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Patten recommended that both independent and elected members of the Policing Board and DPPs should play their full part in making the police accountable. The provisions that we are now considering had their origins in the revised implementation plan of 2001, in which the Government undertook to consider, in the context of a review of policing arrangements, whether the existing provisions in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 remained appropriate. That review, which was published on 25 November 2002 in the form of a draft Bill, set out
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how the Government intended to legislate on DPP disqualification and the powers of the Belfast DPP sub-groups. Draft clauses were subsequently introduced on Report of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003. As I have already said, the Government made it clear that the commencement of those provisions would happen by means of an order, which would be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses.

The Government believe that the time is right to commence those provisions as well as the related DPP provisions in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. We intend that all those interrelated provisions should come into force on 4 September.

The order deals with three specific issues: the requirement for independent members of DPPs to make a declaration against terrorism; the rules concerning disqualification; and the functions of the Belfast DPP sub-groups. The order inserts a range of provisions into the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, and, by its nature, is complex. I therefore hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I go through the detail.

Article 2 brings into force section 15(1) to (5), section 16(1), section 19(1) and schedule 1 of the 2003 Act. Section 15 brings the arrangements for independent members into line with those that already apply to political members in requiring them to make a declaration against terrorism before the Policing Board can consider their application. It is in the same terms as the declaration that prospective local councillors are already required to make. If an independent member appears to have acted in breach of his or her declaration against terrorism, it will be within the power of the Policing Board, or the council with the approval of the Policing Board, to remove that person from membership of the DPP.

Section 16 amends the disqualification provision in paragraph 8 of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act. The legislation currently provides that no one who has received a custodial sentence, regardless of how long ago or for what offence, should be allowed to serve as an independent member of a DPP. Section 16 changes that and, instead, provides that a period of five years must elapse following a person’s discharge in respect of an offence before he or she may be considered for appointment to a DPP. That change brings the arrangements for independent members into line with those for political members of DPPs, who are drawn from the local council. Similar arrangements apply for appointment to police authorities in England and Wales.

Section 19 and schedule 1 deal with the arrangements in Belfast for the sub-groups of the DPPs. Section 21 of the 2000 Act requires Belfast city council to establish a sub-group of its DPP for each police district in Belfast. The functions now proposed for the sub-groups mirror those for DPPs, which are contained in section 16 of the 2000 Act. We believe that that should help strengthen the relationship between the local community and the police service of each area in Belfast.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): In the light of the Chief Constable’s recent reorganisation of police districts, is it now proposed that there should be four or only two sub-groups of the Belfast DPP?

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Paul Goggins: Legislation provides for up to four sub-groups. Considerable discussion is going on—and needs to continue—between the Policing Board, Belfast city council and the Chief Constable to determine the correct number of sub-groups to operate in Belfast. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Chief Constable has, operationally, reduced the number of districts to two. There could eventually be two sub-groups or any number up to four, but the number must reflect the policing organisation in the city. However, that is subject to further discussion centrally, in which the Policing Board will play a key role.

Article 3 provides for the commencement of schedule 9 of the St. Andrews agreement Act, which updates the provisions on the Belfast sub-groups to take account of the changes made to DPP arrangements brought about by the District Policing Partnerships (Northern Ireland) Order 2005. That order provided for the membership of DPPs in the period immediately following a local government election. It also amended the law on the removal of members following conviction for a criminal offence and made a new provision about the chairmen and vice-chairmen of DPPs.

As I have already said, other DPP provisions in the St. Andrews agreement Act will be commenced at the same time as the provisions we are considering this evening. Although those provisions are not subject to the affirmative resolution process, it is important to refer to them as they will play a key role in enabling the reconstitution of DPPs to take place.

Schedule 8 to the St. Andrews agreement Act provides for the reconstitution of DPPs before the next local government election. That will enable Sinn Fein members to take their political seats on DPPs and allow the Policing Board to run recruitment exercises for independent members. The legislation requires the Policing Board to review the membership of each DPP—a task that, once begun, must be completed in 15 days. District councils then have three months to appoint new political members to those DPPs affected by the review. In line with the consideration and, hopefully, approval of the order that we are considering, the Government intend to commence schedule 8 to the St. Andrews agreement Act so that it, too, comes into force on 4 September, thus providing the optimum time frame for the reconstitution of DPPs.

The provisions that the order brings into force will apply each time the membership of DPPs changes after a local government election from 4 September 2007 onwards. They will also apply to the one-off reconstitution of DPPs under schedule 8 to the St. Andrews agreement Act.

I am very aware that the order will have a direct impact on DPPs, especially their members. Again, I pay tribute to the role of DPPs and the considerable commitment and courage of their members. However, the commitment of all parties and all communities to supporting policing and the rule of law provides an opportunity to ensure that DPPs fully reflect the communities that they serve. It is an opportunity that we should not miss. That is why the Government believe that the time is now right to commence the order, and I commend it to the House.

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8.20 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, I congratulate the Minister on his elevation during recent Government changes and I welcome the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to his place for the first time.

In the past three weeks, I have been able to visit five of the eight new Police Service of Northern Ireland district commanders and I have to say that the message from all five was very similar: policing in Northern Ireland is, as the Minister stated, moving into a new phase. They all said that since the Sinn Fein ard fheis of the end of January they had seen signs of greater engagement by republicans in policing, that there had been contact to a lesser or greater extent between Sinn Fein representatives and the local police and, most encouragingly, that they were gradually extending the reach of single officer patrols as well as foot and bicycle patrols in parts of Northern Ireland where those practices have not been possible for far too long.

It is only fair to add that those commanders also said that progress had been slower than in January they had hoped it would be and that the local republican leadership had shown itself more willing to engage with the local police service in some parts of Northern Ireland than in other parts. There remains quite a way to go before policing in Northern Ireland resembles “normal” policing in the sense that the Minister or I would recognise in our respective constituencies.

It was put to me that it was important to reconstitute the district policing partnerships as soon as possible because that would provide an institutional framework to encourage the participation of republicans in supporting policing and also make possible a greater understanding by the republican movement of the way in which police officers are constrained by the law and by the myriad systems of accountability that apply in Northern Ireland. Overcoming that genuine ignorance of policing in a democratic society on the part of the republican movement has to be a high priority.

I have a number of questions and reservations about the legislation, but I want to say in advance that both the Police Federation for Northern Ireland and the Superintendents Association of Northern Ireland have said that they would not wish any problems associated with the order to be pressed to outright opposition in the Division Lobby.

Let me deal first with the criteria for disqualification. As the Minister said, the order will bring the arrangements in Northern Ireland into line with those that currently apply in respect of police authorities in England and Wales. Surely the Minister would acknowledge that the situation in Northern Ireland—largely on account of the Province’s history—is very different. It is quite right that the parent legislation makes it clear that a police officer cannot serve as an independent member of a district policing partnership, but it would be possible, at least in theory, for someone who has been convicted of a very serious terrorist offence in the past or for someone who did not have such a conviction but who intelligence evidence suggested might have been a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation to serve as a member of a DPP. It would thus be possible in law for someone believed by the police or intelligence services to be a member of the
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Provisional IRA or one of the other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to be eligible for nomination as an independent member of a DPP. It is right that we should at least hesitate and pose some questions to the Minister about whether the safeguards are adequate to prevent something like that from happening.

Clearly, we have to look at the legislation alongside the draft code of practice recently published by the Northern Ireland Office into the way in which independent members of the DPPs and sub-groups are to be appointed. The particular question that I would put to the Minister is whether, at the point in the process where the Policing Board comes to consider the nominations put forward by local councils, it will have access not just to records of criminal convictions, but to intelligence information about ongoing paramilitary involvement or connections of those who have been nominated. If not, I believe that it should have such access.

When it comes to the judgment by the Policing Board about the overall balance of the DPP in each area, how important does the Minister believe it is for political balance above all to be attained? Clearly, under the legislation and the code of practice, the Policing Board has a responsibility to seek to balance membership of the DPP not just on political grounds, but on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, religious faith and so forth. I have no quarrel with that as a principle, but in the context of Northern Ireland it is crucial that the overall political balance between the two traditions should be viewed as of overriding importance in the make-up of the DPP within each local authority area.

I was grateful for the Minister’s somewhat opaque response to my intervention on the question of sub-groups. I understand that the matter might well be the subject of continuing discussion by all parties. It would seem somewhat peculiar for the Chief Constable to have reduced the number of police districts in Belfast to only two, but for there to be four DPP sub-groups.

I have a question for the Minister that relates to political balance. He will correct me if I have misread the order or the code of practice, but my understanding is that the duty of Belfast city council when making the nominations and of the Policing Board when it selects those who should serve on a sub-group will be to ensure that a political balance is maintained that is broadly reflective of the politics of the city as a whole. What is not so obvious is a corresponding duty in respect of the membership of each sub-group to reflect the political balance in each of the districts that the sub-group represents.

Let us consider a map of Belfast. It would clearly not make for good community relations in already difficult circumstances if, for the sake of argument, we were to end up with no Unionists from the west of the city, or with no nationalists or republicans from the east. I hope that the Minister will be able to point me towards an element of the code of practice or the legislation that I have overlooked, which would provide such a safeguard, or perhaps use words that the board of the city council might draw on when it comes to interpret its duties under the legislation.

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Why are we talking about sub-groups only in relation to the city of Belfast? When the parent legislation was drafted and enacted, we were living in a world in which Northern Ireland had 26 police districts rather than eight. It now has much bigger and more diverse police districts. While I can see the advantage of a single DPP committee covering the whole area, I also fear that we might put at risk the sense of the people in the enlarged police district that they have any say in how policing is carried out. We are talking about rural and urban areas being put together in the same police district. Can we, for example, be certain that a district that is centred on the city of Derry will have space on the DPP for men and women who represent the rural communities in that district?

I want simply to express the hope that the Government will keep this legislation under review, and that they will consider whether the pattern of a single DPP for each enlarged police district is working out in practice as they hoped and intended. I hope that they will also keep an open mind on the possibility of introducing other arrangements to ensure that there is genuine community involvement in, and support for, policing. Bringing about that support and involvement and creating an understanding that the police are accountable to all people in Northern Ireland on an equal basis are fundamental to creating the shared society that the Government and the Conservatives wish to see.

8.33 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I endorse the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in congratulating the Minister on his elevation within the jurisdiction and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), on his new post of Secretary of State. I think that we have got the measure of both of them already, and I hope that we will be able to work very closely with them. However, they occasionally spring surprises, even on those of us who have had many surprises over the years.

The police reform and reconstruction in Northern Ireland has been one of the great success stories for the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, for the two Governments. One must remember that the Patten initiative and the Patten recommendations were bitterly opposed by the Democratic Unionist party and, initially, by Sinn Fein. How comforting it is for a member of my party to see both now ardently embracing the new policing structures and promising to do better than we ever did. If I were to put it colloquially, I would say more power to their elbow. It was also gratifying recently to note that the oversight commissioner, who is assiduous in examining the process, was complimentary about the fact that more than 86 per cent. of the Patten recommendations had been achieved in a five-year period, which is only half the 10-year span originally allotted.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): In crediting the other parties, would the humble hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept credit on behalf of the Social Democratic and Labour party, which made some very difficult decisions at the time? It voted in a very
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courageous fashion and made it possible to put in place the structures that the DUP and Sinn Fein subsequently embraced.

Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman’s reference to me as the humble Member precludes my accepting the accolades that he has thrown in my direction, but I will do so on behalf of other people—perhaps not so much the Policing Board members, who, as elected representatives, took a decision and accepted the risk and the profile that went with it, but, once more, the ordinary DPP members, both elected and independent, who, to be quite blunt about it, suffered greatly at the hands of Sinn Fein in particular. My colleagues in the SDLP—both elected and non-elected—had their homes bombed, got bullets in the post, were physically threatened and sometimes physically assaulted. It is so easily forgotten that they made those sacrifices, and I am very proud to be associated with them. However, progress has been made, things move on, history is rewritten, and revisionism is the order of the day in Northern Ireland in many respects, including the devolution of powers to the new Government.

A member of the Patten commission said that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has

in the world. Such tremendous accolades from people with worldwide experience of policing give great satisfaction, but much more important is the fact that members of the community, particularly those who found the old regime hostile and in no way representative of their views, have now come, almost with enthusiasm at long last, to embrace policing simply as a profession, with the aspiration, one hopes, of doing good for their own community. That is evolving, and the district policing partnerships are a great example of how that has happened.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked some extremely interesting questions, although I assume some were tongue in check, because he knows, as I do, that a blind eye will be turned to all sorts of things to achieve the ultimate theoretical position on all those boards. To take one example—I hope that the Minister will reply to this as well—if the reconstruction of the district policing partnerships follows the reconstruction of the Policing Board by the Northern Ireland Office, there will be great disparities in the broad scope of representation. To put it bluntly, moderate nationalist opinion, which fought in the heat of the day and worked in the heat of the afternoon, has been virtually obliterated from the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I would like to think that the same philosophy—it is a mystery to me why it was used—will not be visited on the new district policing partnerships through the new board in this new composition.

The order is fairly straightforward and simple. It relates to section 15 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, on the declaration against terrorism. I hope that the interpretation of “terrorism” will be expanded to cover involvement in any quasi-political activity such as intimidation, extortion and blackmail. Elected Sinn Fein councillors who signed up to this process many years ago were still engaged in such activities in their own communities; for all I know, some of them
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might still be. I would like officials, including representatives of the board and the NIO, to keep a close eye on what is happening in respect of the undertaking to oppose terrorism and all aspects of what the paramilitary machines have been engaged in over the past 10 years since the so-called ceasefire—at least by republican Sinn Fein.

I make that final point as there has been no ceasefire by the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. Paradoxically, the chairperson of the political wing of the UVF, the Progressive Unionist party, was appointed to be a member of the Policing Board some time ago despite the fact that the organisation her party represents is not on ceasefire and will not commit to any form of decommissioning. The NIO should attempt to explain that paradox.

Mention has been made of section 16 and the issue of convictions after five years. I will not rehearse the questions posed by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, but let me venture a layman’s point of view. How can a policing board, a council or any other body making selections take cognisance of something in someone’s history or current circumstances that has not gone through the process of a court of law? I cannot see how that could happen, because if it were to do so, it would immediately raise the possibility of there being allegations of slander and libel in respect of unproven facts. However, if there are ways of addressing this matter, they should be used.

Section 19 addresses Belfast sub-groups. I have some misgivings—“fears” is too strong a word—as to what might be the ultimate effect. A possible disastrous outcome is the ghettoisation of the democratic interface with the police in Belfast city. It will clearly be difficult to have the kind of representation that we desire in certain areas of west, east, north and south Belfast. It might have been better to have been more cautious and to have kept things as they were in respect of Belfast DPPs and how sub-groups might contribute. The Police Service of Northern Ireland reconstruction of its command structure has brought together several district councils. However, its undertaking to maintain the original 26 or so DPPs retains local contact, local democracy, local accountability and, most important, local knowledge and interface. That might be the best way to move forward.

I wish to ask a question that has frequently been posed by me and other members of my party. Why have the Government and the NIO turned their face so strongly against the obvious case for rationalisation in respect of DPPs and community safety partnerships? They overlap in some of their functions. They are supported and part-personneled by district councils and they have duplication in officers and secretariats. I cannot see any rational argument why the functions of the DPPs should not be combined with those of the community safety partnerships so that they form one body.

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