HL Deb 14 February 2002 vol 631 cc1215-20

1.25 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 31st January be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, Part VII of the Act is extremely important. I shall summarise it briefly in an effort to assist the House. The powers in Part VII relate to the operation of the Diplock courts. They include powers for the Armed Forces; powers for the Secretary of State to requisition land for special purposes; and powers that, at present—I emphasise "at present"—the police in Northern Ireland need over and above the ordinary criminal law.

If the order is agreed, its effect would be to renew the Part VII powers for a further 12 months only with effect from the 19th February 2002 and finishing at midnight on 18th February 2003. In coming to the conclusion that such powers are needed, we have, as your Lordships would expect—and, indeed, demand—had recourse to security advice. We have also paid very careful attention to the recent report published by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew. I am most grateful to him for the expedition with which he was able to report after his relatively recent appointment. The noble Lord came to the conclusion, which I entirely endorse, that the Part VII powers are required for the further 12 months.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, specifically asked for early consideration to be given to the repeal of Section 76 of the Act, which relates to the admissibility of confession evidence in Diplock court cases. The Secretary of State has already indicated his intention to launch a consultation exercise focused on the possible repeal of this section. That exercise will begin very shortly—by which I mean a matter of days, not months.

There is also the question of bail to consider. I shall be happy to deal with any particular questions that noble Lords may wish to raise. However, I respectfully commend the House to the view that the Part VII powers are necessary for this 12-month period. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 31st January be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I rise simply to confirm that noble Lords on these Benches support the making of the order. I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for referring to Section 76 and for confirming that we are talking about a very short space of time before such issues are addressed by the Government.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for his characteristically excellent exposition of the purpose behind the order, and for acknowledging the report undertaken by my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew. Noble Lords on these Benches would also like to welcome the report and to pay tribute to its author for compiling such a thorough, yet clear and accessible, report.

I have a few points to raise with the noble and learned Lord. First, my noble friend Lord Carlile concluded that the post of an independent reviewer should be given wider publicity within Northern Ireland, so that the public can more generally understand what his role involves.

In Section 5, referring to the Diplock courts, the Carlile report reached a similar conclusion; that is, that the system is working adequately, but that my noble friend will continue to make an independent assessment of the debate surrounding the Diplock courts. We believe that that is very necessary. It is unfortunate that provision must be made to have Diplock courts, although we accept that they need to be continued. However, that continuation should be kept under constant scrutiny.

With regard to Section 6 of the report, discussing admissions and trials on indictment, my noble friend makes the point that: No evidence of substance was placed before me to justily the continuation of non-PACE standards. In my view there is an overwhelming case for applying the PACE standard uniformly. I recommend that Her Majesty's Government should give early consideration to the repeal of Section 76 … and that PACE standards should be applied to confession evidence in all cases". It was gratifying to hear from the Minister that the Government are giving urgent consideration to that point.

Finally, Section 14, relating to Section 103 of the Act, deals with terrorist information. Here we should like to ask whether Her Majesty's Government will give consideration to extending the effects of the section to include part-time prison officers and part-time social workers and nurses employed by the Prison Service, and other comparable categories. Part-timers are just as likely to be at risk as full-time employees.

We regret the necessity of having to continue this order for yet another year and we hope that, as things improve, it will lapse sooner rather than later. In the mean time, we support its extension.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I rise to speak because this morning I received a letter from Professor Brice Dickson, the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, making on behalf of the commission a number of criticisms of the report of my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew.

I do not endorse these criticisms because, frankly, I am in no position to do so. I cannot comment on them one way or the other because I do not have the background knowledge, but they have been raised by an important public body which has responsibilities to advise in this field. I think it would be helpful if the noble and learned Lord could reply to the criticisms that have been made. However, I understand that the noble and learned Lord has not himself received a copy of this letter. Unfortunately it has arrived very late in the day. As I have said, it reached me only this morning and was posted yesterday, but I did show a copy of it to the noble and learned Lord's civil servants.

The particular points made by the commission are as follows. First, it is unhappy with the further continuation of the Diplock courts. Secondly, it is unhappy with the continuance of the restrictions on bail imposed by Section 67 of the Act. Thirdly, it is unhappy with the continuance of the police power of arrest under Section 82 of the Act. Various other comments have been made, but those points go to the report rather than being relevant to the order. However, I think that I should mention that the commission has said that its effectiveness is jeopardised by the reluctance of some government agencies to co-operate fully with its inquiries.

Having raised these points, as I think it is proper to do, I wait with interest to hear what the noble and learned Lord has to say in reply.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am very grateful for those responses. Perhaps I may deal first with the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. It is very important, for reasons of substance rather than presentation, that one has an independent reviewer where there is any deviation, as it were, from the normal criminal law range of sanctions in place in the rest of the United Kingdom. I say with respect that I believe that, as it was reiterated by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile's point was extremely well made. A good deal of felicity needs to be given, first, because 1-us inquiries ought to be transparent and, secondly, because rightly or wrongly certain people may feel aggrieved whose experiences ought to be known to the reviewer. In so far as the independent reviewer, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, needs any support, then I willingly give it on behalf of the Government; that is, that there should he the widest publicity given to him in exercising his reports.

Secondly, I turn to the question of the Diplock courts. This was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. on the basis of a letter he has received from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 'The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, is quite uncompromising in his conclusion. I am a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland and I know practitioners over there of all different backgrounds and political views. They have always been unanimous in agreeing with the conclusion of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, that the Diplock courts provide courts of a very high quality indeed. They have the unusual requirement that the tribunal which finds guilt or fails to find guilt actually has to give reasons. That is extremely useful for someone who then wishes to launch a reasoned appeal. That is something that juries in the rest of the United Kingdom do not give; they simply pass their verdict.

I am bound to say that in every judgment of the Diplock courts that I have read. I have been particularly heartened by the scrupulous fairness with which the judges approach their work. I pay tribute to them because every one of them, along with their families, still works every day in conditions of privation in contrast to the rest of us who do not have security limitations placed on our ordinary lives and freedoms.

Noble Lords and, I believe, the noble Baroness, were good enough to refer to the fact that I dealt with Section 76 in my introductory remarks. The question of Section 103, which has raised a particular question related to part-time employees is, I think, a reasonable question that ought to be looked at. That will be done.

The particular points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, were, first, the Diplock courts. The security assessment is quite unambiguous. We have to remind ourselves that Northern Ireland has a very small population and one of its characteristics is that people tend to know what other people are doing. That is in the nature of things. I do not doubt at all that Diplock courts are justifiable if we are to have a criminal justice system operating at the moment. That is because the opportunities for intimidation, overt or covert and on a continuing basis, are plain in Northern Ireland.

Section 67, covering bail in scheduled offences, raises two aspects. The first is that it is limited to the High Court. I believe that it is a prudent step to take. High Court judges are not capable of being intimidated in the ways that magistrates might be. I believe that it would be unfair to put magistrates into a position where they might be subject to threat. Perhaps I may also say with respect that High Court judges can ensure a consistency of approach to questions of bail which, again, is extremely important in this area.

Secondly, it is suggested, I think wrongly, that there is a presumption against bail. There is not. It is a matter left entirely within the discretion of the High Court judge and there is no presumption against bail.

The final question covered the matter of arrest under Section 82 which I agree is more extensive than that found in the rest of the United Kingdom. The security assessment is that this is required. On my recollection, it is endorsed by the independent reviewer, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. In the circumstances of Northern Ireland—I shall not go into them in any detail because they were eloquently addressed when we discussed these matters on a contemporaneous basis during the Report stage of the legislation—these powers are needed. The sooner that the powers are no longer needed, the more we shall all rejoice. But one has to be realistic and this is a matter of public protection, on which no government can sensibly or responsibly be silent.

On Question, Motion agreed to.