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Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) (Amendment) Bill

Volume 385: debated on Thursday 14 July 1977

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5.36 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Noble Lords will recall that only last week we discussed the Emergency Provisions legislation and approved its renewal for six months. In view of this I do not think I need repeat what I said about the Government's security policy beyond restating our belief that our general strategy is the right one. This short Bill is one proof of our stated determination to reinforce that policy when necessary.

The Bill will increase the maximum penalties for three offences under the existing Emergency Provisions legislation from five to 10 years' imprisonment. The main offence, contained in Section 19 of the 1973 Emergency Provisions Act, is the offence of membership of a proscribed organisation. At present it carries maximum penalties on summary conviction of six months or £400 fine or both, and on indictment of five years or a fine or both.

The Government have been awaiting a suitable legislative opportunity to increase the penalty in accordance with the recommendation in another place last July of my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General.

There are two other Emergency Provisions offences which at present carry maximum penalties of five years' imprisonment. These are found in Section 20 of the 1973 Act, which deals with unlawful collection of information about the security forces, and Section 13 of the 1975 Act, which creates the offence of unlawful training in firearms or explosives. Although prosecutions are brought less frequently for these offences than for membership, they are serious offences. If we were to leave their penalties unchanged, we would create an anomaly, in that simple membership could result in a higher penalty than the active involvement in terrorism which these offences cover. The Government therefore propose that the maximum penalties for all three offences should be increased to 10 years' imprisonment.

Sentences imposed over the past 18 months in cases where the Section 19 offence of membership was the sole conviction range from fines or suspended sentences to the five years' maximum. Noble Lords will be aware of recent calls for minimum penalties for certain offences which some people consider to be so serious that light sentences can never be justified. However, the Government feel strongly that the discretion of the courts to impose a sentence that fits the circumstances of the offender and the crime should not be closely circumscribed. My Lords, the Government have brought forward this Bill to ensure that those involved in one way or another with serious acts of violence may be liable to long sentences. It represents a minor contribution to our overall policy, but its provisions are important and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be read 2a .—( Lord Melchett.)

5.40 p.m.

My Lords, there is no question hut that the three increases in maximum penalties for the three different kinds of offence, taken together with the security initiatives which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has taken recently, will be a deterrent against those young men and women who have been influenced to become involved in terrorist organisations, and certainly should be a deterrent against the hardened terrorist. So far as the young terrorist is concerned, I am convinced that the increased penalties will influence many of them to try to escape from involvement with violence, violence which has no justification and which, as we all know, is cruel to all sections of the Northern Ireland community.

In regard to hardened terrorists. I should be interested to know how many people have been charged with being members of proscribed organisations in, say, the last year, the period which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned in this context. I appreciate that membership of a proscribed organisation is not always an easy charge to bring home, but the Government will be aware that in the past—this has happened over the Border when different Governments were in power—there have been occasions when IRA leaders have been seen in Belfast, sometimes on public occasions, and could reasonably have been expected to be apprehended but have in fact gone free.

With that one criticism, I welcome the Bill because, as I say, there is no question but that the Secretary of State has set in train recently a whole series of measures to increase the effectiveness of the Security Forces—we had our opportunity to debate that on an order about a month ago—and I think this Bill will support the effectiveness of their operations.

5.43 p.m.

My Lords, I too welcome the Bill. Unfortunately I was not able to be here last week, because I had a bad back, and I would have liked then and I should like now to congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on the impression which they have given in Northern Ireland of their determination to win. The Secretary of State's statements have a language which is fully understood by everybody in Ireland; when he says something it is said bluntly and clearly and in a way that has not been used for many a year, certainly since this terrorist attack started. That is a tremendous help in the battle of the will to win and the Secretary of State has understood and demonstrated more clearly that this is a battle of wills, that we are going to win this battle and that the terrorists will not win. I consider that this Bill is a further piece of legislative support to all the other pieces of legislation we have had and is a further support to the Secretary of State in his attitude.

I am, however, disappointed—I should like to have tabled an Amendment, but I feel it is important that we should speed the Bill through as fast as we can—that the Secretary of State has not taken power in the Bill to schedule all offences committed in Northern Ireland; that is, to allow the DPP, subject to safeguards, to be able to schedule alleged offences so that they can be tried in front of non-jury courts. Despite tremendous misgivings, non-jury courts have turned out to he extremely good and there have been very few criticisms of the justice which they administer.

The present trend of the terrorist campaign is that they are misusing or using legitimate businesses to get their funds and it is almost impossible in Northern Ireland to find any alleged crime which could not, under some circumstances, have a terrorist connotation and connection. I believe that that is a power which the Secretary of State should take at the earliest possible lime. For instance, black taxis—there are some 200 of them in the West Belfast area—are (many of them, at any rate) are running on red petrol. That crime could, in a big way, go in front of a jury court, but that jury, would definitely be intimidated or there would be attempts to intimidate it. There are butchers shops owned by terrorist organisations and pubs which are owned or manipulated by terrorist organisations, and it is to deal with that kind of thing that I believe the DPP should be given those powers, and given them rapidly.

I should like the noble Lord to make it clear, especially after we have increased the penalties, that the question of an amnesty will never be in the Government's mind. There has been a time in the last six years when people have been locked up, let out, given political status, had that political status removed, with complete change from one place to another. It is vitally important for the Secretary of State to make it clear time and again that people who have committed these foul crimes cannot expect amnesty. I welcome the Bill.

5.46 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome the House has given the Bill and to the noble Viscount Lord Brookeborough for his remarks about my right honourable friend the Secretary of State which I will ensure are conveyed to him. The noble Viscount raised the question of the scheduling of offences. Of course, the range of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland is already very comprehensive and all serious crime of any kind is comprehended within scheduled offences. This is also a matter about which the Government would be keeping in close contact with the RUC and others concerned and I am not aware of any requests from the RUC to increase the scope of scheduled offences or that they have raised with us any problems they have in enforcing the law as it currently stands. But as the noble Viscount knows these matters are kept under constant review and the Bill shows that we are prepared to make changes when there is a clear need to do so.

The noble Viscount also raised the question of amnesty and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear, as did his predecessors, on many occasions that there is no question of an amnesty in the future. In case anybody should misinterpret what the noble Viscount said, he mentioned that some people had been locked up and then let out again. I think he was referring to people who had been detained—

and not to people who, as with everyone currently in prison in Northern Ireland, have been taken through the courts, charged with an offence, tried and found guilty by the courts and sentenced by the courts. It is firmly the Government's policy that people who commit crimes of any sort in Northern Ireland should be taken before the courts, proved to be guilty and sentenced by the courts to imprisonment or whatever penalty the courts see fit to give, and that will remain the position.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked about the number of charges for the offence of membership. As the noble Lord knows, the charge of membership may often be brought as part of a wider series of more serious or less serious charges, but I have with me the figures of convictions solely for the offence of membership; in 1976 there were 31 charges and convictions while in the first three months of 1977 there have been 21 convictions solely for membership. So the noble Lord can see that the number of convictions is increasing quite substantially, certainly in the first part of this year, and indeed I am glad to say that that is in line with the general trend of convictions for serious offences in Northern Ireland in the last six months. Again, I am grateful to noble Lords for the welcome they have given the Bill and to the noble Viscount for his determination to see it passed into law as quickly as possible.

On Question, Bill read 2a , and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.