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26 Mar 2003 : Column 344—continued

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The point may be made that the Secretary of State laid great emphasis on the need for an affirmative resolution of both Houses. I have no doubt that this House will give him that—the arithmetic makes that perfectly clear. It is not so clear, however, that he would get that in the other place. It is also the case, of course, that the other place will not hold out for ever, as it does not have our electoral mandate. Were the Government to insist on that, I have no doubt that the Government could eventually bully the other place into acting as they wish. On reflection, I do not feel that that safeguard is necessarily as effective as we might be encouraged to believe. For that reason, I find that I am unable to support the Government on new clause 2 today.

I turn now to some of the other amendments before the House. Again, I must say that the manner in which they have been grouped, and their number, has made this a rather unwieldy debate. First, I shall deal with amendments (a) and (b) tabled by the Conservatives. Having considered amendment (a), which would substitute the period of 10 years for five years, I feel that the Government have probably got it right with five years—10 years is excessive. I would not therefore be minded to support that amendment.

I am much better disposed towards amendment (b). The parallels with councils and with English policing authorities, which were drawn by the Secretary of State,

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are interesting, but they only take us so far. I return to my opening point, which relates to the signals that we send. The removal of suspended sentences in this way sends a poor signal. We must remember that a suspended custodial sentence is still a custodial sentence: whether it crystallises should not be the issue. Clearly, in reaching the determination to suspend the sentence, some mitigating factor is in the judge's mind. To remove suspended sentences from the ambit of consideration in the way that the Bill would do, however, demeans the seriousness of the offence being considered.

Turning to new clauses 9 to 11 tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I have some sympathy for the thinking behind them. I have some reservations in relation to new clause 10, which I will not develop at great length, but I feel that there is confusion in relation to the legitimacy of the appointments made by councils. I will listen with interest to what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann says about those new clauses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred to the code of practice. Like him, I saw it for the first time only this afternoon. I am comforted by references to independent scrutiny because that is important, but notwithstanding the code of practice, there are remaining issues to resolve. The code of practice does not cover all the concerns raised by the Ulster Unionist party.

I share several of the Secretary of State's concerns about new clause 13, tabled by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues. It would be an unnecessary complication. I am also worried because if the whole idea behind district policing partnerships is a move toward normal policing, the new clause represents a way of thinking that puts great emphasis on terrorism as a specific species of crime. Although that is understandable, it is not especially helpful for that distinction to be the ultimate goal of the work of the DPPs.

I have some sympathy with new clause 23 and amendment No. 77, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and his colleagues. Clearly, they would have to be accepted together for the Bill to make sense, and they seem to be fairly sensible.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I am grateful for that and I am paying great attention to the hon. Gentleman's comments. We intend to press new clause 23 to a Division and if we win that vote, we will then press amendment No. 77 to a Division.

Mr. Carmichael: I note what the hon. Gentleman says and we would be minded to support him on new clause 23. I would be absolutely astonished if we could thereafter vote on amendment No. 77, but it is a funny old world and one never knows.

I know that time is precious and I have tried to highlight my concerns as succinctly as possible. It is regrettable that we have addressed these matters so late in the day for a Bill that started in the House of Lords,

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which is why my hon. Friends and I voted against the programme motion. However, I shall continue to listen to the debate with considerable interest.

Mr. Trimble: My opening comment about the debate is that it should not be taking place. It is quite unnecessary and that was best summed up by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) when he said that we are effectively sending a signal to the republican movement that the Government consider it to have passed the test before it has sat it. That phrase sums up how wrong it is for the Government to introduce the new clauses at this time. I shall not repeat my intervention on the Secretary of State when I pointed out that it is not necessary to rush forward on this time scale now because we will have years to introduce the measures. If the republican movement were to pass the test that it has been set in the next few weeks and months, I am sure that it would be content to rest on the Government's assurance that the measures would be introduced at an appropriate stage. However, it is wrong to introduce them now.

I add, parenthetically, that the language used by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was noteworthy. I gently point out to the Secretary of State that when the hon. Gentleman says that a point might be reached at which there would be disruption between him and the Government, he should be aware of the great weight that lies behind the word "disruption". However, that is another matter entirely.

There has been reference to the origin of the provisions at Weston Park. It is important that we reiterate for those who misunderstand the situation, or do not understand it correctly, that at Weston Park the Government conducted a series of parallel negotiations with various parties, and may well have reached agreement with the republican movement. Indeed, it reached an agreement with the Social Democratic and Labour party—the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has declared it a final agreement—on certain policing matters, but they were not discussed or negotiated with us, and were not agreed by us. We do not regard ourselves as bound in any way by those discussions.

Mr. Mallon: But they were all published in the implementation plan.

Mr. Trimble: Indeed, they were. We opposed them then and we continue to oppose them, and have done so in the House. On the other hand, when the time came to consider whether or not to join the Policing Board, we accepted our responsibilities. To that extent, and to that extent only, can we be regarded as having accepted these arrangements. When there is an opportunity to change them, we shall certainly want to take it.

There has been discussion about what constitutes acts of completion—in other words, the test that the republican movement has been set. As was pointed out earlier, that test includes a number of different parts. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) pointed out in blunt language what the test amounted to. However, in relation to the provisions that we are considering, which are designed to enable Sinn Fein, or some Sinn Fein members, to join district policing partnerships, the relevant aspect of the acts of

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completion concerns a decision and declaration of support for policing. We should have regard to that above all.

I should like to focus on the detail of the provisions, as that is important. The provisions modify a disqualification in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The only reason for doing so is to make it easier for some members of the republican movement to join district policing partnerships. That may have been part of negotiations between the Government and the republican movement, but it does not have anything to do with Patten. That should be made clear from the outset—people who pray Patten in aid in this matter are quite simply wrong.

Mr. John Taylor: Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House: if the provisions are a departure from the 2000 Act, sometimes known as the Mandelson Act, are they going further towards Patten or further away from it?

Mr. Trimble: They are going away from it—that is the point that I wish to make. Before I back up my assertion with argument, I wish to make another assertion—the Secretary of State's reasoning that there should be equality between the political and independent members is irrelevant and, again, contrary to Patten.

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Having made those assertions, it is appropriate to draw the attention of the House to what Patten said. There are only two sentences in the Patten report on independent members of district policing partnerships and who they should be. That reflects Patten as a whole, which does not discuss the matters properly but produces bold propositions without giving clear indications of the principles from which they were derived or the way in which they are intended to be worked out—indeed, they are not worked out in detail. The first sentence on independent members is preceded by the phrase,

Patten's views on the independent members of district policing partnerships are therefore to be read together with his comments on the appointment of independent members to the Policing Board. We can therefore expand on the two sentences on independent members of DPPs by bringing in a couple of sentences on independent members of the Policing Board. The references to the independent members of the Policing Board are as follows:

that is, the independent members—

So the independent members are to reinforce the credentials and credibility and bring solid expertise. Bearing that in mind, we come to the sentence dealing with the independent members of the district policing partnerships, which states:

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So the independent members should have credentials, credibility, and solid expertise in business, trade union interests and community safety. Where do former convicted criminals fit into that?

That is what Patten proposed. I am not a great fan of Patten, but on this point he was right, and the Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and the republican movement collectively are wrong, because they are departing from Patten in a quite pernicious way. The councillors will represent the community as a whole, and it is right that the community as a whole will be represented, but those councillors will come from political parties and will carry with them their political background and political convictions. It is therefore right that they should be balanced by people with credentials, credibility and solid expertise in other areas, such as trade union matters and matters pertaining to community safety. That is sensible.

It is from those propositions that the Government worked out in greater detail the principles that are stated in Patten. They did so in the amendments to the 2000 Act, which are now being watered down. That is a criticism of the general spirit underlying the matter. It is wrong as a matter of principle. That is why we tabled amendments. I could expand further on the basic point, but I think I have made it. The new clauses are wrong in principle and we will oppose them.

I shall touch on new clause 13 tabled by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I listened to his arguments and I understand the point that he is trying to make—he wanted to extend the disqualification to persons who had not received custodial sentences, but he did not want to cover all custodial sentences, so he proposed to give the Secretary of State a discretion. I am delighted to see that he reposes such faith in the Secretary of State. No matter; that is not the criticism that I am making.

My criticism is that new clause 13 is drafted in such a way that the discretion of the Secretary of State would be applicable not just to persons who had non-custodial sentences, but to anybody who had been convicted of any offence, so that a person who had been convicted and had received a custodial sentence and who, under the 2000 Act, would be disqualified would have the opportunity of applying to the Secretary of State in order to relieve his disqualification. No matter how heinous the offence that he had committed, he could apply to the Secretary of State, and if the Secretary of State thought he was the sort of person who ought to be on the Policing Board, the Secretary of State would use his discretion to remove the disqualification. The discretion that the hon. Gentleman would give the Secretary of State would apply not to the extension of the disqualification, but to the entire disqualification. His intention may have been worth while, but the drafting of the new clause is seriously defective. Consequently, we would not support it.

We have our own amendments, which were mentioned earlier. I listened with great interest to what the Secretary of State said by way of criticism of them. I will take the opportunity to look further at his explanation of how they have, by the way in which new clause 1 is drafted, extended the enforcement provisions with regard to the declaration. That might be of minor interest, but we none the less prefer the

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comprehensiveness of our own amendments, which deal with persons who are involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime. It is appropriate in the present circumstances that we deal with such persons.

The problem with regard to disqualifications that relate to persons who have been convicted of offences is that they do not bite on others who have not been convicted. Unfortunately, with regard to paramilitary organisations, that includes a substantial number of active members. The appropriate process would be one that focuses on those engaged in any paramilitary activity or organised crime.

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