Kate Hoey – 2014 Parliamentary Question to the Northern Ireland Office

The below Parliamentary question was asked by Kate Hoey on 2014-05-06.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, pursuant to the Answer of 1 May 2014, Official Report, column 762W, on terrorism, in what circumstances the information pertaining to grants of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy between 1987 and 1997 was lost; and what steps she plans to take to recover that information.

Mrs Theresa Villiers

The information provided in my written answer of 1 May 2014 (Official Report, Column 762W) was based on information held by my Department. I first became aware of the issue of missing files while preparing to answer that question. I directed that a review take place, along with other relevant Departments, of the historical records relating to RPMs during the period 1987 to 1997. This is ongoing.

Records indicate that the vast majority of uses of the RPM referred to in my answer of 1 May did not relate to terrorist offences. Historically, the RPM was used to remit sentences of individuals before statutory means existed to do so. This included releasing individuals from prison for compassionate reasons (e.g. those who were terminally ill), individuals who assisted the police and prosecuting authorities (now provided for by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005), or to correct errors in calculating release dates. Further information on the general operation of the RPM can be found in the Ministry of Justice’s “Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers: Final Report”, published in October 2009.

In a written answer to the Member for North West Norfolk on 17 March 2014 (Official Report, Column 368W), I repeated an answer given on 20 March 2003 by the then-Secretary for State for Northern Ireland to the Member for Lagan Valley (Official Report, Column 895W) – namely that 18 individuals had been granted the RPM in relation to terrorist offences since 1998. Given the RPM has not been used since 2002 and has not been used by this Government, the answer given was the same as the 2003 one. However, early findings from the review of files have indicated that at least one of these cases did not relate to a terrorist offence and in one other case the records do not indicate whether or not the offence was terrorism related.

In relation to the remaining 16 uses of the RPM between 2000 and 2002 (which did concern terrorist offences), I understand that previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland used the RPM in relation to individuals who for technical reasons fell outside of the letter of the Early Release Scheme, to shorten (i.e. not waive or remove) sentences in order that individuals fell within what I understand the then-Government saw as the spirit of the Scheme.

In other words, the RPM was used to correct what the last Government viewed as discrepancies between the letter and the intention of the Belfast Agreement and the subsequent Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act – that for a certain category of terrorist offences, offenders could be released after serving two years of their sentences.

The reasons for exercising the RPM in the 16 terrorism-related cases are summarised as follows:

· to correct an anomaly in the treatment of an offender convicted of the same offence(s) and given the same sentence as co-defendants but who would otherwise have served longer in prison;

· to release prisoners who would have been eligible for early release under the Belfast Agreement had they not transferred to a different jurisdiction;

· to release prisoners who would have been eligible to be released under the Belfast Agreement had they not served sentences outside the jurisdiction having been convicted extraterritorially, or;

· to release prisoners who would have been eligible to be released under the Belfast Agreement had their offences (which subsequently became scheduled offences) been scheduled at the time they were committed.

The names of the 16 individuals granted the RPM in relation to terrorist offences since 2000 are currently being considered as part of an ongoing court case in Northern Ireland.