HL Deb 20 July 2004 vol 664 cc108-14GC

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Amos

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Criminal Justice (No.2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

The draft order makes proposals for new legislation in two areas of concern—"hate crime" and "car crime". Hate crime deals with crimes motivated or aggravated by hatred of race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Car crime deals with the specific and often misnamed area of "joyriding". Hate crime has seen worrying increases in Northern Ireland in recent times—a quadrupling of numbers in the last five years—and joyriding has frequently been a plague on the lives of some communities.

Racist attacks have increased from 93 in 1998–99 to 453 in 2003–04. Alongside what has become regular reportage of racist incidents in Northern Ireland is the fact that the rate of racial incidents per head of the minority ethnic population is estimated as being almost double that in England and Wales. There have also been worrying increases in attacks against the gay community. A recent attack in Northern Ireland ended in the horrific murder of a completely innocent man, Mr Ian Flanagan, for which the perpetrators quite rightly received life sentences. The disabled have also been increasingly victimised. Attacks based on religion will also be covered by our proposals.

On car crime, the offence of taking a motor vehicle without the owner's consent, the nearest current approximation to the offence we are now targeting, has been between 2,000 and 3,000 over the past two years. Dangerous driving offences have increased by 44 per cent in the past year.

Hate crime and car crime are areas of pressing concern for Northern Ireland. Incidents have been seen across Northern Ireland. They are issues which cross boundaries and are faced by all communities. The time is right to legislate.

On "hate crime", the draft order will provide courts with powers to impose heavier sentences when an offence is aggravated by hostility based on the victim's actual or presumed religion, race, disability or sexual orientation. When there has been such aggravation, the proposals will require sentencers to state that in court and to treat this as an aggravating factor in sentencing.

The maximum penalties which can be imposed in what are, by and large, crimes of violence are being increased across the board. For example, sentences for grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm and putting someone in fear of violence will increase from five to seven years, common assault from one year to two years' imprisonment, harassment from six months to two years' imprisonment, and criminal damage from 10 to 14 years' imprisonment. The draft order also adds sexual orientation and disability to the list of groups currently protected under public order legislation. In many respects, the "hate crime" provisions are bringing Northern Ireland's laws up to the same level as is already the case in England and Wales.

The draft order creates an offence of aggravated vehicle taking based on the taking of a vehicle without consent, and it then being driven dangerously, or causing an accident which results in injury, damage to property, or damage to the vehicle. The maximum penalty will be up to five years' imprisonment. The draft order also creates an offence of causing death or grievous bodily injury when committed as part of the new offence of aggravated vehicle taking. The maximum penalty will be up to 14 years' imprisonment. The draft order also increases the maximum penalty for dangerous driving from two to five years' imprisonment. Again, the creation of these offences brings Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales.

The form in which the draft proposals are presented to the Grand Committee today have been influenced by public consultation. The Government undertook three consultation exercises in developing this legislation. Two separate policy consultations were held on race and sectarian crime legislation in Northern Ireland, and one on road traffic offences and penalties. These were then brought together into a single piece of draft legislation, which was consulted upon between February and April of this year.

As part of the consultations, the proposals were extended to include protections based on sexual orientation and disability. As part of its inquiry into hate crime in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee was particularly influential in the decision to include disability. In relation to our initial road traffic proposals, we listened to some of the representations made and increased our proposed penalties for dangerous driving and aggravated vehicle taking. These have been increased from two to five years.

The police and the justice system as a whole must be able to respond to criminal behaviour firmly and appropriately. It is essential that the police, the prosecutors and courts have the tools available to them to deal with such behaviour. Our aim is to continue to build a safe and tolerant society for all in Northern Ireland.

I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Criminal Justice (No.2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.— (Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Minister for presenting the order so clearly. Really, I can only support it. I believe that I am right in saying that the Attorney-General has already in recent times appealed a sentence relating to joyriding given by a judge in Northern Ireland as being too light, and won the appeal, some time in the past 12 months.

My concern about the order derives from the prison population in Northern Ireland and the effect that it might have on it. I do not suppose that we know any specific numbers, and I am not up to date with the present situation, but prisons are fairly crowded in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that the two separate offences in the order, if they do not act as a deterrent, could lead to severe pressure on the Northern Ireland prison system. However, in principle we support the order.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My contribution will be a little more lengthy than that of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. However. I want to say at the outset how much we welcome the order. We are very pleased to see that the Government have included crimes against disabled people in particular. The Minister will recall that we called for that a long time ago. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 asking the Government to do what they are proposing in this order. So we are pleased to see it included on this occasion, even though the Government objected to the amendment at the time. I am tempted to complain at length about the time taken to accept what we proposed, but I shall resist the urge to do so. This is too important and serious a measure on which to score trivial political points.

Since 1996 the police have been keeping statistics on racially motivated crimes. It was seen as enough of a problem at the time for the police to act to tackle hate crimes, and I shall leave it at that. The legislation is welcome, but I believe it is essential that the police are given proper resources to implement their powers. A few weeks ago I visited the Police Service of Northern Ireland. At this point I should like to record my congratulations to the Chief Constable and his staff, and in particular the DCUs, on their strenuous efforts to engage with members of the ethnic minority communities.

An example of that is in Dungannon, where an interpreter facilitates communication between the police and Portuguese residents. Another example is in Foyle, where crime prevention leaflets are now being printed in Chinese. I am sure that there are many other excellent examples of good practice. I am also sure that the police could make even deeper inroads into combating these pernicious crimes if they had the resources to do so.

I was delighted to see the Opportunity India campaign recently launched in Belfast, to which senior executives from around 60 companies contributed. The campaign was held to promote trade and investment links between India and Northern Ireland. It was organised by Invest Northern Ireland and facilitated by the noble Lord, Lord Rana. It was indicated that, he would make it a priority to develop university links between Northern Ireland and India, which he saw as a key element in the development of both economies. 'I want to play a major role in furthering education and business links between Northern Ireland and India', Lord Rana said. 'We will work towards developing trade between India and Northern Ireland and we have a wonderful opportunity to attract students from India to come (to Northern Ireland) to study'". This legislation will encourage and enable the people of Northern Ireland to welcome the trade and investment coming their way as the economy continues to thrive.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind has asked me to raise some particular issues with the Minister, which I shall do with pleasure. I ask her to consider a number of other measures, including the collection of statistics on disability hate crimes and voice identity parades, in order to maximise the benefit of this order.

The introduction of a requirement for the courts to treat disability hatred as an aggravating factor when sentencing is welcome. While statistics are not collected on disability hate crimes, a number of cases have been reported, of which I shall give one example. One guide dog owner was consistently taunted for being blind and then had firecrackers thrown over the garden wall at her guard dog. In a survey carried out by the Northern Ireland Deaf Youth Association, 36 per cent of young deaf people reported that personal safety was an issue. The same proportion of respondents identified bullying as a concern.

A survey produced by Dr Sean Kelly from the University of Ulster School of Nursing on the abuse of people with long-term mental illness in Northern Ireland found that 60 per cent of those surveyed had been subject to serious victimisation or harassment. Mencap's research has found that almost nine in 10 people with learning difficulties have experienced bullying or harassment.

It would help if the fact that people were disabled, together with their access needs, was included in the data when a person's details are entered on to the police computer as a victim or perpetrator. I wonder whether the Minister would look at that issue.

On voice identity parades. we need to see a strong focus on crimes based on prejudice since these types of hate crime are particularly pernicious and damaging to society. The requirement to demonstrate hostility during the committing of a crime or immediately before or after in Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which is being carried over into the draft order, makes a clear distinction. Other tactics such as the use of voice identity parades can and should be employed to deal with crimes based on perceived vulnerability.

The evidence suggests that this is possible. The first ever conviction for murder based on a voice identity parade was secured at the Old Bailey in December 2002. A linguistics expert from Cambridge university was used to make sure that the process was sound, and the detective in the case was commended by the judge for his work. Indeed, the Home Secretary said: I am firmly of the view that voice recognition is feasible and I have asked my officials and scientific advisers to reconsider this area urgently to see what steps we can take to further encourage the use of voice recognition by police and criminal justice agencies". The Home Secretary has gone on to issue Home Office Circular 57/2003 to police forces on the use of voice identity parades. Will a similar circular be issued by the Northern Ireland Office adopting the results of the Home Office research? If so, that would be extremely helpful.

I want to quote from a BBC news bulletin issued today which discussed homophobic attacks, in particular those in Derry, which are becoming increasingly vicious. Sean Morrin from the Rainbow Project was speaking after a gay man was attacked and bitten in the face outside a chip shop in the Waterside area on Sunday evening. He was taken to hospital where he received five stitches to his face. Over a period of seven weeks during April and May there were eight homophobic attacks in the Foyle area, while there have been 17 homophobic incidents this year. A police spokesman said that the latter figure equalled the total number of attacks for the previous year. Clearly this is something that needs to be taken seriously.

All members of society have a duty to tackle bigotry in whatever form it raises its head. The integrated education movement in Northern Ireland has led the way in this respect. Its ethos is to bring all members of society together and the schools to teach their pupils the value of everyone as an individual and not as a member of any particular group. That, too, is our responsibility. By passing this order we shall go some way towards realising our goal of stamping out the evil of racially motivated crime.

Lord Rogan

Noble Lords know only too well, over many years, the tensions between our two communities in Northern Ireland that unfortunately arise under the name of religion. Perhaps this has disguised a latent or hidden hostility towards our ethnic minority groups in Northern Ireland, groups that I warmly welcome to our Province. Hostility towards ethnic minority groups has become more evident over the past two to three years. Only recently I mentioned in particular the attacks on Filipino nurses in Craigavon.

Equally, several parts of Northern Ireland, in particular certain areas of West Belfast, have for years been plagued by so-called "joyriding". As the Minister pointed out, that crime is wrongly named. Perhaps it should be called "car crime" or "car hijacking".

I broadly welcome the order because it contains many of the recommendations that my party has put to Her Majesty's Government over the years. Hate crime, crimes based on hostility towards race, sectarianism and sexual orientation and directed towards any group is totally abhorrent in a civilised society.

As I have mentioned, crime motivated by race is a growing problem in Northern Ireland. The Government's own figures show that the rate of racial incidents in Northern Ireland in 2001–02 was 12.9 per 1,000 of the minority ethnic population compared with 6.7 per 1,000 in England and Wales. The PSNI statistics show that the number of racist and homophobic incidents recorded has more than doubled from 226 and 35 respectively in 2002–03 to 453 and 71 in 2003–04. Those figures, shocking enough in themselves, are undoubtedly modest. They do not reflect the high number of these crimes that go unreported every day. Even more worrying is the low prosecution rate. In 2002–03 there were only seven prosecutions arising from the 226 racial incidents recorded by the PSNI.

I also welcome the introduction of the new offence of aggravated vehicle taking. Joyriding, or car hijacking as I prefer to call it, is a major problem in Northern Ireland. During the Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill in another place, my right honourable friend and colleague David Trimble asked the Home Secretary to extend that part of the legislation which dealt with car crime/joyriding to Northern Ireland. It has taken over a year to impress the importance of such a move upon the Northern Ireland Office. For over a year now we have been sending out the wrong message to our young people who are tempted to take cars in this manner.

Car hijacking is simply not tolerated in England and Wales, but apparently it is in Northern Ireland. I therefore welcome this provision, which will bring us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Amos

I thank all noble Lords for welcoming the order and for the recognition that we all want to see hate crime stamped out.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked specifically about the impact on the prison population. We think that we will see some increase in the length of sentences since we are giving the courts extra powers, but we do not envisage the prison population soaring. However, sentencing is a matter for the courts.

On the issue of police resourcing, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris—I should say first that I thank her for her positive comments about the Police Service of Northern Ireland following her visit, and in the spirit of Northern Ireland business debated in Grand Committee I thank her for not scoring political points today—we are fully committed to ensuring that the Chief Constable is sufficiently resourced to deliver an efficient and effective policing service. As the noble Baroness is aware, in the current financial year some £726.3 million has been made available to maintain the day-to-day policing service in Northern Ireland. While the level of resources available is crucial to effective policing, so too is ensuring that the best use is made of those resources.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland workforce plan, launched in 2002, is currently under review. It addresses a number of key issues where changes and improvements are making a significant contribution to better policing. The police were involved in the consultation on this and did not indicate that they thought that additional resources would be required.

I turn to the issues raised by the noble Baroness in respect of disability. As the noble Baroness is aware, racial and homophobic incidents are already being monitored. Attacks on the disabled and those motivated by religious hatred will be recorded in line with the commencement of the legislation in September.

The recording of hate crime involving hostility towards victims because of their disability will follow the guidelines that came out of the review as a result of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, so crimes will be recorded as disability hate crimes if they are perceived as such by victims or by any other person. The victim's disability will also be recorded.

Voice recognition can already form part of evidence which can be used to secure convictions. The Police Service of Northern Ireland will consider a range of measures when implementing hate crime legislation. The police are supportive of practices and initiatives that help and protect vulnerable people.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, questioned the number of prosecutions. The Chief Constable has increased patrols in relevant areas and has taken steps to ensure that victims are more ready and able to come forward. That high visibility patrolling is aimed at both reducing incidents and improving contact with local communities. That is because the police need community support if they are to be able to address crime in all its forms. The Government have already introduced special direction measures, including live video links, by way of the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 to protect vulnerable or intimidated witnesses.

On the timing of the introduction of these provisions, this is our first appropriate legislative opportunity after the consultation. We are going further than in England and Wales by proposing penalties of five years' imprisonment for aggravated vehicle taking and dangerous driving, which is in direct response to our public consultation. I hope that I have addressed all the points that have been raised.

On Question, Motion agreed to.