HL Deb 19 July 1983 vol 443 cc1105-8

7.12 p.m.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Criminal Attempts and Conspiracy (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 3rd May, be approved. This order is designed to bring three aspects of the criminal law in Northern Ireland into line with changes already made in England and Wales. First, it creates and defines a statutory offence of attempt. Secondly, it abolishes in Northern Ireland the offence of loitering with intent, often known as the "Sus" law, and creates instead a new offence of vehicle interference. And, thirdly, it creates a new statutory offence of conspiracy.

Part I of the order is introductory. The provisions of Part II, relating to criminal attempts, correspond to those introduced in England and Wales by the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. Part III of the order, repealing the offence of loitering with intent, also corresponds with provisions in the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. That Act introduced a new offence of vehicle interference to fill a gap which would have been left by the repeal in England and Wales. The order makes similar changes for Northern Ireland.

Part IV, the third substantive part of this order, relates to criminal conspiracy. The Criminal Law Act 1977 defined the ambit and essential elements of the offence of conspiracy and the related penalties in England and Wales. Subsequently, the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 provided that the offence of conspiracy, like that of attempt, can be committed even where the intended substantive offence is impossible in the circumstances. Part IV of the order applies these provisions to Northern Ireland.

Those, then, are the three areas of reform dealt with in the order. I should now like to explain the main effects of the individual articles. Articles 1 and 2 are mainly formal. The order, if approved, would come into force two months from the day of its making. Articles 3 to 6 are concerned with the law of attempt. Article 3 defines the mental element and the conduct necessary to constitute an attempt to commit an offence. The mental element which is required is an intent to commit an offence. The article therefore provides that a person may be guilty of attempt even where the attempted offence was inherently impossible. What matters in this situation is the intent, and that is determined by what the person believed to be the facts. The conduct, which is the other essential ingredient, must be something more than an act which is preparatory to the commission of the offence. This broadly repeats the present situation in common law. The provisions of Article 3 apply to an attempt to commit any offence which, if completed, would be triable in Northern Ireland, with the exception of offences like aiding and abetting, where an attempt would be at a double remove from a substantive crime.

Article 4 simply provides that, where special rules, such as time limits, apply to the substantive offence, they will also apply to attempts. Article 5 provides that, in general, the mode of trial and the maximum penalty for an attempt will be the same as for the substantive offence, except for certain offences which statutorily carry a lower maximum penalty for an attempt. And, under Article 6, the common law offences of attempt and of procuring materials for crime are abolished.

I turn now to Part III of the Order, which deals with suspected persons. Article 7 repeals the suspected persons offence in Section 4(k) of the Vagrancy Act 1824. That provision relates to suspected persons or reputed thieves frequenting or loitering about certain places with intent to commit arrestable offences. There have been very few prosecutions in Northern Ireland under this provision in recent years and the Government accept that the offence should be repealed there, as it was in England and Wales. However, we propose, as in England and Wales, to introduce a new offence of vehicle interference. A person would commit this offence under Article 8 if he interfered with a motor vehicle or trailer with the intention that he or someone else should commit any of the following offences: theft of the vehicle or trailer; theft of anything carried in or on it; or taking or driving away without consent. The offence would be triable summarily with maximum penalties of three months' imprisonment or a fine of £500, or both. Under Article 8, a police constable would have power to arrest, without warrant, anyone who is, or whom he reasonably suspects to be, guilty of the offence.

As I mentioned at the outset, Part IV of the order, which contains Articles 9 to 13, is concerned with the law of criminal conspiracy. Article 9 creates a new statutory offence of conspiracy. This replaces the existing common law offence usually regarded as any agreement to effect any unlawful purpose. The new provision defines conspiracy more precisely as an agreement with at least one other person to pursue a course of conduct that will amount to or involve the commission of a criminal offence. This change is based on the recommendations of the Law Commission, which proposed that it should not be a crime for two or more persons to agree to do something which it would not be a crime for one of them to do.

The Article provides also for "impossible" conspiracies, in much the same way as Article 3 covered "impossible" attempts. Additionally, it says that there is no conspiracy unless the person concerned and at least one other intended or knew that any relevant fact or circumstance would exist at the material time. Article 9 applies to any offence triable in Northern Ireland and to murder wherever committed. Exemptions from conspiracy, such as agreements with an intended victim or between husband and wife, are set out in Article 10.

Article 11 provides that the penalty for the new statutory offence of conspiracy, where it relates to offences punishable with imprisonment, would be limited to the maximum term available for that offence or the most serious of two or more offences. As for fines, there would be no limit on the fine for conspiracy to commit an offence triable on indictment, but the maximum tine for conspiracy on summary conviction would be the same as for the substantive offence.

Under Article 12, proceedings for conspiracy to commit a summary offence could be instituted only with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. And where the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney General would be required for proceedings for the substantive offence, or where specified time limits apply, then the same requirements would apply to proceedings for conspiracy.

Article 13 is concerned with consequential abolitions, savings and transitional matters. It abolishes the common law offence of conspiracy, except in so far as it relates to conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to corrupt public morals and outrage public decency. It also abolishes the offence of incitement to commit the offence of conspiracy. And the article provides that the acquittal of one party to a charge of conspiracy would no longer necessarily entail the acquittal of others.

Those, then, are the main provisions of the order. Part V, consisting of Article 14, is solely concerned with technical repeals consequential on the introduction of the new offences and the repeal of "sus". They are set out in the schedule. When this draft order was published as a proposal in Northern Ireland, its reception reflected a general welcome for a measure aimed at keeping the law in Northern Ireland up to date. It is against that background that I commend this order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd May be approved.—(Viscount Long.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I first wish to thank the noble Viscount for his comprehensive review of the contents of this order, which we generally welcome, because, as he has explained, it provides in the main that three aspects of criminal law in Northern Ireland shall be brought into line with those pertaining in England and Wales. I think it will be generally agreed that it would be highly undesirable for an important order of this kind to be introduced into Parliament unless it was based on the existing law in England and Wales, because there would be so many important principles at stake which could be dealt with only by acceptance or rejection, and not at all by amendment. It is because these proposals are based primarily on the 1981 Act For England and Wales that we welcome them.

I do not think there is any necessity to discuss the points in detail, since discussions took place when the 1981 Act was considered. I endeavoured to make a quick, cursory reference to the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 and I found that vast sections of that Act are reproduced in this order. But I would ask the noble Viscount: are there any important changes in the order from the provisions in the 1981 Act? I should have been concerned with aspects of the conspiracy charges and the vehicle interference charges, but I noted that the Under-Secretary of State dealt with some of these points in a debate in the other House last Thursday. Therefore, this is a step in the right direction and I think that we on these Benches can generally welcome the order.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for supporting this important order, because, as I said, it is bringing Northern Ireland into line with the laws of England and Wales. He asked me a specific question and I can only say that, generally speaking, the order applies to Northern Ireland similar provisions to those in England and Wales under the Criminal Law Act 1977 and the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. However, there are several modifications in the order which are required in order to take account of certain differences in Northern Ireland legislation, but they do not affect the main purpose of the order. The laws under this order are always being looked at in one way or another, so that fines and so on are always being readjusted. I am grateful to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended, from 7.27 to 8.30 p.m.]