HL Deb 15 December 1977 vol 387 cc2239-46

11.33 a.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (Lord Melchett) rose to move, That the draft Northern Ireland (Various Emergency Provisions) (Continuance) (No. 2) Order 1977, laid before the House on 16th November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Northern Ireland (Various Emergency Provisions) (Continuance) (No. 2) Order 1977 be approved.

My Lords, very considerable progress has been made on security in Northern Ireland over the last six months. This progress has been made within our accepted strategy of the fair and effective enforcement of the law, within the law. A number of developments have contributed to this improvement. The RUC continues to expand and develop. The strength of the force now stands at 5,625—a record increase for the year of 372—and the full time Reserve has grown from 870 to 1,004. The emphasis is on expertise and professionalism and the Government work closely with the chief constable and the police authority to ensure that the force has the best available equipment to carry out its duties.

The improving capability of the RUC can be judged by the fact that not only are arrests being made speedily after recent incidents, but, increasingly, persons are being charged with offences committed some considerable time ago. Certainty of arrest has always been the most effective deterrent, and it is now clear that people breaking the law in Northern Ireland will have to face the consequences of their actions. At the same time the police are extending their actions against other illegal activity, such as illegal drinking clubs.

The Regular Army and the UDR have continued to provide admirable support for the police. As the nature of the security problems has changed, the Army have been able to concentrate on particular tasks; for example, increased emphasis has been placed on surveillance. The strength of the full-time UDR now stands at around 2,000, against an establishment of 2,500, and the five full-time operational platoons already formed make a significant contribution to the security of Northern Ireland.

The number of bombing incidents this year is down by nearly 60 per cent. compared with last year, and shooting incidents by 40 per cent. The improvement since 1st August this year is even more marked, demonstrating that the trend continues downward. The weight of explosives used in bomb attacks has fallen from 29,000 lbs. last year to less than 5,000 lbs. this year. Although the security forces remain no less at risk than before-41 of them have given their lives so far this year—the number of civilians who have lost their lives has been reduced from 238 last year to 68 in this.

Against this background of a downward trend of violence and the increasing effectiveness of the Security Forces, the Government have concluded, following a careful and comprehensive review of the current level of forces in conjunction with the GOC and the chief constable, that some reduction in the number of Regular troops deployed in Northern Ireland will be made over the next year. Subject to the requirements of the fireman's dispute, it is intended to reduce the number of major operational units from 14 to 13 by the end of the year. The Government also have in mind an increase in the number of resident Army units in Northern Ireland in place of units on shorter tours of duty. We hope to introduce one additional resident unit in the course of 1978 and a second at a later date.

These adjustments are a reflection of the developments within the RUC and the UDR to which I have referred, and of the different security problems we now face. In particular, the proposed increase in the number of regular Army units, who provide continuity and increased local knowledge, is a further step towards the normal supporting rôle of the Army. There is no change in Government policy; the Armed Forces will remain in support of the police for as long and in such strength as is necessary, and the ability to provide rapid reinforcements, should the need arise, will remain.

Progress has been made in Northern Ireland, but the Government do not wish to talk of corners being turned; we are determined to end the violence, and the Government's view is that the need for these emergency powers remains. In particular, attacks on members of the Security Forces continue at a high level, and your Lordships will have heard with deep regret of the death of a soldier in Belfast last night. Noble Lords will also be aware that incendiary devices are being more frequently used in attacks on commercial property. The improvements I have outlined give everyone who lives, and those of us who work, in Northern Ireland good reason to look foreward hopefully to the day when violence has ended. I am sure the whole House would wish to join once again in paying tribute to everyone who lives in Northern Ireland, and particularly to the Security Forces, for the selfless courage they continue to display. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Northern Ireland (Various Emergency Provisions) (Continuance) (No. 2) Order 1977, laid before the House on 16th November, be approved —(Lord Melchett.)

11.39 a.m.


My Lords, it is right that every six months Parliament should take an Affirmative Resolution for the continuation of the emergency provisions in Northern Ireland. The powers given to the security forces, and the establishment of what are known as the single judge courts to try scheduled offences under the emergency provisions Acts, do not let us forget, are provisions specifically designed to bring terrorism to an end and should never be regarded as permanent provisions of United Kingdom Legislation.

Nevertheless from what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett said when introducing this order, it is clear that the emergency provisions still remain necessary. There is no question in my own mind that, if it were not for the single judge courts, Northern Ireland juries would continue to be intimidated. Although this year has seen a welcome reduction in the level of violence—that is quite clear from what the noble Lord has said—there is an increase, I understand, in the use of incendiaries which are usually easier to conceal than explosives. Therefore, the powers of search and arrest under the Emergency Provisions still remain necessary. Of course, while leading terrorists remain at large the penalties against proscribed organisations cannot be relinquished.

There are three questions that I should like to put to the noble Lord as regards this order. During his remarks, the noble Lord made the point that the number of people being charged with and convicted of offences before the courts has increased. Can the Government tell the House to what extent the increase in the number of people being charged and convicted before the courts relates to offences committed prior to 1977? I heard the noble Lord say that offences for which arrests were being made had been committed some time ago. I ask this question because I am aware from reading the newspapers that, although the level of violence is decreasing, the level of crime generally is still a great deal higher than anyone would wish to see in the United Kingdom.

Of course, many of the offences which are committed as part of general crime in Northern Ireland still fall within the scheduled offences. When we hear statistics being given of an increase in the number of people being brought before the courts we are generally prone to welcome those statistics. Now, however, the Government are saying that the level of violence is decreasing. I hope that the court statistics quite definitely relate to offences committed in the past and I hope that some of them were committed well in the past, and that the long arm of the law is, indeed reaching out and bringing to book people who thought that perhaps they had got away with a crime committed when terrorism was absolutely at its height some time previously.

Secondly, are there any statistics relating to prosecutions for membership of proscribed organisations during this year? The organisers of terrorism undoubtedly still remain a threat. This must surely be one of the ways of putting out of the way those who influence other people to do their work.

Thirdly, I should like to ask whether the new cellular accommodation which has been built at the Maze Prison is overcrowded. Now that the granting of special category status has been ended and the number of those prisoners is being reduced, the number of prisoners needing cells is, presumably, on the increase. It would seem highly important that the new cells at the Maze Prison should not be over-crowded if their construction is to mark an advance in the administration of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. I am seeking an assurance that, in this respect, the Northern Ireland prison building programme is, so far as possible, on target.

On the occasion of discussing this order, it is right to recognise the work which the Security Forces are doing in Northern Ireland and that I certainly do. I particularly welcome the news which the noble Lord gave in his remarks that the number of operational units in Northern Ireland can be reduced next year with an increase in the number of resident units that will be in Northern Ireland. That News is welcome and I think that that corollary is absolutely necessary. Indeed, I do not think we could support the order if there were not to be an increase in the resident units and clearly that is right so far as the Government's policy goes.

However, on this occasion I should like to mention one other matter. It seems absolutely clear from the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that the work of the RUC has made some tremendous advances during the past year. That is the result not only of devotion to duty but of very careful planning on behalf of the chief constable and his officers. I think that that is a very hopeful sign for the New Year.

11.45 a.m.


My Lords, once again I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his remarks and his support for this order. He has asked me some specific questions and I shall do my best to give him the answers. As regards the time period relating to the statistics which I have given for the number of charges that have been brought against people suspected of breaking the law, it is true to say that there are a good number of charges being brought against people who committed crimes some considerable time ago. At the same time, it is also true to say that people are being arrested very quickly after recent events. Therefore, the two seem to be happening together.

I have no breakdown of the overall statistics of charges concerning recent offences and more distant ones and I think that it would probably involve a considerable amount of work to try to extract those statistics. However, it may interest the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and the House, and illustrate what I have said, if I give figures and examples relating to a two-week period at the beginning of this month. The details of the charges preferred by the RUC during that period were as follows: persons were charged in respect of the murder of a soldier in Londonderry in 1974; the murder of an RUC officer near Dungannon in 1976; a number of murders committed in Belfast between July 1975 and August this year; bombing attacks in Belfast in March this year and a bank robbery in September 1972.

Noble Lords will see from that illustration of the charges preferred in a recent two week period that the spread of time over which the offences were committed was considerable and there have been, if one picks out other two-week or monthly periods, charges going back further. Moreover, some very serious charges have been preferred against people who have committed murder and other offences during the early 1970s. I do not think that there is any doubt that the RUC's detection and effectiveness as regards crimes committed during the whole period since 1968–69 has very considerably increased during this year and in recent months.

The noble Lord asked about charges relating to membership of proscribed organisation's. Charges concerning membership are preferred whenever possible and, from 1st January to 30th November this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions made 344 directions for prosecution under Section 19(1)(a) of the Act, which is the section relating to membership of proscribed organisations. I think that the noble Lord would agree that that is an impressive number of charges.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about the prison building programme in Nothern Ireland. The noble Lord is aware, know, that there are difficulties of an exceptional nature associated with building prisons in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, I think that the progress we have made has been quite outstanding. The building programme at the Maze Prison comprising eight "H" blocks as they are called, is now complete. Six of the blocks are already in use and the remaining two are being fitted out. Ideally, each block should house 100 prisoners, but it has been necessary, because of the pressure on prison accommodation, to double-up to the extent of about 50 per cent. in the blocks in use. That is clearly not something we would wish to see, but, as noble Lords will know, doubling-up in cellular accommodation is not, unfortunately, something that is limited to Northern Ireland: it occurs throughout the United Kingdom.

The future looks good, because there are 300 new places which will become available in the new young offenders' centre at Hydebank which will be available, hopefully, by the autumn of next year. By the end of 1981, a further 450 places for male prisoners, and 53 for females, will be available in the new prison, phase I of which should be completed by then. Therefore, there is a considerable amount of extra accommodation which will be becoming available by, firstly, the end of next year, and then by the end of 1981, which will obviously ease the pressure on the Maze Prison. Nevertheless, when the two further "H" blocks are fitted out and in use, there will be a substantial extra amount of accommodation available.

Once again, I should like to say that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his support of the order. I hope that we can look forward to the time when these six-monthly renewal debates will no longer be necessary.

On Question, Motion agreed to.