not; it is a question not only of physical violence but of intimidation and the organisation of what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) might describe as civil crime—crime of a non-scheduled variety. I speak of course of the drugs problem in Northern Ireland, which is escalating at an enormous rate and is very much associated with paramilitaries, who are diversifying in the light of changing political circumstances—one might even say in criminal terms, changing economic circumstances—the range and nature of their activities.

Far too much credit has been afforded to paramilitary former prisoners who have had some sort of Damascene or Pauline conversion. They are suddenly sporting tweed coats and Aran sweaters and sucking pipes, they are very often hirsute and they display a new attitude to their activities. At the same time, they exploit every situation for their own ends. They have from time to time been described as terrorists on sabbatical, perhaps waiting until some change of circumstance takes them in another direction.

The overwhelming majority of decent, honourable, law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland doubt the apparent conversion of a small number of former terrorists to the democratic process. The fringe or splinter parties, especially those on the loyalist side, have been given a status and approval that is far beyond their electoral mandate, which is little or nothing. Within the past six months, some of those groups have put up candidates in council elections in large estates in south Antrim and north Belfast. The results of those elections have shown that they have little or no popular support. Most of the claimed mandate of Sinn Fein and the IRA is obtained by the sort of criminal activity that I mentioned: the terrorising of people living in controlled estates and areas where the writ of the Royal Ulster Constabulary does not run as strongly as it might.

I was appalled at some of the statements made about the quality of justice administered in Northern Ireland under the so-called Diplock legislation. I have been personally involved in the legal process in Northern Ireland—although not so much on the criminal side—for almost 40 years. The standard of justice administered by judges dealing with Diplock cases has been extraordinarily high. If the statistics relating to Diplock trials were analysed, they would show that to be the case. Lord Justice MacDermott spoke this weekend at a conference in the Republic of Ireland. He pointed out without any great disagreement that justice in Northern Ireland was probably of a higher quality, fairer and more objective in some criminal cases with a judge sitting alone than might have been experienced in trial by jury.

The contention made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) that trial by jury is in all circumstances the hallmark of a superior judicial system is far from established. Many systems of law throughout the world that are not based on the common law principles dispense justice of an extremely high standard without the benefit of a jury. Some cases in the United Kingdom, such as the Birmingham case—in which the atmosphere was highly charged as a result of the deaths—employed juries, but, as experience has taught us, did not always result in justice being done. I make those remarks on behalf of the judiciary in Northern Ireland.

If the objectives of the legislation are, as I believe them to be, to bring the remission terms of convicted prisoners in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, I welcome it. However, if the Bill is an overt political move to recharge or supply energy to a flagging political process in Northern Ireland, that would be a retrograde step and one that ought not to be encouraged. Many people in Northern Ireland are the sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or relatives of people who have suffered the most horrendous injury or death.

For several years I have been involved in criminal injury cases involving members of the armed forces. I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing the most awful and hideous injuries inflicted by terrorist activity. I have also seen the innocent victims of IRA firebombs. One has always to keep in mind the effect of making concessions, even if it be politically judicious, which the vast majority of decent people feel ignore the suffering and plight that they have endured.

While I welcome the proposed legislation and offer my support for it, I believe that it is important that the Government emphasise that it is not a political move or one designed to engender some movement among people who have supported people who have resorted to terrorism. If it is seen as that, it will have a deleterious effect on the atmosphere of the peace process. It will be interpreted as just another cave-in, concession or retreat from a position taken up by the Government in their fight against terrorism.

I believe that the purpose of the Bill is not to recharge the peace process, but it will be the perception of many people in Northern Ireland that it is. It will fall to the Government to give assurances to those who have been the victims of terrorism that that is not the purpose of the Bill, but that it is purely intended to ensure parity of treatment of prisoners throughout the United Kingdom within the social context.

5.48 pm
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

The subject before the House is important to many people in the Province. It is certainly important to prisoners and also to the rest of the population.

I listened with care to the speech of the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and I certainly believe that the Government must take on board many of the points made. As has been acknowledged, this legislation to increase the remission rate to 50 per cent. is a return to the situation prior to 1989 and in many ways, therefore, when taken by itself it is not a remarkable event.

The hon. Member for North Down asked whether the Bill was intended to bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Is that where it stops? If it is, it is something that we should all welcome and, on that basis, I acknowledge that it is legislation that the House should pass.

We must also question, however, whether that is the case. Signs and signals are being given to the community and we have heard from a number of those who are inside that this legislation is one of a number of concessions that have been offered to those serving prison sentences. At the commencement of the ceasefire, those who were inside acknowledged that, if there had not been a promise of concessions on the prison issue, there would have been no ceasefire. We must ask ourselves whether the legislation is one of a number of concessions to terrorists—a number of concessions have already been made to a specific group, that is, the IRA.

The other question concerns timing. Not three months ago, the Secretary of State alluded to this very matter at Queen's university in Belfast. It is interesting that this legislation has been announced just prior to President Clinton's visit—perhaps to ingratiate the Government with the American Administration and to show that they are keeping the "peace process" and the political development on line.

As has been said, law and order has not returned to the Province, and that is a relevant factor. Hon. Members have already mentioned the brutal beatings. People have been brought to the very verge of death with clubs and iron bars. Nails have been driven into people's bodies. That is not a society of law and order to which anyone can give credence.

I have listened carefully and I have certainly not heard Sinn Fein rebuke the Provos for their activities against a young girl in the Belfast, West constituency. They have been asked to make statements about the matter, but have remained silent. Those are the people who are paraded up and down the steps of Stormont and into the Stormont buildings. They are given the credibility of some kind of respectability and of legitimate political enterprise, but these are thugs. They have always been thugs and have never renounced their thuggery. They have never condemned the butchering of the ordinary law-abiding people of the Province. I know that because I have witnessed the butchery of my own loved ones and of my constituents by those terrorists, and they continue to terrorise the community.

We must ask ourselves what is going on in the Province. What back-door deals and skulduggery are going on behind the scenes to try to placate those who have carried out and are still carrying out awful acts of butchery against a law-abiding community?

I suggest that Sinn Fein has no mandate for any political talks. The only mandate that it had was for the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other. Those people will stand before the electorate at a future election and we shall find out whether they have a political mandate for what they are doing, which is wringing concessions out of the Government.

Yet while all those developments have been going on, Ministers have acknowledged that the IRA is still recruiting and restocking. There certainly is no clear sign of a renunciation of violence.

Does the House realise the impact of parading terrorist thugs across our television screens night after night? Gerry Adams would not even be noticed or have the television cameras on him if he did not have 25 years of terrorism and murder with the IRA—a terrorist organisation—under his belt. Now, he and his colleagues strut across our television screens and are paraded as if they were democrats. Anyone who looks into their reputations will know that they are far from democracy. What of the innocent? What does that do to law-abiding people?

At some meetings in Coleraine recently, a number of families who are grieving because of terrorist activity told me that they switch off the television at newstime because they are sure to find some terrorist being paraded across the screen as if he was a democrat, yet their loved ones are in the grave.

I have been requested by a number of those who have suffered because of terrorism to tell the Secretary of State that there seems to be a listening ear for Adams and those who have used 25 years of carnage and terrorism against law-abiding people. What about the law-abiding people? I shall be writing to the Secretary of State to ask him to receive a deputation of the innocent. Let us hear the voices of those who have suffered and of those whose loved ones are not in prison for one year, two years or 10 years, but who are themselves in prison for the rest of their lives. They are imprisoned by grief—the horrendous grief caused by their loved ones being murdered and destroyed. Fathers have been taken away from the head of the home and children have been slaughtered through wanton terrorism.

I shall be officially requesting of the Secretary of State that the innocent be heard in the position of power; they have the right to make their voices heard about the concessions that have been milked from the Government and pocketed by terrorist organisations.

Is this measure a sop to Sinn Fein, as the leader of the Ulster Unionist party said in the newspapers last week? Many people believe that that is so. The leader of my party certainly believes that we are witnessing a further step towards bringing the terrorists along a political line for a time. Bearing in mind the fact that they have never renounced violence, it will be the terrorists who decide just how long that period will be. They will decide to switch on or off when it best suits them.

We are talking about serious matters, because we are talking about life and death for people in the United Kingdom. We are talking about the hurt and grief of people who have endured great sorrow. I would say to the people of our Province and the United Kingdom that actions will speak louder than all the words spoken at the Dispatch Box today.

Mr. Mallon

I fully agree that actions speak louder than words. Is the hon. Gentleman going to vote against the Bill?

Rev. William McCrea

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has been listening. He is just trying to put a fly in the ointment with that intervention. At the beginning of my remarks, he heard me say that, of itself, the legislation is not something that I could or would oppose. If it brings us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, I welcome it. Actions will speak louder than words, however, and we shall find out if that is so in reality. We shall wait and see.

5.58 pm
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I join the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) in warmly endorsing the Government's proposals. Perhaps a wan-n endorsement is hotter than the Government would have liked, but nevertheless it is an endorsement and they should be grateful for it.

I should hope that hon. Members who represent constituencies on the mainland side of the Irish and Celtic seas would approach debates on Northern Ireland with some trepidation, especially on security matters, because, as the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said, they can be and are matters of life and death. I come from Scotland, although I have Northern Irish grandparents. However, I was born and brought up in Scotland, and feel an integral part of the United Kingdom.

All my gut instincts are against being seen to be soft, to use the Home Secretary's word, in such matters. A Bill such as this does not rest easily with me. I have strong reservations in principle about such measures. However, I must come up against reality.

I travel frequently in Northern Ireland, and have done for some years. I should like there to be equality throughout the United Kingdom, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said. However, time and again we come up against the reality, which has been mentioned by hon. Members from both Great Britain and from Northern Ireland, that the situation on the mainland is different from that in Northern Ireland.

I do not like it that the situation in Northern Ireland is different; I would like it to be normal, as it were. When a section—I shall not try to quantify it—of the population would rather not be part of the United Kingdom, the situation is different. We have to recognise that reality.

The legal systems are different. I hesitate to cross swords on legal matters with my hon. Friend the Member for North Down, but I do not share his enthusiasm for the Diplock courts. It is a simple layman's point, but if the Diplock system is so judicially correct that it gives a better system of justice, why should we not extend it to the rest of the United Kingdom? Such a system is not acceptable or normal—I use the word with reservations—in a democratic society.

Some comments by judges in cases where, 16 or 20 years later, injustice was clearly seen to have been done, do not lead me to believe that those judges had justice and right on their side at all times.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I do not want to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but will he confirm that most of the cases in which there have been later pardons or successful appeals were tried on the mainland with juries rather than by Diplock courts?

Mr. McAvoy

Of course I confirm and accept that. However, some judges made comments which clearly swayed juries and guided them against people who were later found to be innocent. I do not want to go too far into that matter.

The other factor about which I feel strongly is the feelings of the victims; no one else can put themselves in their position. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned that, especially the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor). Hon. Members have said that among the victims there is a strong feeling that enough is enough; that they are big enough, moral enough and, in many cases, Christian enough to say that, in the interests of progress on peace and putting a stop to violence, they are prepared to forgive—forgive, not forget; they can never forget. It is wrong to try to use victims as pawns in some game.

Many victims say that, in the interests of peace, it is time to consider a new system for prisoners. Despite my gut instincts about the matter, I am in favour of the Bill. There are justifications for its introduction. It has been mentioned that there are no political prisoners in the United Kingdom, but that many people are in prison because of their political motivation. We all know what that means; let us not be hypocrites about it.

The offences were committed under a certain set of circumstances, which I hope are gone for good. We all have to work to ensure that those circumstances vanish. The comments of the right hon. Member for Strangford about young loyalist prisoners can be echoed in respect of young republican prisoners. They realise what a waste there has been, and that violence has not worked and will not work. They want a new system to try to move matters forward. That is the way we should follow.

While I am reluctant to take into account in the peace process the fact that people are in prison for politically motivated crimes, I am realistic enough to learn from examples from elsewhere. Where there has been strife—if not in exactly similar circumstances to those of Northern Ireland, in circumstances that bear some resemblance to them—it has been proved that those who are in prison because of political motivations have carried out acts with the full support of people who have later become involved in the peace process.

It may not be not reasonable, but it is realistic, that the fate of prisoners and how we treat them should be part of the peace process. I know that some people do not like that, but, in fairness to the Secretary of State, the legislation can genuinely be regarded as merely equalising systems in the United Kingdom. If it has other benefits as part of the peace process, that is a tribute to the ingenuity of the Secretary of State's timing in bringing the Bill forward now. To recognise the role of prisoners in the peace process is not pandering to the men and women of violence—as I certainly would not—but to accept reality.

I share the worries about rushed legislation. Mention has been made of a number of hon. Members who are not able to be here today. We have to be careful about rushing the measure.

However, there is a consensus. My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) referred to that, and generously paid sincere tribute to Conservative Members who are joining that consensus. I have not heard it too often, but I would welcome from the Secretary of State recognition of the part played by those on the Labour Front Bench in that consensus. There is no blank cheque from the Opposition, or from the Secretary of State's hon. Friends, but there is the good will to ensure that we try to make progress.

I shall finish with one or two matters for concern that have been mentioned earlier. Clause 1(3) uses the phrase he is likely to commit further offences". Some would prefer that to read "commit further scheduled offences". I accept in part the Secretary of State's explanation, but surely, with all the expertise and ability at his disposal, some alternative could have been framed that came halfway between the position that he has adopted in the Bill and that adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington).

I do not believe that there is not sufficient ingenuity to find a halfway house that retained the essence of Secretary of State's position but moved away from the apparently dictatorial or autocratic powers that the Bill would give him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie mentioned clause 1(4)(a) and (b). The good will that the Secretary of State would obtain from reversing the order of those sub-paragraphs would gain a more than fair wind for the Bill, and ensure that he and the Government are seen to be more receptive to concerns about some of the autocratic—even if they are justifiably autocratic—intentions of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill and shall support it for reasons that have been made clear on both sides of the House. I wish the Secretary of State well, not only in equalising laws and regulations within the United Kingdom but, whether it is his intention or not, in ensuring that the Bill is part of the peace process.

6.9 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The Bill's imperfections to which my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), on the Front Bench, referred would be less serious if we were not about to proceed to the Committee stage. I hope that the Government will respond fully to the half-dozen points raised by the my hon. Friend, and that promises will be made so that those matters are taken on board as the Bill progresses to the Lords and before it returns to us. It is unfortunate that such important and necessary legislation, which needs to be pushed quickly through the House, should have drafting defects.

Second Reading debates are usually concerned not with drafting details but with general principles, and those need to be stressed. The first point of principle about the need for the Bill is that it brings Northern Ireland legislation into line with that of Great Britain. Unless there are overriding reasons for distinctions, we should generally move in that direction. However, people should not make more out of that than necessary.

It may have been just a sideswipe to the point that he was making, but the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said that this was an integrationist measure which brought Northern Ireland and Great Britain legislation into line, and that the Bill therefore began to solidify the notion of integration and the ties that must take place. But integration and Northern Ireland's future and structure are being addressed in the peace process, and will feature in eventual talks.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman may wish to argue from his integrationist platform, but we should not argue that this legislation alters the position and points us in one direction or another. Nor should it be argued that it is a sop to the IRA. Although it may not be voted against, it does not give in to terrorist pressures. Indeed, the reverse is true.

The second point of principle is that the Bill relates to the peace process. The position of prisoners who will be affected by the Bill has changed, as they are less likely to reoffend, for the reasons spelled out by some of my hon. Friends. It should not be argued that the Bill is some sort of deal to try to nudge the peace process forward. Rather, we should consider the impact that the peace process should already have had.

We must advance all those arguments in terms of the principles of the Bill, but must have no illusions about what is taking place in Northern Ireland. The mafia-type activities of paramilitary groups on both sides, and the hideous nature of punishment beatings, should be at the front of our minds.

In an effective contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that he had chaired a meeting on the Labour conference fringe attended by ex-terrorists from the two sides. He explained the problems that they had had, why they had moved in that direction, and the lessons that had been learned since. That is important when we consider the argument that there is now less likelihood of terrorists offending.

I too chaired a meeting on Northern Ireland issues. We were shown a silent video about the impact on a number of people of hideous punishment beatings, which were carried out with sticks, and sticks with nails in them. The video was presented by a group called Families Against Intimidation and Terror, which has stood out bravely against such violence and intimidation.

I do not deny the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, but that is the other side of the picture. We must put into the analysis the fact that a great deal of unacceptable activity is still going on. The full processes of the law to which the Bill refers must be pursued to ensure that those responsible for punishment beatings or for banishing people so that they are too frightened to return to their homes in Northern Ireland are dealt with.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, over the years, many journalists have done a great service to people in Northern Ireland by covering events there. Does he agree that it would be a good idea if the advance guard of north American journalists were to contact Families Against Intimidation and Terror, speak to some of the families who have had members banished, and learn that the punishment beatings are still going on? Those who come with the President could then have a full picture of the improvements that have taken place, and the improvements that are still needed.

Mr. Barnes

Yes. On one occasion, Families Against Intimidation and Terror followed Gerry Adams around during his much-publicised activities in America. That group has had an impact on President Clinton's understanding of the situation. President Clinton has made statements about the nature of punishment beatings and banishments and the issue often attached to that, which is the problem of the bodies of the disappeared.

The relatives of the disappeared want to know where the bodies are so that they can give them normal Christian burials, whatever side of the community they come from. Action could be taken by paramilitary groups. If they detach themselves from punishment beatings and banishments and show where those bodies are hidden, it would help to alter the climate. It would also allow us to tell people on the Unionist side that the circumstances are beginning to shift considerably, and there is no reason why they cannot become involved in discussions with Sinn Fein.

The problem is that there are always two sides to the argument in Northern Ireland. The developing peace process and the changes that it has brought about, and the attitude among prisoners and others, need to be responded to. At the same time, however, a mixture of mafia and criminal non-political activity is still being linked with the pressure for political change.

In some areas, the writ of the RUC, for instance, does not operate, but a paramilitary group—perhaps the IRA—controls law and order and therefore decides who is guilty and carries out the punishments. As punishments are no longer allowed to be carried out with guns, they are done with hockey sticks or sticks with nails, which are often worse than some of the punishments that were carried out previously.

My solution to the problems that have been spelt out is different from that which the spokesman on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party seemed to suggest, when he argued that there were no circumstances in which one should have dealings with Sinn Fein or other similar forces.

There is a climate of change, but I accept that there are massive difficulties involved in initiating a dialogue between people who have suffered from all sorts of violence and intimidation and those who are guilty of such acts. We will not make any progress unless the men and women of violence renounce violence, and those who have suffered from it express a willingness to be reconciled to and enter into dialogue with those who inflicted that suffering. They must do that without feeling that they have conceded and surrendered to those who committed that violence.

Although the Bill may be subject to some redrafting, I believe that it is a correct and just proposal, which will help the peace process.

6.20 pm
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

The last Bill in which I was involved in an official capacity, then as Opposition Whip, was the Environment Bill 1995. It ran to 300 clauses, 21 schedules and nine parts—and two telephone books—by the time it was finished. The contrast with the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Bill could hardly be more stark. Just because the Bill is made up of just five clauses, and we have had twice as many speakers as that number, does not in any way underestimate its immense importance.

I repeat the Opposition's broad welcome and support for the Bill. As has already been said, we have been pushing for such a Bill for some time. In fairness to the Secretary of State, he made it clear that such a Bill would be introduced at the earliest opportunity. We welcomed that commitment.

Although the Opposition support the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) described in some detail those parts of the Bill that require clarification or improvement. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept our suggestions in the spirit in which they were made.

We have expressed our concern about clause 1 and the review and appeal mechanism. Many hon. Members have expressed reservations about clause 1(3). The systems governing the treatment of prisoners should no longer be solely within the Secretary of State's ambit. We all understand why it was necessary for successive Secretaries of State to accrue more and more powers over the years, but if the peace process is unfolding as successfully as the introduction of the Bill seems to suggest, those powers should be shed. That should not be achieved in a random fashion, but when a suitable opportunity arises.

Clause 2 relates to the date on which the Bill will be brought into operation. Why is a statutory instrument necessary? We all hope that we do not reach a stage when clauses 3 and 4 were required, as that would presage a grave deterioration in the situation in Northern Ireland. In that event, issues such as recall on licence or the suspension of the Bill would be just two of the matters that we believe the House would need to discuss as soon as possible. I am not aware that anyone has any great reservations about clause 5, so the Opposition can live with it.

The Secretary of State should spend a few moments explaining why the Bill has been introduced hurriedly. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) has always been closely involved in Northern Ireland matters, and it was extremely worrying to hear that he did not obtain his copy of the Bill until 2 o'clock this afternoon, particularly, as hon. Members have already said, since the Bill's introduction was expected some time ago. Its preparation and introduction should have been more seemly, if not more timely, than they have been. Although it was published on Thursday, I sincerely hope that the Bill was drafted well before then, but some of our comments about its deficiencies may suggest that it was not drafted much before Thursday.

We must take into account the public view of legislation that is introduced in a hurry and rushed through all its stages, as the Bill has been. People outside think that the House of Commons ignores issues for a long time, and then, in a flurry of activity, rushes through relevant legislation in a matter of hours. We must have regard not only to the quality of such legislation, but to the effect that such a speedy process has on the reputation of the House among people outside.

Everyone is aware that the current situation in Northern Ireland is extremely delicate. Recent welcome progress will be sustained only by further progress on a wide range of issues. That process should involve everyone: the Government are far from the only players. Regardless of technical definitions, the reality is that hardly anything is unconnected in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made that point with eloquence and authority. The whole process must stick together as a matrix.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that the peace process was more robust than many people believed. I noticed that he began his speech by saying that he intended to be moderately helpful. I am not sure whether any hon. Members were able to identify which bits of his speech were moderate and which were helpful. They were well concealed, if naught else.

Mr. Wilshire

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. If he had been in it longer, he would have heard me being unhelpful, which is distinctly different.

Mr. Dowd

That is a pleasure, I presume, which I have yet to enjoy. I look forward to it with interest.

If the peace process is as robust as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, we need have no fear, but it is incumbent on all involved to ensure that they do all they can to move the process along. Generally, I believe that it will move along according to the convoy principle—at the pace of the slowest—or at least, we hope so. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the pace of the slowest is not so slow that the convoy comes to a grinding halt. To maintain momentum will not be easy, but given the sensitivities and delicacy of the process, it is imperative that maintaining that momentum remains an ever present discipline on us all.

We are all committed to the fastest rate of progress, but we have heard the conflicting views today on so many of the matters involved. We have heard the Bill described as a concession bordering on a sell-out, while others have argued that its aim is immensely modest. Although that is symptomatic of how many issues affecting the people and politics of Northern Ireland are viewed, between the two extremes lies the nature of the subject we are dealing with.

The Labour party does not believe that the process needs to be a zero sum gain. We are aware that progress must be achieved on a broad front; it must be maintained, and must offer reassurance to everyone. They must be reassured that their interests are not being neglected, and that their past sufferings are not being made light of. It is a great credit to the Government and many others that they are taking the opportunity to break away from the fixed attitudes of the past, and to attack the causes of conflict. Those causes of fear, confrontation, distrust and injustice cannot be wished away, but the Bill is essential if we are to remove those causes.

I am sure that no one in the House could do other than listen carefully to the right hon. Member for Strangford, who has suffered so criminally and cruelly at the hands of terrorists. He described the enormity of the task before us, and the circumstances that still prevail in large parts of Northern Ireland.

The enormity of the task must not paralyse us into inactivity. It is precisely because of the enormity of the task that we believe that we must approach that process carefully and thoughtfully but none the less deliberately. We should never be afraid to take risks for peace, but we must never take risks with peace. Those people who genuinely follow the difficult road of peace have our support; those who would undermine or obstruct it will find no friends in the Labour party.

Our worries are about the effectiveness of the measure. The Secretary of State knows the way in which every statement and action relating to Northern Ireland is scrutinised for perceived bias, lack of even-handedness or even lack of understanding. That is why we keenly look forward to what he has to say to us. We shall respond to what he says to us now when we return to the matter in Committee.

6.29 pm
Sir Patrick Mayhew

We have had an exceptionally thoughtful and fruitful debate. It warrants from me a longer or more detailed response to the arguments that have been made than I had intended. I nevertheless hope that my speech will be short.

There has been universal support for the Bill, and for that I am grateful. It has been shaded, in one way or another, by one or other hon. or right hon. Member during the debate, but the principle of the Bill is undoubtedly supported.

The aspect of the Bill that attracted the greatest support is the progress that it makes towards diminishing differences between Northern Ireland's jurisdiction and the other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom in the context of the treatment of terrorist offences. There is no doubt, as I said at the outset of my opening speech, that that is the purpose of the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is achieved by restoring a position that obtained between 1976 and 1989, whereby there was an entitlement to release at the time that the halfway mark was reached. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned the Labour party's bipartisan approach to the Government's policy on security in Northern Ireland, and I am very glad to acknowledge that with appreciation. He said that the Bill is fair and principled, and observed that exact equality between the jurisdictions is not possible, by reason of, to begin with, the absence in Northern Ireland of a parole board system.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie asked several questions. Specifically, he asked what impact the proposals announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would have on the Bill.

The Bill affects relatively few prisoners, whose position is unique. The ideas of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will need, as he has acknowledged, to be worked up into firm proposals for the jurisdiction for which he is responsible, after which they will be considered very generally, not least by Ministers with responsibilities for Northern Ireland.

There is no reason why developments in either jurisdiction are necessarily appropriate to the other, so we need to consider what may emerge during what the Home Secretary acknowledged would be a substantial period.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the impact of the measures would be on lifers. The impact on lifers does not follow as a matter of law from the Bill's provisions. However, the ceasefires represent, or have occasioned, a reduction in the perceived risk of further terrorist offences being committed, and that perception will have a bearing on the manner in which the life sentence review board considers questions coming before it in respect of mandatory life-sentenced prisoners because one of the criteria that it takes into account is the risk of re-offending.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the procedure that we are inviting the House to adopt for the Bill warranted the taking of what, in other circumstances, might be some Committee points, and I entirely accept that. He asked about the licence provisions in subsection (2) of clause 1 and asked if there was to be freedom to create any conditions that seemed fit to the Secretary of State.

The answer is that there is no conditional licence. No conditions will be attached to the licence. The substantive law will provide that, in the words of subsection (3): The Secretary of State may revoke a person's licence… if it appears to him that the person's continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or that he is likely to commit further offences". That is to be distinguished from the conditions that apply to a licence that the parole board in England and Wales habitually makes.

Mr. Soley

That is what puzzles and perhaps worries people. I understand that a person can be recalled if they are believed to be a security risk again, but if, for example, a person who is released is seen to meet someone who is known to be a security risk—it might be a one-off meeting or there might be two or three, perhaps in the context of family or friends—the power to recall would appear to be entirely a matter of judgment for the Home Secretary, depending on whether he considers that such a meeting was a breach of the licence. That is the difficulty.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is the aspect of the Bill on which most questioning has focused. In the case of the Home Secretary, there is the parole board's recommendation to consider. In the case of a mandatory life sentence, the Home Secretary also has the power to consider the impact on public confidence and other matters of public interest, and the ultimate decision whether the prisoner shall be released on licence rests with the Home Secretary.

In Northern Ireland, as has been accepted, we have no parole board. Someone must make that decision. It has been suggested that it is unsafe to give carte blanche to the Secretary of State in those circumstances. It was suggested that it should be limited to scheduled offences only. May I say, in the first instance, that we are considering here whether there needs to be reassurance for people who view with misgivings the reform that the Bill proposes, as it affects those offenders responsible for very serious terrorist-related offences.

The Government believe that reassurance is needed, and that there is a need for a licensing provision to apply during that period—from the 50 per cent. mark to the two thirds mark, at which the offender would, in ordinary circumstances, be released on remission. We are talking only of fixed, determinate sentences.

We believe that reassurance is needed. Very well. Who is to undertake the decision whether to revoke a licence? That power is necessary, in our opinion.

It is difficult to envisage how that can effectively be done otherwise than by the Secretary of State in the circumstances of Northern Ireland. However, I invite the House to consider whether there are not, in practice, substantial safeguards. It cannot be done without reasons being given to the offender. I recognise that there would be a legitimate anxiety if those reasons were not to be given in writing. That is not in terms specified in the Bill, but I am perfectly prepared to give an undertaking in the House that in practice those reasons always will be given in writing. I do so in the knowledge that the recent jurisprudence shows that it is open, on judicial review, for a court to have regard to what is said by a Minister in my present circumstances, and that that will be relevant in judicial review proceedings. That is something that I can tell Opposition Members who have raised that anxiety, and I think that it goes a significant way towards meeting their concern.

Mr. Worthington

The Secretary of State is making a helpful response, but his legal expertise is much greater than mine. He says that the matter will be subject to judicial review; but can he give us some idea of the time lapse between the revocation of a licence—and the unhappiness of the person concerned about that revocation—and the likely judgment following a judicial review? How long would that person have been "inside" during the judicial review?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is a very proper question. The courts are able to hear very quickly an application to grant leave for a judicial review where questions of personal liberty are concerned. It is certainly open to a court, where it gives leave, to suspend the revocation until such time as the judicial review is heard, or to achieve that effect by granting bail. Here I speak without the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. What the Bill does is say that detention—or redetention—shall be proper once the licence has been revoked. A large document has just been handed to me.

We shall see.

Mr. Mallon


Sir Patrick Mayhew

I must say "We shall see", for this reason. It is never possible to set out, in precise and comprehensive terms, the circumstances in which an executive decision will be overturned on judicial review. It is possible to set out the criteria that a court will apply: in a nutshell, it will apply the test of fairness. It all boils down to the question, "Was the Executive action fair?" If it was capricious; if it was based on a wrong direction in regard to the law; if it took into account matters that were irrelevant, or failed to take into account matters that were relevant—in those instances, the courts would generally consider the action unfair. Judicial review thus represents a substantial safeguard against what Opposition Members have properly identified as a potential danger.

Mr. Mallon

Is there not a parallel between what the Secretary of State is saying now and the position relating to exclusion orders that existed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Yes, the Secretary of State was making the decision; yes, the Secretary of State gave reasons; yes, the Secretary of State gave those reasons in writing. To my knowledge, however—I stand to be corrected—at no stage did a Secretary of State ever give the type of evidence that a person would require as to why that person should be excluded, or, in the present instance, returned to gaol.

Is there not some merit in the idea of re-examining all those cases of exclusion orders to establish the existence of anything other than a bland written connection with a paramilitary organisation, rather than evidence that would stand up under other scrutiny?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I will not go into all the jurisprudence concerning exclusion orders, for the excellent reason that I am not familiar with all the details. I do not know whether an exclusion order has been overturned on judicial review; what I can say is that exactly the same principles as those that I have just described would be applied by the courts—and doubtless were applied by the courts that considered judicial review of any exclusion order.

I recognise the proper concern that has been expressed. I do not think that the public would be sufficiently reassured, however, if we limited the power to revoke and recall to a subsequent scheduled offence, and the likelihood of the commission of such an offence. That is exactly the reason that the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) gave in an intervention in my opening speech.

Again, I give an assurance—in the knowledge that it can be referred to in subsequent court proceedings—that the power is intended to operate only in the case of serious offences: if there is a likelihood of a serious offence being committed. That ought to go without saying, but I say it. When someone's liberty has been restored on licence, no one wants that person to be returned to prison for some trivial or insubstantial reason. That assurance should meet the anxieties of Opposition Members, in conjunction with the undertaking in regard to written reasons.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie made three suggestions. First, he asked whether paragraphs (a) and (b) in clause 1(4) should be reversed. There is a technical reason for them to be in that order—or, at least, it is highly desirable for them to be. A change would be possible, but the provisions are set out in this way to shorten the drafting, and I do not believe that there will be any substantial consequence. [Interruption.] I think that that is the case.

Mr. Worthington

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) spoke earlier of the lengthy Bills with which he has been associated. I find it extraordinary that trade union considerations seem to have become involved in a five-clause Bill—"We are not drafting any more today; it is getting too long." Surely the logic is that the person concerned should be informed of the reasons for the revocation in writing, and that he should then have a right to make representations. It should not be the other way round.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is a matter of elegance and drafting clarity, rather than a matter of substantive effect. If that ranks high in the list of the Opposition's serious objections to the Bill, I do not think that we are doing too badly.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

Let us examine this logically. Subsection (4) states: If a person's licence is revoked † he may make representations in writing to the Secretary of State", and afterwards, he shall as soon as is practicable be informed of the reasons". Will we not find that, if a licence is revoked, representations are made to the Secretary of State before the licensee has been given the reasons for its revocation in the first place?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Bill makes it clear by the use of the words as soon as is practicable that the person must be told at the time when the revocation is acted on and, as I have said, that will be done in writing. In practice, it always is done in writing: no decision of this character, whether in Northern Ireland or in Great Britain, in the case of mandatory life sentences, is taken without much consideration, and such decisions are put in writing. I do not think that this matter should detain the House for long. If it were of any consequence in terms of the Bill's effect, I would wish to consider it.

Mr. Worthington

I am puzzled. Those who drafted the Bill thought it necessary to state: he may make representations in writing to the Secretary of State". We are merely asking the Secretary of State to put the reasons for the revocation in writing. Why cannot that provision be contained in paragraphs (a) and (b)?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recognise why the representations are being made to me—although not in writing. I have already given a binding undertaking that all reasons will be given in writing by the Secretary of State. Are the Opposition really suggesting that the Bill should not proceed to another stage in the light of my undertaking? I think that, upon reflection, they will realise that I have answered their objections. I understand why they raised those objections, but there will be no practical difference in view of my undertaking.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie then asked why the Bill had proceeded with such haste. In my opening speech I explained that at the earliest opportunity—given that it is 12 months since the ceasefires—it is necessary for the Government to show that they are not reluctant to respond in a positive, prudent and practical way to the perceived reduced risk. That is why I did not want to wait to introduce the legislation in the new session when the House will be anxious to proceed with the highly desirable measures that will be set out in the Queen's Speech.

The hon. Gentleman then said that there must be some judicial input in the process—perhaps an intermediary body. He acknowledged that the probation service in Northern Ireland is not equipped to perform that task. I have dealt with the matter already and I hope that he will accept that I have given a satisfactory assurance. He next said that there was no reference to legal aid for people whose licence was revoked. Legal aid is certainly available in cases of judicial review—at least where leave has been granted. I hope that I have allayed his anxieties in that context.

The hon. Gentleman then asked whether clause 2, the commencement clause, was really needed. That rather surprised me. It is necessary in order to ensure that the release of prisoners can be managed in an orderly way. That is an important point. The hon. Gentleman then asked whether someone who was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for a scheduled offence and who would expect to be released on licence in seven and a half years under the terms of the Bill would be "caught" if the Bill were revoked. A person's release will not be revoked automatically; it will be revoked only if circumstances special to him warrant it. I emphasise what I said at the outset: circumstances special to the offender will determine how the Bill's provisions affect him.

The hon. Gentleman then asked why clauses 3 and 4 were in the Bill and said that the House should be recalled. I do not think that that should be obligatory. Clauses 3 and 4 set out the way in which suspension or revival of section 1 can be carried out. The House must give its affirmative approval to a draft order, except in conditions of urgency and that special exception has long been incorporated in the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 in another context. I hope that the House will forgive me for taking some time to answer the hon. Gentleman, but it was necessary in view of the quality and the character of his inquiries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who takes a particularly careful interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland, said that the Bill's provisions were justified in their own right, that the timing was correct and that the Bill represents a small but significant step in normalising life in Northern Ireland. I am grateful for his support and I agree with his remarks. He is in favour of the Bill for two reasons: it is a step towards normalising life in the Province; and it is a step forward in an area that is important to many people. That is absolutely correct. He observed that current terms were imposed when circumstances were very different. That is also true, as I endeavoured to point out in my opening speech.

The Bill does not offend any principle. The ceasefires have modified the position and the measures may help to consolidate the peace, but that is not their purpose. The purpose of the measures is to respond to the new circumstances and to make further progress towards closing the gap between what applies in Northern Ireland and what applies in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the provisions may be reversed if circumstances demand it.

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) said that his party would not oppose the Bill, and I am grateful for his support. He asked why the Bill had been introduced so hastily and I have dealt with that question already. He also inquired about the difference between the Home Secretary's proposals and those in the Bill. I hope that I have already dealt sufficiently with that query.

The right hon. Gentleman has long experience in this area and he encouraged the House by saying that he remained confident that the ceasefires were "for real". I was very glad to hear that. We have adopted a working assumption that they will be permanent and we hope that our assumption will be verified.

The right hon. Gentleman said, however, that the IRA is still there, it is retaining its arsenals and it still has the means to recommence violence. That is undoubtedly and disgracefully true. The right hon. Gentleman also pointed to the apparent stalling in the prosecution of terrorist offences in the past 14 months. He said that there had been only three prosecutions for murder since the ceasefires. That matter is entirely within the jurisdiction of the Attorney-General, who superintends the Director of Public Prosecutions; it is not a matter for the Executive arm of Government. I point out, as I did in my speech, that there have been only two deaths as a result of terrorist activity since the ceasefires. One of those involved the case of Constable Jim Seymour who was injured 22 years previously. That factor has a bearing on the right hon. Gentleman's statistical contrast.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether release would be automatic at the half-way mark and said that his party did not like that idea. It is an automatic release and one might ask: why not simply revert from a third to one-half remission? The answer is that a technical consequence of remission at 50 per cent. would be the end of the sentence at 50 per cent. That would prevent the provision of a licensing consequence, which we want the Bill to confer.

The right hon. Gentleman said that his party disliked the distinction that would be associated with terrorist offences and he said that the provision should extend to licensing for all serious offenders. The answer to that, I fear, is that we do not have the resources or the structures in Northern Ireland to extend licensing so broadly. That might be a matter for another day and for consideration in another context.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked a very proper question about consequences for the prison service. We have the highest regard for the contribution that the prison service has made during the years of the emergency. It is difficult to say what prison jobs will be required in the future because we do not know what the circumstances will be. The answer will depend on other factors, such as rates of offending and conviction, but we shall consider the matter in light of full consultation with those in the prison service who have served us so well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who takes an equally careful interest in Northern Ireland, said that he would support the Bill and I am grateful for that. I warmly agree with him that it is never proper to trade prisoners for talks or for any political advantage and we act upon that principle. He gave his support on the assumption that all the Bill does is treat all the prisoners in the United Kingdom in the same way even if there are some exceptions, as undoubtedly there have to be, given the structural differences and I am grateful to confirm that. He asked whether it was paving the way to further relaxations. It is not. He correctly asserted that it was not an amnesty and that the motivation was not to allow further concessions. It is not. I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no acceptance of the political prisoner status. I can also reassure him that there will be no relaxation in the diligence of the RUC in seeking out crimes of this character and that the Bill is not about prisoners of a special character.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) speak in slighting terms of the character and quality of justice administered by the Diplock courts. I agree with the point that was made in rebuttal of that by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I have never heard the quality of justice in the Diplock courts seriously questioned. I think that it was Lord Justice MacDermott who said in the Republic last weekend that it had proved possible to administer a higher quality of justice given the absence of a jury in certain types of case by reason of the circumstances particular to Northern Ireland at the moment. We would all like to see the day when jury trial can be fully restored, but it has not yet been fully restored in the Republic of Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has kindly explained why he cannot be here. I agree with him that the Bill is a step towards restoring parity of treatment with other Great Britain jurisdictions and I am grateful for his support.

The right hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) welcomed the Bill. Together with the right hon. Member for Strangford, he has suffered much by way of actual attack or by threat and the House listens to him with particular respect in consequence. He made an eloquent appeal for imaginative responses to the change that has occurred by reason of the ceasefires. I agree with him that the proposals were not a sign of weakness or a signal of the Government's political response to peace. He spoke of there being two arbitrary discretions for the Secretary of State. I hope that I have dealt sufficiently and sensibly with that.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley)— again a close student of Irish affairs over many years—spoke of the criterion for recall on licence. I shall not repeat myself. I have taken seriously the points that have been made and I believe that the answers and assurances that I have given ought to be sufficient to allay the concerns that have been expressed.

I have already referred to the interesting speech by the hon. and learned Member for North Down. He rightly observed that terrorist crime is continuing. He spoke of the disgraceful intimidation and the terrible injuries inflicted in bullying beatings and he paid tribute to standards of justice administered by the courts. He asked us to remember the feelings of the victims and I am glad that I included in my speech a passage with that purpose, which I meant most sincerely. I am glad that he does not believe that we are bringing forward the Bill for some political purpose. He is right in that regard.

That brings me to the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea). To my regret, I detected a rather sour note in his understanding of the motivation of the Bill. He asked whether it was right for the feelings of those who are victims to be taken into account. Had he found it possible to be present when I made my speech, he would have heard me say that those very proper feelings should always be present in our minds. I am anxious to bear in mind all the concerns of victims of terrorism by whatever means.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) spoke with much knowledge and conviction about the Bill's provisions. He expressed misgivings about its character in some respects—which I entirely understand—but came down in favour of it because of the necessity imposed by the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. He too expressed anxiety about the Secretary of State's discretion to revoke and I hope that I have sufficiently satisfied him there.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) spoke of drafting defects. I hope that I have dealt sufficiently with those. He also adverted to the wicked punishment beatings and other manifestations of intimidation which still disfigure the scene in Northern Ireland at the hands of terrorist organisations that act in that way for political purposes.

I do not think that I need apologise for having dealt with the points raised, given the circumstances in which we are inviting the House to deal with the remaining stages of the Bill. I dealt with the scope and content of the Bill in opening and I do not need to repeat that now. It is emphatically not a concession to terrorism. It is not a reward to terrorism nor an inadequate begrudging response to the changes that have been brought about by the ceasefires. Instead it is a positive but proportionate and prudent response to the continuance of the ceasefires and the reductions in the risk of terrorist reoffending. Those factors permit a closing of the gap with the position obtaining in the other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.

I attach the utmost importance to the responsibility resting upon the Government to protect the public from risk and the possibility of further reoffending, but I believe that the measures proposed in the Bill will have a positive and beneficial impact on the future of Northern Ireland and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Willetts.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

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