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26 Mar 2003 : Column 354—continued

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his point about my constituent Blair Wallace, a former deputy Chief Constable of the RUC? He received 49 votes. He was offering his experience as a resident in the local community to that community: he had lived in an around Ballyclare for 15 years. Given that he was excluded from the process, is there not something seriously wrong with the process?

Mr. Robinson: There is. I do not know where that scoring placed him in relation to the other candidates, but Jimmy Spratt topped the scoring system poll. That system was not simply carried out at the behest of local councillors; it was supervised by independent consultants, who were brought in at the behest of the

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Policing Board. In the case of Castlereagh borough council and Jimmy Spratt, all the parties concerned—the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party—were agreed on what the composition of the membership should be. There was no difficulty as far as the elected representatives were concerned—from either section of the community. Yet the matter was referred to the Policing Board, whose decision was based not on the merits of any of the candidates, but simply on trying to achieve balances that nobody else quite understands, and which have left us with not the best DPP that could have been appointed.

4.30 pm

Perhaps the Government might undertake that they do not intend to make an arrangement that would allow the new provisions to be activated before the normal lifespan of the DPP has expired, because such an arrangement would rub salt into the wound. We want them to say simply that these provisions are now law, and they will apply when next we make appointments—in four years' time, say—rather than saying that some further legislative move will also be made to allow changes to be introduced more quickly. We want the Government to make their intentions clear, and to put it on the record that they are not contemplating such action.

When the Secretary of State responds, it might be worth while if he said whether this provision is part of a package. It has been made clear that this matter was considered at Hillsborough, and that the Government are expecting acts of completion. Part of that is clearly the intention, or hope, on the Government's part that Sinn Fein will come on board not just in respect of the DPPs, but of the Policing Board. Again, the Policing Board has a pre-determined lifespan. Will the Government attempt to interrupt the life of the Policing Board, and to insert people for whom there are currently no places, if the Sinn Fein/IRA act of completion is such that it convinces the Secretary of State? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has made it clear that he does not accept the necessity for the Government to introduce this legislation today. Leaving aside the timing, perhaps the Secretary of State could say whether the nature of the legislation forms part of what has been described by the Prime Minister as the "shared understanding" that exists between the various parties.

On the DUP's new clause, we instructed the Public Bill Office that we wanted a provision that would not disadvantage someone who might have fallen within the scope of existing legislation by virtue of having committed an offence. However, if the offence was not related to terrorism—a traffic offence, for example—they should not be barred on that basis, and scope should be given to enable the Secretary of State to enable such appointments. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said, that seems a reasonable proposition. However, I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to the extent that our requirement can be read into the existing wording, so we will not press our new clause to a vote. Nevertheless, we hope that colleagues will recognise that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with, and perhaps the other place can get the Public Bill Office to come up with more

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effective wording. We want to ensure that those who commit traffic offences will not be debarred from taking a full role in a district policing partnership.

Mr. Paul Murphy: I shall do my best to respond to the various points that have been made in what has been a long but interesting debate.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) spoke about suspended sentences. As I said earlier, we have made it clear that the reference in the new clause is only to those sentences that remain suspended—that is, where the sentencing judge has seen fit to suspend the sentence unless certain subsequent events trigger its coming into force. It is the judge who will have reached that conclusion, taking into account all the relevant factors. I do not think that it is for us to second-guess judges in the way proposed.

Mr. John Taylor: I agree.

Mr. Murphy: Excellent. I need say no more, then.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) referred to the question of removal of members. We propose that the board would have the power to remove someone if it felt that that person was not fit to serve on a DPP. We believe that that sanction will be effective.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) spoke about dealing with people before they apply to the board, rather than afterwards. However, the board would not appoint someone that it believed to be incapable of fulfilling the role of a DPP member. That is why the additional step proposed seems to me to be unnecessary.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) spoke about community safety and membership of the DPPs. She is right that Patten referred, in paragraph 6, to independent members providing expertise in matters pertaining to community safety, but she is wrong to suggest that we are moving away from that. The current code on the appointment of independent members published by my predecessor last August specifically included, in the essential eligibility criteria, a

I have no plans to change the code's requirements. Each application for independent membership is considered on its merits, first by the district council interview panel, and then by the Policing Board panel as well.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Secretary of State's clarification of the current code. I was not aware of that, and his clarification is very helpful.

However, one point still concerns me, and it has to do with the declaration against terrorism in new clause 1. The Secretary of State will be familiar with the narrow definition of terrorism given in the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989:

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether the new and much more extensive definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000 is the one used in the declaration against terrorism?

Mr. Murphy: I understand that it is not the same, but I shall write to the hon. Lady in more detail.

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As always, I am grateful for the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I say again that I believe that the House and Northern Ireland owe the hon. Gentleman's party a great deal for the support that that party has expressed for the policing process over the past number of years. Without the courageous decisions taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party, I do not believe that we would have succeeded in ensuring that there is a genuine, cross-community Policing Board and police force in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh was right to say—and I am grateful that he mentioned it—that transparency was the reason I referred to the texts for consideration. After all, the House and members of political parties in Northern Ireland have had more than four months to consider the contents of those clauses. I suppose that I could have introduced them a few days ago and surprised the House with their contents, but I did not do so. I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the four months that the clauses have been open for consideration.

Mr. Dodds: As the Secretary of State is extolling the virtues of having published the legislation in draft form and given hon. Members four months to consider it instead of surprising us, will he now publish draft legislation on on-the-run terrorists and on any other proposals that are floating about as a result of the Hillsborough talks? If he believes that that is right way to go, should it not apply to all the proposals, not just certain ones?

Mr. Murphy: If the hon. Gentleman waits for a few weeks, he will indeed have an opportunity to see the outcome of those talks. The practice of draft legislation is, rightly, becoming much more common in the House of Commons, so he will have the opportunity to scrutinise the proposed legislation and to consider the issues that it addresses.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) mentioned the role of the other place. Many Members of the other place, from all parties and from none, have enormous experience of Northern Ireland, and I hope that they will be able to ensure that they give the Bill proper scrutiny.

Lembit Öpik: The Secretary of State may be coming to this, but I want to raise two issues that matter to Liberal Democrat Members of the other place. First, I should like him to confirm once and for all something that we already know by observation, but which has been skirted around by previous Secretaries of State— namely, that when it comes to acts of completion, what he really wants is to maintain some political latitude in terms of interpretation. That is understandable, but if he confirmed it we would at least be talking about these matters honestly, rather than pretending that it is not the case.

Secondly, we are vexed by the idea that commencement might be implemented through a statutory instrument in some corner of the House. Will

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he give an assurance that the whole House and the whole of the other place will have the opportunity to debate these matters before any commencement takes place?

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