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Mr. George Howarth: Let me say for the benefit of my friend the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that we are still considering the inclusion of a standard provision relating to the removal of the commissioner, like the provision applying to the Police Authority and, for that matter, the provision in the Bill applying to the district policing partnership board. As things stand, our plan is to table an amendment in another place.
The amendments to new clause 4 and new schedule 1 would give the oversight commissioner responsibility for the process of police reform in Northern Ireland. They would remove the Secretary of State's ability to set terms of reference for the commissioner. Putting aside for a moment any objection in principle, I am bound to point out that the commissioner is in post, and is operating under terms of reference already set by the Secretary of State. It might therefore be difficult to change retrospectively the basis on which he was appointed and, indeed, to change the terms of reference that went alongside that.
Mr. Trimble: I merely ask for information. The Minister said that the commissioner had been appointed according to a particular set of terms of reference. I hope that he will forgive me for asking whether those terms of reference are in the public domain. Do we know what they are?
Mr. Howarth: Any terms of reference can be altered, but we are in a particular situation at this particular time. There is a potential for developments in the future; I shall say more about that shortly. As always, however, we do not wish to create too many blind alleys. Indeed, we are anxious to do the opposite.
Let me now deal with the point of principle. I am afraid that I cannot accept the amendment, which seems to constitute an attempt to get the commissioner to implement changes that the Government have not approved. As the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made clear in a brief speech, the Bill that emerges from the House of Commons will be the law. It will have been considered in another place and gone through a Committee. In that context, although we aim to stay as true to Patten as is practical and possible, it would be inappropriate to move away from the principle that what comes out of the House will be important in terms of what the oversight commissioner decides should be overseen in implementing the recommendations.
Mr. Trimble: I am sorry to come back to what is probably a technical point, for which there is a technical answer. The Minister refers to the oversight commissioner having been appointed, given terms of reference and all the rest of it. An appointment may have been made at a point when there was no legislative basis for doing so. We are now creating a legislative basis for the making of an appointment. I do not see in the new clauses or schedule any transitional provision to provide for the fact that the informal appointment that has already been made is to be the appointment for the purposes of the Act. Without such a transitional provision, there will be an obligation on the Secretary of State to make a formal appointment and to provide terms of reference in accordance with the Act.
Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman, eagle-eyed as ever, raises a useful point. I am sure that the answer that he gave to his own question is the answer that he is seeking. Therefore, I am happy to endorse what he said.
The other point that we have made--it is a serious answer to the right hon. Gentleman--is that the powers involved will now be put on a statutory footing. That makes a difference. It certainly adds to the standing of the commissioner because he will be carrying out functions that are statutory.
The detail of the changes is contained in the Bill and in the comprehensive implementation plan, which will be updated once the Bill receives Royal Assent--so that which is overseen will be changed in accordance with the way in which the Bill finally emerges. What we are doing is entirely consistent with Patten. I hope--perhaps the phrase is more in hope than anticipation--that, on the basis of the assurances I have been able to give, my hon. Friend the Member for South Down and his colleagues will not feel it necessary to push the amendments to a vote.
Mr. McGrady: The purpose of our amendments is to clarify whether, if the Government do not materially implement a specific Patten recommendation, it would be within the oversight commissioner's power to say, "You have omitted to deal with this substantive matter and to
Mr. Howarth: I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will probably have to differ on this point. As we have already made clear, the commissioner is overseeing implementation of the changes arising from Patten and agreed by the Government and the House. The Government have included those changes in the Bill, and the House has approved the principle of the Bill's contents.
I should like now to deal with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North on plastic baton charges. I should say first that the working party which Patten recommended to examine the matter has met recently, and that the research that my hon. Friend mentioned and that Patten recommended is already under way. Although my hon. Friend used that matter as an example, we have taken on board the issue that he has raised. The issue is being addressed along the lines that Patten suggested.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North will know that in chapter 9 of the report, in a box on page 52, Patten dealt with some of the weapons used against the police. He specifically mentioned the use--which, sadly, we have seen in the past few days--of
As I said a week or so ago in Committee, the implicit deal between society and the police is that the police act for us in many situations in which we are not capable or legally empowered to act for ourselves. Consequently--as we see far too often in Northern Ireland--the police are often placed in dangerous situations. I therefore think that Patten reached the right conclusion on the matter.
Additionally, we should appreciate the fact that, in different parts of the world, in comparable public order situations, police use not plastic baton charges, but live ammunition. Therefore, in that sense, the restraint that has been shown by the RUC--and that, in the short term, until research provides a viable alternative we expect to continue to be shown by the new police service--is the best option available.