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27 Mar 2003 : Column 496—continued

Investigations into Current Police Practices and Policies

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 9, line 8, [Clause 12], leave out 'he has' and insert

'the Board and the Secretary of State have'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 46, in page 9, line 8, [Clause 12], leave out from 'he' to end of line 9 and insert

'is of the view that the policy or practice should be considered given that a member of the police service acting in accordance with that policy or practice has committed a criminal offence, or is responsible for conduct that gave rise to disciplinary proceedings.'.

Amendment No. 47, in page 9, line 14, [Clause 12], at end insert—

'(2A) No investigation under this section shall extend to events or incidences that occurred before the coming into force of this section.'.

New clause 7—Exceptions to limits on complaints and references to Ombudsman—

'In section 64 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 (c. 32) (regulations) after subsection (2A) there shall be inserted—
"(2B) The Secretary of State may only prescribe exceptions pursuant to subsection (2A) above if the circumstances are both grave and exceptional.".'.

Lady Hermon: I am entirely encouraged by the closeness of the vote on the Ulster Unionist amendment, so much so that we shall keep going with our arguments to ensure that the Bill leaves the House in a different state from that in which it arrived. I appreciate the support that we received for our earlier amendment.

The amendments and the new clause deal with an important issue: the investigations that can be conducted by the ombudsman. I have always been supportive of the creation and setting up of the office of an independent police ombudsman. That comes from personal experience. Indeed, I declare an interest in that while my husband was Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—as it was properly called—there were several controversial investigations, especially the Stalker and Sampson inquiries. Although both inquiries found that there was no shoot-to-kill policy, suspicion and disbelief continued in a certain quarter of the community in Northern Ireland. Having come through that experience, I welcomed the report of Dr. Maurice Hayes in 1997, which recommended the creation of the office of police ombudsman. The office was set up by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998.

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However, there is concern about the growing number of inquiries, which relates to a point that was sincerely made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). There is a perception that we have a one-sided truth commission, in various guises, in Northern Ireland. We must ensure that the office of the police ombudsman is held in high esteem and has the confidence of all sections and people in Northern Ireland.

Hon. Members know that the police ombudsman has a substantial budget. On Monday, the Irish News reported:

That is a substantial remit and a substantial budget.

The effect of amendments Nos. 45, 46 and 47 can be summed up neatly. Clause 12 states:

That is far too subjective. It leaves deciding what is in the public interest to the police ombudsman. The commander of a district command unit in North Down could decide that he should target drugs smuggling and abuse in North Down as a policing priority and allocate resources to that. Why should the ombudsman exercise his discretion and decide that it might be in the public interest to examine that? The remit is too wide and too subjective.

Our amendment would provide for the Policing Board and the Secretary of State to determine whether there should be an investigation of current practice or policy. Amendment No. 46 would provide for an investigation by the ombudsman if the board and the Secretary of State are

That is a modest change to clause 12. However, it makes it obvious that the practice or policy stems from police impropriety or improper behaviour. That is better than allowing the ombudsman to determine what is "in the public interest"—a broad, sweeping term—without any checks or balances.

New clause 7 is important. The Irish News included an article that stated that the Minister had met the police ombudsman. It was entitled "Funds to investigate killings are refused". The ombudsman had made a request to investigate three incidents. One happened 12 years ago, another six years ago and the third was not given a date but took place in the past. The Minister did not approve funding for those inquiries. The families who have lost loved ones are entitled to closure and will feel a sense of grievance. However, it appears to have gone unnoticed that when the police ombudsman's office was set up under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, regulations—the RUC (Complaints etc) Regulations 2001—were also published. That shows that the name has changed for only operational, not

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legal purposes. [Interruption.] That is quite right. [Interruption.] Perhaps DUP Members would like to intervene rather than snipe from the sidelines.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: If the hon. Lady believes that the name has been changed only for operational purposes, perhaps she could elaborate on the rationale behind new clause 15, which the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) tabled.

3.15 pm

Lady Hermon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening rather than commenting from a sedentary position. The question is properly directed at my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside). I am sure that he will be delighted to answer it.

In the meantime, perhaps hon. Members would care to examine section 1 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. It states clearly, in black and white—it is therefore not an invention of the Ulster Unionist party—that the title was changed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for operational purposes. The legal title remains the "Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary)". If the hon. Member for East Londonderry wants or needs any proof of that, he should refer to the High Court case in July last year of Mark Parsons v. Chief Constable PSNI (RUC). That is the proper title. However, now that I have adequately dealt with all DUP Members' queries, let us move swiftly along.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): Does PSNI (RUC) appear on police headed paper?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is being led astray. It is not her doing. We will consider the matters raised later in our proceedings.

Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be guided by your advice.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): No answer.

Lady Hermon: I hope that hon. Members will abide by the Deputy Speaker's ruling.

Mr. Robinson: There is no answer.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have had enough comments from a sedentary position. Today is not the time to deal with the matter.

Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The RUC (Complaints etc) Regulations 2001 set out the powers whereby the police ombudsman can conduct an investigation. It includes a general rule that

The police ombudsman is not therefore allowed to trawl back through cases from many years ago.

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However, regulation 9 provides for an exception. It states that the general rule does

Again, matters are left to the ombudsman's discretion. We do not believe that that is right. Our modest amendment in new clause 7 would ensure that the Secretary of State would determine whether the circumstances were grave and exceptional.

The amendments are intended to encourage confidence in the police ombudsman's office. They are not intended to encroach on its independence. That would be most regrettable. The police ombudsman's independence is of the utmost importance to everyone in Northern Ireland.

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