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Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 (Code of Practice) Order 2013

Volume 746: debated on Thursday 20 June 2013

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the order laid before the House on 14 May be approved.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, this order brings into force the code of practice for the exercise of powers in the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007. The 2007 Act provides a range of powers to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including stop and question, stop and search for munitions and wireless apparatus, and entry of premises. It also gives the police the power to seize items found during searches of people, premises and vehicles. While a number of the powers in the 2007 Act are primarily for use by the PSNI, the Armed Forces also have powers under the Act which they can use in support of the police.

Amendments to the 2007 Act made by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 introduced an authorisation procedure for the exercise by the police of stop-and-search powers in relation to munitions and wireless transmitters. The purpose of this code is to set out how the powers at Sections 21, 23 and 24 and of Schedules 3 and 26 to the 2007 Act should be exercised by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It also sets out the fundamental principles which underpin the use of the powers. The purpose of Annexe C of the code is to set out the general principles for the use of the powers at Sections 21 to 28 and Section 30 of the 2007 Act by the Armed Forces in the exceptional circumstances in which they may be exercised.

The code of practice has been developed to provide guidance on the use of these powers, particularly to ensure that they are used with regard to proportionality and necessity principles. Effective controls on police powers are essential if we are properly to protect civil liberties. Noble Lords will wish to note that there was no requirement to develop a code under the 2007 Act. The Act simply allowed the Secretary of State to make one and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State decided to do so following the changes to the powers made by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to ensure that they were used proportionately, recognising that they are extremely valuable to the PSNI but that we must ensure that they are used properly. We believe that the amended powers and accompanying code of practice strike the right balance between enabling the police to protect the public while ensuring that there are robust safeguards to ensure that the powers are not abused or used excessively.

I recognise that some of these powers, such as the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion, can be controversial. It is essential that the powers under the 2007 Act must be used only when it is proportionate and necessary to do so and this code of practice will assist police officers in ensuring that these powers are used appropriately.

This code applies to police powers in the 2007 Act, which are specific to Northern Ireland. It does not cover any other police powers in UK-wide legislation or other legislation applicable to Northern Ireland only. It does not affect the operation of other codes of practice, including the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 codes and the Code of Practice (Northern Ireland) for the authorisation and exercise of stop-and-search powers relating to Sections 43, 43A and 47A of, and Schedule 6B to, the Terrorism Act 2000.

In December 2012 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland launched a 12-week public consultation seeking views on the code of practice. The consultation closed on 6 March and a total of four formal responses were received. All four broadly welcomed the introduction of the code of practice as drafted. The comments were carefully considered and amendments to the code were made. The draft code was close to being finalised when the Court of Appeal issued its judgment in a judicial review—the case of Canning, Fox and McNulty—that challenged the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s use of stop-and-question and stop-and-search powers in the 2007 Act.

The Court of Appeal found that, without a code of practice in place for the use of these powers in the 2007 Act, the powers were too broad and lacked adequate safeguards. Noble Lords will wish to note that the judgment related to the powers in the 2007 Act prior to the amendments made by the 2012 Act, which brought in the safeguard of an authorisation process for the stop-and-search power. However, following the judgment and subsequent legal advice, the PSNI suspended its use of stop-and-question and stop-and-search powers until a code of practice was in place. Due to the risk to public safety if these powers were not available to the PSNI, it was considered necessary to bring in the code of practice under an urgent procedure, as provided for by the 2007 Act. With the approval of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the code of practice was brought into force on 15 May and the PSNI was able to resume use of these powers, which are an essential tool in ensuring public safety. This urgent procedure allows the code to remain in force for 40 days. This period ends on 3 July. In order for the code to become permanent, it must be debated and approved by both Houses.

The Independent Reviewer of the Justice and Security Act, Mr Robert Whalley CB, reviews the operation of Sections 21 to 32 of the 2007 Act and considers the views of those who use or are affected by these sections. In his most recent annual review the independent reviewer found:

“The operational indicators clearly point towards the continuation of the JSA powers for a further year … my judgment is that the Justice and Security Act powers should continue unchanged for another year”.

The context for these powers is crucial to the debate. Your Lordships will all be aware that the threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe. It is vital that the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to have available the powers in the 2007 Act. The powers in the Act are not terrorism powers per se; they are powers for dealing with public order situations, including, but not restricted to, terrorism. The powers are an important tool for maintaining public order and were exercised by the PSNI during the recent flags dispute. However, given the current situation in Northern Ireland, these powers are often used to protect the public from terrorist attacks. The PSNI has demonstrated that these powers are necessary and effective in dealing with Northern Ireland-related terrorism. They have prevented attacks, saved lives and led to arrests and convictions. I commend the order to the House.

I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this statutory instrument and broadly offer my support. Since the Court of Appeal’s ruling in May of this year, it is clear that this matter has acquired a degree of urgency and I understand why the Government want to move so quickly. Broadly speaking, I accept her words when she says that the right balance has been achieved between civil liberties and the need to preserve public security.

However, I have one slight reservation. Paragraph 8.4 of the Code of Practice for the Exercise of Powers in the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 states:

“The use of these powers can protect people’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, such as Article 2 (the right to life) by preventing serious harm posed by use of unlawful munitions and wireless apparatus. However, if these powers are exercised there may be some interference with other rights under the Convention, such as the right to private life, and this should be borne in mind when officers judge it necessary to use these powers”.

This is under the part of the code dealing with search for and seizure of munitions and transmitters. My slight problem with that phrasing is that it seems to say that there are two rights. It does not do so explicitly but it leads into it. One is the right to a private life and the other is the commitment that the police must have, under the European convention, to protect life. Following the Court of Appeal ruling, we are putting this problem back with the officers on the ground, and it is probably reasonable to make it clearer. I think that Parliament properly believes that the right to life, in certain circumstances, trumps the right to a private life for a person who might be under investigation. There is just an element of equivocation in the drafting there, which suggests an apparent equality of rights. I accept that it does not actually equate those rights but it certainly does not prioritise one right over another.

Noble Lords will remember that we have expected officers in the last few days, in the lead-up to the G8 summit, to protect world leaders who are in Northern Ireland. They might have been in a situation of trying to intercept ammunition that was being moved around Northern Ireland. I cannot imagine that it would be enormously helpful for them to have to have in mind that they must, on the one had, weigh up their views on the right to life—we all have the right to life but in this case it is the lives of some very important people—and at the same time have to bear that in mind that they might be interfering with the private life of the person driving the car. There is a real problem of balance here and I just think that the drafting is slightly too glib. I am not in any way going to push this point but think it is worth registering. Broadly speaking, I accept the reason for the statutory instrument and accept entirely the defence that has been offered this afternoon by the Minister.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for the clear exposition of the powers outlined in the code of practice. There is a very wide range of powers affecting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Armed Forces and it is right and proper that there should be a well thought out code of practice governing the exercise and use of those powers. We all know the situation in Northern Ireland, where the authorities, the police and the Armed Forces have to be seen to be absolutely foursquare in their application of those powers. This code of practice builds in safeguards for the use of the powers for all in the community.

Security in Northern Ireland is of the utmost importance to all noble Lords in this House and we are united in our commitment to ensuring that people in Northern Ireland are safe and secure. The men and women officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland do their jobs with bravery and dedication. The measures in the Act play a hugely important role in combating terrorism and protecting communities in Northern Ireland and it is very important that they are overseen by rigorous, independent scrutiny. That is encompassed in the code of practice, which is vital to maintaining public confidence in Northern Ireland in the exercise of these powers. We on this side of the House are happy to lend our support, in the best traditions of bipartisanship, and understand the reasons for the urgent nature of the measure. I would like to place on record that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition give their full support to this order.

I thank both noble Lords who have participated in this brief debate for their support and I will do my best to respond to the points raised. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for his broad support. He referred to paragraph 8.4 of the code and read an extract from it. I hope noble Lords will bear with me if I read some further extracts in response to illustrate my point.

The noble Lord referred to the balancing of the two rights. If you read the code as a whole you will see that it acknowledges the supreme importance of the right for one’s life to be protected and the obligation to protect life. There was a long consultation on this code and changes were made to it as a result, so it has been fairly thoroughly looked at. If you look further in the code, paragraph 8.6 says:

“Officers should exercise consideration when entering and searching premises. If entry is forced, officers should endeavour to cause as little damage as possible … officers must ensure the building is left secure”.

Paragraph 8.8 makes the point that:

“Where practicable, officers should seek the co-operation of any person in the dwelling”.

Paragraph 8.9 says:

“Officers should exercise their powers courteously and with respect for persons and property”.

So it goes on.

When the code deals with the need to enter premises—which may be a building but could be a field or vehicle—it acknowledges that you have to recognise that people, as well as having the right to have their life protected, also have a right to a private life. It goes on to explain that one right has to be exercised with a view to the other. I believe the code of practice enshrines the right balance.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, for his support. He referred to the importance of the code building on safeguards. He paid a very important tribute to the PSNI. The police service in Northern Ireland is a devolved issue, but the code was developed in very close collaboration with it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland keeps very close links with the PSNI. Its involvement in the drafting of this code is essential to its smooth operation in the months and years to come. Finally, the noble Lord referred to the importance of rigorous scrutiny and put his finger on the key point. A process of rigorous scrutiny provides the transparency that ensures the integrity of the process. I hope the noble Lords will feel able to support the order.

Motion agreed.