Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for giving for giving way. If he had not been so anxious to indulge in that rant, he might have listened to precisely what I said. All that I regretted was the controversy that arose from the ombudsman's investigation. I did not take a view on the merits of either side. I was careful not to do so. The Minister has simply ascribed to me what he believed my position to be, rather than what it is—or what I said it was. If the record shows that I was simply regretting the controversy that had occurred as a result of the ombudsman's investigation, quite apart from the merits of the investigation—the Minister is right to say that I am not in a position to make a judgment—

The Chairman: Order. I must return us to the amendment.

Mr. Blunt: May I finish the point, Mr. Pike?

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The Chairman: Briefly.

Mr. Blunt: Thank you, Mr. Pike.

The Minister made a serious allegation. If he examines the record and if my remarks bear the import that he put on them, I shall withdraw them because, as he properly pointed out, I am not entitled to draw those conclusions. However, I am entitled to regret the controversy with the Chief Constable that was caused by the investigation. If that was the weight of my remarks—it was certainly what I intended—I hope that the Minister will withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Browne: I will of course read the record. However, I heard what I heard, and words on the page do not always bear the implications that they clearly bore when they were said. I have no doubt that other members of the Committee heard what was said and will know exactly what was intended.

In order that the Committee should understand my views on the amendment, I shall explain what the Government believe the chief inspector's principal roles and responsibilities should be. Although the chief inspector will be appointed by the Secretary of State, it will be done independent of Government. He or she will be responsible for ensuring that organisations within the criminal justice system achieve their internal objectives, as well as those set by the Government. The chief inspector will be charged with considering issues of cross-cutting concern, and I see the inspector as being uniquely placed to examine issues such as delays in the progress of cases in the criminal justice system.

The individual inspections of what I would call agencies and the thematic inspections that would cross-cut agencies will be designed to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in the criminal justice system and to ensure a more joined-up system of justice. They are intended to make the system more transparent and accountable, two of the principles at the heart of the Bill and the review. I say that to give a degree of reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. It is not intended to give the chief inspector the sort of powers that some have suggested he should have or that the office was intended to have. The question is one of administration and is not to do with the way in which individual cases are dealt with. In that sense, it does not concern the ombudsman.

7.45 pm

My second point is that those hon. Members who know their way around the review will recognise that, in general, the Bill's provisions faithfully reflect the review's findings and recommendations, including the list of organisations to be covered. On this particular matter, the Bill does just that. Since the review was published, and since the understanding of the chief inspector's role has grown, particularly among the organisations covered by the provision, there has been general agreement that the description of the organisation should be a matter for inspection. However, there have been further suggestions, and the hon. Member for North Down is not alone in making them, that the list should be extended to other organisations.

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One of the significant omissions from the list is the courts themselves. They are not on the list in any capacity. Suggestions have been made to me that they should be included. I understand, therefore, the suggestions made by the hon. Members for Reigate and for North Down about extending the list of organisations included in subsection (1). Whether or not it was intended to be for such a purpose, I would have thought that the Secretary of State would use clause 46(6) to add organisations to the list if it were thought not to be comprehensive. That subsection would also be used for adding new organisations, were any to come on stream.

Since one of the principle purposes of having a chief inspector is to allow cross-cutting inspections, it is crucial that we provide the office of chief inspector with access to all the relevant organisations with a role to play in the criminal justice system. Otherwise, the chief inspector is likely to come to a block that will prevent them from performing their role. That is why the Bill includes clause 46(6)—to allow, by order, the list to be amended.

On Second Reading, I said that I intended to review, and I am currently reviewing, the list of organisations that the inspectorate must inspect. My review so far suggests that it will have to be added to, but it is important that we consult any organisations proposed for inclusion before they are added to the list. The review's recommendations have been in the public domain for some time, and those organisations that were listed in the list that is reflected in the Bill have known what was coming and have had an opportunity to contribute to the consultation process. They have engaged with officials and others—sometimes at our instigation—so they know what is coming.

The other organisations--I include Consignia as a neutral example--have not expected this new requirement to be imposed on them, and it would not be appropriate or fair on them to impose it now without consultation. For that reason, I give an undertaking that consultation will take place with the organisations that the hon. Lady lists in her amendment, and other organisations as they come to my attention as having a role in the criminal justice system. On that understanding, I invite both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Reigate to withdraw their amendments.

My problem is that I cannot give a guarantee of when that consultation process will be concluded, but I shall do everything that I can to ensure that it is concluded before Report stage.

Lady Hermon: For clarification, has any consultation taken place with the police ombudsman about the proposal to extend the chief inspector's investigative powers to her office? I ask that only because reference was made to it at a conference last autumn.

The Chairman: Order. Before we go on, as only one amendment is being moved at the moment, Lady Hermon will have the right to indicate whether she wants to press her amendment to a Division. Her amendment would then be moved formally.

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Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down for her intervention. Some communication has taken place with the police ombudsman, but it would be inappropriate of me to describe that as consultation.

My plan is to identify as comprehensive a list as possible before indulging in consultation with the organisations. I suspect that, with organisations such as Consignia, such a provision would take a bit more explaining than with other organisations, as they would want to know why they had been incorporated into the inspection process. Therefore, the list might not be comprehensive at Report stage. However, I need first to go through the process of consultation. I cannot comment on discussions that have taken place at conferences or elsewhere, which have involved people other than myself, but I accept that there is an issue here. We need a comprehensive list, and I shall do my best to make one before the Bill completes its stages in the House.

Mr. Blunt: I hear what the Minister says about dealing with this matter on Report. I would be happier if the requirement were to remove people from a list that the Committee had placed them on, rather than proceeding from consultation to the compiling of a list and additions at a later stage.

The hon. Member for North Down made a convincing case for the addition of the three institutions to which she refers in her amendment. If she can tell me that she intends to press that amendment to a Division, I shall withdraw amendment No. 31.

Lady Hermon: It may help the hon. Gentleman to decide what to do if I tell him that I am reassured by the Minister's commitment to have a comprehensive list by Report stage. That persuades me, with full confidence and peace of mind, not to press my amendment to a vote.

Mr. Blunt: I thank the hon. Lady for that information, but my own judgment is different. It would be better to have the police ombudsman in the list at this stage. That would come as no surprise to the police ombudsman, with whom, as the Minister told the Committee, there has been some contact, although the Minister would not say that it represented a formal consultation over the list of the inspectorate.

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It is important that the Committee expresses a view at this stage. Opportunities will occur at later stages of the Bill, both on Report and in another place, for the Government to remove the mention of the police ombudsman if circumstances merit them doing so, although that would hugely surprise me. Therefore, I intend to press amendment No. 31 to a Division.

Lady Hermon: I must urge the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the commitment that the Minister gave to make the list comprehensive. It is ill-advised to take from the agreement that we have been given for a comprehensive list and single out one office.

Mr. Blunt: I understand the hon. Lady's reservations, but she and I part company over the merits and practicality of the matter. I take into consideration the time that we may have for Report stage. We have no idea with how much time the Government will grace the proceedings on Report, and we may never have the possibility to consider this measure in the form of an Opposition amendment, should the Government choose not to introduce it following consultation. Therefore, I hope that she will forgive me if my experience of dealing with Her Majesty's Government means that, at this stage, I am not prepared entirely to take them at their word, largely because of the way in which they handle legislation in this place. That is why I want to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 13.

Division No. 13]

Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Hayes, Mr. John

Atherton, Ms Candy
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Calton, Mrs. Patsy
Hall, Patrick
Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr. David
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Mallon, Mr. Seamus
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eight o'clock till Thursday 7 February at half-past Nine o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Atherton, Ms
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Calton, Mrs.
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Dobbin, Jim
Garnier, Mr.
Hall, Patrick
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady

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Heyes, Mr.
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr.
Mallon, Mr.
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Öpik, Lembit
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Woodward, Mr.

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