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First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 21 January 2002
[Mr. Peter L. Pike in the Chair]
Draft Police Emblems and Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I am concerned that the Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill is about to start on the Floor of the House. I am to reply to that debate for the official Opposition, and my hon. Friends intend to take part, as I imagine do the other Opposition Members. I understand that an attempt has been through the usual channels made to avoid this highly unfortunate clash. However, I am sorry to say that when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rises to speak, I shall leave the Room to listen to his speech.
My hon. Friends and I will be faced with an unfortunate choice. The Bill is plainly more important, but I wonder whether we could return to the Committee debate on another occasion. Is there is a precedent for such clashes? Finally, would it be possible, Mr. Pike, for you to pass on a message about how unfortunate a clash this is?
The Chairman: My position is clear. I am responsible only for points of order in the Committee. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, the business of the Housethe timing of Committee debates and of business taken on the Floor of the Houseis not a matter for me. The subject could have been raised at business questions on Thursday last week. I understand that the usual channels, which we all know exist, have been considering it, but the matter is still before the House. I am minded to call the Minister to move the motion.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Police Emblems and Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002.
I acknowledge the difficulties caused by the timing of today's business for those hon. Members who wish to participate in the two debates. However, if we apply our best endeavours to the taskI hope that there is broad agreement across the Committee on the substance of the orderwe can deal with it expeditiously yet still do justice to the serious issues involved.
The Government's aim has been to secure for all the people of Northern Ireland a police service that, to quote the Patten report, is
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Considerable progress has been made, and the regulations are a further important step. They deal with one of the most sensitive issuesthe regulation of the symbols and flags of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Hon. Members, especially those who do not normally concern themselves with Northern Ireland matters, may ask what that has to do with an effective and efficient police service. A police service that does not have the confidence of the whole community cannot operate effectively and efficiently, therefore the intention behind the regulations is to build support on all sides of the community, and to secure a representative police service that is perceived not to be associated with any particular tradition, nor with any side of the political debate. Whether we like it or not, symbols form part of the pictureand I am sure that it will form part of the debate on the Floor of the House on criminal justice reform. The Patten commission made that link when it said that the
''new beginning to policing cannot be achieved unless the reality that part of the community feels unable to identify with the present name and symbols associated with the police is addressed''.
I recognise the pain that some of the changes can bringindeed, have already brought. The name change and the long deliberation on symbols have made these difficult times for many. Some in the police and the wider police family feel that the changes are a repudiation of the institution of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of individual officers' service. Painful though the changes may be, they are a necessary step in providing the new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland to which we are all committed. They in no way detract from the genuine respect and honour that we accord to the courage and professionalism of the RUC. From my contacts with police officers and the wider police family, I know that many want us to get on with implementation now that decisions have been made. There is almost an audible sigh of relief that a new emblem has been found and we can now get on with cementing the new beginning.
Of course, the new beginning is already under way. The change of name has already taken place. The Police Service of Northern Ireland came into being on 4 November, and it is to the great credit of the service that the change was effected so smoothly. On the same date, we welcomed the first batch of new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the new cross-community Policing Board took up its powersanother remarkable step forward.
I will not go into the detail of the regulations themselves. If hon. Members have specific questions, we can deal with them later. Given that brief preamble and bearing in mind the time pressure that hon. Members are under, I shall make some remarks on the Patten report. It recognised that the use of symbols
''perceived to associate the police with one side of the constitutional argument inhibits the wholehearted participation in policing of those who espouse the other side of that argument''.
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That wholehearted participation is the cornerstone of the new beginning to policing. A society that supports policing is by its very nature antithetical to terrorism and lawlessness.
Associating the police, through symbols, with a disputed identity has two unacceptable consequences: it distracts from the main task of the police, which is to uphold the law; and it acts on others as a ''chill factor'', deterring members of the minority from participating in policing and thereby tending to undermine the effectiveness of policing itself. Such participation can mean joining the force as a career, assisting with inquiries and generally co-operating with police officers on a day-to-day basis, or formally supporting the police at a political level.
We should not underestimate how important it is to police officers that they are respected for performing the role that we ask them to play. Our objective is to ensure that both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland embrace the new Police Service. To be able to work without being routinely and grievously verbally abused, as they often have been, could transform officers' experiences.
Changing the symbols of Northern Ireland's police in no way denies the honour, service and sacrifice of those who served in the RUC. The Government seek to honour their obligations under the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, and to implement the Patten report as we committed ourselves to doing. I pay tribute to the new Policing Board for its work in proposing the new design; that will help us to overcome many difficulties that we would otherwise have faced in terms of the new emblem's acceptability.
Above all, we want to ensure an effective and representative police service in Northern Ireland, so that as wide a section of the community as possible can support the new service. The Good Friday agreement provided the opportunity for a new beginning to policing. The regulations are an important further step in delivering that vision.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I am grateful to the Minister for her expeditious remarks, although such conciseness should not have been necessary: she should have had the opportunity to explain some of the details of the regulations. I am keeping half an eye on the Annunciator, Mr. Pike, and if the Secretary of State begins to speak, my remarks will come to an immediate conclusion.
I join the Minister in welcoming the work of the Policing Board in proposing the new police badge and emblem. Its work is true to the Belfast agreement[Interruption.] I regret to say that I shall now leave the Committee for the Chamber.
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Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): As we all know, symbols are of paramount importance in Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats support the regulations. I hope that the symbols will prove uncontroversial, even though the debate on symbols and emblems was one of the most contentious during the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The regulations show that everyone on the Policing Board worked together and reached agreement. That is welcome, and we hope that the board will continue to work constructively for the good of the whole community in Northern Ireland.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I commend the brevity with which the Minister spoke to the regulations.
The Ulster Unionist party was delighted that the Policing Board reached unanimous agreement: for its 19 members, representing various shades of opinion, to agree unanimously on any one issue is a superb achievement. I specifically commend the members of the Social Democratic and Labour party. For three years following the report of the Patten commission, they asked for the full implementation of that report, which recommended that the badge be free from associations with either the Irish state or the British state. None the less, the SDLP had the courage to return to the Belfast agreement, which, rather than causing division, talked about mutual respect for symbols. It is an enormous achievement that the SDLP has allowed the agreement to be seen to work, rather than sticking rigidly to the report.
The Democratic Unionist party is not represented in Committee today. It adopted a bleak stance towards the Patten report, rejecting it outright. Despite that, its members were happy to take their three seats on the Policing Board, which is the creature of the report, and to agree to the new police badge. It is a credit to the DUP that it contributed to the unanimity on that issue. A useful precedent has been set. As we leave for the debate in the Chamber, I hope that we can reach mutual agreement on symbols for courtrooms and the like.
Jane Kennedy: I associate myself with the complimentary remarks that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made about the SDLP and the DUP. I am grateful for the way in which hon. Members have expedited the handling of these important regulations. I shall conclude my remarks so as not to delay further hon. Members who want to attend the debate in the Chamber, although we have hardly done justice to the regulations and to the fact that we have achieved agreement in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Police Emblems and Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002.
Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Five o'clock.
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The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Chairman)
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Turner, Mr. Andrew
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Burnham, Andy (Leigh)