HL Deb 17 February 1976 vol 368 cc354-63

2.49 p.m.

The PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge) rose to move, That the draft Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 20th January, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Order in Council provides for the introduction in Northern Ireland of a number of new measures related to the treatment of offenders. These were forecast in the Secretary of State's speech in another place on 4th November 1975 and in my own speech to your Lordships on the same day. The order, which will be laid shortly, complements a change in the prison rules, by which prisoners will be released after having served half their sentences in custody. It will substantially enhance the powers of the courts in Northern Ireland in dealing with people who commit further offences after release from prison and will also, among other things, bring the law in Northern Ireland more closely into line with that in England and Wales in respect of community service by offenders and deferment of sentence.

Part II of the order seeks to give effect to what was referred to during a debate in November last as a scheme of "conditional release "for persons serving sentences of imprisonment of more than one year. What was meant by" conditional release" was, in effect, that if a prisoner is released with remission of sentence under prison rules after half his sentence has been served, and offends and is convicted again of an imprisonable offence during the second half of his sentence spent in the community, the court could order his return to prison for any period still outstanding in addition to any penalty it might impose for the offence. Release from prison, therefore, will still be governed by prison rules. The amount of remission which can be granted under prison rules will be increased, so as to enable a person serving a determinate sentence to be released from custody after half his sentence has been completed. This will coincide with the coming into effect of the provisions of Part II of this order on 1st March 1976, if Parliament so approves.

Persons convicted and sentenced to imprisonment will then still be required to spend in custody half the term ordered by the court. If they misbehave in prison they could have their release date deferred by up to six months by the board of visitors for any one infringement of the disciplinary provisions in prison rules. They will, moreover, be subject on release to the provisions of Part II of this order, which I have just described, under which, if they should offend again, they may be required to go back to prison to serve all, or part, of the balance of any previous sentence still remaining when the court deals with the case. I must emphasise that the provisions of this order and the provisions for release, to which I have already referred, will not apply to life sentences, but only to people serving determinate sentences of imprisonment. People sentenced to life imprisonment will continue to have their cases reviewed under existing legislative provisions which require the views of the Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland and the trial judge to be taken into consideration.

It will be apparent that what is proposed is a unique scheme which has no directly comparable counterpart in the rest of the United Kingdom. It has to be so to meet the special needs of the situation in Northern Ireland. The parole scheme, as it operates in Great Britain, would not be appropriate for Northern Ireland, for many practical reasons. The essential features of the Great Britain scheme—indeterminate release dates, detailed reporting, decisions by the Executive on the recommendation of an independent board, and in particular, statutory supervision on release—are impractical in current circumstances in Northern Ireland. Thus the Northern Ireland scheme now proposed is fundamentally different from the Great Britain scheme. Under the proposals which we are now considering, there is no uncertainty regarding release date, and release is not a matter of Executive discretion, nor is recall to prison. As to supervision, there is little doubt that the most useful form of supervision is that entered into voluntarily by the client, and this will still be available under the scheme as proposed for Northern Ireland. Should they want it, the Probation and After-Care Service will continue to offer assistance to people discharged from prison, but there will be no compulsory supervision. Finally, the Northern Ireland scheme places the onus on the individual to live within the law and, in keeping with the Government's declared policy, relies on the courts to deal with those who choose to act otherwise.

My Lords, the House will appreciate, however, that the motivation for the introduction of these new release arrangements at the present time is not only to provide an early release scheme for Northern Ireland. The additional relief on prison accommodation which the new release provisions will also afford, together with the construction of new cellular accommodation, will enable a start to be made in phasing out special category status. My right honourable friend was gratified by the favourable response, both here and in another place, to his announcement that offenders convicted of crimes committed after 1st March 1976 would not be granted special category status, but would be treated like any other prisoner. I am convinced that this is a step in the right direction which will be in the best interests of the prisoners concerned, as well as of the community to which they must eventually return. It is in no sense an amnesty. It is a scheme geared to the particular requirements of Northern Ireland.

I have dwelt at length on the policy aspects of Part II of the order, but I think that noble Lords would not have wished it otherwise. In doing so I have covered the substance of Article 3. The remaining provisions of Part II of the order, Articles 4 to 6, are mainly procedural and include a right of appeal against an order of return to prison. As to the other substantive part of the order, Part III, some noble Lords will already be familiar with most of these provisions. They are based on similar provisions which were first introduced in England and Wales in 1972 by the Criminal Justice Act of that year, and subsequently incorporated in the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973.

Articles 7 to 13 allow the introduction of community services as a new method of dealing with offenders in Northern Ireland. Courts in Northern Ireland will be able to order an offender aged 17 or over, who is convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment, to perform between 40 and 240 hours, but no more, of unpaid work. The Northern Ireland Probation and After-Care Service will be closely involved in the implementation and administration of the provisions for community service by offenders in Northern Ireland, and the work which will be undertaken will be to the benefit of individuals in need, or the community generally. This is a concept which has proved its merit in England and Wales as a worthwhile and constructive alternative to the short custodial sentence. While widespread implementation in Northern Ireland may be somewhat restricted by current cirrcumstances, it is considered that community service orders will be a useful and welcome addition to the powers of the courts in Northern Ireland in dealing with offenders.

Articles 14 and 15 are in the nature of refinements to the present practice of the courts in Northern Ireland. Article 14 permits a court to defer passing sentence on an offender for up to six months to enable it to have regard to the offender's conduct and circumstances after conviction, and is designed to assist the court in determining the most appropriate sentence for an offender. Article 15 seeks to ensure that a person is not sentenced to a first custodial sentence without him first having had the opportunity to have his case adequately presented to the court.

Part IV of the order deals with a number of miscellaneous and supplemental provisions. Article 16brings the powers of the Secretary of State more closely into line with those available to probation and after-care committees in England and Wales regarding the provision of facilities in the community, such as bail hostels for persons brought before the courts. In Article 17 the opportunity is taken to abolish the use of corporal punishment in prisons and borstals, which has already fallen into disuse in all but one borstal institution, so no major change is being made. The remaining provisions of the order deal with minor and consequential Amendments and repeals and the making of subordinate legislation under the order.

Transitional provisions are included in Schedule 1 to ensure that the provisions of Article 3 do not apply to persons released from prison on remission of sentence before 1st March 1976, and to ensure that a person's liability under Article 3 is commensurate with the benefit he receives under the new remission arrangements. My Lords, I commend this order to you as an important contribution towards the treatment of offenders in Northern Ireland, and I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 20th January, be approved.—(Lord Donaldson of Kings bridge.)

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, this order which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, has introduced will have significant practical consequences. Part II, which introduces the conditional release scheme, which the noble Lord has explained to the House, ought not to raise any false hopes. But it will reduce the size of the Northern Ireland prison population, and that in turn will enable special category status to be ended. Whatever the reasons for introducing that in the past, I now support the Government's determination to end it. When, in a debate which the House held last November, the noble Lord spoke of the Government's intention to introduce an order of this kind, he pointed out that prison numbers in Northern Ireland remained very high, partly because there was no parole scheme in the Province, and partly because the prison compounds did not allow the necessary assessment of prisoners to be made for a parole scheme to be introduced. But this order will start these release rules designed to work in Northern Ireland. I understand that the noble Lord has personally put in a very great deal of work so that the order can be brought forward, and I give it my support.

However, the speech of the noble Lord leaves one or two questions unanswered and perhaps I could put these to him. First, I wonder whether the Government could give the total number of convicted prisoners in Northern Ireland at the moment, and an estimate of the reduction in that number when the release arrangements become fully operative? On previous occasions the noble Lord has been accustomed to giving to the House the number of those arrested for scheduled offences who are tried and convicted. This success rate, as it has been called, has been most encouraging, and it is a tribute to the record of crime detection of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In passing, I wonder whether I may give my good wishes to Assistant Chief Constable Newman, whose appointment in succession to Sir Jamie Flanagan was announced only a few days ago in the papers. But the RUC success rate has of course increased the pressure on the Northern Ireland prison population, and the question I am asking is to what extent that pressure is going to be relieved by Part II of this Order.

Secondly, will the cellular accommodation now be sufficient for the Government's purposes? When we debated that on the 4th November last year the noble Lord said that no one accused, remanded and finally imprisoned for a crime committed after the 1st March of this year, would be kept in accommodation other than a cell. Does that still remain the case? Thirdly, I wonder whether the noble Lord could add anything to what he has said about arrangements to help those who are going to be released to find employment? After all, there is going to be no statutory supervision on release written into this scheme for reasons which I can well understand; but the fact of the matter, as the noble Lord knows so much better than I, is that on release many prisoners are going to find themselves returning to their homes where unemployment may be running at any thing up to 20 per cent., or even more. Is Northern Ireland, I wonder, going to be able to claim any of the Chancellor's package of over £200 million announced last week in order, perhaps, to extend the Province's excellent system of industrial training, or possibly to increase direct labour schemes like Enterprise Ulster? For many people such solutions may be the only alternatives to unemployment on release.

There is just one reservation which, perhaps, I might be allowed to voice. At a time when lawlessness in Northern Ireland remains cruel and widespread, I must say that I could have wished that these release arrangements would be taking effect after two-thirds, and not after one-half, of a sentence has been served. I realise, of course, that the ordinary remission arrangements for a sentence are after two-thirds of a sentence has been served, and therefore the Government are in a quandary over this. I am aware—the noble Lord has explained it before in the House—that parole in Great Britain can be given after one-third of a sentence has been served, and therefore it is not a simple matter to make a direct comparison between the parole arrangements here and these new release arrangements in Northern Ireland. In case what I am saying seems indeterminate, may I say that the only conclusion I find myself driven to is that I really think that these new release arrangements may be used as a further excuse for prisoners in Great Britain to agitate to be removed to Northern Ireland, and we have recently seen the tragic and serious consequences of that happening, in the case of Frank Stagg. I raise it only to say to the Government that I hope they will be on the alert for this happening yet again.

On the other hand, may I underline my support for the point made by the noble Lord, that this order does not mark an amnesty—indeed, the very opposite, because it is designed to mark the ending of special category status. I trust that the Government will be standing firm on their policy that all offenders convicted of crimes committed after the 1st March 1976 will be treated like ordinary convicted prisoners; and if there is any trouble over the phasing out of special category I hope that any individuals concerned will find that their releases are in fact deferred, as is provided for under the order.

I hope also that the introduction of this order was discussed, at any rate to some extent, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and with the Prison Officers' Association, or at least was introduced with their agreement. The Security Forces, the prison officers and the Government are going to have to stand firm if yester day's edition of The Times accurately reported the threats which have been uttered by the Provisional Sinn Fein against the intention to end special category.

My Lords, I support the rest of the order. The value of community service orders, I realise, has been continuously assessed since they were introduced in this country, and doubtless they will be introduced on a gradual basis in Northern Ireland in the same way as they have been here. This order, my Lords, marks further practical measures resulting from the Report of the Committee under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, of a year ago—measures which are necessary and to which I give my support.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, as what might be called the foster-mother of community service orders, I should like to express my pleasure at their being extended to Northern Ireland, and I hope that they will be as successful there as they have been in this part of the United Kingdom.


My Lords, my noble friend laid special emphasis upon the fact that this was no amnesty, and he has been supported by the Opposition in that statement. May I ask my noble friend whether this is a means or a beginning of giving to Northern Ireland a legal set-up such as that which operates, as I understand, in Scotland, where they have their own legal system which does not operate on the same basis as that which we have here in England? And what is to happen to the other part of the United Kingdom—that is, Wales? We are supposed to be members of a United Kingdom, and one becomes rather frustrated when things of this nature happen. One begins to ask oneself the question whether one part of the United Kingdom is to be left out while others, by taking certain forms of action, can get better terms of release from the sentences that have been imposed upon them for crimes that they have committed within their own areas.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with the points raised by my noble friend Lord Slater. The difference between Northern Ireland and Wales is absolute. The conditions in Wales are exactly the same as in England. They have a parole scheme, and the situation is in no way different. The reason we cannot introduce an exactly similar scheme into Northern Ireland is because of the sectarian conditions which exist there. These I need not elaborate on, since we all know about them. In the first place, you cannot insist on probation officers giving compulsory supervision to people if they are liable to be shot if they do so. It is a situation which does not, I am thankful to say, obtain in Wales, or in any other part of the United Kingdom, but it does obtain in Northern Ireland. So we there had a different situation to deal with, and we have put up a different solution.

My Lords, the reason why it is different is not because we want to create something different but because we cannot create the same thing in answer to the problems. We would have much preferred to introduce into Northern Ireland the normal parole scheme which we have over here, and we spent a year trying to do so; finally, since we could not, we produced another solution. But my noble friend must not think that this is part of an attempt to separate the different parts of the United Kingdom. It is exactly the opposite: we would have preferred to keep them in line, but we were unable to do so because of the differences that existed. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Wootton, who is the mother of so many things, including community service orders, and we are very pleased to have them beginning in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, raised a number of points. First of all, he asked me a question about numbers. The number of convicted prisoners in Northern Ireland on the 8th February of this year was 2,201, and the new release arrangements will lead to a reduction, which would not otherwise have happened, of 500. It is quite a substantial change but not a very major one. I should like to associate myself and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State with what the noble Lord said about Mr. Newman. We are delighted to have him. We have all enjoyed and prospered working with his predecessor Sir Jamie Flanagan and we are very sorry to see him go; but there could be nobody better suited to take on the new and arduous job than Mr. Newman. The noble Lord asked about cellular accommodation. The answer is, Yes. I state to the House (and I am subject to be shot down on this) that we shall not fall down on our undertaking to provide cellular accommodation for all those people convicted of crimes after 1st March. There may be some tight moments but I am absolutely confident that we can do it. The noble Lord said that he hoped that we should get a bit of the allocation of my right honourable friend the Chancellor. The answer is that he has already told us that we can have £8 million, which is not too bad. We are pleased with it and we are thinking hard about how to use it.

It only remains for me to say how glad I am that everybody who spoke made it clear this is not an amnesty and that there will not be an amnesty. This is a change in the penal system which was overdue because we were left behind by the parole system in Great Britain. We have introduced something which will ease that situation, but it is not to be eased for political offenders only but for all offenders. From that date on, all offenders will be treated on the same basis which I think is something that everybody in your Lordships' House would wish to see.


My Lords, with regard to Wales, would the Minister agree that we could have added that the people of Wales are highly civilised?


My Lords, I could have added it, but I thought it went without saying.

On Question, Motion agreed to.