HL Deb 02 November 1995 vol 566 cc1507-24

3.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of the Bill is to restore the position which existed in Northern Ireland until 1989 that all fixed sentence prisoners, regardless of the nature of their offences, became eligible for release at the half-way point in sentence. The Bill would secure that in future, in Northern Ireland as in all other jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, all fixed sentence prisoners will be required to serve a minimum period of 50 per cent. of their sentence.

In addition, the Bill provides that those so released will, like their counterparts in the other United Kingdom jurisdictions, be on licence for a period. They will be liable for recall by the Secretary of State if they present a risk to the safety of others or are likely to commit further offences.

Currently, remission is limited to a maximum of one-third of sentence for serious terrorist offenders under Section 14 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991. This provision re-enacted Section 22 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. Prior to 1989 all prisoners in Northern Ireland were granted one half remission.

Noble Lords will recall the background against which Section 22 of the PTA was introduced. On Remembrance Day 1987 there was the attack in Enniskillen which resulted in 11 deaths. The year 1988 saw the deaths of six soldiers after a "Fun Run" in Lisburn and the deaths of eight soldiers whose coach was attacked at Ballygawley, County Tyrone.

There were also attacks on civilians by loyalist and republican terrorists, including incidents in which the Provisional IRA killed a six year-old boy and his parents by "mistake" and similarly murdered three civilians in Londonderry with a bomb meant for the security forces. In total, during 1988, 94 people lost their lives.

The situation in Northern Ireland is now very different. The cease-fires have been maintained for more than a year and the risk of scheduled offenders committing further terrorist-related offences is greatly reduced.

Against this background, in August of this year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that he would seek early legislation to enable those serving sentences for terrorist offences to be released on licence after they have served 50 per cent. of their sentences.

The Bill before the House today meets that commitment both in content and in timing. The Bill has been brought before the House at short notice to respond in a timely way to the changes that I have described and not, I stress, for any other purpose.

I should like to explain briefly the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 mitigates the effect of Section 14 of the Emergency Provisions Act 1991. That section restricts remission for those offenders convicted of a scheduled offence and sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment of five years or more to a maximum of one-third.

Subsection (2) provides that such prisoners will be released on licence on the date on which they would have been eligible for release on remission had they been sentenced for a non-scheduled offence. In effect, under current rules this means at the half-way point of their sentence.

Subsection (3) allows the Secretary of State to revoke a licence if it appears to him that the licensee's continued liberty would be a risk to the safety of others or that he is likely to commit further offences. This is a necessary safeguard. But it is not intended as a punishment for minor misdemeanours. Instead, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland assured Members in another place, the power will be used only where a licensee appears likely to commit further serious offences.

Subsection (4) allows a person whose licence has been revoked to make representations in writing to the Secretary of State. It also requires that he is informed of the reasons for his recall and of his right to make representations. The Secretary of State gave an undertaking also that, as is the case currently with those serving life sentences, that information will be given in writing to the prisoner.

Subsection (6) applies where a person is convicted of a further offence committed while on licence and has the effect that a person may, and if the offence is a scheduled offence must, be required to serve the outstanding portion of his sentence before commencing the new sentence.

Clause 2 provides for commencement by statutory instrument. This is a necessary provision to ensure that prisoners can be released in an orderly way. It is the intention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to implement the Bill as soon as practicable and certainly in time to enable prisoners to be released before Christmas.

Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to suspend the scheme should changes in circumstances make it necessary and later to revive it. The suspension of the scheme will not result in the recall of those prisoners already released on licence. Recall may be ordered only where it is justified in individual circumstances.

Clause 4 provides for the affirmative resolution procedure to be used in suspending the scheme but allows an exception in cases of urgency.

There are 471 prisoners to whom Section 14 of the EPA currently applies. If the scheme were introduced in early December, more than 90 prisoners would be released before Christmas. A further 88 would be released during the following year. In total, around 340 prisoners will have been released by the end of the decade.

This Bill is not an amnesty, nor is it a concession or reward to terrorists. Instead, it is a measure that is proportionate to the improvement in the security situation in Northern Ireland that we have all been so pleased to see over the past year. It is in line with the Government's commitment to make changes which are consistent with the gradual return to normality, but without putting the public at needless risk. I believe the measure will have a positive, beneficial impact in Northern Ireland.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

3.53 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we support the general thrust and purpose of the Bill. Indeed, Dr. Mowlam in another place called for a move along these lines, as I did in your Lordships' House as long ago as June of this year.

Before I come to the detail, we have a duty to reflect on a wider context. Prisoners convicted of what are by definition serious criminal offences are to be released as of right after serving one half of their sentences. For victims, those with broken limbs and wounded hearts, there will be no remission and no licence. Therefore this measure is justified only as part of a wider process which we hope will bring continued peace. We should not forget those who did their duty and discharged it properly—police officers, prison officers and, in particular, the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Without that duty being properly discharged, there would be no such defendants.

The Bill passed through another place in all its stages as recently as Monday last. It is likely to do so in this House today. The precedents for legislation as hurried as this are not historically encouraging. One needs only to think of the Official Secrets Act at the beginning of this century or, more recently, the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Government's view, plainly expressed by the Secretary of State in another place, is that it is not possible, given the hurried timescale, to accept any amendments. Therefore, I shall look at the detail of the Bill, ask for some clarification, seek some undertakings and welcome others.

We need to understand what the Bill does. It does not bring the regime in Northern Ireland into consonance with the regime in England and Wales. It offers, as of right, licence—that is, release—after half a sentence has been served. At the beginning of October this year the present Home Secretary said, Five years should mean five years … no more automatic early release—no more half-time sentences for full-time crimes". That was said within the past four weeks. Last Thursday, in its original draft form—not the form eventually considered by another place—this Bill offered a completely opposite view. One is entitled, on a sensible basis, to ask what the Government's committed approach is to penal policy. Is one to take it that the present Home Secretary agrees with this measure?

I repeat that what is being offered is supported on this side; but not on the false basis that it is simply putting Northern Ireland in the same position as England and Wales. Any person in England and Wales serving a sentence of imprisonment of more than four years is not entitled to release, as of right, after serving 50 per cent. of that sentence.

Clause 1(2) states, A person to whom this section applies shall be released on licence". In other words, it is a mandatory direction giving an "as of right" entitlement to a convicted prisoner. There is no reference to any condition being imposed on such a licence. I believe it to be the Government's view that no such conditions will be imposed. That may be acceptable, but it should be out in the open. As I understand it, and the Minister will correct me if I misapprehend, there are to be no conditions of reporting or, as far as I can discover, even of residence. That is to say, a convicted prisoner, released as of right after half a sentence has been served, will have no obligation to live within any part of the United Kingdom; he will be able to live in any country in the world which is willing to receive him. It is well known that a release on licence in England and Wales commonly carries conditions such as reporting to a designated officer, conditions of residence and so forth.

Clause 1(3) is far too widely drawn. In another place my honourable friend Mr. Worthington drew the attention of the Secretary of State to the shoddy drafting. The Secretary of State is entitled to revoke a licence if a person is likely to commit a further offence. On one absurd hypothesis that could include an offence such as drinking after hours. I am obliged that the Minister in your Lordships' House has made it plain that the word "serious" ought to have been included, or at least she has given the undertaking that only a serious offence will qualify for revocation of a licence. One does not want to carp, but the legislation should have been put in proper order on its full face rather than needing undertakings.

The drafting of subsection (4) seems almost wilfully perverse. It states: If a person's licence is revoked—

  1. (a) he may make representations in writing to the Secretary of State … and
  2. (b) he shall as soon as is practicable be informed of the reason for the revocation".
My Lords, the cart is well and truly stuck before the horse. I am obliged for the adoption in another place by the Secretary of State and for the repetition in your Lordship' House of the undertaking that the reasons for revocation will on every occasion be in writing.

There are other questions. Is it envisaged that legal aid should be available for a released person who is likely to have his licence revoked so that there may be the study of reasons and the drafting of representations? The Secretary of State here is given draconian powers over an individual who has been released. There ought to be at least some thought about a judicial or quasi-judicial component in the revocation process. There ought to be some redress on the merits, not simply on procedural grounds or the usual narrow judicial review grounds. I would ask the Minister to consider with some care whether or not this aspect should not be looked at as part of the general review of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, of which, incidentally, I would welcome some further news as to the date of the review, the terms of reference and the persons who are likely to undertake that review.

Why is Clause 2 necessary at all? The Bill, if it passes through your Lordships' House today, will have been hurried. Why is a statutory instrument in respect of commencement necessary if the intention is that 90 persons or so should be released to their homes by Christmas? I have understood no reason from the Minister why that should be required. The power is given to the Secretary of State to suspend the entire scheme. There is only one circumstance in which I could understand such a suspension being required; namely, the virtual total breakdown of the present peace process and ceasefire. If that were to occur, would it not be inevitable that Parliament would be virtually immediately recalled? Why are these powers required? It might be of interest to your Lordships and indeed a wider public if the Minister could indicate the longest sentence which is presently being served and which has been imposed judicially on a defendant who is likely to be released this year.

Those are questions which I hope I have put forward in a non-partisan way in a desire to he helpful in a rather brief scrutiny of this hurried legislation. I recognise, of course, that it is part of a wider process involving not simply the release on licence but, where appropriate, the transfer of prisoners to Northern Ireland on humanitarian grounds. We welcome the burden of this legislation. There are questions which I have sought to put, generally of course. We shall not seek to put any handicap in the way of the passing of the Bill.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, from these Benches I give an unambiguous welcome to the Bill and say in advance of any other observations I intend to make that the Government will have the support of these Benches in putting the Bill through all its stages this afternoon. It has not come too soon. As the noble Baroness knows, it is a subject in which I have taken a considerable personal interest and in which I have been involved in discussions with both former loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

The case for the Bill does not simply rest on grounds of penal rationality or of common humanity but also that it represents in its context an important step forward, or at least the assurance of not stepping backwards in the so-called peace process. I do not think that any of your Lordships should underestimate the significance of the matter of prisoners. Indeed, I am tempted to say that the more we see deadlock on the issue of so-called decommissioning and the surrendering of armaments and munitions, the more important it is that we have some progress on the matter of prisoners.

It is a common feature of longstanding, deep conflicts when they end that some reconciliation has to be reached on the question of prisoners. That was the case in South Africa; that is currently the case in the Middle East; and it will have to be part of entrenching any future settlement in Northern Ireland. I shall say a little more about that in a moment. But it is true that for both the republican and loyalist former paramilitaries the prisoners represent their core constituency. Those are the people who in their own terms need to see that out of the peace process there is something for them. I believe that fair and humane treatment of prisoners makes one of the building blocks towards some kind of proper political progress.

I also welcome the Bill because it clears up a rather disturbing confusion that had arisen between the statement of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in August that he intended to bring forward this legislation and the speech of the Home Secretary at the Conservative Party Conference. Many people in Northern Ireland had been reassured by the Secretary of State's statement of intent on remission but were then confused by the Home Secretary's words to the Conservative Party faithful. Noble Lords will recall that at the conference Mr. Howard said that there should be no more half-time sentences for full-time crimes. I am very gratified to see that the good Dr. Jekyll, in the shape of Sir Patrick Mayhew, has triumphed in this argument over Mr. Howard, or should I say Mr. Hyde. It is good to see that the argument has been won by the Northern Ireland Office and not by the Home Office.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has said, there are aspects of the Bill which are profoundly unattractive. I should like to refer to one of them, which is Clause 1(3). In defining the conditions under which the Home Secretary can recall prisoners to gaol and revoke their licences it uses the words: if it appears to him that the person's continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or that he is likely to commit further offences". That is left to the judgment and discretion of the Secretary of State.

That is a most extraordinary provision to have in a Bill brought before a British Parliament. It really seems to belong much more in one of those Ruritanian dictatorships as powers of a shadowy minister of-the interior. Why on earth could the Bill not simply say that the licence would be revoked in the event of an offence being committed? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams. If we have to have such a clause, at least the word "serious" should be attached to it. In terms of the traditions of British rights and freedoms it is not an acceptable clause. I very much regret that the Government, perhaps in the mistaken belief that it would help to build support for the provision among those who might be apprehensive, have included the clause as it is presently expressed.

In conclusion, I very much hope that this is not the end to careful and controlled progress on the issue of prisoners. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that any question of a general amnesty for the foreseeable future is absolutely unthinkable. A great many of these prisoners are in prison for most grave and serious offences which have left a trail of misery, death and injury behind them. It would not be acceptable that there should be some general forgiveness of prisoners.

However, there are things that can be done within the British tradition of penal policy which would be quite reasonable to put into effect. For instance, I hope that the Government will be much more generous this year as regards Christmas parole. I believe that I am right in saying that last year there was a reduction in the number of loyalist prisoners who were released for Christmas. There does not appear to have been any case of seasonable parole having been abused or broken by a prisoner. That gives us some scope for humanity on these issues.

Finally, the signing by the Republic of Ireland of the European convention on the transfer of prisoners comes into effect shortly. That provides both an opportunity and a danger over the transfer of prisoners so that they can be near their families in the way that the Ferrers Report suggested. The opportunity is that Anglo-Irish co-operation, which has been one of the great features of the Government's achievements on the framework document and subsequently, will be able to flourish on this issue. The danger is that the Government may not grasp the opportunity and that their policy on the transfer of prisoners—led, of course, by the Home Office and not by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—will lead them to become isolated on this issue.

I welcome this Bill. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will be able to indicate the general direction of the Government's thinking on some of these wider penal issues.

4.12 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I do not oppose this Bill, but that is on the basis that it is merely to bring the law in Northern Ireland in line with the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. I know that it does not altogether do that, but I am told that that is the basis behind this piece of proposed legislation. Again, I understand—I hope that it will be reaffirmed—that no bargain has been made with any terrorist organisation to bring in this measure. I condemn terrorists of all shades of opinion. Too often people here and elsewhere are inclined to brand one lot of terrorists as being distinct from another lot. They are all criminals and ought to be treated as such. As someone said, there is to be remission here for those who have committed crimes, but there is no remission for the widows and children of those who have been murdered or maimed. For them, there is no kind of remission.

I am glad that there are provisions in this Bill for the recall of prisoners on licence who commit further offences or who otherwise appear to be a danger to the public. But what worries me is that it appears that any prisoner is entitled automatically to release after 50 per cent. of his sentence has been served. That is different from the rest of the United Kingdom. It means that there may be prisoners who have committed a very unwholesome crime or who are known to be dangerous individuals, and they are entitled to automatic release. It may be possible a little later on to recall them, but heaven knows what they may have done in the meantime. Therefore, I am not quite happy about this right to remission.

As the noble Baroness said, there may have been fewer murders committed recently, but there is still a great deal of terrorist activity going on. There is a great deal of Mafia-style activity such as drug dealing, the beating up of ordinary members of the community and sometimes some who are transparently innocent of any transgression. So do not let us run away with the thought that there is no longer any terrorist activity. In fact, I am reliably informed that since 1969, 1,800 terrorist murders remain unsolved. I hope that we shall be told that the RUC will continue to investigate and seek out the perpetrators of these crimes, for a crime is a crime, no matter when it was committed; no matter by whom it was committed; and no matter on what pretext.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, of necessity, I must repeat some of the points made by previous speakers. This is a short Bill with very few clauses. However, those of us who have lived in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years are not very concerned about the legalistic and libertarian approach. What is at the back of our minds is the number of people we have seen brutally murdered and maimed in the campaign over the past 25 years. I believe that the Government should be very careful to prevent this legislation being seen as a further concession to the IRA.

I find myself in great difficulty. I do not reject this Bill or support it, but since its contents have become known, I have been in constant touch with many people in Northern Ireland. They are as apprehensive as I am that this legislation will be seen as yet one more concession to terrorism. The Government have explained that it cannot be seen in that way and that it is a matter of bringing the situation for Northern Ireland prisoners into line with prisoners in Britain.

Perhaps I may try to describe the emotional effect of this legislation. The noble Baroness has said that 90 prisoners will be released before Christmas. They will be released back into the community of Northern Ireland. They will probably walk down the same streets, shop in the same shops or drink in the same bars as their victims or their relatives. One must take into account at all times how those victims who have been maimed, or the relatives of victims who have been killed, will feel over the Christmas period to know that the murderers of their husbands, or sons, or daughters, or those who carried out maimings on their family, have been released for Christmas. As has already been said, there will be no Christmas joy for the relatives of those so brutally murdered.

I wish to reinforce as strongly as I can what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. I myself could not believe the figures that were announced by the honourable Member for Strangford in another place. He said that there are still 1,800 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland over the 25-year period. It is such a small place with a population of 1.5 million people and yet there still remain 1,800 unsolved murders. I shall ask the same question which was asked by a Member of another place. Are the RUC and the security forces still pursuing those murderers and investigating them, with every intention of bringing them to justice, no matter what the paramilitaries may say, or whatever concessions may be demanded? Will the RUC continue to pursue those who are responsible for these serious acts and bring them before the courts of justice? I think that there is a precedent for that. In South Africa in 1989, 11 members of the so-called "white security forces" were responsible for the murder of innocent people who were members of the ANC. The new government in South Africa have made certain that, irrespective of the years that have passed, those responsible will be brought before the courts of justice to answer for their crimes. I must advise the noble Baroness that my comments are made irrespective of the legalistic approach that may be taken with regard to this legislation.

I read the Irish Times today before coming to this House. All sorts of threats are being made by Sinn Fein: that the peace process is in danger and seems to be stalling; and that the Government are not moving quickly enough in terms of prisoners and have made no further concessions in relation to the decommissioning obstacle. We have been reading about such matters for several months but I honestly believe that the Government have made concession after concession to the forces of violent republicanism in Northern Ireland.

I conclude by making a heartfelt appeal to the Government. I believe that this question has already been asked today by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Is there any possibility of a list being printed in Hansard or supplied to us personally of those—I believe that they number 90—who are to be released, of the crimes for which they were sentenced and for how many years. It appears that they must have been sentenced for more than five years if they were sentenced since 1989. It may be said that there will be reluctance to include such information in Hansard, but when those prisoners are released, the information will be known throughout Northern Ireland. Everybody will be able to identify them. Therefore, I advise the noble Baroness that she should be very careful when giving advice to the Secretary of State in relation to such releases. She should take into account at all times the sad and sorry Christmas facing many people in Northern Ireland.

4.22 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Bill. Its genesis is undoubtedly the very welcome and, I hope, increasingly sustainable improvement in community relations in Northern Ireland. The inclusion of prisoners who have been convicted of serious terrorist offences within the broadly UK-wide remission of sentence arrangements will be wholly appropriate. It will be backed up by the safeguards of both the power to revoke licences and the jeopardy of having to serve the remission period tacked onto the front of any subsequent reconviction and imprisonment.

I am speaking as a former criminal justice social worker and prison social worker in Scotland. I believe that the Bill will affect the conditions of imprisonment of fewer than 500 prisoners overall. Non-scheduled offenders in Northern Ireland are already being released on licence at half-sentence. The system for the supervision of licensees is already in place. My main worry is about the process of revocation of a licence and the licensee's subsequent return to prison. I recall being involved in the revocation of two young offenders' licences. It was procedurally fortunate that the offenders in both cases had committed further offences which formed fairly solid evidence that they were not keeping to the conditions of the licence.

Like other noble Lords, I am concerned about the very subjective reasons for revocation mentioned in Clause 1(3). First, I am focusing on the operational difficulties in interpreting those conditions and coming to a decision to seek revocation. The statement, if it appears to him"— that is, the Secretary of State— that the person's continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or that he is likely to commit further offences", is very loose and liable to wide variations of interpretation and misinterpretation. In the worst case scenario, there may be little defence against the accusation that the supervisor does not like the licensee or is generally prejudiced against him or her.

Secondly, I am focusing on the possibility that the paramilitary friends of a licensee may attempt to lean on and influence the supervisor or his or her department in a more organised way than is likely in the case of a purely criminal licensee.

I am in no way opposing the Bill, but I believe that it is important to raise possible operational problems in advance. I should be happy in the future to learn that there have been no problems of the nature that I have described, but that will undoubtedly depend on the continuing success of the ceasefires and progress within the peace process.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Brookes

My Lords, in common, I believe, with thousands of other citizens I have the uncomfortable feeling that the pragmatism and even perhaps the almost excusable pernicketiness of politics and their expediencies are being used to override, to disregard and to produce an unwelcome rejection of the normal order of laws, justice and society upon which we are dependent as a nation and certainly as a House.

One has the uncomfortable feeling that the very great pressures to which a government in very great difficulty—I would not underestimate that difficulty—are responding are not the best of reasons for producing this legislation. They are certainly not responding for reasons of justice. Almost impossible pressures and persuasions are being used—not only by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Enormous pressures are being generated in the United States and applied directly or indirectly to this sovereign nation. I therefore find it uncomfortable that something like a Christmas box of freedom and family participation should be given in a hurry to people who have inflicted such great evil upon their own people, their own country and the unity of this nation.

I am sorry for the dilemma in which the Government find themselves. I can sympathise with and understand the frontal presentation which they have to put on this Bill today, but it is a matter of great regret, a matter to be deplored and something of which I believe that we cannot in our heart of hearts ever be proud.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I was happy to give way to the noble Lord, Lord Brookes, partly because of the brevity of his intervention and partly because I think that there is quite a lot in what he said.

This is a sad day—not so much because of the content of the Bill, but because of the manner in which it is being rushed through both Houses of Parliament with the most enormous speed and without any opportunity for scrutiny. I was glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, feels much the same about the Government's action in this regard. Except in times of grave national emergency—and this is not one of them—our normal practice in this House—I cannot speak for the other place—is to debate at length on Second Reading the broad principles of the changes proposed by a Bill and then, after a week or more usually a fortnight for reflection, to go through the Bill line by line with a toothcomb in Committee and then, after a further week or fortnight for reflection, to do the same at Report and possibly to do the same again on Third Reading. What a contrast to what is happening today! I must add, however, that I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, in any way because I know that the matter is not in her hands. Having got that off my chest, I must reluctantly acknowledge that this is not the first time that governments have broken our unspoken rules and conventions—and it will not be the last, I fear. So there it is.

Now to the substance of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, reminded us that it may be seen in Northern Ireland as a concession to terrorists. The noble Lord speaks with great knowledge and experience and I have a feeling that he is most probably right.

On a more precise note, one has to be uneasy at the possibility that the original gross sentences, if I may so describe them, that were imposed may have reflected the trial judge's assumption that the convicted individual would have to serve at least two-thirds of the gross sentence originally imposed. Therefore the original sentence might have been shorter than one imposed upon another individual, who had been convicted of an identical crime hut whose motives were mercenary rather than political or quasi-political. This will mean that terrorists, after the Bill receives Royal Assent, will spend less time in prison than non-terrorists for identical crimes, which hardly seems fair.

Against this, the change will bring the practice in Northern Ireland partly into line with mainland practice. (I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for pointing out that it does not do so entirely: I had thought that it did but, with his considerable knowledge, he has reminded us that is not the case). This partly harmonising integrationist effect can only be welcomed.

Also integrationist in its effect is the unspoken message in the Bill that terrorist crimes are not, as terrorists nearly always claim, less ignoble than other crimes. To rob a bank, and wound one of the tellers in the process, to obtain money for Semtex, is not in any way less wicked than to rob a bank and wound one of the tellers to obtain money for heroin or to buy a fast sports car.

One would be happier if these partly harmonising, integrationalist aspects of the Bill were deliberate rather than an accidental by-product of the main proposals. However, if—and it is a very big if—the Bill should help in any way to achieve an honourable and enduring settlement, it may yet be worth while. We shall have to wait and see.

4.31 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, may I first thank noble Lords who offered their support for this Bill, understanding the implications it has in building and trying to consolidate the peace process which, fortunately, in the main continues in Northern Ireland, though I would be the first to acknowledge—and as strongly as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell—that this is not a total peace. There are incidents of violence which are totally unacceptable and bear no credit to those who obviously must authorise them. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in the longer term that the RUC is committed, absolutely and utterly, to bringing criminals to justice.

We have heard today in your Lordships' House about concerns for a process which is extremely difficult, but we continue to work with the utmost commitment to try to ensure that the future of the people of Northern Ireland is infinitely better than the past which they have suffered. If there is to be a peace, it has been earned and deserved by the people of Northern Ireland. The politicians are tasked to sort it out, and that is a high mountain to climb.

Let me immediately assure the noble Lord, Lord Brookes, that there are no Christmas boxes in this Bill; there is no reaction to pressure from those outside the Province. We are grateful for the friendship of those who help us to build an economy which allows us to bring jobs to Northern Ireland so that the prosperity that peace can bring can be shared by all citizens of the Province. But the policies, the building of them and their operation are all the responsibility of the British Government. I stress that wholeheartedly.

It may be that the families of these people, which include innocent young children, will have the benefit of a better Christmas if this Bill goes through your Lordships' House. For the innocents we offer that. But I join wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in praising those who have protected the innocents for so many years in extremely difficult and often for them tragic circumstances. We should remind ourselves that there is no remission from the wheelchair for those who have suffered, nor from the grave.

We are reverting to a situation that was there before the terrible year of 1988. We are not trying to rewrite tremendous policies. There is an enormous amount of work to do as we build this peace. But in this instance we are trying to build for the future step by step. We are not taking hazardous risks, nor putting the majority of the people of Northern Ireland in danger. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, that it is good that we can continue to make small moves which bring not only greater normality to Northern Ireland but an ease of living for the people. We can see much of that now: you can drive down roads and visit people without being stopped frequently. People are beginning to have the sort of life which we who have not suffered like those in Northern Ireland take for granted.

I am delighted by the announcement today of the relocation of a third Army unit from the Province. It was not a political decision—a security decision—but another small move in the right direction. I must add this: I assure the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that there are no rewards and no deals. But there is a prospect of peace, which we have all worked to build, on the horizon.

Noble Lords have asked many questions. I appreciate fully that, while supporting this legislation, they want to question the manner in which it was brought forward and the wording. People who have lived in Northern Ireland through the years of the troubles desperately pray that there is not a reversion to full-blown terrorism, but we have to offer to the people who may suffer if this happened the protection of the ability to suspend this legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, asked me many questions. I shall try to be helpful. I apologise if I do not answer all of his questions. There are indeed no licence conditions other than those appearing on the face of the Bill. That means that a licence may be revoked only where the person's continued liberty would present a risk to the safety of others or where it is considered that he would be likely to commit further offences.

I understand that the offences justifying recall were also of considerable concern to Members in another place. As I said in introducing the Bill, the offences that are contemplated are serious offences, not trivial or inconsequential offences. I hope that the House will be reassured by the undertaking given by my right honourable friend to that effect.

There is no formal definition of a serious offence. In this context it might include offences of violence or offences preparatory to acts of terrorism. However, the Secretary of State must judge whether offences which are likely to be committed are serious within all the circumstances of the case.

It may be that down the road we will see parole boards; we will see a difference; we will see the parity with Great Britain that people would welcome. But at this stage I believe that the move that has been made allows for the protection of the people of Northern Ireland. It gives me satisfaction to be able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that provision is made under legal aid for those contemplating legal action in respect of decisions affecting personal liberty. So there is no need to make a special provision on legal aid.

Noble Lords asked why the Secretary of State should have the power to revoke licences. In Northern Ireland there is no parole board or other independent body to exercise discretion in these cases. The House should be reassured that any recall decision made by the Secretary of State may be subject to judicial review. The noble Lord asked whether a judicial element could be included to oversee recall more directly. That is not appropriate. The Secretary of State is responsible for public safety through the management of sentences.

I was asked why Clause 2 permits the Secretary of State to set a date for the commencement of the Act. That will allow orderly implementation of its provisions. We obviously could not predict when Royal Assent would be given. The scheme will involve releasing a large number of prisoners on one day, and so there needs to be an operational element involved.

I was asked what is the longest sentence being served by a prisoner to be released this year. I do not have the figures, but the longest possible sentence for a prisoner who will be released this year is 12 years, but I do not know the length of the longest sentence to which the legislation will apply.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the important issue of the emergency powers review. Arrangements for the review are a matter primarily for the Home Office. Discussions are continuing to select a suitable person to lead the review and to draw up his or her terms of reference. There is a need to start the review as soon as possible. Considerations are at an advanced stage. We hope that an announcement will be made in the near future. We expect the review to take about nine months to complete, which would allow a report to be available by August next year when, in the light of the report's conclusions, consideration will be given to the future of counter-terrorism legislation in the UK as a whole.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about extended parole in future. Although fewer prisoners were released last Christmas, that was not because of changed criteria but because fewer prisoners met the basic eligibility criteria in respect of the time served. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, was worried about whether automatic release would increase the danger of further offences being committed. The answer is no, because although release is automatic, the licence arrangements will allow recall where there is evidence of genuine risk to the public.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked a question which is uppermost in the minds of people who live and work in Northern Ireland: what will happen if prisoners meet victims? That is a pragmatic question which I fully understand. I have been with people in Northern Ireland when we have walked past others and I have felt that the hair of those people has literally stood up on the back of their necks. There is no need for words or questions, because one understands their deep, gut reaction. Much courage and bravery is required from everyone in Northern Ireland if we are to build on the achievement—I say that it is an achievement—of having 15 months without the enormous carnage that the Province has seen in the past. So I do not believe that it would be helpful to publish a list of prisoners. We want to ease the situation—I know that the noble Lord was not suggesting this—not to build on, and encourage the hatred, fear and nervousness that is already in people's minds. We want to ease that feeling.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that terrorist matters are crimes. There are no political prisoners. The matter that gave me the coldest feeling in the whole of my 22 months in Northern Ireland was the statement that someone was killed because it was thought that he was a Catholic, as though that made it acceptable to kill. We must always remember that crimes carried out for such reasons are major crimes. I can assure the noble Lord that that is so. I appreciate his concern at the speed of the legislation, but we are not trying to rewrite, we are trying to revert. I hope that he will accept that it is one small step which will allow us to build for the future. It is not, as I said, done as a gesture, or as a reward, or under pressure from any outsiders. The concerns of the Province are the concerns of those of us with responsibility for it, and I can assure your Lordships that I regard it as a privilege to be a Minister in Northern Ireland at the present time. We are the ones responsible for ensuring that the future of the people of Northern Ireland and their children is a bright one. I therefore ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may revert to four questions. First, are we to take it that the present Home Secretary endorses the Bill? Secondly, do I understand it correctly from the Minister that legal aid and advice will be available for people in the position as provided by Clause 1(4); that is, considering reasons and making representations before one gets to judicial review? Thirdly, am I right in my proposition, which I believe has had no dissent from the Minister, that anyone serving a sentence of more than four years in England and Wales has no automatic release as of right after 50 per cent.?

Finally, cannot the Minister assist us a little further, and with a little more precision, as to when the long overdue review is to be launched. We discussed the question of the review—I see the noble Lord, Lord Holme, nodding in assent—substantially before the Summer Recess, when we were told that things would be afoot. I must limit my questions, because the Minister, with her usual courtesy, has answered most of the rest of them.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for not answering all his questions. As I said, noble Lords asked me a considerable number of questions. I stress that the Home Secretary's proposals, which are aimed at protecting the public, something to which he is unswervingly committed, do not affect those prisoners who fall within the ambit of the Bill. This is Northern Ireland legislation, reflecting the situation in Northern Ireland.

I am not sure whether it is a disadvantage that I do not have the noble Lord's knowledge of the law in England and Wales, but I do not. I will have to confirm to him the position in England and Wales, because I do not have that knowledge. I stress again that legal aid is available in Northern Ireland in cases of personal liberty, and that will cover the situation about which he asked.

I thought that I had made it clear that, although the review of the emergency provisions is not being led by the Northern Ireland Office, progress is being made. The firmest date I gave was for when the work could be done and we could be looking at a report at the end of August. But appointments and terms of references still have to be drawn up.

I am fortunate that I can now extend my knowledge of the English and Welsh law by saying, yes, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, was correct on that point and it would have been wrong of me to doubt it. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 30th October), Bill read a third time, and passed.