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Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 (Amendment) Order 1977

Volume 387: debated on Thursday 24 November 1977

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rose to move, That the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd August, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to speak briefly to both the orders that stand in my name on the Order Paper.

These two orders were made under the urgent procedure on 26th July. I regret that it was not possible to arrange a debate in the ordinary way before the summer Recess, but the Government's view was that use of the urgent procedure was necessary in these cases. Nothing in the orders is in any way controversial; indeed, the increased penalties for which the orders provide are identical to provisions introduced for England and Wales in the Criminal Law Act 1977, an Act which was, of course, debated fully in this House.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order creates three new offences. These are placing or sending a hoax bomb, sending a hoax bomb message and threatening to kill someone other than in writing. The maximum penalties for the hoax bomb offences are three months' imprisonment or £1,000 fine on summary conviction, or five years' imprisonment on indictment. The offence of threatening to kill other than in writing is designed to deal with telephoned death threats and carries a maximum penalty of 10 years. The order also makes two important penalty increases. For conspiring or soliciting to commit murder the penalty is increased from 10 years to life imprisonment. For attempting or conspiring to cause an explosion or making or keeping explosive substances with intent to endanger life or damage property, the penalty is increased from 20 years to life imprisonment.

Although the provisions of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Order are to be permanent additions to the law of Northern Ireland, the Government felt that the new offences, except in individual cases certified by the Attorney-General, should be included among the "scheduled offences" under the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions legislation. This is done by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 (Amendment) Order 1977.

The Government have also decided to take advantage of this order to close a loophole in the law which arises where persons are charged, under Section 5(1) of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, with concealing from the police information relating to a person who has committed a scheduled offence. In future, all those who conceal information about terrorism will be committing scheduled offences. These changes are not dramatic, but the Government believe that they will make our legal powers against terrorism more effective. We continue, of course, carefully to monitor the legislation to ensure that there are no other areas where improvements could be made. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd August, be approved.—( Lord Melchett.)

3.38 p.m.

My Lords, these orders which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has asked the House to take together, add to the list of scheduled offences the further offences of bomb hoaxes, threats to kill and concealment from the police of information relating to a scheduled offence, and impose a maximum period of life imprisonment for the offences of conspiring or soliciting to commit murder and attempting or conspiring to cause an explosion. If the noble Lord will allow me to say so, I think he has made out, briefly, a perfectly strong case for the need for both these orders, and I shall certainly support him in moving their passage through this House.

Clearly, bomb hoaxes and causing explosions are very serious offences indeed, particularly at the present time when it is the Security Forces who have to deal with fires. With regard to threats to kill and concealment of information about scheduled offences, I know the Government are well aware that more people are being brought before the courts than ever before. Possibly when the noble Lord replies to the few remarks that we shall make on these orders, he may have the latest figures of people being brought before the courts and being convicted, which I think would be of interest. The noble Lord will be well aware that, although this is happening, many of those who commit terrorism in Northern Ireland, who direct the bomber or the assassin, remain untouched by the due processes of the law.

Eighteen months ago my noble friend Lord Brookeborough introduced a Bill to try to deal with this particular problem, and he called it the Trial of Terrorists and Witness Protection Bill. If my noble friend will forgive me for saying so, one defect in his Bill lay in the provision that the identity of witnesses would be concealed. It is difficult to see how witnesses can be protected from intimidation if there is not resort to concealment of identity, which must prevent the normal processes of cross-examination; that is a problem which remains unsolved. None the less, I was one of those who criticised his Bill in that respect.

My noble friend's Bill also would have allowed the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland to bring any criminal offence within the jurisdiction of single judge courts. Again, my noble friend's Bill was criticised on that ground, saying that that was too blunt an instrument. The reason why I have gone off at a tangent about my noble friend's Bill is that it is interesting that this order now moves in very much the same direction as my noble friend's Bill 18 months ago did by adding three further offences to the list of scheduled offences in the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

Might I just turn aside and say one other thing which is related to these orders but which perhaps at first sight may not be so. Recently Thames Television transmitted three programmes about Northern Ireland. The last was shown—I understand, because I did not see the programmes and I have been unable to get transcripts of them—on 22nd October. I understand that it included attacks on the police by unidentified witnesses which clearly put the lives of the RUC in danger, and the programme before that was devoted to the subject of prisons in Northern Ireland. Two days later the Secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, who had been interviewed in that particular programme, was shot dead.

I do not intend to say very much more about these programmes because I believe my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, who after all lives on the spot and is affected by them, wants to say a word about them. The point I want to put is this: I really wonder whether television programmes of this sort do not come very close to falling within the scope of the offence of threatening to kill, and possibly even concealment of information. I should like to express the hope this afternoon that the Government can confirm that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has now represented to the Independent Broadcasting Authority the danger in which these programmes place those who are working for security and peace in Northern Ireland. I trust that the IBA has now responded by recognising that its responsibility includes the preservation of public order in all parts of the United Kingdom, with special responsibility for the particularly difficult conditions in Northern Ireland.

Finally, I have one question about the order. I apologise to the noble Lord, in that I am afraid I did not give him notice of it. He referred to it in his remarks, and if he prefers to write to me I shall be perfectly content. The first order includes a proviso that a bomb hoax or threat to kill can be certified by the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland as not to be treated as a scheduled offence. This was a matter to which the noble Lord referred. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, could explain in what circumstances it is envisaged that this might be done.

I am aware that note 1 to Schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 provides the same certifying-out procedure for murder and for manslaughter. I wonder whether this provision has been used at all; perhaps it has, in some tragic cases, for charges against the Security Forces. If that is the case, then I wonder why these two further offences, which could not possibly refer to the Security Forces, are to be included in the certifying-out procedure. I am sure that there is a perfectly understandable answer to my question. Those are the only matters which occur to me on what I think are two important orders in the Secretary of State's continuing policy of tightening up both in security and in the corresponding legislative provisions which go to the tightening up of security. With those words, I support the passage of these two orders.

3.45 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to join with my noble friend in welcoming these two orders. I thank him for his kind reference to my Bill, which got fairly short shrift from the Government. There is no doubt that, since we last passed these orders, the level of violence in Northern Ireland has decreased. I should like to congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on the part they have played in bringing this about. Much of the credit must go to our Security Forces and, at this time especially, to the Royal Ulster Constabulary which, under their directions, is increasingly taking over and taking the lead in establishing law and order in the Province.

I wonder whether the time has not almost approached when the Government should consider a special police medal for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its Reserves. It was very noticeable on Armistice Day, when I was inspecting the guard parade going to church, that every member of the Ulster Defence Regiment had a medal—and rightly; they deserve it—but the chests of the police were completely bare. They have surely played their part in all areas.

The Secretary of State and his team—and I particularly include the noble Lord, Lord Melchett in this—deserve great credit. I feel that they should also give credit where credit is due to my colleague in another place, Mr. Airey Neave. All the advice that he has given over the last two years has eventually been followed, so I feel that that credit should be given.

What I think is not known in this country is the effect of the Secretary of State's down-to-earth statements. It has been a tonic to hear his Yorkshire tones demonstrating quite clearly the will to win against the terrorists. I feel that he has almost established a Queen's Own Yorkshire Government in Northern Ireland. This determination has a very strong bearing on the level of terrorism. I believe that he has almost reached such a point of trust with the people of Northern Ireland that, if the Security Forces were to say that a lower level of manning of troops was advisable, he could carry out a reduction to that level without it being greeted with cries of "withdrawal". Twelve months ago, it would not have been possible. There is no doubt that he has created this atmosphere of determination.

May I ask the noble Lord whether he realises that there has in fact been a change of atmosphere in the Irish Republic? Where there was previously a clear will to win, I am informed that the IRA now consider not that they are getting an easy time but that the climate is rather less hostile. I should like Her Majesty's Government to continue to press the Trish Republican Government to make sure that that hostility is seen to exist.

My noble friend Lord Belstead referred to the question of what I would call trial by television. We have had three programmes shown in Ulster. Two of them involved allegations of assault by the police during investigations, or interrogation. As my noble friend said, one of them involved prison officers. In spite of protests, these programmes were shown and, subsequently, two valiant officers were murdered. In both cases, the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility and, in one case, directly as a result of the programmes. That is the bare outline of the programmes. But the relatively new element in terrorism has been the immediacy of the television screen. Every terrorist, be he Baader-Meinhof, PLO, or IRA member, is determined to reach the television screen as quickly as he possibly can. The object is to further the terrorists' aims of revolution. But the first of their aims, without which they could not achieve anything, is to discredit the forces of law and order.

As noble Lords will remember, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the police now have a right to question and detain people for seven days should they have solid evidence or solid belief that somebody is involved in a terrorist activity. Parliament has said that this is right, and nobody should imagine that it is going to be a tea-party or anything of that sort because, when dealing with terrorism, if seven days is necessary, it will certainly not be a very pleasant operation. However, Parliament has also said that the police must investigate within the law.

At the same time, to protect the suspect, Parliament has provided what I would call a quasi-judicial complaints procedure which, when it is started—and it is started for even the most trivial of complaints—ends up on the desk of the DPP. There is a further safeguard for suspects in that they are subject to medical examination both before and after interrogation. In two of the programmes that I mentioned the suspects, some of whom were known terrorists, were making absolutely unsubstantiated allegations of assault by the RUC, but, to the best of my knowledge—and I am informed that this is correct—the allegation was in each case already being investigated under the complaints procedure. The television companies were fully aware of this but they still showed the programmes.

I believe that the freedom of the Press is absolutely vital to the defence of our democratic institutions, but television reporting, certainly as I have seen it in Northern Ireland, is rather different from Press reporting in its immediacy and in the way in which it confers a credibility which is not the case with a Press report. People who see a known terrorist being interviewed by a figure like Keith Kyle think that the terrorist is not such a bad fellow after all and that he has a pretty valid point of view. If it is accepted—and I think that it has largely been accepted—that television violence has an effect on young people in that it creates violence, how much more true is that in the case in Northern Ireland when accusations of assault are made against RUC personnel? Will not some of these younger people who are involved in terrorism, some of them unwillingly, feel that it is justifiable to go out and murder a policeman? That was the risk that was put on our people as a result of these programmes.

It is my belief that had Great Britain had the same level of violence as we have had in Northern Ireland in the last years, I should not have 'build it necessary to come here to plead that we should have a re-think about how we make a judgment on this issue; 50,000 casualties would have been the number and there would not have been any interviewing of any known terrorist on the television screen. It simply would not have been allowed. The principle which I believe should be observed is that, since Parliament has provided a quasi-judicial complaints procedure, and taking into account the present situation in Northern Ireland, it is intolerable, unfair and dangerous to allow television interviews of complaints while the investigatory procedure is continuing. At any rate, we are definitely giving succour to the enemy; we are giving him immediate access to television, which is one of his aims, and we are helping him to discredit the forces of law and order.

In raising another subject, I want the Government to look at this question of television programmes and the way in which the problem can be dealt with because I fully realise that the television people were not acting illegally but were fully within the law. However, so far as we were concerned, we felt there was an enormous increase in risk to the RUC and UDR personnel and to everybody else involved in law and order.

I said at the outset that there has been an improvement in the level of violence, which is now much lower, but one incident has not received the prominence which was due to it for its beneficial effect. In conventional war, it is quite easy to see which side is winning; territory and battles are won or lost. In terrorism, however, it is largely a matter of the mind and it is extremely difficult to judge at what point one can say that one is really winning. This summer, there was an exception. We fought a battle and we won it, and that battle was won by Her Majesty the Queen through her visit to Northern Ireland. Without her presence, the Secretary of State and his forces could not have created the conditions to win that battle. Win it they did and I do not believe that that fact has been fully realised. My own knowledge, which has been fairly accurate, is that the IRA mounted a major effort and were defeated. Under those conditions, the credit should go to our wonderful Queen who made such an impression. It is no wonder that Ulstermen are Queen's men. I welcome these two orders.

3.56 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the two noble Lords who have spoken for their welcome of the two orders and for the kind remarks they made about my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues, which I will pass on to the appropriate quarter and which I am sure will be much appreciated. It was said that we should give credit where credit is due, and I particularly wish to echo the remarks that have been made about the Security Forces and the RUC under the chief constable in particular. I do not think there is any doubt in the mind of anybody who either lives or works in Northern Ireland about the tremendous increase and effectiveness of the RUC, certainly in the period in which I have been involved in Northern Ireland. Their bravery and devotion to the job they have to do is something which everyone admires and I echo everything the two noble Lords said about them and the other Security Forces in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked about the number of offences and charges in recent months. The improvement in the security position to which both noble Lords referred is reflected in the numbers of terrorists who have been caught. In 1976 a total of 1,276 persons were charged with security type offences. Up to 17th November of this year 1,211 persons have been charged, including 260 charged with murder or attempted murder. In 1976 a total of 963 persons were convicted of scheduled offences on indictment and 214 of those received sentences of 10 years or more. Up to 30th September of this year 784 persons have been convicted of scheduled offences, including 260 who received sentences of 10 years or more.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked about the procedure for certifying that one of these offences which the orders introduce should not be treated as a scheduled offence and should therefore be treated by the courts as an ordinary criminal offence, and tried in front of a jury; and as the noble Lord pointed out, a similar provision is made in all those orders which provide for scheduled offences in Northern Ireland. My understanding is that the certificate would be given by the Attorney-General in the case of a crime which had been committed, for example, in family circumstances which clearly had no connection with terrorism or terrorist offences. It is unfortunately the case in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, that there are still murders of husbands by wives and vice versa, of children by parents and vice versa, and that sort of offence undoubtedly would be tried in normal circumstances by a jury. I do not have any figures of the number of occasions when this has happened, but if any are available I will let the noble Lord know.

Both noble Lords referred to recent television programmes that have been shown about various events in Northern Ireland. I can certainly confirm to Lord Belstead that my right honourable friend has expressed his concern to the broadcasting authorities about some of their recent programmes. However, I would hasten to add, lest there be any misunderstanding, that this in no way means that either my right honourable friend or Her Majesty's Government are in any way advocating, or would ever support any suggestion, that media of any sort should be censored either in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. As the noble Lords will be aware, programme content, so far as the programmes to which they have referred are concerned, is a matter for the Independent Broadcasting Authority in accordance with the statutory responsibilities that it has been given by Parliament. I have no doubt that those responsible will have noted what both noble Lords have said about the recent programmes.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made the suggestion that it was possible that at least one of these programmes may have come close to concealing information from the police. I do not think that there is any question of that being the case. The recent "This Week" programme, for example, merely repeated allegations which had already been made in the Press, or elsewhere, in Northern Ireland, and most, if not all, of which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brooke-borough, pointed out, were already being investigated, or had already been investigated. It is the fact that they were under investigation that prevents the security forces from making any detailed comment on the allegations. But as I know both noble Lords will be well aware, allegations are not the same as evidence, and it was simply allegations that the programme was repeating. As I say, I hope that any noble Lords with any anxieties over the content of particular programmes will refer them to those authorities who have the responsibility, as my right honourable friend has done. I should like to thank again both noble Lords for their welcome for these orders.

On Question, Motion agreed to.