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Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Northern Ireland) (Biometric data) Order 2015

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Northern Ireland) (Biometric data) Order 2015

Relevant document: 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, I beg to move that the Committee should consider the draft Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Northern Ireland) (Biometric data) Order 2015, laid before the House on 29 January 2015. The main purpose of this order is to provide the Police Service of Northern Ireland with the ability to continue to use biometric data, including DNA, footprints and fingerprints, in the interests of national security and for the purposes of a terrorist investigation. The order also makes a transitional provision which permits the Chief Constable of the PSNI additional time to consider whether material held by the PSNI should be retained for an extended period for the purposes of national security, and makes some amendments to the Terrorism Act 2000 and to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. I shall refer to this as the 2012 Act.

The 2012 Act made new provision for the retention, destruction and use of biometric data taken in the course of a criminal investigation in England and Wales. The new provisions, which are now in force in England and Wales, require the destruction of biometric data of those individuals who have not been convicted of a criminal offence, subject to a number of statutory exemptions. Such new provisions were necessary in the wake of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S and Marper v the United Kingdom. In that case, the court ruled that the provisions in Part 5 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which at that time permitted the “blanket and indiscriminate” retention of biometric data from individuals who had not been convicted of a criminal offence, violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The equivalent provisions relating to Northern Ireland, contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, were thus similarly considered to violate Article 8.

The 2012 Act did not provide for an equivalent new biometric retention framework for the police in Northern Ireland. While the Northern Ireland Department of Justice sought a legislative consent Motion from the Assembly for the inclusion of Northern Ireland-specific clauses within the 2012 Act, this was not granted. This was largely because the majority of the provisions to be made had by then fallen into the devolved space following the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly in April 2010. The devolved Administration therefore took forward a separate but broadly similar provision to that contained in the 2012 Act. This was done under the cover of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2013. I shall refer to this as the 2013 Act. It was recognised, however, that the Northern Ireland Assembly did not have the legislative competence to make provision in the excepted field, in particular to permit the biometric data obtained under the PACE NI order to continue to be used for national security purposes and in terrorist investigations.

An order-making power was therefore inserted into Part 7 of Schedule 1 to the 2012 Act to allow the Government to make excepted provision regarding biometric data in Northern Ireland. This power was consequential on the devolved Administration making similar provision to that contained in the 2012 Act by the end of 2012. In the event, it was the following year before the devolved Administration’s Bill containing the equivalent provision received Royal Assent, in the 2013 Act. It was therefore necessary to amend the order-making power in the 2012 Act via primary legislation. That was done in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, which received Royal Assent in March 2014.

An amendment to the 2013 Act is currently being taken through the NI Assembly via a separate Bill. The devolved Administration advises that this amendment is necessary to prevent the inadvertent requirement to destroy a large volume of material which was intended to be capable of retention. It is expected that that Bill will receive Royal Assent by this summer, following which the provisions in the 2013 Act will be commenced. This order will be brought into force on the same date that the provisions of the 2013 Act are commenced. That is in order to avoid any gap arising in the powers of the PSNI to retain biometric data for national security purposes or in terrorist investigations.

Following the approach for England and Wales in the 2012 Act, paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 to the 2012 Act provides for the making of a “national security determination” by the chief constable of the PSNI in respect of the biometric data of a given individual. That allows the material to be retained for up to two additional years for the purposes of national security. The order provides for a transitional period during which the new destruction regime will not take effect in respect of material identified as requiring consideration as to whether it should continue to be held for national security purposes. That is to allow the chief constable of the PSNI sufficient time to consider whether to make a national security determination in respect of such material. The provision permitting the chief constable of the PSNI to make the national security determination is not yet in force, but will be commenced by order later this year on the date identified for the commencement of the new destruction regime in Northern Ireland.

The Biometrics Commissioner, appointed under Section 20 of the 2012 Act, will have an important oversight function in that connection. The commissioner will have the power to review every national security determination made by the chief constable, and will be empowered to order the destruction of any material made the subject of such a determination if he concludes that it is not necessary for the material to be held on the grounds of national security.

Finally, the order makes two minor consequential amendments. First, paragraph 15 of Schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act 2000 is amended to ensure that the correct definition of the term “sample” is adopted in relation to the use of police powers under the Act. Secondly, the order removes some remaining references in Schedule 1 to the 2012 Act to samples and profiles which are redundant in consequence of the 2013 Act.

Part 7 of Schedule 1 to the 2012 Act provides my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with an important order-making power. With this order she duly exercises that power to ensure that the PSNI remains able properly to investigate terrorist offences and make use of biometric data in the interests of national security. Moreover, the provisions of the order are a vital part of the new legislative framework, which is necessary to secure the Government’s compliance with our obligations under the European convention. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, the complicated nature of the order that the Minister just outlined to us illustrates that it operates at the twilight zone between the excepted and the devolved matters. Of course, the fact that both are going at a different pace makes matters even more complicated. Nevertheless, we understand that this flows directly from an ECHR ruling and we must deal with that.

Can the Minister assure us on one point? Many members of the public frequently become concerned if there is a risk that material that could subsequently find its way into the evidential process will be disposed of prematurely. We now know of cases emerging many years after offences were committed. We see that on a regular basis and, as the noble Baroness knows, the Historical Enquiries Team is about to commence more work—just as it has previously operated, going back over very difficult terrorist cases. Of course, sadly, in the current circumstances in the modern world, many risks to national security come from all sorts of directions, and not ones that we have been used to traditionally in this part of the world. Therefore, there is quite a significant issue here. I would like the Minister to assure the Committee that the risks posed to successful prosecutions will not be significant and that there are sufficient powers available to ensure that appropriate material is retained in the reasonable prospect that further evidence would justify a prosecution.

The Explanatory Memorandum also raises a number of issues that affect the Police Service of Northern Ireland, not least of which is cost. I refer to paragraph 10, on impact. It says that there is,

“a cost to the PSNI in configuring computer systems for their use in managing the new regime and in staff training”.

Are sufficient resources available to the PSNI to undertake this work? The Minister will know that the PSNI has faced a very difficult budget settlement. We understand the reasons for that but the work that must be undertaken by the PSNI is, far from reducing, at a very significantly high level. That is not simply because of the ongoing terrorism threat. There are other threats out there, for example through smugglers and illicit trade.

I am pleased that at long last, after a two and a half year delay, the National Crime Agency will function in Northern Ireland. However, there is clearly a cost and resource issue here. It is not only cost. Part of the problem that the PSNI faces is that it has so many people working on historical cases and also an ongoing terrorist threat level that the Chief Constable described as “severe”—it is certainly substantial. He will have to review every piece of evidence and that is a massive piece of work. If officers’ time is taken up with that, with training and so on, there is a resource implication. Can the Minister assure the Committee that the effectiveness of the PSNI is not going to be diminished as a result of the substantial workload that is going to be forced upon it?

I hope that the Minister will address one other matter. Can she explain in a little more detail paragraph 12 of the Explanatory Memorandum covering the monitoring and review process:

“An independent Biometrics Commissioner has been appointed to keep under review the retention and use by the police of DNA samples”?

Given the fact that the role of the commissioner is currently limited to the oversight of the making of national security determinations, can the Minister elaborate on how this process is going to operate under the new circumstances?

In summary, the necessity for this has been more or less forced upon us as a result of the court ruling, and of course even though the legislative framework is different in England and Wales from Northern Ireland, the case has the same effect as it would have under the different legislation that exists in Northern Ireland. Those are the issues and I would appreciate it if the noble Baroness would address them in her response.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her exposition of the order and the staff in her office for keeping me informed. This is another sensible step, albeit that it may be forced on us, in the devolution process that was first started by a Labour Government. Anything that arms the PSNI and the forces of law and order with the necessary requirements to combat potential acts of terrorism can only be welcomed. I want to make it clear that the Official Opposition welcome this addition to the PSNI’s powers. This order does not deal with national security outwith the legislative context of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it does bring the PSNI into line with other forces. The ability to use evidence that is gathered is particularly useful.

I echo the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the potential costs and use of resources. We all know that the budget of the PSNI is under considerable strain, especially given the circumstances in north Belfast. There are reports that the efforts of some of the historical inquiry teams have had to be reduced or abandoned because of a stated lack of resources. I assure the Minister that we will be paying particular attention to this because any weakening in the resources available to the PSNI makes it less able to tackle potential acts or planned acts of terrorism. However, despite the problems around the need for this order, we welcome and support it.

I thank noble Lords for their comments and their support in principle for the order. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked whether there was a risk that biometric data that could still lead to the conviction of those who have not yet been brought to justice for their crimes might be destroyed. The purpose of the order is to allow the PSNI to continue to use biometric data in the interests of national security or for the purposes of a terrorist investigation. It does not impose any destruction requirements on the PSNI.

The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, which was of course debated and approved by the Assembly, provides for the exemptions to the legal requirement to destroy an individual’s biometric data that have been introduced in response to the Marper judgment. During the Marper case, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the argument that the indefinite retention of biometric data was justified for the purposes of preventing crime. The court ruled that the blanket and indefinite retention policy of the UK did not strike the appropriate balance between public interest and the rights of the individual. The noble Lord will know that we are bound by that judgment.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, referred very rightly to the issue of resources. As the purpose of the order is to allow the PSNI to continue to use biometric data in the interests of national security or for the purposes of a terrorist investigation, no resource burden is imposed by virtue of the order that is before the Committee. However, the implementation of the new legislative regime for the retention of biometric data, provided for by the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, has of course created a significant resource burden, as is noted in the Explanatory Memorandum, which noble Lords have referred to. It has been necessary to allocate resource to reviewing all biometric data currently held by the PSNI, the configuration of IT for their use and staff training. This is an inevitable consequence of the ruling of the European Court.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked about the mechanisms to be put in place to ensure the oversight of police retention of biometric data, which is not subject to the destruction requirements. The independent Biometrics Commissioner, to whom the noble Lord referred, will have the power to review the making of every national security determination, including those made by the chief constable of the PSNI. If the commissioner is not satisfied that the retention of any material is necessary on national security grounds, he can order the material to be destroyed. The Biometrics Commissioner’s first annual report was laid before Parliament in November 2014. In his report, the commissioner reveals that relatively few national security determinations relating to England and Wales, where his powers currently lie, have been received by his office to date.

I hope that those responses are helpful to noble Lords. I commend the order to the Committee.

Will the Minister clarify one point for me? Is she saying that, if the chief constable designates a “sample” as one that is essential, in his or her view, for anti-terrorism or national security purposes, that protects the sample from the ruling of the court, subject to the oversight of the commissioner? Is that effectively where we are?

The short answer is yes; that is the process. The chief constable makes the decision and it is reviewed by the commission.

Motion agreed.