HL Deb 12 December 1996 vol 576 cc1193-6

3.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th November be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to this order, with your Lordships' permission, I shall speak also to the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1997.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order is to update the criminal law in Northern Ireland in several important areas. It will implement proposals flowing from the 1993 discussion paper Crime and the Community, and will also introduce a series of other provisions which will bring Northern Ireland broadly into line with more recent changes in England and Wales. For ease of reference by practitioners and courts, the order will also restate some existing legislation on the treatment of offenders.

The introduction of a new statutory sentencing framework for financial, community and custodial punishments is of central importance. While the Criminal Justice Act 1991 established such a framework in England and Wales, sentencers in Northern Ireland continue to rely on guidance from the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.

The enhanced range of community penalties will offer the courts a more varied but no less challenging range of options for dealing with offenders within the community. Before imposing a community or custodial sentence, the court must be of the opinion that the seriousness of the offence, or the combination of the offence and one or more associated offences, justifies it. In addition, before deciding whether to impose a custodial sentence for a violent or sexual offence, a court must also consider the need to protect the public from serious harm from the offender. The new framework will make a considerable contribution towards ensuring fairness, consistency and clarity in sentencing decisions in the Northern Ireland courts.

Unlike England and Wales, Northern Ireland has no general system of post-release supervision of offenders. The order will make two changes in this area. First, a new sentence will be introduced for offences which are serious enough to merit imprisonment for one year or more. In these circumstances, the "custody probation order" will, with the consent of the offender, involve a period of custody followed by a period of supervision under probation of between one and three years. Second, the courts will be given the option of being able to require those convicted of sexual offences to be supervised on licence from the date of their release from prison until the expiry of the pronounced sentence.

As a result of the consultation process, a small number of changes have been made to the published draft, and I feel it appropriate to draw these to the attention of the House.

There are three new provisions which will bring Northern Ireland further into line with Great Britain in matters relating to knives and other dangerous weapons.

These will: prohibit the sale of knives to children under the age of 16; ban the manufacture and sale of flick and gravity knives; and make arrestable the offence of carrying an article with a blade or point on school premises.

In order to ensure that pre-sentence reports are sought and obtained when necessary, a court must now give reasons why it is of the opinion that a pre-sentence report is not required.

The provision which extended the normal 60-day limit in relation to activities and attendance at a day centre where an offender was convicted of a sexual offence has been removed from the list of additional requirements in Schedule 1 to the order. The other additional requirements will provide the courts with an adequate range of options.

In cases of breach of the probation element of a custody probation order, the court will now be able to take into account the extent to which the sentence has already been satisfied by the time spent in custody.

In relation to the release of sex offenders on licence, concern was expressed about the extent of the powers given to the Secretary of State to revoke licences and recall offenders without recourse to any judicial process. Failure to comply with the conditions of a licence will therefore now be dealt with by the courts which may impose a fine of £1,000 or suspend the licence and return the offender to prison for up to six months. Should the offender be convicted of a further offence during the licence period, the court will be able to return him to prison for all or part of that period. Finally, the provisions on fines and financial circumstances now include those aged under 17.

A number of consequential amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 1991 extend to the whole of the United Kingdom and it is therefore necessary, by virtue of Section 38(2) of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, to include them in the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1997 which was laid along with the main order.

In conclusion, I believe that these important orders will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th November be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, for her detailed explanation of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order and the consequential order. In many respects the provisions are similar to those already operating in Great Britain. I welcome both orders on the authority of my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn who regrets that he cannot be with us this afternoon.

I do not want to take up the time of the House except briefly to make one point. When the order was introduced to the second standing committee on delegated legislation in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the general point was made that Northern Ireland should not have had to wait so long for these provisions. In response the Minister in another place rightly emphasised the importance of retaining the integrity of the Northern Ireland statute book and that of course is part of the picture.

Nevertheless, there seems to have been a problem of delay in introducing new legislation to meet the need in Northern Ireland. Mr. Ross, an experienced Member of the House of Commons from Northern Ireland, said in Tuesday's debate that we should be moving faster than we are. I could not have put it better. I trust that the Minister will not say that this is undue simplicity on our part.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for her customary clarity in introducing the order. We on these Benches welcome the order and particularly the process of consultation that has taken place leading up to its introduction. We accept the consequential amendments order that goes naturally with it.

It is particularly welcome that Northern Ireland is now to benefit from the same legislation over the sale of knives to under 16 year-olds as the rest of the United Kingdom. Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I ask whether the Government can say why it has taken so long to reach here. But if that is a complaint, perhaps I can say how agreeable it is to be able to discuss Northern Ireland business before tea rather than after dinner, which is the normal experience of those who deal with these matters. With those remarks, let me say that I support the order.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, these orders are a welcome contribution to the refinement of our criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. This humane refinement stands in stark contrast to the brutal assaults on young people in Northern Ireland. They are trussed up like chickens and beaten mercilessly until their bones are broken. I find it objectionable that the press frequently describe those attacks as "punishment beatings" as though they were some form of rough justice. They are no justice at all. They are a cruel attempt to impose a cruel reign of terror in parts of Northern Ireland. Euphemisms such as "punishment beatings" should not be used. They suggest that the motivation and effect are in some distant way related with the sort of responsible and humane criminal justice which is the substance of these orders.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their support of the orders. The delay causes concern to everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, drew attention to the fact that we are fortunate today to be able to bring the Northern Ireland business to the House not only at an early hour, but also with rather more people in the Chamber than is often the case, although it is obvious that they are here for the future business of the afternoon.

We consulted heavily and brought forward the amendment to the 1994 order. There is a fine balance between coming forward with another piece of legislation for every change and coming forward with a substantive order which allows practitioners and courts to operate effectively. That is what we have tried to do.

I express total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. What we see day on day in Northern Ireland unfortunately represents no sense of fairness and no sense of law and order. It is pure criminality and to disguise it as having a right by the term "punishment beating" is wrong. I make the commitment that I shall try never to use that term and also take the message to my colleagues. We must recognise that it is pure brutality of the highest order. No one in Northern Ireland is outside the reach of law and order and we must concentrate on ensuring that that is how justice is dealt with. Having said that, I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.