HL Deb 03 April 2003 vol 646 cc1513-5

5.44 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th March be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, we conducted a cross-cutting review of the criminal justice system in 1997. Eighteen proposals for reducing delay and improving service delivery in the criminal system in Northern Ireland came about. Most of those have been taken forward.

In a sense, the order is a portmanteau of provisions which will, individually, and collectively, improve the workings of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. They relate to arrangements for bail, time limits for the initial stages of proceedings, the law on sexual offences, public order and some less important issues.

There has been wide consultation. The draft order was laid before the House on 19th December for consultation; responses received were generally supportive.

The proposals on bail mirror to a large extent existing law in England and Wales, and bring certain aspects of Northern Ireland's bail processes into line with those in England and Wales. They will ensure that bail serves its purpose of allowing those accused of offences to be free of custody while at the same time ensuring that they turn up for trial, do not commit other offences and do not interfere with witnesses. There will therefore be a new offence of absconding on bail; new powers for the police to arrest without warrant those who are unlikely to surrender to custody or who break their bail conditions; and to set conditions on the grant of bail. Finally, the courts' discretion as to whether recognizances should be forfeited or not will be removed. This will help to ensure that people released on bail turn up at court or a police station as required.

On time limits, we wish to reduce the amount of time it takes for cases to pass through the formal criminal justice system. Statutory regulations have been in place in England and Wales since 1987. Targets were introduced in Northern Ireland; we think we should take legislative provision to establish time limits. We need to strike a balance between the timely disposal of cases and the need to allow proper time for the development of cases. We are also aware of the potential risks if people held in custody awaiting trial are released virtually automatically.

There are no immediate plans to introduce time limits, but we will have further consultation about the precise nature and scope of any time limits before any regulations are made.

On sexual offences, there are four main changes. Article 18 amends the law on rape with the effect that men and boys may be the victims of rape. Article 19 brings the law on heterosexual anal intercourse into line with that on homosexual activity by decriminalising such behaviour in private between any persons of or over the age of consent. Article 22 increases the penalty for indecent conduct against a child from two to 10 years' imprisonment. Article 23 abolishes the presumption that a boy under 14 is incapable of sexual intercourse. This is a fair framework for the prosecution of criminal offences.

The order also includes a number of miscellaneous provisions. I draw your Lordships' specific attention to riotous behaviour. The maximum penalty at the moment is six months on summary conviction. I think most people think that that is not sufficient. Riotous behaviour is not an arrestable offence. This makes police activity very difficult in riotous situations. We therefore propose an increase in the maximum penalty to one year and to make the offence arrestable.

There are other changes: for instance, amending summonses; pleas of guilty in the magistrates' court where the accused does not appear; lengthening the period of remand; and allowing the use of live television links, which has been successfully piloted in England.

I am confident that we are introducing arrangements compatible with the Human Rights Act. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th March be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I was fortunate enough to have a very thorough briefing from Northern Ireland Office officials on this order. Although the noble and learned Lord has given us a very thorough outline of the key issues, it is another order of considerable size. I know that my colleagues in another place were concerned that they did not have sufficient time to debate these issues. However, from these Benches, I assure the noble and learned Lord that I have challenged the officials on all the pertinent issues, which I believe are all sensible and for the betterment of the people of Ulster.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, on these Benches, we welcome the order wholeheartedly, particularly the provisions on riotous behaviour.

On Question, Motion agreed to.