HL Deb 22 March 1999 vol 598 cc1104-6

12.40 a. m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1998, which received Royal Assent on 8th April 1998, amended the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 to make provision for police interviews to be audio-recorded and for the audio-recording arrangements to be governed by a code of practice.

Audio-recording will add to a range of safeguards; for example, there is a statutory code of practice already in place governing the detention, treatment, questioning and identification of terrorist suspects in police custody. It requires, among other things, continued detention to be reviewed at 12-hourly intervals, the maintenance of detailed custody records and breaks for all normal meal times. It provides for regular visits and examinations by a medical practitioner and a right for the detained person to have a continuous period of eight hours in any period of 24 hours free from questioning, travel or interruption.

Audio-recording will run alongside the existing system of silent video recording. This, too, is governed by a statutory code of practice and has been mandatory since 10th March last year. The posts of independent commissioner and deputy commissioner for the holding centres provide valuable assurances that the range of safeguards is being fully and properly applied. These safeguards demonstrate that the Government continue to attach the greatest importance to the protection of the rights of those held in police custody.

Today I am asking your Lordships' House to approve a draft order which will bring into operation a code of practice governing audio recording. The code of practice was laid in draft before this House on 23rd February this year. It was drawn up to mirror as closely as possible the equivalent Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 code of practice on tape-recording of interviews with suspects.

The draft code sets out a range of requirements which must apply when interviews with terrorist suspects are audio-recorded. It also gives guidance to police officers and others on the application and interpretation of the code. Section 1 describes to whom the code applies, defines some of the terms which appear in it and requires that it be readily available at all police offices which are designated for the detention of terrorist suspects.

Section 2 is concerned with the integrity of the system and requires that a twin-deck tape-recorder be used with one tape, chosen by the detained person, serving as the master tape. Section 3 specifies when audio-recording shall apply. Section 4 deals with the interview prior to commencement; the loading of the tape-recorder through to cautioning; objections or complaints; changing tapes; breaks in the interviewing process; and the conclusion of the interview, including the removal of the tape from the recorder. Section 5 describes what happens after interview in terms of the preparation of written records of the interview. Sections 6 and 7 deal respectively with tape security and the destruction of tapes.

The laying of the draft code of practice followed a public consultation exercise last autumn when all interested parties were invited to comment. In the interest of maintaining parity with the equivalent PACE provisions, only minor amendments were made to the code in the light of comments received. Once the present draft order has been approved by both Houses of Parliament and is made, the Secretary of State will make a further order. That order, which will be subject to the negative resolution procedure, will make it a requirement that police interviews with persons detained under the provisions of Section 14(l)(a) or (b) of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 will be audio-recorded.

The second order will also specify additional circumstances in which police interviews are audio-recorded in accordance with the code. I shall explain the reference that I have just made to "additional circumstances". Occasionally when a person is brought before a magistrates' court after he is charged with an offence, the police will need to interview him further at a holding centre about other offences. In such circumstances, the police are not required to make a PTA arrest, or a further PTA arrest, as the case may be. Instead, they will apply under Article 47(4)(b) of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 to have the accused person remanded into the custody of a police officer for the purposes of further inquiries into other terrorist-related offences. It is proposed that interviews that take place in those circumstances will be required to be conducted in accordance with the code. I am delighted that we are taking this step today to bring the draft code of practice into operation on 24th May.

Keeping the draft code closely aligned with the PACE provisions is consistent with the Government's declared aim to align the holding centre procedures with those applicable under ordinary criminal law. The Government have consistently taken the view that the many benefits of audio-recording make it a worth while step. Audio-recordings will provide best available evidence in any court proceedings. Their disclosure to the courts should reduce the length of contested trials emerging from confessions and the tape recording will provide best available evidence to prove or disprove allegations of psychological abuse. I am happy to say that the Chief Constable of the RUC fully supports the move. On his authority, the audio-recording system has been operating in the holding centres since midnight on 10th January this year. This has provided a useful opportunity to test the system. Your Lordships' House will wish to note that the police have experienced no procedural difficulties conducting the numerous audio-recorded interviews which have taken place since then. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, given that there is still a certain level of violence and intimidation in Northern Ireland, I believe that the moves being made to introduce full audio-taping of persons held under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act to be a useful step forward. Not only will that help to ensure that the rights of those being detained are not violated, but it will no doubt help the RUC on similar matters. Such a move is constructive at this time, not only as a confidence-building measure, but also in terms of aiding the RUC in the effective prosecution of those who have committed the horrendous attacks that we have seen in recent months.

We support the provisions because they support transparency within the police force and will build on the credibility of the police force in Northern Ireland in the future. However, I have one question for the Minister. To what extent are these facilities, which involve considerable expenditure and hardware, available throughout the Province?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's support. I am not certain about where the facilities are available elsewhere. My understanding is that the intention is that they will be available in the holding centres which exist specifically for the questioning of people suspected of terrorist offences. Audio-recording will be available in all three holding centres in the Province. I commend the orders to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.