HC Deb 15 June 1998 vol 314 cc19-28 3.30 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 1, line 7, leave out 'and one of them shall be appointed chairman' and insert 'and shall appoint one of the legally qualified Commissioners as the Chairman'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in page 1, line 10, leave out from 'lawyer' to end of line 11.

No. 18, in page 1, line 18, leave out 'any jurisdiction' and insert 'the United Kingdom'.

Mr. Ross

This will prove to be an interesting debate because, on Second Reading last week, we were promised that the Government would look very carefully at what was said and that we would be given the chance to probe and to get a clearer understanding of what exactly the Government are trying to do. Before the rise of the House this evening, we shall try to educate the country about what the Bill does.

As the sentence review commissioners will apply what will become a complex area of law that will give rise to all sorts of allegations and cause much heartache, they need a legally qualified individual as chairman. That should be in the Bill. The pressures to let out that group of prisoners will be immense. We know the problems that arise whenever there is a backlash from the IRA or other terrorists groups. An immediate effort is made to find a way to placate them. We can be certain that the pressure will not decrease but increase over coming weeks and months. We shall be told that we should not be worried about the words in the Bill or their legal meaning but should proceed in the spirit of the agreement and that that will be what counts.

Many people in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, many hon. Members, will not be happy with the spirit or understanding that will be applied to the measure by the thugs and murderers with whom we have to deal in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The pressures, not least on the Government, from the Irish Republic and the terrorist organisations will be immense. The pressure from the Government on the chairman and commissioners when a well-known prisoner is up for release will also be immense. Pressure will be put on and signs given that that prisoner should be released. Given that, we need a person of strong character, good personality and sound judgment to stand up to those pressures.

We have not yet been told the exact composition of the commission—such as how many commissioners there will be; how many commissioners will be from Northern Ireland, from Great Britain, from Commonwealth nations or—more likely—from the Irish Republic; how many will be appointed at the instigation of the Government of the Irish Republic, through Maryfield; or how many will be appointed who have to be acceptable to the IRA or other terrorist groups. A whole series of questions have simply not been answered, but we have to know those answers. We have to know also that the person appointed as chairman will be someone who can stand up to the pressures that will be put on the commissioners.

Amendment No. 46 has not been selected, but it is relevant to other amendments. Section 1(2) provides not only that The Secretary of State shall so far as reasonably practicable ensure that at any time— (a) at least one of the Commissioners is a lawyer", but that one commissioner shall be expert in the mental health or psychology of the prisoners dealt with by commissioners. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that, given some of the deeds that those prisoners have committed, there is good reason for including psychologists or other professionals in psychiatric treatment on panels. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that there is at least one lawyer and one mental health professional on each panel dealing with a prisoner's case.

The other amendments in the group, which were tabled by the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), would accomplish the same objectives that I shall try to achieve in other amendments that I have tabled. I hope that all those amendments will be favourably mentioned by Ministers, and that the Government will accept them.

The spirit of the agreement and of the Bill is such that the folk who will be most closely examining them are those who have been most directly affected by terrorist violence in Northern Ireland—over many years, they have been the victims and targets of that terrorist violence. Therefore, everyone in Northern Ireland, and all those who are further afield and take an interest in the matter, will want to be certain in their own mind that every care has been taken before any one of those individuals is released prematurely into the community.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Amendment No. 26 would delete clause 1(2), which requires that, of the commissioners, at least one is a psychiatrist". I merely say to Ministers: God help us if more than one commissioner is a psychiatrist.

I should like to delete that provision for the simple reason that, based on my experience as a Minister in the previous Government, I do not think that the professions of psychiatry and psychology have anything to contribute in determining the important matter of releasing people who are potentially dangerous and could, in future, return to their terrorist ways.

My experience in government has led me to distrust psychiatrists' advice on whether it is safe to release a prisoner. The relevant experience—which the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office will not share—for me in the matter was dealing with prisoners who had committed some of the most appalling crimes of violence, but who, because of their mental health, were in some of the United Kingdom's most secure institutions, or in second-level secure institutions, such as Rampton and Broadmoor. For various technical legal reasons, approximately half of those prisoners are eligible to be released by a mental health review tribunal. The MHRTs not only contain a fair proportion of psychiatrists, but rely heavily on psychiatrists' advice. The other half, approximately, are released by Ministers of the Crown exercising their judgment.

The Minister can check the veracity of this in Hansard, but if he analyses the number of prisoners released by the MHRT and those released by Ministers over the past 10, 15 or 20 years, he will discover that the reoffending rate of those released by an MHRT is about twice that of those released by Ministers. One could do an interesting analysis of why Ministers, who are not qualified psychiatrists but who take into account subjective judgments and who analyse reports from psychiatrists and advice from civil servants, have a 100 per cent. better success rate than an MHRT in judging the dangerousness of people being considered for release. Having done that task for some time, I can conclude only that all Ministers—those before me and, no doubt, those after me—were and are more reluctant to rely on the advice of psychiatrists alone. The only skills that I thought psychiatrists brought to the operation were incredible naivety and gullibility.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

First, is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that no psychiatrist should give advice to Ministers? Secondly, is it his reading of the Bill that the only advice that the commissioners will have at their disposal is that from those commissioners who are psychiatrists? That is not my reading of it.

Mr. Maclean

The Bill provides that one of the commissioners shall himself be a psychiatrist, and that is the bit I am not happy about because I think that he would exercise undue influence over the other commissioners. It is the same in any circle when someone pops up and says that he is a doctor or a lawyer and that his opinion is therefore more important than that of the common herd. Insisting that one of the commissioners shall be a psychiatrist will give his opinion undue weight. I believe that psychiatrists' opinions are more suspect than those of other members who could be appointed and who are not schooled in that discipline but who are nevertheless capable of reading reports from psychiatrists and making their own judgment.

Of course commissioners must have advice from psychiatrists, if appropriate, on the mental health of some of the individuals whom they are contemplating releasing. I hope and assume that they will get advice and reports from the Prison Service on prisoners who have been in the Maze. I assume that they will get reports from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and various other quarters and that they will come to a balanced judgment.

The grave danger in allowing psychiatrists to hold a position of undue influence is that psychiatrists are obsessed with insight. Most of the time, the advice from psychiatrists that I considered rather dodgy was offered when psychiatrists were beguiled by the prisoner, who suddenly said that he had got insight and realised that he had been wrong. He would say that he could now face up to his crime and was therefore eligible to be released. When a prisoner had that remarkable insight, acknowledged his crimes and said that he wanted to lead a straight life, it counted very highly with psychiatrists, whereas people with more balanced judgment did not give that insight so much weight. I shall no doubt receive letters from eminent psychiatrists complaining about my criticism of them as a genus or breed.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Having had experience of psychiatrists and psychologists over more than 30 years as a practising barrister, I endorse almost everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said about their comments and the effect that they have. Extraordinary gullibility is the hallmark of many of those who practise that rather bizarre form of medicine.

3.45 pm
Mr. Maclean

I should not go so far as to call it a bizarre form of medicine. I am saying only that, during my time as a Minister, in many of the cases that came to me, the advice from psychiatrists was bizarre in the extreme. In the case of someone who had been in a mental hospital for 20 years, exhibiting dangerous qualities for 19 of those years and then showing insight for nine or 10 months, they recommended to Ministers that he should be released.

The statistics on the success rates of releases tell the story. Ministers, from whatever party, have to show their judgment, without necessarily having any great knowledge of, or qualification in, psychiatry. Of course they must not close their ears to advice from all quarters, but they must come to an opinion and make a judgment.

The same is true of the commissioners. I should prefer a commissioner who does not have a law degree or a psychiatry degree, but instead has a sound grounding in common sense, having experience of working in industry or dealing with people in some other capacity. I want them to be good judges of human nature. Some clever criminals who have not been convicted of terrorist offences come before parole boards and review boards in the rest of the United Kingdom. They are highly adept at spinning a tale about how they are now reformed. We need commissioners who are capable of seeing through some of the wiles of those who will come before them. In my experience, qualified psychologists and psychiatrists are not the best at seeing through the wiles and the devious nature of some of their clients.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I have spent more than 30 years at the Bar and have cross-examined and read reports from hundreds of psychiatrists and psychologists. Much of what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has said is commensurate with my experience. The Bill implies that psychiatry and psychology are interchangeable terms. They are two distinct sciences. Most reputable psychologists will say that their reports are not meant to make a diagnostic decision. They draw conclusions from a series of tests and methodologies. Almost invariably, a reputable psychologist will end his report by saying that his findings may be consistent with a condition but are not necessarily diagnostic of it, because there may be many medical conditions that can produce the same results.

I have been married to a practising psychologist for 37 years, so I have a domestic insight into reports and comments—and perhaps my wife has a domestic insight into me, but that is another matter.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman can assure us that he is talking about a marriage, not some special client relationship.

Mr. McCartney

My wife would find more fertile fields in other characters.

There is a bland assumption in the Bill that psychiatry and psychology are interchangeable. That is so far removed from the practice of the disciplines as to make one wonder who was responsible for the drafting of the Bill and whether they were in need of either of those disciplines.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

During my career, I have read many legal opinions and I often wondered whether those who wrote them were themselves head cases and perhaps should have been referred to psychiatrists or psychologists. However, it ill becomes hon. Members to denigrate trained professionals who, in different capacities, have served their patients and the community well. It is a foolish thing to do.

First, I shall comment on what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said about deleting psychiatrists and psychologists from the list. In my view, he misinterpreted the purpose of the Bill. Politically motivated prisoners resent the idea that psychiatrists or psychologists should be brought in to pontificate on, or judge, their offences; they believe that their offences were politically motivated and that they should be judged on that basis. However, some people who may have been involved in such offences may suffer from mental disturbance, and it may not be safe for them to be released without more specific and direct conditions than those being applied by the commissioners. I view the measure as a defence for the public rather than an easy way out for certain people.

My second point relates to amendment No. 18 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It proposes that the lawyers appointed to the commission should not be from any jurisdiction other than that of the United Kingdom. I would regret that, as it suggests that we cannot learn from other common law jurisdictions such as those in Canada, America, New Zealand, India, South Africa and others with experience in such matters. The amendment implies a deliberate intention to prevent the appointment of anyone who might have had experience in South Africa in respect of the problems associated with peace and reconciliation and the amnesty committee. By cutting ourselves off from the experience of other jurisdictions as a deliberate decision to be insular about the issue, we would show that we did not appreciate how much we could learn from others. Our experience within these islands is not particularly special. Others have had to face similar difficulties and perhaps we can learn from them.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I shall speak to amendment No. 18, which was tabled by me and my right hon. and hon. Friends. It relates to clause 1 and seeks to leave out "any jurisdiction" and replace it with "the United Kingdom".

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked why we should allow a lawyer from any jurisdiction to be appointed. The Secretary of State's response was somewhat evasive. She said: I do not want to tie myself down". She then attempted to clarify what she meant by that, but muddied the waters still further when she said: It is 99 per cent. likely that a lawyer with expertise in our criminal legal system would be of UK origin".—[Official Report, 10 June 1998; Vol.313, c. 1088.] However, that is not what she was asked. It is obvious that, in most instances, one of our own people would have the relevant expertise, but that was not the question. The Secretary of State did not address the valid point posed at the time as to which jurisdiction would be involved. She did not say that an intimate knowledge or expertise of UK law would be a prerequisite to serving on the commission. From her remarks on Second Reading, one would have thought that she was saying that the required expertise had to be within the realm of UK law, but she did not say that, and it is not a prerequisite in the Bill.

Clause 1(2)(a) simply requires that at any time at least one of the Commissioners is a lawyer". Subsection (5) defines a lawyer as a person who holds a legal qualification in any jurisdiction. The Secretary of State did not promise that in 99 per cent. of cases the appointed lawyer would be from the United Kingdom. That issue is vital, and we query why the Bill is drafted in that way.

We need only the very best legal interpretation of UK law—not European law or the laws of Congress or the Dail—on imprisonment and sentencing. I take issue with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who asked why we cannot learn lessons from other common law jurisdictions. We may well learn from them, but it seems to me—if I am wrong, no doubt the Minister will put me right—that the main reason for having a lawyer on the commission is that he or she can interpret clearly for its other members the meaning of United Kingdom law on those important issues. It is not a question of learning from other jurisdictions. We want someone who can give the best interpretation and analysis of our law.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Lawyers practise in other countries. Is there not a danger of our being a little too parochial? George Mitchell, a very respected former United States senator, carried out an important role as chairman of the talks, and was highly praised by all concerned, including the Opposition. Should we not work on the assumption that the lawyer, in the unlikely event that he or she were not a UK citizen, would be fully conversant with UK law?

Mr. Moss

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the wording of subsection (5). The Bill redefines a lawyer to mean a person who holds a legal qualification in the United Kingdom. That person could be of foreign origin as long as he or she had a legal qualification in this country. That is the most important point on that subsection.

Why do the Government not feel able to trust a member of our legal profession to serve honourably and with distinction on the commission? Who could possibly have an objection to that lawyer having a UK qualification? Is that another concession? Has pressure been brought to bear concerning whether our lawyers can be trusted? The Minister should tell us why the Bill has been drafted in this way, and we look forward to his answer.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The amendments relate to various aspects of the appointment of commissioners. We have sought to ensure that the members and chairman of the sentence review body have the appropriate range of skills and expertise to conduct their business thoroughly and effectively. I am sure that all Members of the House, even those who object to the Bill, want that to be its overriding principle.

It is also the Secretary of State's intention to ensure that the commissioners command widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland. That, too, is an important principle to establish. All too often, when the Government decide the membership of certain bodies—no matter how eminent or experienced the people involved are—they find themselves the subject of criticism.

4 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the fact that a commissioner is required to have a qualification in the legal system within which the tribunal will sit might not find acceptance in the minds of reasonable people? On the other hand, is he suggesting that such a qualification would make impartiality an impossibility in the eyes of a person who might make an application to the commission?

Mr. Ingram

Perhaps I should not have given way to the hon. and learned Gentleman—my next point covers his. I was speaking generally about the structure of the new body, not about the amendments.

Amendment No. 18 would require that one of the commissioners should have a legal qualification from the United Kingdom. As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, there is every sign that that would be likely in any event. Having heard the arguments advanced today, and having decided what we consider right, I can tell the Committee that I am prepared to accept the amendment; but I stress that the person so appointed would not be an adviser to the body but would act as one member of that body who has legal expertise and knowledge of the jurisdiction on which he or she would be asked to comment.

Only in his very last sentence did the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) acknowledge that the Bill refers not just to psychiatrists but to psychologists. He launched what I can only describe as an argument based on narrow prejudice against psychiatrists—I do not know what he bases that on. He seems to believe that psychiatrists should never be involved in judging criminals or prisoners: politicians, he thinks, invariably get it right, while psychiatrists always get it wrong. That is a rather unsound argument, based, as I say, on the right hon. Gentleman's narrow prejudices.

By stipulating that at least one commissioner should be a psychiatrist or a psychologist, we are showing that risk assessment is an important aspect of what the Bill is designed to achieve. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border seems concerned that the view of a professional psychiatrist, used to undertaking risk assessments, will always prevail over the views of other members of the commission. Are we saying that the legally qualified person serving on the sentence review body would be unable to dissect and understand the psychiatrist's arguments? I am sure that lawyers do so all the time, when they handle difficult cases, and sometimes they are obliged to cross-examine such people. It is important, however, that one of the commissioners is expert on dealing with risk assessment in criminal cases, so we have inserted that prerequisite in the Bill.

On that basis, I ask hon. Members not to support amendment No. 26, but I would prefer the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border to withdraw it. I note, in passing, that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made telling points in defence of psychiatrists and psychologists and the usefulness of their expertise.

Amendment No. 45 would require one of the lawyers appointed to the sentence review body to be its chairman. Although we would not wish to preclude the appointment of a chairman with a legal qualification, which is a distinct possibility, I do not believe that we should require that. I understand part of the argument that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) advances. We are trying to give the commission a coherent structure. When it is formed, we shall make appointments to it on the basis of individuals' expertise and knowledge. In doing so, I would not want my hands to be tied by a requirement that the chairman be a lawyer, because the person so appointed would be not an adviser to the body but a member of it, and their opinions would have equal weight—although I suspect that, in terms of legal interpretation, the lawyer's opinions would have greater weight because of that person's expertise. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the argument and withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

The official Opposition are extremely grateful to the Minister for accepting amendment No. 18. I broadly share his view that, although it might be helpful for the lawyer to chair the commission, it would be too restrictive to stipulate that the chairman be a lawyer. On behalf of the official Opposition, I accept that it is best to allow flexibility and leave the matter open.

Mr. William Ross

I listened to the debate with care, because this group of amendments, although the first, is important. Although I would not share all the views of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I believe that, if we asked the general public what they thought about what are broadly termed headshrinkers, a sight more of them would lean toward the right hon. Gentleman's views than would agree with either of the Front-Bench Members who have spoken.

So many horrific crimes have been committed by individuals who should not have been, but had been, released from prison. That theme needs to be handled with very great care. It appears that the psychiatrists and psychologists are concerned with the prisoner as a patient, and probably tend to look on him or her as a patient.

When documentation arrives on Ministers' desks, they must consider it in the context of the public good and the danger to members of the public; in those circumstances, they are right to be exceedingly cautious. As a result of being cautious, the Minister sometimes gets it wrong, but the matter should not be treated lightly.

For that reason, I believed that it would be well if such an area of expertise were available to the commission in every case. The commission will deal with many people who have committed horrendous acts. Some may have done so under the influence of drink, drugs and so on, but others are obviously mentally unstable, and we need to be very cautious about whether some of them ever get out of prison. In Northern Ireland, crimes have been committed by people who, if they had not been allied to terrorism, would probably have been given a somewhat different sentence. They might have been detained at Her Majesty's pleasure or possibly even declared unfit to plead. Because of the terrorist situation, though, I do not know whether anyone charged with a terrorist crime has ever been found unfit to plead. Perhaps the Minister could tell me whether there has been such a case. I wonder what the attitude of the courts and the prosecuting authorities would have been towards folk charged with committing a crime that was not related to terrorism.

I listened with interest to what the Minister said about the chairman needing appropriate skills, expertise and knowledge. He spelled that out in more detail when he went on to say that each member of the commission would give advice based on his skills, knowledge and training.

My argument that the chairman should have a legal qualification fits perfectly into that. To some extent, the chairman can be seen as a judge in a court, who must provide a summing up, give legal guidance, tease out what has been said and consider all the evidence that has been presented. He must do that in conjunction with the panel of commissioners, all in very difficult circumstances.

That is why I believe that a person with legal training—perhaps a fairly senior member of the legal profession, such as a solicitor or barrister of long standing, a judge or a magistrate—who deals with such matters daily could give such guidance and pull together all the evidence that has been presented. He must be able to express an opinion, listen to the opinions expressed by others and guide the panel to a sensible conclusion.

I did not table the amendment lightly. In many ways, the panel is a judicial body, even if we are not calling it that, and the chairman is sitting in the role of a judge. I believe that the Government are deliberately leaving open the possibility of appointing people from outside the United Kingdom, and almost certainly appointing individuals who have a legal qualification in the Irish Republic. That, I am certain, is the purpose of the Bill, and I object to it. There may be many people outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom who have a knowledge of UK law, but for every one in that position, there are 100 or 1,000 in the United Kingdom who have a clear understanding and who are perfectly capable of guiding the commission.

My amendment does not call for the chairman to be from any particular United Kingdom jurisdiction: there are three legal jurisdictions, and I would not care from which one he came. I believe, however, that the chairman should have a measure of loyalty and commitment to the laws of the United Kingdom, rather than to finding a method of letting the gunmen out.

Mr. Maclean

I listened to the Minister, and I am sorry that he chose to be a little churlish in some of his remarks to me. If we are to make progress this afternoon, it ill becomes the Minister to be as disrespectful as he was; nor should he try to put words into my mouth.

The Hansard record will show that at no time did I suggest that Ministers always got it right and everyone else got it wrong—far from it. However, I repeat that on the occasions when Ministers had to release people, they had a success rate twice as good as that of the professionals who were heavily advised and relied completely on psychiatric advice. Both groups got it wrong, but Ministers in this Government will no doubt also have a better success rate when making the same sorts of judgment. That was my point, and the Minister did the Committee a disservice by trying to put words into my mouth and to attribute to me remarks that I did not make.

My comments did not convey any narrow prejudices. I had no dealings with the psychiatric profession before I became a Minister. The difference between the Minister and me is that he brings his brief to the Chamber and I bring my experience from having done the job for a while. Home Office Ministers have an awful responsibility when faced with a file and the prospect of releasing someone who may offend or kill again. Ministers also have a responsibility to recall reoffenders to prison.

We have had some experience of this sort of situation, and I have moved my amendment regarding psychiatrists purely on the basis of my experience. I do not do so because of any narrow prejudice, as the Minister has suggested. When he has been in his job a little longer, the Minister will perhaps have the right to accuse other hon. Members of that—but I do not think that he has earned that right yet.

Clearly, I will not be able to make progress with my amendment today. I have no intention of dividing the Committee and wasting time when we must consider other very important amendments before the guillotine falls. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Chairman

I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not in order for him to do that. The lead amendment belongs to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross).

Mr. William Ross

I did not withdraw my amendment because I thought that other hon. Members might wish to speak to it and that the Minister might like to respond. If he is not prepared to do so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 18, page 1, line 18, leave out 'any jurisdiction' and insert 'the United Kingdom'.—[Mr. MacKay.]

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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