HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc77-80

'.—(1) The Secretary of State may make codes of practice in connection with the exercise by members of Her Majesty's forces of any of their powers under Part II of this Act.

(2) Subsections (2) to (5) and (7) of section 52 above shall apply to a code under this section as they apply to a code under that section.

(3) A failure on the part of a member of Her Majesty's forces to comply with any provision of a code under this section shall not of itself render him liable to any criminal proceedings other than—

  1. (a) proceedings under any provisions of the Army Act 1955 or the Air Force Act 1955, other than section 70; and
  2. (b) proceedings under any provision of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, other than section 42.

(4) In this section "criminal proceedings" has the same meaning as in section 52 above.'.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

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

Members of the Committee gave the Bill detailed consideration. This evening, the Opposition have tabled only two amendments; we approached Report with some circumspection, because we have closely examined many of the provisions in the Bill. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and other hon. Members apropos the debate on the previous clause. The Committee concluded its deliberations on Tuesday 6 February; the outrage at docklands took place on Friday 9 February; a device was discovered last week; and there was an horrific incident last night.

Last night, a No. 171 bus—which had left Catford, in my constituency—was destroyed at the Aldwych. At 10.38 pm last night I was sitting in my office at the back of the house, some six miles from the Aldwych, and I heard the explosion quite clearly. It is a strange experience, which I am sure that many hon. Members from Northern Ireland will know from personal experience. There is no sound on earth quite like it—I could immediately identify what it was, and a few moments later my worst fears were confirmed on the television. Every civilised person must have been deeply shocked and saddened by the recent events, and nowhere have those feelings been more widespread and profound than in Ireland, particularly in Northern Ireland.

The new clause is straightforward, so I shall not take up too much time discussing it. It seeks to place members of the armed forces and police officers exercising comparable powers in a similar position. As the hon. Member for Spelthorne and other hon. Members said earlier, when we were considering that issue in Committee, we hoped that the involvement of the Army in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary would be a diminishing responsibility and, in the fulness of time, would cease altogether.

Sadly, events have taken a turn for the worse—to put it mildly—and additional troops have been ordered to Northern Ireland in readiness, but let us hope that they are not needed. Now that they are there, it underlines the point that I have tried to make with the new clause. Soldiers are not police officers—we accept that and we established it on numerous occasions in Committee—and it would be unreasonable to expect the same standards of training and knowledge, particularly in the detailed points of law and responsibility, which police officers have. None the less, in Northern Ireland, soldiers and members of the armed forces are acting in support of the civil power. In those circumstances, the distinction between troops and police officers becomes somewhat blurred.

Clause 52, to which the new clause alludes, refers only to police powers and the ability of the Secretary of State to devise codes of conduct for the police. When we were drafting the new clause, we were careful not to do anything to displace military discipline, which must always be the overriding consideration for members of the armed forces. Since the 1991 Act, there have been significant changes to the part of the Bill to which the new clause refers. Clause 52 as it stands refers only to the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. Our new clause seeks to restore the position that existed under the 1991 Act.

Section 61 of the 1991 Act gave the Secretary of State the discretion to make codes of practice in connection with the exercise by the police of their powers under part II of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 and the seizure and retention of property under the same Act. That discretion was subsequently removed from the Act. Section 62 also gave the Secretary of State the discretion to make codes of practice in connection with the exercise by members of Her Majesty's forces of any of the powers under part II of the 1991 Act. That is the provision that we are seeking to restore.

The tragic turn of events since the Committee completed its deliberations on the Bill is adequate justification for the caution that we would encourage in these circumstances. I accept that some hon. Members who served on the Committee will say that in other areas we were criticising the Government for not going far enough and for being too unadventurous on some of the proposals that they were suggesting, but we are now urging them to restore a provision that was in the 1991 Act.

We believe that codes of practice—notwithstanding the serious reservations of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)—serve a dual purpose: they provide a framework within which public servants discharge their duties, and they provide a degree of public reassurance that duties are being carried out in a fair and even-handed fashion. Recommendation 66 on page 59 of the 1995 review by Rowe urged that such a code should be drafted and put into effect as soon as possible. Although the 1991 Act had that provision, it was not utilised. We should like that provision to be restored, and that is what the new clause does.

Throughout the Committee, there was a general feeling that every hon. Member was hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Sadly, the worst seems to have come to pass, but we hope that that is not permanent and that progress can still be made. In the light of recent events, the new clause is both relevant and modest. I hope that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), will be able to offer a reassurance that the Government will move in that direction.

7.45 pm
Ms Judith Church (Dagenham)

In supporting the new clause and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd)—who spoke in a reasoned way about it—I confess that I came to the Committee on this Bill relatively inexperienced and uninformed on many of the issues affecting Northern Ireland today and in the past. I have learned much from my hon. Friends and from Government Members, but I am only too well aware of that which I still have to learn.

Although the situation has changed tragically and significantly since the Committee met—as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West and other hon. Members have said tonight—we must ensure that our efforts today contribute to the continuing search for peace. Beyond the immediate carnage of the IRA's atrocities, the long-term casualty will be trust—trust between the communities, and trust between the communities and the authorities. We must not allow the fledgling understanding that was beginning to develop to be extinguished by the bombers and by their atrocities.

Part of that process will be in reaffirming the rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland, and I believe that new clause 2 will play a significant role in that task. Citizens must have faith in the balance of justice if they are to trust the authorities. There must be confidence in the channels of redress if fear and sectarian polarisation are not to worsen. However, in the recent context of the troop dispatch—a necessary measure in the light of events—the Bill, as it stands, is flawed by the omission of a code of practice.

If the Government omit that code of practice, which was present in the 1991 Act, they will be taking a retrograde step for the people of Northern Ireland. I cannot believe, having listened carefully to the Minister's words in Committee, that the Government intend that that should happen. If the Bill is passed unamended, the citizens of Northern Ireland will have even fewer rights than they had before the ceasefire. I do not think that there is any reason for the change.

As in Committee, I shall listen carefully to the Minister of State's explanation and hope that he will understand the points that we are raising on this important issue. It is not as if the incorporation of the code of practice is an insidious move—the Government supported it in 1991—nor will it give succour to the terrorists, to the criminals, or place unnecessary restrictions on the armed forces.

All the clause would do is give the ordinary people of the Province confidence that their rights are secure and will be secured. That confidence is even more precious today than when we met in Committee. The measure is not an optional extra, but a necessity. Only when the people of Northern Ireland have a more secure and unified outlook can we all have true hope for the future.

I trust that the Minister can provide a more enlightened view, despite the difficult new circumstances in which we and the people of Northern Ireland find ourselves.

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) for the reasoned way in which he introduced the new clause. I share the sentiments underlying the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) and am grateful to her for them.

The proposed new clause would re-enact a provision that is contained in the present emergency provisions Act, but which has not been included in the Bill. It would give my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State discretionary power to make codes of practice in connection with the exercise by the Army of its EPA powers of arrest, search, entry and seizure—in other words, the Army's part II powers. On Lord Colville's recommendation in 1990, provision was included in the Act for codes of practice covering the police and the Army's powers under the Act. No such codes of practice covering the part II powers were drawn up. Work had begun and some progress had been made, although Lord Colville had acknowledged that the compilation of a code that would govern the conduct of the armed forces as well as that of the police would not be easy. Therein lies some of the Government's difficulty.

Part II of the EPA contained the following powers: to arrest, enter and search premises and vehicles, to search persons, to seize property found on persons or premises and to stop, search and question persons. The ceasefires of August and October 1994 resulted in those powers being used much less frequently. As a result, the decision was taken not to re-enact that provision in respect of either the police or the Army.

As the hon. Member for Dagenham suggests, in the present security situation, the Government may want to review that decision. I suggest that, by the time the Bill reaches another place, we shall be in a position to make a judgment on the anticipated further use of the part II powers, not only by the Army but by the police. Under those circumstances, I invite the hon. Member for Lewisham, West to withdraw his proposed new clause on the understanding that, if the Government consider it necessary, they will table a similar amendment, possibly to cover the police powers as well, in another place.

Mr. Dowd

That is a kind invitation. We greatly appreciated the manner in which the Minister responded to many of the points that we raised in Committee and the informative and courteous way in which he dealt with them. I am delighted to be able to tell him that it is an invitation that I shall accept. Obviously, we look forward to the results of the reconsideration in another place. In the light of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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