HL Deb 12 July 1991 vol 530 cc1641-6

2.7 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead) rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 10th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced the Government's intention to bring forward this short draft order in his speech on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill in another place on 19th November 1990. The principal purpose of the order is to give effect to two of my noble friend Lord Colville's recommendations in his review of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts 1978 and 1987. The two recommendations are those in paragraph 7.3 of my noble friend's report about remands into police custody and in paragraph 16.4 on the copying of documentary exhibits in committal proceedings.

At the same time, the Government wish to take the opportunity provided by the draft order to make a number of minor amendments to existing legislation in the criminal justice field.

Article 3 of the draft order deals with my noble friend Lord Colville's recommendation on remands into police custody. The article would empower magistrates' courts to remand accused persons to detention in police custody for up to three days for questioning about other offences of which they are suspected. That provision would bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in England and Wales, where magistrates' courts already have such powers.

In a number of his annual reports on the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, my noble friend Lord Colville has expressed concern about the practice of extending the detention of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland in circumstances where there is already evidence to prefer charges, in order to enable the police to question the individual about other offences of which he or she is suspected. My noble friend believed that there was a way out of that particular difficulty. That was the principal reason why he recommended that provision should be made in Northern Ireland, similar to that in England and Wales, for a remand of an accused person into police custody for up to three days.

Article 3 of the draft order would, therefore, provide the police with an alternative route to extending an individual's detention under the PTA in circumstances where there is already sufficient evidence to prefer charges. The article would enable the police to charge such individuals at an earlier stage, and then bring them before a magistrates' court to seek a remand back into police custody for questioning about other offences.

There is one other important respect in which the article should help the police. When a person is charged with an offence in Northern Ireland and remanded in custody he is usually held in HM Prison, Belfast. If the police wish to question that person about other offences of which he is suspected, or about which the police believe he may have information, any interview must take place at the prison, and a prison officer must remain in attendance. However, Article 3 would enable such individuals to be remanded back into police custody at a police station or at one of the terrorist holding centres, as appropriate, for further questioning. Therefore, the new provision in Article 3 should assist the police by removing the difficulty of interviewing suspects in prison.

The Government believe that that is a sensible new provision. It has been made on the recommendation of my noble friend Lord Colville and offers some, albeit limited, scope for a reduction in the use of the powers of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Northern Ireland.

Article 4 of the draft order deals with my noble friend Lord Colville's recommendation in respect of the serving of documentary exhibits in connection with committal proceedings. The article would provide the prosecution with a discretion, in connection with a preliminary inquiry, either to serve the accused with a copy of a written exhibit or to furnish such information as may be necessary to enable the defence to examine the exhibit.

The requirement to serve a copy of a written exhibit is mandatory and is the cause of the difficulty since, if the written exhibit contains sensitive or confidential information (such as information likely to be useful to terrorists in planning acts of violence), there may be good reason why it should not be served on the accused. As the law currently stands in Northern Ireland, the prosecution is, in effect, required to hand back to an accused the basis of his or her wrong-doing and to give him or his associates the opportunity to repeat it. The Government agree with my noble friend Lord Colville and the Director of Public Prosecutions that that is a mischief which must be tackled.

Article 4 would bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in England and Wales, where the prosecution already has the discretion which Article 4 would confer on the prosecution in Northern Ireland.

I would like to assure your Lordships on one point. The Government's intention is that copies of written exhibits should continue to be served on the accused in the usual way, and only in exceptional circumstances should copies be denied. But even where copies are denied that will not involve any infringement of the accused's rights. The House will wish to note that the accused's rights are protected by the requirement in Article 4 for the prosecution to serve notice of where and when written exhibits may be examined by the defence, in cases where those exhibits are not served.

Article 5 of the draft order would extend the time limit for a claim for compensation made under the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 by a person who was under 18 when the injury was sustained. That provision is required to remove an anomaly created by an amendment made to the 1977 order by the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. That anomaly could in certain circumstances place minors criminally injured before the 1988 order came into effect at a disadvantage relative to those injured after it came into effect in so far as time limits for making applications are concerned. There are probably few such cases, but, as they involve violence to children and young persons, including cases of sexual abuse, the Government have concluded that the anomaly created by the 1988 order must be removed.

Article 6 makes minor technical amendments to extra-territorial legislation, consequential from the Criminal Damage (Northern Ireland) Order 1977.

Article 7 amends the Probation Board (Northern Ireland ) Order 1982 to clarify the Probation Board's powers to fund schemes run by voluntary organisations for the prevention of crime and the rehabilitation of offenders. The article also clarifies and extends the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to inspections of the Probation Board and of services provided by voluntary organisations in connection with the board's activities.

Those are the provisions of the draft order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th June be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the clear manner in which he introduced the order. As he said, it has nothing to do with the Criminal Justice Bill. It concerns the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and the Criminal Damage (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. We on these Benches support the concept of extending the time limit for a claim to compensation under the Criminal Injuries Order and giving the Secretary of State extra powers to inspect probation hostels and bail hostels.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his clear explanation of the provisions which go a long way towards filling some of the lacunae that my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross pointed out in his report. However, perhaps my noble friend will clarify one point in Article 3. New paragraph 4(D) refers to an accused person who is not under the age of 21 years and is not already detained under a custodial sentence. Am I right in thinking that that fills a gap? Is the age limit for those offences 16 or 18? What is the significance of the age of 21? If my noble friend cannot explain now, I should be grateful if he would explain later.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I apologise for not being in my place when the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, spoke to the order. It appears that I misread my timetable. I thank the noble Lord for having introduced the order. I thank him also for having made available an explanatory document when the proposal for the order was first published in March. So far as I can see, the March proposal has not been amended in the light of consultations. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

From these Benches we respectfully and wholeheartedly welcome Articles 3, 4, 5 and 6. Articles 3 and 4 give effect to the recommendations of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. I am sure that Article 5 will bring relief to victims who are minors when they suffer injury. Otherwise, there is the danger that a minor would be caught in the trap of failing to bring his claim within three years of the date of injury. The proposal therefore makes for justice.

Perhaps I may now turn to Article 7. The Minister explained that it deals with the power of inspection of the Probation Board and the relevant establishments. I should be grateful for clarification of, or assurances about, a few inherent matters that arise from the provisions of the article. First, how are we to reconcile new paragraphs 14(1) and 14(5)? Under the former, an inspector is empowered to undertake an inspection if directed to do so by the Secretary of State or if he has obtained the Secretary of State's approval. However, under paragraph 5 he can also enter any relevant establishment and investigate its management, even though he has not been authorised to do so by the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister can explain the circumstances in which an inspection will take place on the inspector's individual initiative.

Secondly, is it necessary or right that the inspector should have the right to enter the premises of an establishment when his entry has not been authorised by the Secretary of State or by a magistrate's warrant? In asking those questions, I am mindful that the order provides that it is a criminal offence for any person to obstruct entry. I am also mindful that the protection of private property is a key feature of the law. In my view, that is sufficient reason for asking those two questions.

Thirdly, I am interested to learn the qualifications of the inspector. Where the inspection is undertaken under paragraph 14(1), the inspector is entitled to demand and examine accounts, books, records and documents. I am sure that he should have such powers but, even though he is so clothed, in this imperfect world it may not be easy to get to the truth. That is why I should like to know whether the inspector will have the necessary accountancy skills to analyse the detailed financial information that may be produced in order to satisfy himself, for example, that the Probation Board is not being exploited or even defrauded; or whether he will have the power and the resources to buy in the financial skills if he finds that such expertise is required.

Fourthly, under paragraph 14(1) the inspector has to report to the Secretary of State the outcome of an inspection. We accept that that must be so. But I note that he is under no statutory duty to report the outcome of an inspection under paragraph 14(5). Should there not be a statutory duty to report the outcome at least to the Probation Board and possibly to the establishment which has been the subject of the inspection?

I come to my final question. We are told that if he thinks fit the Secretary of State may publish the inspector's report in such form as he deems proper. That means that there can be two reports: the complete report, which may not be published, and a summary or edited version. That raises a particular concern. If the report contains serious allegations of misconduct on the part of an individual member of staff—staff of the Probation Board or the relevant establishment—I wonder whether we can have an assurance that the individual member of staff involved will be given reasonable opportunity to respond to the criticism before the report is submitted to the Secretary of State. I also seek assurance that the identity of the individual who is so criticised will not be disclosed in the published report.

Obviously I seek those assurances for reasons connected with justice. But having asked those few questions, I am pleased to support the order.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for having taken part in this short debate on the order and to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for the welcome that he gave to it. Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Lyell, for whose intervention I am also grateful, that Article 3—indeed the order—does not apply to persons under the age of 21. The Government considered the case for applying the power to remand to police custody to those under 21 years of age but concluded that it would represent a significant and unjustified change in policy in relation to the treatment of children and young persons. However, we shall keep under review the possibility of applying the power to those under 21 years of age and will reconsider the case if there is a clearly demonstrated need for the power to be so extended.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for giving me notice of the questions that he asked about Article 7, relating to the probation service. The noble Lord's first question was how Article 14(5) and 14(1) can be reconciled. There will essentially be two types of inspection. The first, as envisaged in Article 14(1), will be on the basis of a multi-annual programme intended to cover all aspects of the work of the Probation Board over a number of years. Such inspections will be signalled in advance and subject to prior discussions with the board on both timing and content. The second type of inspection, authorised under Article 14(5), will be in the nature of spot checks, unannounced and without prior notice. That will be particularly valuable in providing reassurance about quality of treatment in residential establishments such as hostels and centres providing treatment under the fourth condition of a probation order. There was consultation about bringing forward this order and the Probation Board was consulted.

The noble Lord asked about the protection of privacy of property under the order. He questioned the justification for allowing an inspector to enter an establishment without the authority of the Secretary of State or a justice's warrant. Article 14(8) defines an inspector as a person appointed by the Secretary of State. In carrying out an inspection under Article 14(5) an inspector will therefore be acting under the general authority of my right honourable friend, will have been formally appointed as such, and will carry a written authorisation to that effect. I should not have thought it necessary, or indeed practicable, for the inspector to seek prior approval to carry out every single spot check.

The noble Lord asked about the qualifications of the inspectors. They will be members of the social services inspectorate of the Department of Health and Social Security in Northern Ireland. Their expertise lies primarily in the field of professional practice although as members of a government department they would have access to financial advice if necessary —a specific point that the noble Lord put to me. However, the financial affairs of the Probation Board are subject to regular scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Office. The Northern Ireland Office Internal Audit Unit has access to the board's books, and its accounts are audited by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

The noble Lord suggested that there should be a statutory duty on an inspector to report on the outcome of an inspection. As I have explained, we are referring to spot checks. However, I give an assurance that should any substantive problem be identified then a detailed inspection would be made, followed by a full report.

Finally, the noble Lord asked this question. If serious allegations of misconduct are made against an individual staff member in a report, will the individual concerned be given a reasonable opportunity to respond before the report is submitted to the Secretary of State? What about identity not being disclosed? We envisage that the normal procedure would be for a draft report to be made available to the organisation under inspection, giving it an opportunity to comment and react before the final report is sent to my right honourable friend. Unless a criminal investigation were to be called for, it would be for the Probation Board or another body as the employer, to decide how best to handle allegations against an individual. It would be contrary to natural justice for disciplinary action to be taken without making the matters known and giving an individual the opportunity to respond. It would not be normal practice for individuals to be named in any published reports but I cannot absolutely rule that out in every single circumstance.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me notice of his detailed questions. I hope that those responses may be of help to the noble Lord and to the House. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.