HL Deb 07 November 1989 vol 512 cc628-30

7.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Northern Ireland Office (Lord Skelmersdale)

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 23rd August be approved. [28th Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The effect of this order is to make blackmail a scheduled offence under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978. It is unusual in that the order came into effect on 24th August by executive action of my right honourable friend but under the 1978 Emergency Provisions Act it has to be approved by both Houses of Parliament within 40 days otherwise it lapses.

The House will be aware of the background. The authorities in Northern Ireland face a very serious problem, additional but also related to that of terrorism, of paramilitary and other kinds of racketeering. It takes a variety of forms, and affects a range of industries and occupations. The building and entertainment industries have been particular targets. We know only too well that building contractors are regularly intimidated by paramilitaries seeking to extort financial benefit from their contracts.

Your Lordships may recall the 1987 "Cook Report" programme "Worse than the Mafia" in which the journalist Roger Cook, posing as a business financier, was approached by two men in a car park in Craigavon who sought to extort so-called "protection" money from him; their conversation was recorded by Mr. Cook and as a result of his considerable courage—to which the trial judge justly paid tribute—those individuals, and a number of others, were arrested and successfully prosecuted with conspiracy to intimidate and blackmail. The witnesses in that case gave exceptionally strong evidence against the accused at great personal risk to themselves.

In the entertainment industry, Northern Ireland has recently seen a number of serious instances where visiting entertainment groups have been approached by paramilitaries seeking to extort money from them. At the end of October, for instance, a large Hallowe'en funfair, which was due to be held in Belfast, had to be cancelled when paramilitaries demanded protection money from the organisers. The organisers I believe lost a considerable amount of money and the enjoyment of thousands of families was ruined.

That is the general background to this order. Indeed, new instances of this particularly vicious type of activity, which casts such a serious blight over whole sectors of Northern Ireland's economy, come to light almost every week. But there is also another kind of intimidation with which Northern Ireland is only too familiar: that is the intimidation of jurors and witnesses more widely. It has been a matter of considerable concern to the prosecuting authorities that cases which involve blackmail should be open to trial before juries, so exposing jurors to considerable personal risk and jeopardising prosecutions. It was in view of that concern, and following a number of recent court cases involving charges of blackmail and intimidation, that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made the order on 17th August by the urgent procedure laid down by Section 32(3) of the Emergency Provisions Act 1978. That procedure allows an order to come into effect immediately, but it is then subject to approval by both Houses within 40 sitting days. The Secretary of State believed that further delay in ending this legislative anomaly would be wrong and would be contrary to the public interest.

In one respect, the order simply remedies an anomaly in the legislation and follows the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Colville in his reports on the operation of the emergency provisions Acts in 1987 and 1988. As your Lordships will be aware, scheduled offences are those offences which are tried in Northern Ireland by the Crown Court sitting without a jury, unless they are certified out by the Attorney-General. The intention was to make blackmail a scheduled offence back in 1987. For technical reasons the relevant legislation has however never been commenced, and until August this year, blackmail remained unscheduled. The prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland have therefore been faced either with bringing cases of blackmail before a jury, or of dropping the blackmail charge altogether, and charging intimidation instead. The offence of intimidation —which was and is a scheduled offence —carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment; that of blackmail, 14 years. There is of course a very real difference between the deterrent and practical effects of these sentences.

The order removes an anomaly which was giving real difficulties to the authorities in dealing with blackmail cases. Although the offence of blackmail is now scheduled, individual cases may be certified out by the Attorney-General where there appears to be no terrorist or paramilitary involvement. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 23rd August be approved. [28th Report from the Joint Committee] —(Lord Skelmersdale.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, as the Minister has explained, this brief order gives effect to a recommendation made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, when he reviewed in 1987 and again in 1988 the operations of the emergency provisions Act.

I read the report of the noble Viscount. He tells us how the police complained to him that blackmail was not an offence specified in Schedule 4 of the emergency provisions Act 1978 and the noble Viscount thought that was really absurd. In the result, the police in Northern Ireland had to use that substitute and lesser charge of intimidation.

By virtue of this order the offence of blackmail will be inserted in Schedule 4. With that amendment we are entirely in accord. However, we recall that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, also recommended in the 1988 review that a procedure for handling scheduled offences should be reversed. The Minister has touched upon the procedure of certifying out rather than certifying in. The noble Viscount recommended that the Attorney-General should adopt a system of certifying cases in for trial. When we say that, we mean in for trial by a Diplock court rather than the present arrangement of certifying out, provided of course that there is no evidence of a paramilitary connection.

The noble Viscount (who I see is in his place) argued that such a change would have a value as a statement of priorities. It would be a signal that the Government were committed to returning to as much judicial normality as possible so that the emergency provisions should be limited to the minimum essential.

We on these Benches deeply regret that that recommendation has not as yet been accepted by the Government. I wonder whether the Minister can give the House an indication of why it has not been accepted or whether it is still under active consideration. However, with those few comments on behalf of these Benches we warmly support the order.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall just respond to that specific point made by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. We have no plans at present to allow an order allowing certifying in. I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Colville will be considering scheduled offences, Diplock courts and so on in his enhanced review of the emergency provisions Act. We are still giving active serious consideration to certifying in as my right honourable friend the previous Secretary of State said in the emergency provisions Act renewal debate back in March of this year. However, there is no decision yet as to the result of that active serious consideration.

On Question, Motion agreed to.