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26 Mar 2003 : Column 321—continued

Rev. Ian Paisley: I should like to intervene before the Secretary of State leaves that point, which concerns a matter that I have put before him previously. He is aware that I asked the Prime Minister in this House what the definition was for such acts of completion. I asked him whether they would consist merely of a statement or declaration, and he said that he would tell me. On 27 November 2002 at column 309 of Hansard, he said:

not only the Secretary of State, who will sign the order and bring it into operation—

Will the Secretary of State give us his assurance that that is the divine statement and that there will be no change in it? Can he assure the House that that word will be kept to the people? I can tell him that I will not be satisfied when he signs the order, and he jolly well knows that.

Mr. Murphy: I am afraid that I can give no assurances as to the Prime Minister's divinity, but I agree with what he said to the hon. Gentleman back in November last year. Indeed, all of us have referred to the cessation of activities being total, real and permanent. That is not simply a question of words; it must also be one of actions.

I should like now to deal in more detail with the new clauses themselves. Government new clause 2 amends the disqualification provisions set out in paragraph 8 of schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. At present, the legislation provides that no one who has ever received a custodial sentence should be allowed to serve as an independent member of a district policing partnership, no matter how long ago they were convicted, what offence they were convicted for, or whether the sentence was suspended. The new provisions would change that and instead provide that a period of five years must elapse following a person's discharge in respect of an offence before he or she may be considered for an appointment to a DPP.

As I explained earlier, those provisions bring the rules for independent members into line with the arrangements that already apply to the political members of DPPs, who are drawn from the local authority. Under the terms of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, as amended, candidates wishing to stand for election as local councillors are ineligible to do so for a period of five years following their discharge in respect of an offence that attracted a custodial sentence.

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The new clause mirrors those arrangements for independent members, putting them on an equal footing with their fellow DPP members. Similar arrangements apply to appointments to police authorities in England and Wales, where people are disqualified from being appointed as a member of a police authority if, within five years of the date of appointment, they have received a prison sentence of not less than three months.

Amendment (a), which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) tabled, would increase the period from five to 10 years. That would mean that the arrangements for independent members were significantly out of line with those for their political local authority counterparts.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Did not the Government accept an amendment in another place to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to make a clear distinction between independent members and elected representatives of district policing partnerships? It disqualified independent members who had a conviction for a terrorist offence. The Government introduced that disqualification in the 2000 Act, yet the Secretary of State now seeks to remove it.

Mr. Murphy: I am unaware of the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall revert to it later. Amendment (a) would put the position between political and independent members seriously out of kilter.

The only change to the wording of new clause 2 since it was published as a "text for consideration" last November is to clarify the status of suspended sentences. I specifically draw hon. Members' attention to the change. In line with the equivalent electoral legislation, suspended sentences will not count for the purposes of the disqualification rules unless they are ordered to take effect.

Amendment (b) proposes to overturn that change. There are two reasons why I regard that as inappropriate. First, I do not understand why it is right for the arrangements to be out of line with those that apply to political members. Secondly, we have made it clear that the reference is only to sentences that remain suspended: that is, when the sentencing judge has seen fit to suspend the sentence unless specific subsequent events trigger its enforcement. The judge will reach that conclusion by taking into account all the relevant factors in a specific case. I do not consider it appropriate for us to second-guess that in framing the statute.

Suspending the sentence will be subject to specific conditions that the judge sets. Obviously, if the individual breaks one of the conditions, the sentence ceases to be suspended and the disqualification provisions would come into play. That is more appropriate.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Will the Secretary of State comment on the remarks of the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland on the proposals? He said:

Mr. Murphy: First, as I said earlier, there is a similarity between political members who serve on local

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authorities and those who will serve on DPPs. Later, I shall speak at some length about the opportunity for people to change, to be reconciled and make a contribution to society in Northern Ireland. That possibility is inherent in the legislation on membership of a local authority. What is the difference between that and membership of a DPP? We are not considering sentences for only terrorist offences; the ordinance refers to general custodial sentences. The possibility for reform for which local authority legislation provides should surely apply to independent members of DPPs. The changes will apply throughout the United Kingdom, not only to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dodds: How many times have the relevant provisions in the local government legislation been used? Even in the case of glaring examples such as the lord mayor of Belfast appearing in an IRA calendar with Armalites, Kalashnikovs and attacks on police, they have not been used.

Mr. Murphy: I understand that specific complaints have to be made. We are making law today; we made law when we devised the relevant provision for members of local authorities. There should not be a distinction between the two sorts of legislation. If people are entitled to serve on local authorities after five years' purdah, why cannot they serve on a DPP? Local authorities probably undertake more proper decision making than a DPP ever will.

2.15 pm

Mr. Trimble: The Government are extending the provisions of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, which covered councillors, to independent members of DPPs. Surely it would have been reasonable to take account of the clear fact that the enforcement provisions in the 14-year-old Act have proved wholly inadequate. If the Government intend to extend those provisions to independent members of DPPs, they must want them to be effective. Would not it therefore be appropriate to ensure that the enforcement provisions work? They do not currently work.

Mr. Murphy: There are other methods, including the oath, which I shall consider later. As I said earlier, the crucial point is that the provisions will not be implemented until the acts of completion to which the Prime Minister referred have been effected. I hope that circumstances will be wholly different in Northern Ireland when the Bill is implemented. If that does not happen, the provisions will not be effected.

All hon. Members who support the agreement must allow people in Northern Ireland the opportunity in the next few weeks to consider what is on offer. That includes the proposals that we discussed at Hillsborough some weeks ago and those that I hope will emerge from the IRA in the weeks ahead. People must judge accordingly. It would be inappropriate and untimely to scupper the chances of progress at such an early stage, before we know what is on offer.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues tabled new clause 13, which would extend the existing disqualification provision to cover all offences, irrespective of whether they have

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attracted a custodial sentence, and provide that I may waive the disqualification if I believe that the offence was not sufficiently serious to render a person unsuitable for membership of a DPP. It implies that I would waive the disqualification in the case of minor offences but retain it in that of more serious offences.

New clause 13 unnecessarily complicates the system. By extending the disqualification to include offences that attract non-custodial sentences, the clause would have to include a range of minor offences. In every instance, the cases of individuals with convictions for minor offences would have to be referred to the Secretary of State so that he could take a view on whether the offence was sufficiently serious to warrant disqualification.

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