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10 Feb 2003 : Column 678—continued

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On that very small point, will he explain how the Policing Board is strengthened by a reduction from 10 out of 19—a majority—in the number of members needed to initiate an inquiry? The original legislation ensured that a public inquiry could be initiated only by 10 members of the board, but the Bill reduces that number to a minority of only eight members. With regard to collective responsibility, how is the board strengthened if a minority can compel the undertaking of an inquiry?

Mr. Carmichael: As ever, such matters are a question of checks and balances. My understanding is that there is a balance to that particular check, as the majority of the board's members have to be present and voting. I am aware of the objections raised by the hon. Lady's party in the other place, but I think that a view has to be taken on such matters. The Government have taken their view and I can see some grounds for objection to it, but that is certainly not a point on which I would die in a ditch, if I may use that expression.

One of the issues about the Policing Board that troubled my colleagues in the other place was the provision reducing the minimum number of public meetings that it should hold each year. The Minister will recall that when Patten produced his report, the board was to meet in public once a month. The 2000 Act reduced the number of public meetings to 10 a year and the Bill further lowers that number to eight. On the basis of what was said from the Government Benches in the other place, it seems that the Government's thinking is that there were low attendances at the public meetings that have so far been held and that that is some sort of justification for the reduction. I caution the Government against pursuing that logic. Public meetings of this House are not always particularly well attended, but if they were to suggest that we should meet less frequently because of that, there would be something of a backlash. I hope to hear from the Minister exactly why this further reduction has been proposed now.

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Clause 16, which covers core policing principles, is particularly important and the Liberal Democrats are pleased to endorse it. It places at the heart of policing the concept of community policing, which is something that we have always sought to advance in relation to the remainder of the United Kingdom. It is an indication that we are proceeding down the road towards normalisation that we can talk about the development of policing in Northern Ireland in the same terms as we do for the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank the Minister's colleagues in another place for the reassurances that they have given that these principles represent exactly that, and that they are there to help to guide officers in relation to the way in which they should carry out their functions, rather than to give a ruling on that. I also welcome the reassurances given in relation to the European convention on human rights and the need for police officers to adhere to a code of ethics that is fully compatible with the convention and with other international human rights standards.

I turn briefly to part 2 of the Bill, and, in particular, to the civilianisation of the police. The Government will be aware that we have some reservations about this process but, again, I want to thank them for taking on in the other place our concerns about the use of civilian officers for the performance of intimate searches on people detained in custody. That issue was first raised by my noble Friend Baroness Harris of Richmond during the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002, and I am grateful to the Government for tabling amendments in the other place to make it clear that only medical staff may carry out those intrusive searches.

We still have some concerns about the use of civilian staff and, in particular, about how they will be trained. It is certainly fair that it should be up to the Chief Constable to determine the amount of training that civilian officers require, but we do not think it unreasonable that the House should have a say on what guidelines he will be given on the amount of training appropriate for each type of civilian officer. This is not a criticism of the Minister, but, when I hear her colleagues from the Home Office talk about the civilianisation of policing, I am left with a lingering suspicion that they somehow think that policing is not really that difficult, and that we can pick and choose aspects of it that can be divorced and given away to people who are something between a traffic warden and a police officer. I speak as one who, before coming to the House, worked in the criminal courts, albeit in Scotland, and I feel that this is a subtle but effective way of undermining the professional standing of the police in the community. I hope that the Government will be mindful of the importance of this issue as they go down that road.

Mr. McCabe: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the police themselves have clearly identified a number of tasks that they do not think they should carry out, and that, in those circumstances, there is a good case for civilianisation?

Mr. Carmichael: Of course there is, and that is why we do not oppose civilianisation in principle. But it is a question of where we draw the line—of what powers we expect these civilian officers to have and what areas we expect them to operate in. For example, I have no real

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difficulty with the designation of civilians for court escort duties and the like, provided that the appropriate safeguards are put in place.

The one area that concerns me is the question of what constitutes proper grounds for a search under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. According to that provision, the law is perfectly straightforward. In fact, such a massive body of case law has built up around that one section that it is now a minefield for working police officers of considerable standing and experience who have had full training, let alone a civilian officer who might stumble into that kind of situation in all innocence. Because such officers would not have the appropriate background or complete training, they might not be in possession of the whole picture. They could therefore jeopardise a significant drugs case without having any intention of misconducting themselves in any way.

Lady Hermon: May I assist the hon. Gentleman by saying that the provisions towards the end of the present Bill have been replicated more or less verbatim from the Police Reform Act 2002? During the Standing Committee on that legislation, the point was raised about intimate searches being degrading treatment, and I understand that the Home Office gave an undertaking at the time that civilian officers would be made familiar not only with the provisions for training laid out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 but with human rights provisions.

Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It points up the extreme caution with which we must approach the civilianisation of policing. Eventually, we must ask whether, if we have to give civilian officers such comprehensive training on the wider rules of criminal procedure and evidence, it might not be the right thing to do to employ more properly and fully trained police officers in the first place. This is an immensely difficult issue and it is only fair to the community, the police, and the civilians who are going to be put in that position that the fullest consideration should be given to the manner in which this legislation is introduced. The Standing Committee on the Bill will certainly want to examine the matter in greater detail.

The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve a policing service that is responsive and sensitive to their needs, and which is also held fully accountable by the Policing Board. The Bill represents a modest step down the path towards normalisation. In so far as it moves us down that path, it is welcome, and the Liberal Democrats will support it.

5.57 pm

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): As a general rule, ex-Secretaries of State should not try to do the job of their successors. I rise, therefore, with great modesty and trepidation, knowing that, when we talk about policing in Northern Ireland, we are always walking on eggshells. Although the contents of the Bill are really very limited, fairly inconsequential and bordering on the arcane, one or two aspects of it trouble me. That is why I want to speak this afternoon. I have discussed some of these issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and he knows that, in my approach to these

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matters, I have the utmost regard for and trust in the way in which he is carrying out his responsibilities in the very difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland.

I would like to clear up one deep misunderstanding at the outset. The Bill has nothing whatever to do with implementing further recommendations of the Patten report. If it were the case that recommendations had been left unimplemented, or that certain provisions of the report were unfulfilled and now needed to be implemented, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would have identified those provisions and recommendations. He did not. Implementation of Patten was achieved in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000; that was certainly the Government's view and I was a member of that Government. Indeed, in many respects, that Act was Patten plus, with knobs on. Given the difficult circumstances and conditions persisting in Northern Ireland at the time, we went out of our way, to the very outer limits of our ability, to implement Patten lock, stock and barrel. We did that because of the immense importance of creating a fresh start in policing in Northern Ireland. I do not need to rehearse the arguments. They are well known, I am sure, to all those who are here this afternoon. Creating confidence in the police across the community in Northern Ireland, and securing commitment to a new police service from both sides of the political and sectarian divide, was an immensely and supremely important prize. It is testimony to the application of politicians both here and in Northern Ireland at the time, and, if I may say so, it is testimony to the strength, robustness and durability of the original legislation, that that fresh start in policing has indeed been achieved in Northern Ireland. That has certainly been surprising for some.

We implemented Patten and achieved a fresh start in policing while understanding and bearing in mind two very important things throughout. The first was that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was not being dishonoured. The existing force was not being disbanded. Weight was attached to retaining the good will of serving officers whose morale was crucial to maintaining the operational efficiency of the police service in that very troubled part of the United Kingdom. The second was that the arrangements that were being put in place for the governance and accountability of the new police service had to be sufficiently robust to instil public confidence across the community, but not so robust as to make the job of practical policing any more difficult to achieve. Getting the balance right was difficult, but I thought that it was extremely important that we should do so.

I can remember saying this again and again to the wonderful officials who worked for me on the drafting of the original Bill and throughout its passage. Although we had to accept that policing was political—as, of course, it is, everywhere but even more so in Northern Ireland—my bottom-line requirement was that politics should not so intrude into policing that the police became hampered operationally and less able to do their job with complete efficacy. The systems of accountability and of insight and investigation into the police could not be turned into a battering ram to be used by less scrupulous people against the police. I felt that scrutiny and inquiry into the new police service

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under the new arrangements should not become a means of constantly raking up the past, thus politicising—more than is normally the case in Northern Ireland—the work of the new service. It is testimony to the tremendous sense of responsibility on the part of the Policing Board that was appointed—and the Policing Board as it is presently composed, a point that I would underline—that all the risks and dangers have, in the main, been avoided, and that the very careful equation that we constructed, with the checks and balances that we wrote into the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, has been operated with common sense and maturity.

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