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10 Feb 2003 : Column 682—continued

Rev. Ian Paisley: How would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House that there is not a multiplicity of inquiries that hinder the police, when even the firing of one baton round is inquired into, costing £2,000? Over and over again, we have had such inquiries because one man fired a baton round. Surely it is getting right down to the very minutiae of police activity when an inquiry is held into every baton round that is fired?

Mr. Mandelson: The hon. Gentleman's question serves to illustrate the concern that I am about to come on to in the remarks that I will make on the new piece of legislation rather than the original Act.

A police service that is constantly at risk of being inquired into and investigated, with its policies and actions questioned and challenged, its judgments called into question, and its practices constantly put under a microscope by the accountability bodies—and, for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there is more than one such body—cannot easily get on with the job of policing.

Lady Hermon: If memory serves, while the right hon. Member for Hartlepool was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and while the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill was being debated in this House, he wrote a very good article in the Irish News. In that article, he made it clear that the distinction that he drew between independent members and elected members of district policing partnerships hinged on the electoral mandate. Will the right hon. Member explain whether his view has changed? Does he now accept that independent members with criminal or terrorist convictions can come on to DPPs without any electoral mandate?

Mr. Mandelson: I will respond to the apparent inconsistency that the hon. Lady has identified. At the time I said—and this was the Government's view—that an electoral mandate should override any other consideration, even that of a previous criminal investigation. That remains my view. However, I also remember saying at this Dispatch Box that, in time—and time heals a lot, if not all, in Northern Ireland—we would want to revisit the issue and consider it in the light of the experience of the peace process and political developments in Northern Ireland. I suspect that that is what lies behind the Government's contemplation of the change to which the hon. Lady refers.

I want to go back to my remarks on the constant, unrelenting pressure on the police, with their every move, judgment and action scrutinised, brought out into the open, put into a goldfish bowl, and debated. My

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fear—and I would put it no more strongly than this—is that the provisions of the new Bill will tilt further in that direction, creating risk in the evolution of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

A balance must be struck between constantly reviewing the police and allowing them to get on with their job—a balance between the need to secure inclusiveness and accountability in the governing arrangements for the police and their ability to get on with their job. A balance must be struck between the party and independent members on the Policing Board and on the district policing partnerships. There must also be a balance between the Chief Constable, who is rightly responsible operationally for what the police do, and the Policing Board, which has responsibility for holding him to account in a general sense but not on particular aspects of the operations that he superintends.

Lembit Öpik: I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is always a danger of over-regulation, but that might be the price that one has to pay to build confidence in those parts of the Northern Ireland community that did not trust the police. However, does he not accept that one of the biggest frustrations for a proportion of the police force is not what is in this Bill, but the fact that there is mandatory 50:50 recruitment? To follow the logic of his argument, it would be appropriate for the Government to review that provision if they want to remove some of the pressure on the police.

Mr. Mandelson: That is a matter for the Government. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would be perfectly happy to hear their arguments for any changes that they might contemplate in that regard.

All sorts of checks and balances were involved in the original Act. There was not just a balance between the board and the Chief Constable, but a balance and check between the differing responsibilities of the board and the Secretary of State and a balance relating to the respective roles and powers of the ombudsman, the board and the Secretary of State vis-à-vis the police service. By no means, do I claim perfection for the original Act, but we took great care at that time to get it right in policing terms and not just in terms of what was being demanded politically by the different parties in Northern Ireland.

It goes without saying that everything in Northern Ireland involves negotiation. Given the history and nature of the conflict there, every day, every week, every issue and everything is rightly subject to negotiation. That is in the nature of the peace process and the conflict resolution in which we are all engaged. Compromise is the order of the day, and that is right. However, we must be careful not to confuse compromise with political expediency when such important practical matters as policing and the upholding of the rule of law are at stake. We must certainly not confuse compromise with the political expediency that downgrades or displaces the professional needs of the structures of law and order in Northern Ireland that have such a responsibility placed on them in the particular circumstances of the Province. I certainly do not suggest that Ministers are disregarding the professional needs of the police and the structures of law and order—quite the opposite. I know

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my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State well enough to know that he would never move an inch in that direction.

However, we must bear in mind that nowhere in the United Kingdom—indeed, in very few places in the western world—are the structures of law and order under greater pressure than they are in Northern Ireland. They are under pressure not just from terrorist activity from the residual number of dissidents, but from organised crime, sectarian violence, intra-community killings and the continuing civil disorder of the sort that we have seen just this last weekend. That provides the backcloth, and the Government need to consider carefully any move that risks unbalancing the existing political framework and the existing system of checks of balances that were so carefully weighed and so carefully written into the original Act. If a wrong move is made, that may make the job of the police even harder than it already is.

For example, the Bill proposes to reduce the already limited safeguard that enables the Secretary of State to question the board's desire to launch inquiries into the police. The board's right of inquiry is of the utmost importance, but the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) illustrated how one can take that right to excess and apply it improperly in a way that discredits the very right that it is important to build into the legislation. In other words, that right must be exercised with caution and not with an excessive political zeal that threatens to destabilise the police or, at the very least, almost drain them of their energy and ability to carry on their normal policing functions.

We must remember that what will take the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to Hillsborough this week are the possible circumstances in which Sinn Fein and republican members join the Policing Board and the district policing partnerships for the first time. I welcome that; it is long overdue. Sinn Fein has been trading for too long on its commitment to the Good Friday agreement and the peace process without actually signing up to a crucial, central part of the agreement that was made. However, we should not pretend that this would not introduce an entirely new political dimension to policing if and when republican members join the police bodies. We must be aware of the impact that that could have on the governing arrangements of the PSNI.

The Bill also proposes that, out of the Policing Board's 18 or 19 members, the new required number of members needed to approve an inquiry is only eight. If one considers police authorities in most parts of the United Kingdom, most people would think it extraordinary that it would take only eight members of a board to bring about the instigation of what could be a very major and expensive inquiry with major long-term implications for the police. I recall that there was huge pressure to agree to the paltry figure of eight in the original Bill, and the Government believed that the figure of 10 was very much on the low side. We made it absolutely clear that, if we conceded to an ever-lower figure, that would risk exposing the police to unreasonable political pressure that would reduce the credibility of any such decision by the board. After all, it is a major step to set up an inquiry and, if it can be agreed by eight out of 18 or 19 members, that is bound to reduce the credibility of the decision. If the power was

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unreasonably or improperly used, it could lead to an unravelling of confidence by the police and the public in the PSNI's governance. I have heard the reassurances offered by Ministers on that point, but I have yet to be fully convinced that this particular change is necessary or desirable.

The same is true of the proposed extension, after a short period, of the powers of the ombudsman in Northern Ireland. She is only just beginning to make proper use of her existing powers, and not without controversy. It is important to recall that Patten always intended the focus of those powers to be on individual complaints about wrongdoing by the police, so that someone who had got on the wrong side of the police, or had suffered from some improper use of police powers, would have somewhere independent to go in the knowledge that their complaint would be thoroughly and rigorously examined, as it should be. The Bill expands the role of the ombudsman by shifting it away from the investigation of individual complaints to embrace wider and more general investigations into police practices and policies, which are properly the domain of the Policing Board, not the ombudsman, given the original conception of his—now her—role in the Patten report.

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