HL Deb 12 May 1998 vol 589 cc944-6

3 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When it is expected that Guardsmen Wright and Fisher will be released.

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

My Lords, no decision has yet been taken regarding a release date for Guardsmen Wright and Fisher.

In October 1997 the Secretary of State decided that the cases of the two guardsmen should be considered by the Life Sentence Review Board in October this year. The timing of this review is currently the subject of a judicial review. Judgment is awaited.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Do the Government acknowledge that the exercise of ministerial discretion to release those serving a mandatory life sentence for murder does not have to conform with advice from the judiciary or from a review board? If so, and it is so, why is that ministerial discretion—it is akin to the royal prerogative—not exercised to release those guardsmen now?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I well understand the strong feelings held on this subject. However, the Government have made their position quite clear. The Life Sentence Review Board looked at the cases last October. It was agreed by the Secretary of State that the Life Sentence Review Board would again look at the cases this coming October. That seems to me a proper process free of political influence; and a process which has been accelerated. Normally that body would not consider cases until the 10-year period. It started looking at this case after five years, and will do so again after six years.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, do the Government understand that such Questions are entirely natural after a weekend when convicted terrorists were released to attend a political meeting? Such concerns represented in this House are but a pale shadow of the wave of concern that is sweeping Northern Ireland because of a perception that the incessant and insatiable demands of paramilitary parties always seem to take precedence over the reasonable requirements of democratically rooted parties, law abiding citizens and sometimes justice itself. Do the Government understand that those so-called risks in aid of the settlement are beginning to become more of a risk to the settlement?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I listen to the noble Lord because of the great knowledge he brings to bear from his experiences in Northern Ireland and his involvement with the talks process. The prisoners who were temporarily allowed out of prison to attend the conference last Sunday were allowed out only on a short-term basis. There are precedents for allowing prisoners out on a short-term basis—for example, for compassionate reasons. It was judged helpful to the peace process if the views of a limited number of prisoners could be heard. That was a decision made. The prisoners are now safely behind bars.

Lord Annan

My Lords, why must the noble Lord be so formalistic about this matter? If the Balcombe Street murderers have been released, why could not the guardsmen be released as part of the process?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, first, the Balcombe Street gang were released by the Dublin Government, not by the British Government. But using the word "release" is not accurate. I understand that they were let out for a couple of days. The two or three prisoners held in prison in Northern Ireland who were allowed to go to that conference were let out for a short period of a couple of days only. That is not the same as a release.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the Government are to legislate shortly to set up a sentence review board to facilitate the release of loyalist republican prisoners under a new scheme as part of the settlement. Will those two guardsmen be dealt with in the same way?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my noble friend touches on an important point. Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, subject to legislation going through Parliament, there will be established a sentence review body which will look at earlier releases of prisoners held in prisons in Northern Ireland.

The position as regards those two guardsmen is as follows. Clearly their case will still come before the Life Sentence Review Board this October. However, if the legislation goes through in time, and the new sentence review body is set up, it is possible that that body might decide in its scheme of priorities to consider the case of the guardsmen early on. So they will come for consideration under one body or the other.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, in reply to my noble friend Lord Campbell, the Minister said that last October the Life Sentence Review Board made a recommendation, and the Secretary of State decided not to let the men out. The two events had nothing whatever to do with one another. May we assume that the long delay in finding any answer to the review held on 25th March—we were promised it in about April—bodes well for a favourable decision both from the judge and the Secretary of State?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I cannot comment on what the judge will be minded to decide when he announces his decision. That is for the judiciary. However, last October the Life Sentence Review Board made its confidential recommendations to the Secretary of State. I have no knowledge as to the contents of that recommendation. It may well have been to keep them inside; I simply do not know. But the Secretary of State decided that it would be proper in the circumstances to ask the Life Sentence Review Board to consider again the cases of the two guardsmen this coming October. That is the position.