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Sixth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 11 December 2002
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
Draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (Amendment of Section 46(1)) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (Amendment of Section 46 (1)) Order 2002.
The draft was laid before the House on 27 November. I welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, to the Chair of the Committee. I am sure that we will benefit from your wisdom and experience, but we will try to keep in order so that we do not have to benefit too much from it.
A number of hon. Members present will recall that, as a result of much debate during the passage of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, I undertook to consult a range of organisations in Northern Ireland about their inclusion in the remit of the new criminal justice inspectorate. Twenty organisations were involved in the consultation. The case for including each organisation was considered carefully on its own merits. As a result of the consultation, we have decided to add an additional eight organisations to the list of those subject to inspection by the criminal justice inspectorate. The eight organisations are listed in the order. Although some of those bodies do not at first sight have obvious links to the criminal justice system, the unifying rationale for their inclusion is that they exercise a role in the investigative and prosecutorial processes.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, to the Chair. Will the Minister explain which 12 organisations were consulted and omitted? In particular, why were the airport and harbour police omitted from the list?
Mr. Browne: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she made a significant contribution to the debate in the Standing Committee, and throughout the passage of the Bill. She made a significant and important contribution to the list of organisations that were reviewed. Discussions were held with them. I was intending to deal with those issues later in my short speech, but it may be helpful to deal with them now. In the first instance, perhaps I should tell the Committee what criteria were used to consider inclusion in the list. That may help hon. Members to understand the rationale.
The first criterion was that organisations had to have relevant criminal justice functions. They had to exercise a role in the investigative and prosecutorial processes, as I have already said. The second criterion was a common-sense one. Their work load had to be sufficient to warrant inspection. The third was that they had to have comparable powers to the
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organisations already included in the inspectorate's remit, and set out in the relevant provisions of the Act. They had to have a Northern Ireland-based focus, and their current accountability and inspection processes had to be either limited or unclear.
We undertook to take into account each organisation's views on inclusion. As hon. Members will see from the explanatory memorandum, one of the consequences of inspection is that it has limited costs for the individual organisations. That was a relevant consideration in the drafting of the order.
The organisations that were on the original list and are not listed in this order are the Census Office, Customs and Excise, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Electoral Office, the Financial Services Authority, the Inland Revenue, the Northern Ireland Court Service and the Serious Fraud Office. I shall discuss later the general reasons for those not being included.
The airport police and harbour police have extensive powers to question, caution, arrest, detain and investigate, as well as ancillary powers to accompany that broad range of powers. The Northern Ireland Office believes that they should come within the inspector's remit. However, during consultation, their sponsoring Department raised concerns on various matters, not the least of which was the likely cost of inspection. Some of those concerns reflected concerns expressed to the Department of Regional Development by private sector stakeholders involved in providing the airport and harbour police, which are private police forces.
We were not able to bottom out—in the phraseology that is becoming common—those discussions, and it did not appear to me that we were likely to conclude them satisfactorily in a reasonable time, despite the suspension of the Executive and the fact that the Minister responsible for that Department is now a colleague in the Northern Ireland Office. I was anxious to create a mostly settled list of the agencies that will come within the chief inspector's remit as early as possible, for two reasons. First, when the new inspectorate becomes operational in the latter half of next year, I want the new inspector to start with a settled work load. Secondly, I want to give the listed agencies maximum notice that they will be subject to the inspection regime. On current planning, I expect that that will be about a year from today, which I thought was a reasonable period. Therefore, rather than wait for the conclusion of the discussions with the Department, I determined to go ahead with the order today. Having reached a settled view on 18 of the 20 organisations, it did not seem appropriate to wait for the other two.
Lady Hermon: From what the Minister has just said, can I take it that although he gave me an undertaking in a letter of 18 March that he was using his
''best endeavours to produce a comprehensive list of organisations to come within the remit of the Chief Inspector'',
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this is not a comprehensive list, but a nearly comprehensive one?
Mr. Browne: I accept that the list is not comprehensive. However, as the hon. Lady knows, the Act provides a continuing power.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) rose—
Mr. Browne: Although my view on the Census Office, the Serious Fraud Office and all the others in the list that I gave earlier is settled at the moment, they could be kept under review. One reason for the decision on those organisations is their low profile in Northern Ireland work; most of their work is done in Great Britain. However, if the emphasis of any of the organisations' work changed to give them a greater profile in Northern Ireland, I or a successor of mine might think it appropriate to bring them into the inspection regime, because there would then be a critical quantity of work to be properly inspected.
For example, the criminal justice review recommended that the Northern Ireland Court Service should not be included in the inspection regime. I concur with that view, having revisited some of the criteria that the review applied, but that is not necessarily a settled view for ever. In future, if the situation changes, someone may take the view that inspection has become appropriate. It might be appropriate for reasons to do not solely to do with an organisation, but with its interaction with other organisations that are inspected, so that proper inspections can take place. There is a great dynamic in this area. One need only consider the number of criminal justice Acts that are passed by Parliament in any one year to appreciate that the profile of criminal justice agencies is changing significantly.
I give way to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), although I may have answered his question already.
Mr. Taylor: The Minister has answered my question, but it may be worth putting this on the record. Given that there will be other possible candidates in future, will he confirm to the Committee that we may return another time to include further candidates in the list for inspection?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I fully expect that we will return within a comparatively short period to consider the airport police and the harbour police. That is my intention. However, to be consistent with the criteria that I set out for consideration of inclusion, we must exhaust, at least to my satisfaction, discussions with stakeholders in the provision of those services. When that is done, we will, if I am so minded, consider an order to amend the Act in relation to the airport police and the harbour police—for the good reason that they appear to have no inspection regime at all. If there is to be one, it should at least be deployed for the purposes of efficiency and effectiveness.
It may be helpful to remind the Committee of the role of the chief inspector of criminal justice. The functions of the office are set out in section 46 of the Act. The chief inspector will be responsible for carrying out inspections of organisations to ensure
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that they are meeting their objectives and for reporting on the efficiency and effectiveness of organisational processes and systems, rather than decisions flowing from those systems. The inspection of individual decisions will not be a function of the inspector.
The inspector will also carry out cross-cutting thematic reviews on issues relating to the criminal justice system as a whole. In that area, the overall aim of the inspectorate will be to make recommendations on how to create a more joined-up criminal justice system. I hope that all members of the Committee agree that that is a desirable end, and that, as part of the overall drive to provide a criminal justice system that is more efficient and effective, it makes good sense to consider processes and standards in an objective and holistic way.
The Government believe that it will be of mutual benefit to organisations to be involved in cross-cutting reviews and inspections alongside partner agencies in the criminal justice system. Reviews of that nature could produce improved methods of working for all organisations involved, as well as an independent external endorsement of the organisation's systems, processes and practices.
Public confidence in the system as a whole will be promoted by such independent assessment. The point bears repetition: inspection is about transparency and public assurance. That should be welcome to all members of the Committee, just as it should be welcome to everyone in Northern Ireland.