House of Commons
|Session 2006 - 07|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Draft Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Keith Neary, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 14 March 2007
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Williams. Copies of the order were laid before the House on 6 February 2007. The Northern Ireland Policing Board is a vital element in the policing accountability arrangements recommended in the Patten report. I pay tribute to Policing Board members, both past and present, for the key role that they have played in the development of policing in Northern Ireland. The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 sets out arrangements for selecting members of the Policing Board. It provides different arrangements for constituting the Policing Board under devolution and under suspension. The restoration of the Assembly means that the board has to be reconstituted.
The Policing Board has 19 members and is made up of two elements: political members and independent members. The Secretary of State is required to appoint nine independent members, following a recruitment competition. The appointment of the 10 political members follows a specific formula set out in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. It is essentially the dHondt formula, which is used to allocate Assembly ministerial posts. For the record, I can confirm that, according to the dHondt formula, there will be four Democratic Unionist party representatives on the Policing Board, three Sinn Fein representatives, two Ulster Unionist party representatives and one member of the Social Democrat and Labour party.
The Secretary of State launched a recruitment competition for independent members on Tuesday13 February. I am sure that members of the Committee will agree that those public appointments are among the most important in Northern Ireland. They are fully regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I am sure that the Committee will also appreciate that, in view of the ongoing political discussions in recent months, it would not have been appropriate to commence the competition until it was certainly required.
Given the uncertainty about timing, it was not possible to have an extensive consultation on the contents of the draft order, although my officials have undertaken a series of briefings with all interested parties since it was laid before the House. Bearing in mind both the importance of the appointments and the requirement to comply with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner of Public Appointments, a competition of that nature takes about four months to complete. The order will
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Williams.
Will the Minister confirm that, while four months may indeed be an appropriate time for recruitment, he is confident that the Sinn Fein political members of the Policing Board will be appointed long before the end of the four months?
Paul Goggins: Indeed, the political representatives on the Policing Board will be appointed well in advance of that time. They should be appointed on 26 March, when the Assembly is fully restored and the Executive are up and running again. All the political representatives will be known well in advance. I shall explain how the political representation will be part of the transitional arrangements and will remain beyond the transitional board into the permanent board, which we hope will be in position in June.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Given that one of the current independent members is now a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and therefore will be a political representative, what will be the situation with that member? Will they stay on as an independent member, even though a Member of the Assembly, so changing the balance of the Policing Board?
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman was not in Committee when I paid tribute to members of the Policing Board, both past and present, among whose number he counts. I am happy to confirm that, when someone is a Member of the Assembly, they can no longer be an independent member of the Policing Board.
As the competition to select independent members will not be completed when restoration of the Assembly takes place, the order creates a new transitional Policing Board to carry out all the functions of the existing board until the competition is completed. There are three broad sets of provisions in the draft order. The first set makes arrangements for the period between26 and 28 March and, beyond 28 March, should the Secretary of State revoke the restoration order. The Government are planning for success on 26 March, but we need to prepare for all eventualities.
We are putting in place the provisions so that the Policing Board will be able to continue its important work without any disruption.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister categorically assure the Committee that no one is beavering away on emergency legislation to take the House and the Government through the 26 March deadline?
Paul Goggins: No one is beavering away on any emergency provisions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the 26 March deadline is fixed and firm. It is in statute and no attempt will be made to remove or change that date. The deal has to be done on that date. It is D-day. In the words of my right hon. Friend, it is dissolution or devolution, and that remains absolutely the case.
The draft order will modify schedule 1 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to provide that, if restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly takes effect on26 March but is subsequently revoked on 28 March, the current members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board will continue in office, their terms unaffected by restoration or by revocation. However, as I have said, we are planning for success on 26 March.
The second set of provisions covers the immediate period beyond 28 March. Following the restoration of the Assembly and the completion of the nomination process as set out in the 2000 Act, political members will be able to take their seats on the transitional board, while the Secretary of State appoints nine independent members from the current independent board members. The draft order will amend the 2000 Act to provide for a temporary transitional arrangement to enable nine of the current independent members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board to be reappointed for a period of up to four months.
The position of the political members will remain unchanged when the Secretary of State appoints the independent board members, following the conclusion of the transitional board. I am happy to confirm again that, once the political members are on the board from the end of March, they will remain all through the transitional board and beyond into the permanent board, until the new independent members are appointed later in the year.
The Secretary of State will consult the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the appointment of independent members of the transitional board. Given that current independent members circumstances may change, the draft order provides that no vacancy can be filled during the transitional arrangement. Therefore, if an independent member comes off the transitional board for whatever reason, they will not be replaced, and the order makes provision for that.
The third and final provisions in the draft order relate to the appointment of the chairman and vice-chairman. That will be a matter for the transitional board. A new chairman and vice-chairman will be appointed once the restoration of the Assembly board is complete.
In conclusion, the Northern Ireland Policing Board is one of the undoubted successes of the Belfast agreement. Its work has been recently applauded at an international policing conference held in Belfast a few weeks ago. By putting in place temporary transitional arrangements to deal with the reconstitution of the independent membership, the draft order will ensure that the vital work of the Northern Ireland Policing Board can continue. I commend the draft order to the Committee.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Williams. I understand fully the rationale behind the draft order. I wish to tease out from the Minister more of an explanation about what happens if a member of the board dies or resigns his or her office during the transitional period. As I understand it, the draft order will prevent the Secretary of State from following normal process and appointing a successor. Even if that is an unlikely and hypothetical state of affairs, it
There would be a particular problem if the chairman or deputy chairman were to cease to hold office during the transitional period, for whatever reason. In that event, the Secretary of State would obviously retain the same powers and the chairman could be selected from among the existing board members. However, the choice of who holds those two offices involves an extremely sensitive political judgment, as the Minister would be first to acknowledge. I query whether adequate thought has been given to that, and I should like to know why the Government have chosen to include a bar on the appointment of a successor during the transitional period. Subject to that caveat, however, the Opposition are content to let the measure pass.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Williams. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Once again, I am frustrated by the fact that, although the order is not necessarily contentious, the process provides us with no opportunity to modify errors in a measure. The result is that we could find ourselves in a situation where an oversight was not spotted by the Minister and was missed by the Committee, which would mean coming back a second time. The same situation applies in relation to another order that will be considered in Committee tomorrow.
Even at this stage, it would be preferable if the Government were willing to provide us with some kind of opportunity informally to amend legislation. That is very much the same complaint that I made to the Minister in a similar Committee earlier this week. Nevertheless, the order seems to put in place the practical steps that are necessary to ensure that the board is properly constituted after devolved government is restored.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I reiterate the comments of other hon. Membersit is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. The viable continuation of the Policing Board is very dear to my heart, because I had the privilegeI underscore that wordof serving on the board for the first four years after its inception. Those were very difficult times. With the hon. Member for East Antrim and a very diverse set of political and independent representatives, we were able to hone, when the bombs and bullets were still flying, a transition from what was to us an unacceptable police force to a new police service, under the Patten proposals.
I should like to put on record that the board was probably one of the most arduous but also one of the most satisfying committees on which I have ever
It is ironic, too, that we in the SDLP led the nationalist community into supporting the policeagainst all the brickbats and other more fatal weapons that were thrown at us at the time, yet Sinn Fein is now joining the Policing Board and will outnumber us three to one. What a turn-up for the books! And what an expression of political opinion in Northern Ireland, where the latest electionsof course, you would not allow me to go into them in detail, Mr. Williamsepitomise the contest of extremes and the feeding on one another, but that is the result that we have. But that is democracy; that is where we are at; and that is what dHondt will impose on us.
I hope that questions about the grey areas have already been answered. As for the Policing Board and the transitional periodthe four months beyond 26 or 28 March, to which the Minister referredthere is almost a Gilbert and Sullivan plot for that particular composition. However, I will not go into that, as the musical would be quite difficult, because either half would involve orange or green music, but that is another story.
Whatever is done about appointments either by the political parties, which are fixed, or particularly by the Secretary of State for independent members, it is important that it reflects the nuances of the community that is Northern Ireland. If the board, in its new composition, can continue the broad parameters of co-operation and understanding laid down over the past six and a half years, it will have been a very worthwhile exercise, although I accept that it is not an easy thing to do.
I do not envy the Minister, or the Secretary of State for that matter, in the process of appointments to the board when it is thereor perhaps when it is notduring the transition from now to 26 or 28 March and thereafter. The Minister talked about what would happen if dissolution, not devolution, took place on 26 March. How does he define that? How will the Secretary of State and his ministerial team say, Yes, we have devolution or No, we do not.? If the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister from different parties were already appointed, it would actually be about who was the strongest man and not about anyone in the middle. However, that is history.
Let us suppose that devolution takes place and we have an elected Assembly. What would happen if it were put into shadow form by the new Executive or suspended? They could even go on holiday for six months, for goodness sake. What determination have the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office got to ensure the continuation of a strong, viable accountable Policing Board to the Police Service of Northern Ireland?
Sammy Wilson: May I briefly comment on the order? As someone who served on the Policing Board for many yearsI am not too sure how manywith the
At the end of the day, the Policing Board sought to strike a balance and probably struck it fairly well. Despite all predictions, all worked well together. Many independent membersespecially those who came from a nationalist backgroundtook considerable risks. Less than two years ago, not only members of the Policing Board, but district policing partnership members were subject to severe intimidation from those within the republican community who did not want policing to work.
I hope that Sinn Fein representatives will take on membership of the Policing Board with a view to making policing work and not conduct some kind of guerrilla warfare against the police, using the board as a platform from which to do it. Many of those from the nationalist community took a very strong stand. I remember discussing whether or not the Policing Board should go out and meet the community, rather than holding all its meetings at its headquarters.
Some of the independent representatives from Newry and Armagh demanded, even against the reticence of some of the board, that we go into the heart of what some might have regarded as republican territory to meet people to show them that the Policing Board was prepared to go everywhere in Northern Ireland and hold public meetings. That meeting was very well received, despite some peoples fears.
I want to ask the Minister one question about the appointment of independent members. I can understand that, because of the rules in Northern Ireland, we must go through a public exercise if the board is to be reconstituted, but some independent members of the Policing Board appointed less than a year and a half ago have made a valuable contribution to the board. They have probably just learned the ropes and got their heads round the issues.
A degree of continuity is important, especially as the boards political composition will change somewhat. Although the Minister obviously cannot prejudice the outcome of the selection process, a cognisance should be given nevertheless that some continuity is needed and that some members who have not served a full four-year term because they were appointed only a year and a half ago have made a valuable contribution. There must be some way to ensure that degree of continuity within the board.
A number of independent members have already decided for personal reasons to leave, rather than to continue to serve, but there is a need to ensure continuity in at least some of the membership. I hope that the new Policing Board, as constituted after the Assembly is finally up and running, whenever that happens to be, will carry on its work, which I know most police officers and most of the community in Northern Ireland have welcomed.
Lady Hermon: As I said in my intervention, it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. This is an interesting order with the delightful title of the draft Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order, so that no one can be in any doubt, just in case anyone was confused and thought that it might deal with the Northern Ireland Policing Board (Wales). It is a wonderful title, but let us focus on what we are doing this afternoon. We are facilitating Sinn Feins joining the Policing Board.
If the records are checked, I think that they will show that it was about three years ago that a radio interview with the late, great interviewer Nick Clarke was broadcast. I am sure that we all regret his death. He was a wonderful interviewer and journalist in his own right who took a particular interest in Northern Ireland. Three years ago, in an interview with the MP for North Down, he asked me about my thoughts on Sinn Fein membership of the Policing Board. I said without hesitation that Sinn Fein members ought to be on the board, as only then would the war be truly overwhen Sinn Fein members sat on the Policing Board and called on young republicans to join the police service. That was three years ago.
I pay warm tribute to the hon. Member for South Down for the courage that he and his SDLP colleagues showed in joining the Policing Board when it was first established in Northern Ireland. They showed great courage and great foresight. To the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, I pay deep and sincere tribute.
We are making provision for Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board, and I have a series of questions for the Minister. First, he mentioned the Secretary of State in his concluding remarks. The wonderful explanatory memorandumI pay tribute to the civil servants who go to great trouble to prepare such notes for hon. Members to read alongside proposed legislationsays that the order contains
no amendment to the requirement that the Secretary of State should consult with the First and Deputy First Minister on the appointment of independent members of the transitional Board.
The Minister confirmed that such consultation will take place. Since we expect the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to be representatives from the DUP and Sinn Fein, will the Minister clarify whether either of those partiesin the form of the First Minister or the Deputy First Ministerwould have a veto over the independent members of the transitional board?
Secondly, I seek clarification about the intriguing paragraph 9 of the explanatory memorandum, entitled Financial effects of the order, which says:
The measures in the Order are not expected to impose any material cost to businesses, district councils, the public or the Exchequer.
I should like the Minister to define what a material cost is and explain what a non-material cost might be, if there is such a thing.
Thirdly, speaking not just as the hon. Member for North Down, but as the wife of a former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, I should like the Minister to explain whether there has been any attempt to ensure that, as and when Sinn Fein comes on to the Northern Ireland Policing Boardwhich I have indicated that I welcomethere will be, at any
Fourthly, so that the Minister is kept busy taking notes, I should like him to explain precisely the sequence of events. The wording of the order is complicated in terms of the timing: article 1 refers to the order coming into force on 26 March 2007, and article 2 contains references to 26 March, 27 March and 28 March. Will the Minister clarify the timing over this critical weekendsomething that has been picked up on already? I understand that there are only 24 hours for the parties to nominate all the ministerial portfolios in the Executive. That is the obligation under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.
Intriguingly, the Minister confirmed in an intervention that he was confident that Sinn Fein will, within that time scale, also have nominated to the Policing Board. Will he highlight where in the order there is any obligation on Sinn Fein to have nominated the political members of the Policing Board before 28 March? Certainly, it will have to nominate Ministers in the Executive, but I should like an indication of where in legislation it says that it is also obliged to nominate to the Policing Board. I am interested in the sequencing of events that is obviously going on behind the scenes. The Ministeris invited to explain that to the Committee, which is entitled to an explanation. With those points, I am content to sit.
Paul Goggins: May I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury for his welcome and offer of support for the draft order? His one substantial question was: why are we not making provision for replacements during the short life of the transitional board? The answer is just thatit is a relatively short period, during which all the time and energy of the officials involved must be focused on the bigger process of recruiting from the new pool of those who have put themselves forwardfor independent membership. We thought it better to have certainty and to make it clear that replacement independent members would be ruled out for this very short period. Hopefully, the new Policing Board will be in place some time in Juneclearly not such a long period.
The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that todays provisions include a requirement on the Secretary of State to ensure a balanced independent membership that reflects community composition. That requirement is temporarily suspended for the transitional period to allow a little more flexibility. There is nothing hidden or sinister behind thatit is very much a practical issue. We do not want to take up time with reappointments in order to fill any vacancies that occur.
I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who has indicated his support. His points did not surprise me entirely, and I say to him that, of course, we have a commitment to look at those matters again following devolution on 26 March in order to ensure that our processes are as democratic as possible. That is on the record.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down that the people have spokenthere is a phrase that sometimes follows on from that, which I shall not speak this afternoon. [Laughter.] The important thing is that all the parties have spoken and indicated their full support for policing and the rule of law, which is a tremendous step forward. I join other hon. Members, in particular the hon. Members for East Antrim and for North Down in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down and his colleagues for the role that they have played.
Given that progress has been so quick in recent times in Northern Ireland, it is very easy for people to forget that the SDLP put its head above the parapet by joining the Policing Board and encouraging independent members to come forwardthey came forward, often in the face of hostility and threats. That should not be forgotten, and neither should the contribution of my hon. Friend.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister made the point about the parties having spoken and indicated their support for the police. However, was he disappointed last week when the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone was outraged that the police dared to arrest a Republican, who was suspected of attempted murder, in her constituency, or, indeed, when three Sinn Fein Assembly Members, also last week, consistently and publicly refused to encourage people to give the police any information about potentially terrorist-related incidents?
Paul Goggins: Of course, wherever the police have grounds to suspect that an offence has taken place, they have an obligation to investigate and, if necessary, to arrest and question people and to supply information to the prosecution services, after which the court process can proceednone of this differentiating between so-called civic and political policing, because an offence is an offence! And if an offence occurs, it needs to be investigated properly.
Gerry Adamss remarks on Monday put the position in a better context when he called for those involved in the heinous murders in Belfast over the weekend to come forward and give information to the police. That applies to anyone who knows anything, whether it is related to dissident Republicanism or ordinary criminality. That is the correct line to take, and I am pleased that Gerry Adams took it.
I have paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down and happily do so again. On the timing, mentioned by the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friend, I appreciate that this is tricky. I do not deny that the timing will be tight. It is more important than ever that parties are open and confident about the restoration of the Assembly, so that we can all be confident that, even thoughthe timing will be tight, things will happen in anorderly way.
The Secretary of State will sign the restoration order on 25 March. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be appointed on 26 March, and the dHondt procedure will be run including four members of the Policing Board. If we restore on 28 Marchwe are confident that we will do sowe will move to the transitional board arrangements, including the new political representatives following the dHondt procedure. If the order is revoked, the present Policing Board will continue unchanged by the wider political process. We have put in place a detailed but solid process to ensure that the Policing Board can continue its work, whatever route the politicians take in Northern Ireland.
Lady Hermon: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I need to bring to his attention the critical wordsof section 8 of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006:
Within a period of seven days beginning with the first meeting of the Assembly...the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister shall be filled,
as an obligation and a duty, and
the Ministerial offices to be held by Northern Ireland Ministers
will also be filled. That is set out clearly in statute. Did the Assembly meet yesterday on 13 March, for designations and for people to sign the register as Members of the Assembly?
Paul Goggins: We are in a transitional period at the moment, up to 26 March, but the hon. Lady knows that 26 March is decision daythe final dayand there is no shift from that. All 108 Members of the new Assembly, whom I congratulate on their election or re-election, need to prepare for that date, because government begins on day one and cannot be put back for another few months while they get used to being in the role. The more that Assembly Members can prepare and ready themselves for the tasks that lie ahead, the better it will be.
I confirm that success on 26 March means that on28 March part III of the provisions relating to the appointment of the Policing Board will come into force. Then the requirement for nominations in line with part III will come into operation under schedule 1 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased that I have put that on the record.
I thank the hon. Member for East Antrim for his contribution as a member of the Policing Board and for what he achieved in that role. It was generous of him to make the remarks that he did about my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. This is a huge public exercise to develop a new pool of independent memberspeople putting themselves forwardand the important thing is that people will be coming from every section of society in Northern Ireland. That wider pool of people is to be welcomed.
The hon. Gentleman made the important point that talent, commitment and skill already exist, which is why existing membersthose who are newly appointed and those with more experiencewill be able to put themselves forward for consideration within the independent pool. When the Secretary of State finally has to decide who the nine independent people will be,
I am always ready for questions from the hon. Member for North Down. I only got four today, which is not as many as I often get. She began by mentioning Sinn Fein and welcoming the steps forward. It is important to place on record the enormous step taken by Sinn Fein in encouraging people from the community that it represents to join the PSNI and become police community support officers. It is even more important perhaps to report crime and to co-operate with the police and the courts. Sinn Fein will, of course, take up its place on the board assuming that all continues to go to plan.
I confirm clearly to the hon. Lady that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will have no veto over the Secretary of States decision. He needs to consult and, hopefully, that process will be a feature of democracy in Northern Ireland as we move forward in a range of areas. The Secretary of State will make the decision about the issue having consulted the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
The hon. Lady invariably finds something in the explanatory notes to draw to the attention of the Committee. Material costs means exactly that. The arrangements that we are putting in place today will cost no more. They will be no further burden on either the Northern Ireland Office or local authorities. No material costs will be associated with the provisions.
The hon. Lady asked whether Sinn Fein has been asked to make an apology as its members take their place on the board. Clearly, its representatives will speak for themselves, although there is a wider issue about how the whole of Northern Ireland, political representatives and communities deal with past issues.
Lady Hermon: I am very grateful to the Minister for taking a late intervention. Sinn Fein is not prepared to make an apology for the murder of police officers and to apologise to those who have been widowed and injured. It is wholly unacceptable and inappropriate for a party that intends to come on to the Policing Board to say that it will put manners on the police. It would be helpful if the Minister were to condemn such action outright in the closing minutes of our proceedings.
Paul Goggins: The hon. Lady has placed her remarks on the record. The most important aspect of policing in any open democratic society is that the police are accountable, but operationally independent. That must be maintained throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Operational decisions are a matter for the Chief Constable and his staff. Northern Ireland has a level of police scrutiny and accountability that is probably unparalleled anywhere in the world. It has the Policing Board, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and a whole range of provisions, including local district policing partnerships to introduce scrutiny at local level. No one should be under any doubt that, operationally, the police are independent. There is great scrutiny throughout Northern Ireland, which is the right balance. I can assure all communities in Northern Ireland of fair and effective policing.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Three oclock.
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