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Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) (Amendment) Bill

Volume 934: debated on Thursday 30 June 1977

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Order for Second Reading read

11.26 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Section 19 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 creates an offence of belonging to or soliciting support for a proscribed organisation. Since that time it has proved an essential weapon in our continuing fight against terrorism. The offence carries maximum penalties on summary conviction of six months' imprisonment or a fine of £400 or both, and on indictment five years' imprisonment or a fine or both.

In the debate on the renewal of the emergency provisions legislation in July last year, my right, hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said that there was a case for increasing the maximum penalty for membership, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State undertook in the House on 17th December 1976 that we would bring this forward when a suitable legislative opportunity occurred. We believe that as part of our continuing drive against terrorism the time has come to carry out that undertaking.

The Bill before us today increases the maximum penalty for membership of a proscribed organisation. In considering this change, however, we were conscious that a similar maximum penalty applied in particular to two other offences under the emergency provisions legislation. Section 20 of the 1973 Act deals with the unlawful collection of information with respect to the police or Her Majesty's Forces which is of such a nature as is likely to be useful to terrorists; and Section 15 of the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions (Amendment) Act 1975 creates an offence of unlawful training in the use of firearms and explosives.

We believe that it is illogical that a man of whom it can be proved only that he was a member of a proscribed organisation should be liable to a higher penalty than another who has demonstrated some active involvement in terrorism. We have therefore decided to increase the maximum penalty for all three offences from five to 10 years' imprisonment. This is the effect of Clause 1 of the Bill, and Clause 1(3) makes it clear that these penalties are not retrospective.

I emphasise that the Bill deals only with the maximum penalty for these three offences. The discretion of the courts to impose such lesser penalties as they see fit in the circumstances of individual cases will not be affected. In 1976, 31 persons were charged and convicted in Northern Ireland for the sole offence of membership of a proscribed organisation. In 16 cases a non-custodial sentence was imposed. Four persons were sentenced to borstal training and 11 received sentences of imprisonment: in 10 of these cases the sentences ranged from three to five years' imprisonment. The comparable figures for the first three months of 1977 alone were 21 convictions solely for membership; three noncustodial sentences, two directions for borstal training and 16 sentences of imprisonment, of which six were for periods of between three and five years. Clearly the courts recognise, as I believe the House does, the difference between the misguided youth who had just become involved in this illegal activity and the dyed-in-the-wool and long-term organiser or instigator of terrorism. It is these latter against whom the Bill is directed.

Prosecutions are brought less frequently in respect of the other offences. But they are brought and have so been this year, and they have attracted substantial custodial penalties.

I should like at this stage to refer briefly to three other changes which we propose to make to the permanent criminal law. First of all, we propose to increase the penalties for conspiracy to murder and for soliciting any person to commit murder provided under Section 4 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 from 10 years to life imprisonment. The penalty for the offences of attempting to cause an explosion or keeping explosives with intent under the Explosives Substances Act 1886 will be increased from 20 years to life imprisonment. Finally, we shall be introducing new offences in respect of the pernicious and persistent problem of hoax bombs, which not only cause fear and distress to large sections of the public but also waste the valuable time of the security forces. These changes will be effected by an Order in Council which will come into force during the summer.

It is sometimes suggested that these provisions should have been included in the Bill that is now before us. The central point is that they deal with questions of public order. They will certainly be of use in the fight against terrorism, but they are amendments to the general criminal law of Northern Ireland: they will remain on the statute book when the need for emergency provisions legislation no longer exists. They are not therefore appropriate for a Bill solely designed to make changes in three penalties under that emergency legislation.

We are making no distinction in terms of urgency. I can assure the House that we intend that the Order in Council should come into operation in about six weeks or so—in other words, in a very similar time scale to the provisions of this Bill.

I should also mention in this context that a Bill to consolidate the existing emergency provisions has recently been considered by the Joint Committee on Consolidation Measures. This has been prepared by the Law Commission as part of its continuing process of consolidation of the law. It is a consolidation of the provisions of three statutes and several Statutory Instruments, and makes no changes in the law or in the requirements for renewal. However, it spells out the rights and liabilities of the individual and the powers and responsibilities of the security forces in a more simple and understandable form. This will in itself be valuable.

To revert to the present Bill, and to sum up, the amendment we are now proposing to the emergency provisions legislation will be a small but none the less significant and useful addition to our powers against terrorism. We all look forward to the day when emergency provisions legislation for Northern Ireland no longer features on the statute book, but until then it is our clear duty to ensure that society is fully armed against those who believe that they have a right to impose their will by force and brutality upon their fellow citizens.

I commend this short but important Bill to the House.

11.39 p.m.

We welcome the Bill and we shall not oppose it in any of its stages. We were anxious that the Secretary of State should impress on the people of Northern Ireland his determination to implement his new anti-terrorist measures and to impose heavier sentences without delay. This Bill is welcome evidence of the political determination behind these new measures.

The right hon. Gentleman in a speech on 8th June said that these further increases in sentences would be a useful addition to the armoury required by the Government to defeat terrorism. However, the Secretary of State said that the further increases of penalties for offences which the Minister has just defined as ones involving conspiracy to murder and involving explosive substances and hoax bombs would not take effect until next year. The Minister will know that representations have been made to the Secretary of State from this side. We were therefore glad to hear that the Criminal Justice Order in Council will be made and will take effect in about six weeks' time; I believe that that was the time the Minister mentioned. He explained that that matter was not appropriate to this Bill; and that is satisfactory. However, will the Minister indicate whether the Order in Council may be considered by the House, and, if so, when?

11.41 p.m.

As one who has advocated increasing the strength of the deterrents against organised crime, intimidation, racketeering and hard-line terrorism, I can do no other than give my whole-hearted support to the Bill. It is undeniable that many young people became involved in organisations which, in the early days at least, gave the police some problems. However, what has now become clear to many members of these proscribed organisations, particularly in the aftermath of the attempted strike and disruption, is the real nature of the bodies with which they had become involved. There are encouraging signs that many of these young people are now trying to escape from the clutches of the evil men who, up to now, have managed to control them. The influence of such evil men will be greatly weakened by the increased penalties that are provided for in the Bill. It will persuade many of those who are uncertain and who may be on the brink to extract themselves from what for them have become abhorrent and intolerable involvements.

We welcome the Minister's indication that he intends to increase penalties for certain other offences by means of the Criminal Justice Order in Council and his assertion that this can be done under the urgency procedures so that they may come into effect during this summer. We shall also give our support to those measures and we shall encourage the Government to act swiftly in the future on any occasion when such action is desirable.

11.42 p.m.

I should like to put to the Minister of State one point about the increased penalties which, as he mentioned in his speech, are rightly to be permanent and which are to be made in the Criminal Justice Order in Council. The Minister said that they would be made under the urgency procedure, and to that we have no objection. Orders made under that procedure still have to come before the House, like any other draft orders, for approval. The difference is that in the case of the urgency procedure no proposals are made or considered preceding the draft.

In respect of two of the three matters, the increases in the penalties for offences already defined in the law, there is no particular problem. However, in the third case the new order will, I understand, create and define a new offence as well as fix the penalty. Incidentally, the Minister did not mention what the penally would be. In those circumstances, it is obviously intolerable that the House and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies and who have a responsibility for the law— and this is to be permanent law in Northern Ireland—should simply be presented with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition—it will, in fact, mean "take it" in the final form.

I therefore suggest to the Minister—I do not think that there is any impropriety in this—that he might be willing to circulate to those who are interested, to the Opposition and other interested hon. Members as well as all Northern Ireland Members, the proposed text of such an order, so that we can direct our minds to it and so that any suggestions which may occur to us can be made in time to be incorporated into the draft order.

I am sure that the Minister of State would be the last to deny that sometimes those who are not learned in the law or are not professional draftsmen can nevertheless draw attention to defects in definition or drafting. As we are envisaging the creation of a new offence, I am sure that there would be no harm in hon. Members who take an interest in these matters having a view of the proposed wording in advance. I do not expect the Minister to say "Yes" or "No" tonight, but I should be grateful if he and the Secretary of State could consider my suggestion—which could also apply to future orders made under the urgency procedure.

There is no question of anyone wishing to delay or challenge the appropriateness of the procedure but simply a desire that when new law, which is to be permanent in Northern Ireland, is being made every opportunity should be taken to get it as near perfect as possible.

11.46 p.m.

I rise on a similar point to that just made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I am not sure how to describe tonight's performance in the House. It cannot be "Musical chairs" because we do not swap places, and it cannot be "Switch the hat" because we do not wear hats, but the Minister has spoken to us as a member of the United Kingdom Government rather than as a member of the Northern Ireland Government, and when he comes, as a member of the United Kingdom Government dealing with a matter over which this Parliament has jurisdiction, he should deal with it in the way that this Parliament normally deals with such business.

I welcome the proposals because they are in the form of a Bill. Fortunately these measures do not require much consideration, but if an hon. Member had felt the need to improve them he would have had the opportunity to do so. What bothers me is that we are going to make far-reaching changes in the permanent criminal law of Northern Ireland by Order in Council. I do not dispute the need for such action, but I do not see the jusification for adopting this process.

If there is an overriding matter of urgency, the Minister could come to the House, as he has done tonight, with a Bill and we could, if necessary, take all the stages in one sitting. I am opposed to legislation by Orders in Council. I know that some hon. Members take satisfaction from the way that the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order that we are to debate tomorrow has been handled, but I find it abhorrent and unsatisfactory.

We all welcome the Bill. The case for increasing the sentences has been made. Can the Minister expand on the figures that he gave us and say how many prosecutions have taken place solely in respect of membership of an illegal organisation? Often this charge is preferred with others, and I have long suspected that not enough use is being made of the legislation. We have good memories in Northern Ireland and I remember the great controversy over the whereabouts of Seamus Twomey. Of course, he was around all the time. He was not acting as a Scarlet Pimpernel; his presence was well advertised, but the authorities said that he was not there. When they admitted that he was there, they said that they had no legislation to bring him into custody.

There is not much point in increasing the sentences if the law is not enforced. The Minister should tell us that he is satisfied that the law will be enforced and that the reason why it has not been enforced in the past is not a deficiency in the law but a matter of policy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that more recently another well-known member of the IRA, Martin McGuinness, was picked up by the security forces, held for some time and released with no charges brought against him.

My hon. Friend is correct. If he walked around the streets of the city tomorrow he would find McGuinness without any difficulty. I could introduce the Minister to some brigade officers of the IRA. We shall judge the Government on their performance.

There should and could have been more in the Bill. We have few opportunities to take action. We talked earlier about matters that should have been considered but which have never been considered. What about the Gardiner Report? That was one of the most useful reports ever prepared by a commission on behalf of a Government. The report made recommendations which have never been debated.

If the Government have concluded that there is no case for the creation of the offence of terrorism, the issue should be argued in the House. There is a case for creating the offence of terrorism. This Bill should and could have been a useful addition to the code of law to deal with terrorism.

11.54 p.m.

I wondered when we should return to the contents of the Bill. Thanks to the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) we managed to do that.

We have been pressured to move quickly with the Order in Council. If it is to be introduced before the recess, we have little time left, I shall ensure that details of it are sent to hon. Members who are interested as soon as it is printed.

The maximum penalty for those convicted of bomb hoaxes will be five years' imprisonment on indictment. Most, but not all offences involving membership of proscribed organisations are tied up with other offences.

We are not short of offences connected with terrorism with which people can be charged. The law is under continuous review. That is why we have introduced the Bill and why we shall shortly introduce an order. What we are short of is evidence. We have decided to lift the maximum sentence in order to deal with the people about whom the right hon. Member for Belfast, East spoke. The judges have been using the law satisfactorily. We are not after the misguided youth of the fringe but are after the hardened criminal. The more of them that we can put away, the better. I hope that this satisfies the right hon. Member. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[ Mr. Snape.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.