HL Deb 01 July 1974 vol 353 cc131-40

8.37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In spite of the fact that it is late and our audience is not quite so large as we are generally used to, I do not feel I have licence to deal with this Bill in a perfunctory way and I must, because it concerns the liberty of the subject and the safety of the public, go into its provisions in some detail. One of the saddest features of what is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment is the extent to which the young are increasingly used for the purpose of terrorist activity. Nowadays, it is quite common in Northern Ireland for a 15-year-old or 16-year-old boy to stand charged with murder or attempted murder or with other serious offences involving the possession of explosives or firearms. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, pointed out in his Report in December, 1972, that the I.R.A. had frequently used young boys to carry out serious acts of terrorism and these young people have been known to shoot with intent to kill and to plant lethal explosives, and so long as they remain at liberty they provide a direct threat to human life.

Under Section 51 of the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, a young person may be remanded in custody to a remand home and can be remanded to prison only if he is certified as unruly or depraved. The Northern Ireland courts have taken the view, which is quite easy to understand, that the fact that one is accused of a serious offence does not mean one has committed it and therefore the fact of this accusation is not evidence that the person is unruly or depraved. So there is a tendency, which one can understand, for Northern Ireland courts to send even children accused of the most serious scheduled offences to a remand home, and not to describe them as unruly and depraved and send them to prison.

At the time of the Commission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, there was no secure remand home in Northern Ireland. There were four training schools—one for Catholic girls and one for Catholic boys, one for Protestant girls and one for Protestant boys. They were all open homes with only the most modest way of preventing escape. Following the Report of Lord Diplock's Commission, a secure remand home was built and in 1973 it was opened at Lisnevin as a training school to provide an assessment unit for 20 boys on remand and an intensive care unit for a further 20 boys committed under training school orders. The distinguishing feature of Lisnevin is that it is interdenominational. Nobody knows whether the boys or the staff are Catholic, Protestant, or anything else. That is something which is both healthy and agreeable in Northern Ireland. However, in the peculiar circumstances prevailing there, this was not enough. It was not an easy place to escape from but it was not an impossible place to break into.

The normal concept of a remand home is a place from which boys occasionally abscond, usually going home where they are quickly picked up by the police and brought back. That is acceptable in society in normal circumstances, but the circumstances of Northern Ireland today are far from normal. What happened in Lisnevin is that after it had been open for a few months two people came in on a visitors' pass—a perfectly genuine one—held up the staff with pistols, tied them up and marched out with two boys. The staff said. "That is not what we were hired for. That is not the way we run things in a remand home. We are quite prepared to have a home which is difficult to escape from, but we cannot run a home which people can break into as easily as this if we are to have boys on scheduled offences."

My Lords, to give you some idea of the scale of the problem, since August 1, 1973, 39 boys charged with scheduled offences have absconded a total of 66 times, which your Lordships will be quick to see means that each boy, or many of the boys, have done it more than once. Of these, three were charged with murder, two with attempted murder, 21 with possession of firearms, two with armed robbery, five with causing explosions, one with intimidation, one with membership of illegal organisations, one with possession of illegal documents and three with riotous behaviour. Of these 39 boys, 13 are still at large. Of those still at large, two were charged with murder, 10 with possession of firearms and one with intimidation. If noble Lords bear in mind that scheduled offences—that is, offences scheduled in the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973—are those considered to be "terrorist" offences, clearly this situation cannot be allowed to continue.

However, the problem is a little wider than this. It is not just a question of absconding. As I have said already, last November three boys were abducted from Lisnevin. Therefore one has the problem of boys not only absconding from an open remand home like St. Patrick's, which is a Catholic one, but being extracted from a closed one at Lisnevin. It is lucky that on this particular occasion firearms were not used, nobody was hurt and the alarm system worked so that the boys were picked up before they got very far. However, that is not what you can expect a really dedicated remand home staff to do. It is not the kind of thing for which they were hired and trained.

My Lords, it is hard for the Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary to find a young person back on the streets a day or two after they have arrested him at considerable personal risk. The worst feature is that the boy becomes a hero, a fugitive on the run, passing from gangster to gangster, missing out on education and the normal pleasures and pains of adolescence, who is quite likely to end up being shot or blowing himself up with a home-made bomb. This has happened on more than one occasion. I feel very strongly that we have a moral duty to prevent such a young person from drifting straight into the condition of a hardened criminal and vicious terrorist, a danger which is only too real, as those noble Lords who have experience of Northern Ireland will appreciate. We have another moral responsibility. There is a real danger that an absconder who has already committed crimes of this kind will commit further terrorist offences, perhaps involving the lives of others while he is on the run. Nobody likes remanding young persons to prison but the alternative is quite unacceptable.

I am afraid that the only secure institution available in Northern Ireland to-day for a young person on remand pending trial is prison. Steps have accordingly been taken to provide an entirely isolated juvenile wing on the ground floor of the hospital building in Belfast Prison in which juveniles are segregated from adults. Special arrangements have been made to provide for separate exercise facilities and an educational programme. Certain Members from another place have taken the opportunity to see these new arrangements, and I hope and believe they are satisfied that they are appropriate for their purpose.

The scope of the Bill is confined to dealing with the place of custody of young persons aged between 14 and 17 charged with scheduled offences. We are concerned here with a relatively small number of individual cases. The Bill in no way interferes with the powers of the courts in relation to sentencing. Perhaps I may run quickly through the Bill. It is not a long one. Clause 1 provides that the Secretary of State will be able to issue a direction to determine the place of custody during the period of remand of a young person charged with a scheduled offence. Such directions will be given where the Secretary of State is satisfied under the terms of Clause 1(4) that it is necessary in an individual case that a young person should be held on remand in the security of prison rather than in a remand home in order to prevent his escape so as to ensure his safety or the safety of others.

My Lords, the direction will have a limited duration of two months, during which time the young person concerned will re-appear regularly in court at the normal 8-day or 14-day interval until committed for trial. Clause 1 allows such directions to be given in respect of young persons already charged with scheduled offences and at present remanded in custody to remand homes. In other words, such young persons as are at the moment in remand homes can without further ado be directed to move into the remand centre. Obviously, this is a sensible provision.

Clause 2 indicates that the Bill is a temporary measure and will expire (unless continued in force) on January 24, 1975. The Secretary of State announced in another place earlier this year that he would have to renew the Emergency Provisions Act in July. The Bill which is before the House to-day has been drafted on the assumption that the Order to extend the Act will run for not less than six months. That is in the light of the present security situation and the time which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, may need for his Commission to report on the Act. If Parliament decides on a longer period, arrangements will be made to extend the provisions of the Bill correspondingly.

My Lords, it would be wrong to conclude without paying tribute to the dedication and high standard of the work of the staff of remand homes and training schools in Northern Ireland. I have been around every one of them. I have been enormously struck by the dedication, the courage and the independence with which the staff run these homes, and by the immense kindness and care which they bestow upon their charges. One must never forget that to be kind to one person in Northern Ireland to-day may involve risking one's life with another, and that is something which these people do perfectly cheerfully.

My Lords, I hope that in addition to meeting an urgent security need the Bill will assist in enabling the training schools to carry on the vital work which they are undertaking and which, in my opinion, they are doing extremely well in helping those who can be helped in order to bring them back to society in a rehabilitated state. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

8.49 p.m.


My Lords, the need for this Bill arises from a problem with which I suppose most people in this country are unfamiliar. I think it would be fair to claim that over the years this House has always taken a close interest—indeed, it has many experts who are well qualified to take a close interest—in the variety of judicial sentences which Parliament has agreed shall become the law of the land as the years go by. However, it must be most unusual for either House of Parliament to be asked to legislate to prevent the threat of violence being directed from outside against institutions to which people are remanded or committed. Among the reasons for the Bill which the noble Lord has been so good as to give the House, this is one of the primary purposes and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has explained the nature of the threat to those who at the moment are being asked to deal with all young persons who are on remand.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord for reminding the House of the reason why the courts cannot remove this threat unless the law is changed. The threat to the training schools does not of course arise from those youngsters who are "more adventurous than delinquent", as the Diplock Report described them. Such boys and girls make the task of the Security Forces difficult and dangerous but I think we would agree that these young people can and do benefit from a period of training. As the noble Lord said, it is now quite common, however, that among those who are on remand there are teenagers accused of crimes which are not only included among the scheduled offences but which are among the most terrible of the scheduled offences Such boys and girls may well be connected with terrorist organisations outside which will stick at nothing to effect their escape.

The noble Lord reminded us that in 1972 the Diplock Report said that there were only two institutions in Northern Ireland to which boys could be remanded. If I remember correctly, both of those have suffered intrusion. In the case of the Roman Catholic training school, it was intrusion of a particularly cruel nature which ended in the abduction and then the murder of a boy who was suffering from some form of mental handicap.

The noble Lord has explained that these institutions and the girls' establishments are not secure; they are training schools, and the Diplock Report recommended that a secure unit should be set up with great urgency. It was hoped that Lisnevin would be able to include this role in the work that it did. But as the noble Lord reminded us—and I must say that I had forgotten this—of course Lisnevin suffered a double intrusion which was extremely terrifying to the people who were working there.

If I may say so, it is typical of the interest which the noble Lord takes in a subject which I know has always been his greatest interest, that he has visited all the training schools in Northern Ireland. Like others who served there, I had the opportunity of visiting Lisnevin. I can testify to the devotion to their work and the practical commonsense of the staff, characteristics which I agree with the noble Lord apply to those who run the other training schools in Northern Ireland. I remember that when I visited Lisnevin there was at that time a 16-year old boy who had been remanded there, accused of a particularly bad and particularly serious terrorist offence and I remember that the staff were in no way reluctant to help this particular boy. Indeed, they said that they felt they were making progress, but what they naturally disliked was the effect on their work with other boys which extra tight security would impose—security which was especially necessary with such a boy in order to ensure safety and to prevent escape, the precise criteria which one finds in Clause 1(4) of this Bill is for a Secretary of State's direction.

So this Bill certainly provides a practical solution to this particular threat to the work of the training schools in Northern Ireland. But of course the Bill is dealing with young people between the ages of 14 and 17, and Parliament will wish to be absolutely satisfied that the sort of arrangements that are being made for young people who are subject to direction by the Secretary of State are suitable for young people of that age. The noble Lord has given what I think are important assurances on this, the first time the Bill has been debated in either House of Parliament about the effect of a direction under the Bill, and particularly the assurance that accommodation at the Belfast prison for young persons on remand will be separate and that education will be provided.

I should like to ask just two questions to end with. First, I realise that in introducing the Bill it is not the intention of the Government that all young persons charged with scheduled offences shall automatically be subject to a direction. The criteria in Clause 1(4) make this quite clear. It seemed implicit in what the noble Lord said, particularly in his catalogue of the number of times that boys who had been charged with scheduled offences had escaped, from, I think Lisnevin, a great number of young persons who are charged with scheduled offences will probably be subject to the Secretary of State's direction. This leads me to ask this question. If this is the case, it will certainly remove a source of great difficulty from Lisnevin. But I am wondering what in the future will really be the difference between Lisnevin, and the regime there, and the curriculum of the other training schools.

The other question that I wish to ask arises directly from the drafting of the Bill. It is really a Committee point, but as we are going to take all stages tomorrow I should like to ask it now, and the noble Lord may prefer to answer tomorrow. I am uncertain of the effect of Clause 3(2)(c) if, under the Constitution Act 1973, the treatment of offenders, including young persons, becomes a transferred matter at any time in the future. As things stand now, it seems to me that this Bill, quite rightly, gives Parliament control over the expiry or continuation of Clause 1. But if the treatment of offenders were to become a matter transferred to a future Northern Ireland Executive, would the effect of Clause 3(2)(c) be that this Bill could be reactivated by a measure of the Northern Ireland Assembly? This Bill will enable the training schools in Northern Ireland to work with greater effect and it will ensure that the task of the Security Forces is not further endangered by the escape of young persons who have already been apprehended. For these reasons I agree with the noble Lord that the Bill is necessary, and I hope that it will pass through this House as rapidly as possible.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. I will try to answer rapidly the two questions which he asked. The second one (I always remember the second question better than the first) was in relation to the transferred matter. I am advised that the Bill is only applicable to young persons who have been charged with scheduled—that is to say, terrorist—offences, and the Bill provides a special power for dealing with such a young person while awaiting trial. Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, provides that special powers and other provisions for dealing with terrorism or subversion shall be excepted matters and excepted matters cannot be transferred. I think that is a fairly clear answer. Clearly this situation can be altered by legislation, but that is where we stand at the moment.

The other question was twofold: first, were we dealing with sufficient numbers and, secondly, were we giving them reasonable facilities. The answer in regard to the numbers is that this place that we have in the Belfast prison will take 16 to 20 persons. Remand should never last more than three months, though regrettably it sometimes does (but it often does not), so we think this would give a reasonable marginal turnover for the very difficult boys, and we think we can manage with this. As noble Lords know, there is a plan which will be ready in 1977 by which there will be a young offenders' centre at Hydebank, near Purtisburn, but, of course, this will not help us now. We hope to phase into this.

In regard to education, we have a part-time education officer already and we shall increase the education available. They have recreation, they have games, they have reasonable places to play them in. They are not quite as well off as they would be in Lisnevin, which has remarkable facilities, but they are really well off indeed compared with being on the streets. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.