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Will the Minister explain what appears to be an absurdity in the Bill? Clause 8 provides that the chief electoral officer can be dismissed for having a criminal conviction, yet we have a lacuna whereby a Minister of justice or policing cannot be dismissed or disqualified if that individual has a criminal conviction. Will the Minister reconcile those irreconcilable facts?
Let me say again that, whatever the opinions of individual hon. Membersand we all have our disagreementsI believe that if a person has a cross put next to their name and sufficient support to take up a place in a Chamber, whether it is this Chamber, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament, provided they are not serving a prison sentence, it gives them the legitimacy to enter that Chamber, and, if they have majority support, to hold office. That may be distasteful. There are some people whom I would not wish to see walking through the door into the Chamber[Hon. Members: "Who?"] There are all sorts of individuals whom I could cite as an answer. However, those who walk into the Chamber do that because people have put crosses next to their names on ballot papers. That could be distasteful because they had committed horrendous acts in the past, including such acts as those that the hon. Member for South Antrim described. They are painful for himit is painful to
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listen to their descriptionand for the community that he represents. However, the cross on the ballot paper confers legitimacy.
Mr. Hanson: I am making the point that a previous conviction does not bar an individual from holding office. A Prime Minister's judgment when deciding to appoint a Home Secretary could be a matter of concern.
Mrs. Iris Robinson: The Minister talks about recognising a mandate. When we were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, our mandate was for a no vote against the Assembly being up and running. We were treated appallingly, for example, by not being given Executive papers, simply because we voted no. Our mandate was not recognised. We were treated like lepers and demonised as being against peace simply because we said no. How does the Minister reconcile our treatment with being so flexible with Sinn Fein/IRA at every turn?
Mr. Hanson: I am not being flexible with Sinn Fein or the IRA. If the matters that we are discussing are devolved in due course, there will be a triple lock. Devolution will happen only when the Assembly votes for it on a cross-community basis. After that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must agree with the vote and, subsequently, the House of Commons must vote for it. In the meantime, I do not believe that the amendment should be accepted and applied if an individual is nominated to the position of criminal justice Minister. Nor do I believe that any past criminal convictions should be material to the exercise of a person's function now, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned.
This is a difficult issue. I have listened with passion to the points made by my hon. Friendif I may call him thatthe Member for South Antrim, and I cannot imagine facing such situations in my daily life, with my children facing machine gun bullets from an IRA terrorist. Having said that, should we bar someone who received a conviction 20 or 30 years ago from holding office? I believe that the rules that apply to the House of Commons should be the rules that apply to the Assembly.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: The Minister has centred on the first part of the hon. Lady's amendment. I take it that he will come to its second part and, indeed, to my amendment. When he does so, will he tell the Committee whether he would be happy to have a Minister in charge of the policegiven the crucial role that they play in any societywho did not recognise the legitimacy of that police force?
Mr. Peter Robinson:
It is one thing for the Minister to say that the rules that apply in the House of Commons should apply in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If everything was standing on all fours, that would be a
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sound argument to make. However, that is not the case. The Executive here are formed by means of a voluntary coalition. The Executive that will be formed in Northern Ireland will be a mandatory coalition under the Belfast agreement proposals, and under any other proposals that the Government have considered. On that basis, there will be no Prime Minister choosing the suitability of individuals. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has said, they will not be vetted in any way, so there will not be a similar set of circumstances, and that is why the conditions set out in the amendments must be applied.
Mr. Hanson: I understand that point, but I stick to the principle that the cross on the ballot paper provides the legitimacy for a person to walk into a Chamber, and in my view the rules of this House should be applied separately.
Hon. Members have raised points about the rule of law. Of course we wish to see the rule of law upheld. If the hon. Members for North Down and for Tewkesbury seek confirmation from the Government that the police service deserves full support from all quarters in Northern Ireland, of course I will say that it does, and of course the rule of law should be upheld. The answer to that is unquestionably yes. However, I must say, with respect to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, that to impose a legal requirement for a person to support law enforcement organisations, in whatever circumstances, or face expulsion from political office will give rise to problems. I do not wish to fetter Ministers in the future.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman some examples. In regard to the separation of executive functions and operational independence, the Minister responsible for a police force has to be able to offer constructive criticism on the appropriate occasions to members of that police force. In addition, the Minister might have to consider appeals against decisions made by the Chief Constable or other members of the police force. That is the case with medical and firearms appeals, and a declaration of the kind that the hon. Gentleman seeks, giving full support to the police service, would be incompatible with the requirement for the Minister to act impartially on such issues.
Lorely Burt: The Minister seems to be giving the second part of the amendment some credibility. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is clearly not the same as that in England. Given that the people of Northern Ireland have a history of worrying about involvement in policing, and given the lack of involvement by certain parties, does not the Minister agree that it would give a great deal of reassurance to vast numbers of people if the person responsible for policing had overtly given their support for the whole policing system?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. If we reach the stage whereby policing is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, by the Assembly voting for it, the Secretary of State agreeing to it and this House voting for it, the situation will have arisen in which political parties in Northern Ireland are supporting policing. That will provide the confidence to undertake that.
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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I simply do not believe that the Minister has given an adequate explanation of why anyone would not want to support the police. Why on earth should they not want to do so? Can he give one reason?
Mr. Hanson: I have tried to say to the hon. Gentleman that support for policing is important and fundamental. On occasions, however, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not support the police. As a Minister, he will take decisions that override the requests or decisions of the police.
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman says that it is not about that, but that is the effect of his amendment. Any Minister with responsibility for police should support the rule of law and law and order. The amendment, however, will ensure not just that, but will fetter the independence and management of the police service by Ministers.
I understand why the amendments have been tabled. Despite the passion expressed by hon. Members, whom I thank for sharing their experiences with the House, I am not able to accept the amendments. If they are not withdrawn, I will have to urge my hon. Friends to vote against them.
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