HC Deb 11 December 1997 vol 302 cc1232-5
Mr. Trimble

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, leave out lines 1 and 2.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in page 2, leave out line 3.

No. 4, in page 2, leave out line 6.

Mr. Trimble

The amendments concern the certifying out of scheduled offences. The effect of the legislation is to enable certain offences to be certified out. The point of the amendments is to allow us to ask the Minister to give us the detailed reasons why it is now proposed to certify out offences—making or possessing a petrol bomb; throwing or using a petrol bomb; possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life; use or attempted use of firearms; causing explosions—that are clearly terrorist offences.

Those offences are not outside the ambit of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister give any coherent reason why those terrorist offences should not be handled in the same way as other terrorist cases?

Mr. Ingram

The amendments refer to offences involving intimidation, petrol bombs, firearms and explosives, and the hon. Gentleman objects to such offences being made capable of being certified out of the schedule of terrorist offences. The amendments would not only preserve the status quo in relation to certain offences that the Government seek to make certifiable out, but would remove certifiable-out status from all scheduled offences under the headings of the Protection of the Person and Property Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 and the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. The amendments do not make it clear whether that was the hon. Gentleman's intention, and he did not give us a full explanation, but that is the thrust of the amendments.

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are not suggesting that such offences should invariably be treated in the ordinary way. On the contrary, where the Attorney-General judges it appropriate, they will be tried before Diplock courts. Equally, however, the Government are anxious that, in cases where there is no terrorist involvement or connection with the emergency, the flexibility should exist to enable such cases to be certified out.

Mr. Trimble

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that there are cases involving explosions and firearms in which there is no terrorist involvement?

Mr. Ingram

I was coming to that. If the hon. Gentleman holds on for a bit, I shall set out my reasoning on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman seeks to preserve the present arrangements, whereby certain offences are automatically tried by Diplock courts. Let me illustrate by quoting from the appropriate statutes. Section 2 of the Protection of the Person and Property Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 says: any person who makes, or has in his possession, any apparatus, instrument, article or thing which (a) contains any inflammable liquid or substance; or (b) is constructed or adapted for use in conjunction with any such liquid or substance so as to cause injury or loss of life to any person or damage to any property; under such circumstances as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that he is not making it or does not have it in his possession for a lawful object shall, unless he can show that he made it or had it in his possession for a lawful object, be guilty of an offence under this section. Let me describe briefly some of the relevant offences under the other headings. Paragraph 17 of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 says: a person who has in his possession any firearm or ammunition with intent by means thereof to endanger life or cause serious injury to property or to enable any other person by means thereof to endanger life or cause serious injury to property, shall be guilty of an offence whether any injury to person or property has been caused or not. Section 3 of the Explosive Substances Act 1883 says: any person who unlawfully and maliciously causes by any explosive substance an explosion of a nature likely to endanger life or to cause serious injury to property shall, whether any injury to person or property has been actually caused or not, be guilty of felony". Those are the three areas that we are examining in relation to the amendments. It is important to put the relevant parts of the legislation on the record.

6.45 pm

The hon. Gentleman seeks to ensure that such offences must invariably be tried by Diplock courts, as he calls them terrorist offences. That is not all: he also seeks, for example—I shall not list every offence—to consign automatically to Diplock courts any offence of intimidation and any offence of manufacturing, dealing in, or repairing a firearm or ammunition without being registered.

Let us assume that there was an unprovoked attack on a member of the public by criminal elements not connected with terrorism; for example, someone spraying an individual with lighter fuel in order to steal his possessions. That would fall within the ambit of the relevant section.

As another example, suppose that there was a domestic crime involving possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life; or suppose that ordinary criminal elements used explosives to gain entry to a safe; or that in a dispute between neighbours one party felt threatened and intimidated into leaving the premises.

Those examples would fall within the ambit of the sections that I read out. The hon. Gentleman would classify those acts as terrorist acts, and would deny those who carry them out the right to trial by jury. I hope that he has accepted the thrust of my argument: not every crime that falls within the ambit of those sections could by any classification be determined to be a terrorist act.

The hon. Gentleman sought an explanation. On the basis of the explanation that I have given, there is no way in which I could accept the amendment, and I ask him to withdraw it.

Mr. Öpik

It seems to us that the Government's intention is to introduce, as we would all wish, an element of normalisation in the legal system in Northern Ireland. Certifying out is an attempt to make that process a bit more expeditious.

My party finds no great danger in certifying out because, after all, if we understand it correctly, cases will still be evaluated on an individual, case-by-case basis. The cases that should not be exposed to the many dangers of corruption that a normal trial might engender will still be tried under the Diplock court system.

We should encourage confidence in the decision makers, and in the idea that certifying out will not harm the process, among those who are keen for the normalisation process to be accelerated. We object to the amendment and support the Government in their attempt to normalise this aspect of the legal system in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney

While I can fully appreciate your anxiety to normalise as far as possible the trial of various criminal offences in Northern Ireland, you will be aware that there is at least a feeling among many people in Northern Ireland that the proposals are part of a process of confidence building.

Has any research been conducted or statistics produced on the number of occasions when someone who could have been charged as a petrol bomber was in fact engaged in ordinary criminal activity with his butane lighter fuel? Perhaps you could also tell us—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman keeps using the words, "you" and "your". The Chair is not responsible for the matter.

Mr. McCartney

I am sorry, I accept that entirely.

Some statistics or evidence about the Government's proposals would help. Clearly, the Government believe that some requirement of justice means that such potentially ordinary criminal cases should be dealt with in a non-Diplock way by juries. Has any research been done? Do statistics show that a significant body of cases of the sort that the Minister described is being dealt with under the Diplock process, when under the proposals they would be dealt with by trial by jury? Or are the Government saying in a blanket way that the bare possibility of such crimes being effected means that it is necessary to make new arrangements?

Mr. Mallon

It is with some trepidation that I speak on the matter. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), and the Minister, but I am still slightly confused. I am not quite sure whether that reflects on the powers of persuasion of those three gentlemen or on my powers of understanding. The hon. and learned Member for North Down asked for statistics. I understand that the vast majority of work in the Attorney-General's office, some 85 per cent., involves certifying out. I commend the Minister for moving gradually towards having all cases dealt with through the normal process of law. I do not think that the proposals go far enough. Other instances could have been included. I do not want to confuse myself or the issue any further by attempting to mention them, but I believe that this is an opportunity for at least some movement. I commend the Minister for having taken it.

Mr. Trimble

These were probing amendments to try to elicit an explanation. The Minister gave us a theoretical explanation, not a practical one. I endorse the points of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I wanted to know from the Minister whether, in the circumstances in Northern Ireland, there were any instances of such offences that could genuinely be described as non-terrorist. My limited knowledge suggests that all such cases are paramilitary or paramilitary related. That is the practical reality as I understand it in Northern Ireland. Of course, one can construct theoretical situations such as the example that the Minister gave about lighter fuel. I wanted a practical explanation, and I am sorry that I did not get one.

This was a probing amendment to find whether there was a coherent reason behind the proposals; it is clear that there is not. None the less, having found that out, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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