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Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I wonder what will happen if the Patten Commission duplicates what both Houses of Parliament have thus far produced. We have all these reports--and your Lordships may be adding further light reading in the course of the next few days. If Parliament and the Patten Commission flatly contradict each other, which will carry the greater weight?

I do not know whether it would be touching on the Royal Prerogative to suggest that if this Bill goes through both Houses of Parliament, the Royal Assent should be withheld until the Patten Commission has reported.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for giving notice of his intention to oppose Clause 1. It gives me an opportunity to deal with some of the Bill's fundamental points although I realise that we are dealing with it in Committee and not at Second Reading. Nevertheless, noble Lords have highlighted some important issues to which I should like to respond in some detail. I do not want to trespass too long on the time of the Grand Committee but, given the importance of this particular debate, I will take a little more time in dealing with these points than I would wish to do in the normal course of Committee procedures.

It might be helpful if I were very quickly to summarise the Government's aim as regards the relationships between the police authority and other partners in the tripartite structure, which is the nub of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope.

As I indicated when noble Lords first debated this Bill, the aim of the legislation is to make the policing of Northern Ireland more efficient, more effective, more accountable, and, as a result, more acceptable, thereby commanding increased confidence across the whole community.

I have used the term "more accountable". I know the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, developed the theme of accountability, and that he would prefer accountability to be of a different form from the sort envisaged in the Bill. It may well be that in the fullness of time one may be able to move to the position which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, suggested, but at the moment, in the real world that we are dealing with in Northern Ireland, I believe that in terms of accountability, the Bill represents a good way forward.

The Bill clarifies the relative responsibilities of the chief constable, the police authority, and the Secretary of State in the governance of policing in Northern Ireland; otherwise known as the tripartite structure.

The Bill introduces a range of measures intended to make the RUC and the police authority more accountable; for example, through police planning and objective setting. As I said during our previous debate,

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the provisions in the Bill are the building blocks on which other sensible improvements can be made if found to be necessary in the future.

The Bill introduces moderate and timely measures which will enable the police service in Northern Ireland to evolve to face whatever challenges the future holds, including the threat of resurgent terrorism.

The provisions, which will ensure better policing for everyone in Northern Ireland, are supported by the chief constable and by the police authority.

Some noble Lords have referred to the work of the independent commission. I do not want to spend a great deal of time going through the arguments about the commission which have been well aired and are reasonably well understood, but I believe the commission will have an important role, bringing together ideas and making proposals on policing in order that we can have a new beginning, with the prospect of a more stable and peaceful future based firmly on democratic values. That stems from the "yes" vote which I believe was a turning point for Northern Ireland in the recent referendum.

The commission has an important part to play, but I believe that the strength of the Bill is that it stands on what it puts forward. It may well be that, in the fullness of time, the commission will want to take that work further, but the Bill itself makes important changes which will improve policing in Northern Ireland. It is not dependent upon the commission, but of course the work of the commission may well take this a great deal further.

However, before I consider the details, I should like to pay tribute to those who have served and protected the people of Northern Ireland from the scourge of terrorism. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and others, that the work of the men and women of the RUC, and of those who work alongside them, has been outstanding over many years.

Over the past 29 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, 301 officers have lost their lives as a result of terrorist attacks, and many thousands more have been injured. All officers and their families have had to live with the constant danger of terrorism and we have not forgotten the sacrifice that they have made.

In paying tribute to the RUC, we should remember that the RUC, in providing a community police service for all the people in Northern Ireland, continues to face unique and all-too-often dangerous circumstances as its officers go about their daily duties. Despite this, they continue to uphold the rule of law and to safeguard the lives and the property of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I should like to say a few words about the work of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. Clause 1 of the Bill provides for the continued existence of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. The clause replaces, with some amendment, Section 1 of the Police Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. The police authority was created to ensure the operational independence of the police, by putting them at arm's length from government, and to represent the interests of the community in policing matters. The Government are

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strongly committed to the tripartite structure as an effective system of police governance. The Bill maintains a strong police authority with an enhanced role in representing the community and holding the chief constable to account.

The Government, as a demonstration of their commitment to the future of the police authority, published a consultation document, entitled Your Voice, Your Choice, on 9th February 1998. The document, copies of which are available in the Library, outlined options for reforming the method of appointment of the membership of the authority, with a view to making it more representative of the community. The period of consultation is ongoing. It is an issue which the commission may wish to examine, and which, as the new arrangements for Northern Ireland take shape, the political parties there may wish to consider further.

It is clear that the police authority, both members and staff, has over the years given sterling service to the people of Northern Ireland. It has had to operate under the threat of attack. The Government and the community in Northern Ireland are indebted to it.

I now deal with one or two specific points which were raised in the course of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, expressed concern about the allegations that in future paramilitaries might serve in the police. As the Prime Minister said, the agreement does not mean that we are going to have gangs of former paramilitaries. I understand that the police authority and the chief constable have been jointly examining recruitment procedures to determine how under-representation of different groups can be remedied. I welcome this initiative. The chief constable is considering the recommendations of the report, which include

    "reviewing the current criteria on criminal convictions".

Perhaps I may give an example of that lest there be any misunderstanding. There might be a person who as an adolescent has thrown stones and was either cautioned or convicted for such an offence. That is what I believe may be the outcome of this review. Therefore, one might wish to see whether people who have committed offences of that sort--what I would regard as minor offences, not that I condone them--should be debarred for ever from serving in the police in Northern Ireland. We should await the conclusions of this exercise. However, those convicted of serious offences are not fit to be in the police. As the Prime Minister has said, that is foreign to our way of thinking and will not happen.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, commented on the use of the word "force" rather than "service" in Part III of the Bill. We have used the word "service" in the new umbrella title "Northern Ireland police service". "Force" is a technical, collective term for a body of constables throughout the UK and all the body of legislation which the police enforce. So we are simply using normal terminology when we refer to the word police "force".

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked what would be the position if the Patten Commission contradicted the Bill and which of the two would carry the greater weight. The Patten Commission will make recommendations. The Government are obliged

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under the agreement to consult the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on implementing them. If that requires legislation, the normal democratic process here and, if agreement on devolving policing has been reached, in Northern Ireland, will take that legislation forward. Patten is not empowered to override Parliament. He will make proposals to the British Government, who will then take those further.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, also asked whether Royal Assent might not be delayed until after the Patten Commission has reported. The Patten Commission is to report in a year. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent this Session, it would fall for all time. Therefore, it would not be possible to delay Royal Assent for that reason. I believe that there are important respects in which the Bill ought to get on the statute book and delaying it for a year would not be in the best interests of policing in Northern Ireland. I fear very much that, if we did what the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, suggests, we would lose time and gain nothing.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am most grateful to the Minister. I apologise for interrupting him. That presumably means that Clause 7 (on the arrangements for obtaining the views of the public on policing) authorises the police authority to make arrangements for obtaining the views of the public on policing in Northern Ireland. It will be able to proceed with that the moment the Bill receives Royal Assent, in tandem with the Patten Commission going along parallel lines--perhaps not seeking the opinion of the same people, but perhaps obtaining very different views as there would not appear to be any interrelationship between them.

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