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26 Mar 2003 : Column 324continued
Mr. Murphy: I believed that I had made detailed reference to suspended sentences earlier. I shall revert to that in my winding-up speech if we need to take other points on it into account. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will make speeches during the afternoon.
On a practical level, new clause 13 would create an enormous administrative burden on both the Department and the relevant local council. Under schedule 3(5)(4) of the 2000 Act, the council is not allowed to nominate an individual for membership of a DPP if he is disqualified from membership. To comply with that, the council would be required to refer every case in which an individual had declared an offence to the Secretary of State for review. The amount of time and effort that that would add to the process seems disproportionate, since the majority of minor offencesfor which one might expect the Secretary of State to exercise a waiverattract non-custodial sentences. The outcome of all that extra work could be expected to be much the same as the present situation, yet a vast amount of additional effort would have been expended in achieving it. To my mind, that is a powerful argument against the new clause, but there is another reason why the House should reject it.
Under the terms of new clause 13, the discretion would rest exclusively with me. That is not consistent with other legislation dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders, in which there are set time limits, specified in law, after which time certain offences become "spent". Secretaries of State are often accused of taking too much power unto themselves. In this case, that would be a justifiable criticism of the new clause. I believe that it is better for the rules governing what is, and what is not, a disqualifiable offence to be set out in the statute, so that all those involved in enforcing themthe local council, the Policing Board and, ultimately, the courtsare clear about whether someone is disqualified. Governments should not have a role in that. For this reason, the Government will not support new clause 13.
New clauses 18 and 19 also deal with disqualification. They suggest that anyone with a custodial sentence of 12 months or moreor who the police believe to have links with a paramilitary organisationshould be
That is not to say that all ex-prisoners would be suitable for appointments. During the passage of the 2000 Act through the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), then a Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, set out a number of important safeguards that would apply to appointments to DPPs. Appointments will be made in accordance with a code of practice issued by the Secretary of State, on merit, and by the cross-community Policing Board. The code of practice makes it clear that the board will write to the Chief Constable to ask for confirmation of the criminal records declared by applicants.
New clause 1, tabled in my name, is another part of the changes that the Government propose might be appropriate in the context of changed political circumstances. It would bring the arrangements for independent members into line with those that already apply for political members. Under this new provision, prospective independent members would be required, before their application could be considered by the Policing Board, to make a declaration against terrorism. That declaration would be in the same terms as the declaration that prospective local councillors are required to make.
New clauses 9 and 10, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, also deal with declarations. However, instead of proposing that prospective candidates make a declaration against terrorism, the new clauses propose that the board should make a declaration that it is satisfied that the individual is
I believe that those guidelines are sufficient to allow the board to exercise its own discretionwhich, as Members on both sides of the House have noted, has been sound in all the decisions that the board has been faced with to dateas to which are the most suitable candidates for appointment. This acts both as a safeguard against some of the fears that have been expressed in relation to the changes proposed by my own amendmentnew clause 2and as a reason why the proposals in new clauses 9, 18 and 19 are unnecessary. In the case of political members, which new clause 10 deals with, I believe that the same arguments apply. However, there is an additional dimension when we are dealing with elected representatives. These individuals have been elected through a democratic process. As part of that process, they have been required to make a declaration against terrorism, and, if they breach it, they can be removed from office. As elected representatives, they are members of a council, and it should be for that councilnot the boardto appoint them to sit on the DPP, as its representatives. I believe that that continues to be right, in the interests of local democracy.
However, that does not mean that political membersor, indeed, independent membersare immune from subsequent sanctions. My own amendment, new clause 1, entails an important sanction. If an independent member appears to have acted in breach of his or her declaration against terrorism, it will be within the board's poweror the power of the council with the approval of the boardto remove that person from membership of the DPP. In that respect, there is a slight difference from the rules applying to local councillors. In the case of a councillor, the case must go to the courts before he or she can be removed for dishonouring their declaration. We are proposing in new clause 1 that the boardor the council with the approval of the boardshould be able to take the decision whether an independent member should be removed from the DPP, without recourse to the courts.
It is true, of course, that it would be possible for an aggrieved individual to seek a judicial review of the board'sor the council'sdecision to remove someone, on that or any other ground. It would then be for the court to take a view on the reasonableness of the decisionthat is, to ask whether a reasonable organisation, faced with the same circumstances, could have come to the same conclusion. There is still scope, however, for the board to take action in respect of political members. Paragraph 7(1)(e) of schedule 3 of the 2000 Act allows the board to remove someone because
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Watching this from the outside, I believe that there is a contradiction in the logic. If the boards can decide to remove an independent member, and that member can then go to
Mr. Murphy: We think that the safeguards in the Bill are sufficient, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be persuaded by the points that I have made. I certainly believe that it is important to ensure that there are safeguards, and we have built in extra safeguards during consideration of this legislation.
I appreciate that new clause 11 deals with removal from a DPP, and not with removal from a council, but there is read-across. If the board genuinely has reason to suspect that a councillor has dishonoured the declaration against terrorism that he or she made when standing for appointment, it is open to the boardone might argue that it is incumbent on it, as a public body with primary responsibility for ensuring that the police are able to maintain law and order in Northern Irelandto draw this to the attention of the local council, which may then take the case to the High Court to seek a determination that the person has acted in breach of the terms of his or her declaration against terrorism. When the court makes a declaration in those terms, the person will be disqualified from being a member of the local council and would commit an offence if he or she remained a member. Once the person has ceased to be a member of the local council, under the terms of paragraph 3(5)(c) of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act, he or she would automatically cease to be a member of the DPP.