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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Fitt in what he said in relation to the RUC; about its bravery over many years and the way in which in recent weeks it has demonstrated its even-handedness and impartiality. It has done so in difficult circumstances when its members have been shot at, threatened with blast bombs and generally been abused by one group of people. It demonstrated its wish and willingness to apply the law in an even-handed manner. The way it has behaved is to its credit.

As noble Lords will be aware, this Bill seeks to bring the declaration of office made by RUC constables to a form broadly similar to that used to affirm constables in office in Scotland. The effect of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, would be to replace that wording with the English version. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, would introduce a hybrid version, an expanded, extended Scottish version or a somewhat modernised English one. I think that is a fair way of describing it.

However, the Government's position has been carefully considered and is firmly based on four key points. First, the change spells out, simply and clearly, that a person taking up the office of constable will faithfully discharge its duties. Simplicity and clarity in such a context are important. Secondly, the wording follows that in use in Scotland, as has been mentioned. The Scots wording has been used from time immemorial. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, with cultural features shared with Northern Ireland but not with England or Wales.

Thirdly, the Policy Authority for Northern Ireland, the body charged with representing the views of the community there on policing, itself recommended, after long and detailed consultation, debate and consideration, a move to the Scots formulation.

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Fourthly, this change is in line with recent changes to other declarations across the criminal justice system in England and Wales, as well as in Northern Ireland--for example, to the juror's declaration and to the QC's declaration. Perhaps I may give an example. The oath (or affirmation/declaration) taken by jurors has been changed to read:

    "I swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to evidence."

The previous version included a reference to,

    "our Sovereign Lady the Queen".

It seems to me that this is a sensible change that introduces an element of clarity to something that was complicated and perhaps old-fashioned.

As noble Lords may also be aware, the Belfast agreement, accepted by the majority of Northern Ireland political parties and subsequently endorsed by the people, introduces the idea of a pledge of office for Assembly members. Again, the pledge is written in simple but none the less effective terms. It requires Assembly members to,

    "discharge in good faith all the duties of the office",

and, among other things, promotes the idea of service to the community.

To move at this time, and at this stage in the life of the Bill, against the arguments of clarity and simplicity, against the Police Authority's carefully considered and expressed view, and against the trend of changes to declarations elsewhere in the criminal justice system, would, I suggest, be bordering on the perverse.

I have listened to the views of those noble Lords who say we are removing the reference to "Her Majesty" as part of a drive to remove the unionists' British heritage. I do not believe that that is the case. It would be nonsensical to believe that changing the wording of a declaration used in Northern Ireland to one used in Scotland attacks a "British" heritage. It would be naive to believe that dropping a few references to our Sovereign would buy out deeply held political beliefs in the nationalist community.

The Government believe that the new form of declaration represents a sensible change and remains the most appropriate form of wording presented to date for Northern Ireland's circumstances at this time and for the future.

Perhaps I may briefly touch on some of the points that were made in the short debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to the oath in England and Wales and suggested that it had been revisited in the Police Act 1996. That was not the case. The Police Act 1996 was merely a consolidation Act and could not have been used to change the oath. The noble Baroness will appreciate that point. It is not true to say that the oath was revisited in 1996 so far as England and Wales is concerned. That may be a technical point, but I make it for the record.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked a question by analogy with a Sainsbury employee. Constables are not employees and the Sainsbury example is not, therefore, a correct comparison. A constable must make a declaration before he can hold the office of constable.

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This concept is of ancient origin and applies throughout the UK. All constables have to be attested; they would not be constables if they were not. That is the difference. That is why we have the form of wording that we are now suggesting.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I come back to the necessity for what I call the Sainsbury arrangement. The constable would have had to sign his application form, which would surely commit him, at the end of the process of appointment, interviews, and so forth, coming back to the only meaningful phrase in the declaration--not the oath--to discharge the duties satisfactorily. That is the same as the Sainsbury employee would do. It is implicit, once he signs his application form, has the interview and complies with all the other regulations, that he is prepared to discharge honourably whatever duties may be required of him.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not sure I quite followed all the intricacies of the noble Lord's argument. A constable must make a declaration because that has to go with the office of constable. It is different from being the employee of another organisation, where it does not have that relative importance. The declaration is taken at the end of training and it shows that the recruit has taken on the office of constable and assumed the statutory responsibilities attached to that office. That goes quite a long way towards meeting the noble Lord's point.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: Yes, it is broadly unnecessary; that is right.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I did not say that.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, suggested including the concept of impartiality in the oath. There is a difficulty with that. Impartiality is an important concept but it may not be appropriate in the declaration. Constables have to use an element of discretion. If one puts the word "impartiality" into the oath one might have the unintended effect of overriding the constable's declaration. Perhaps I may give an example of that. We would not wish a constable to deal with an elderly person who might have been inadvertently shoplifting in the same way as we would wish him to deal with a professional shoplifter. So we have to give the constable an element of discretion which, to a limited extent, might be seen to be overriding the concept of impartiality if that were put into the oath.

I think that we are moving in a sensible direction. As we approach the next millennium it is our wish to underpin the aim of the police service in Northern Ireland with a straightforward declaration in keeping with those in the rest of the criminal justice system and appropriate for Northern Ireland circumstances. That is what Schedule 2 to the Bill seeks to do. Accordingly, I invite the House to reject the amendment.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have supported me in this amendment.

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I defer to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in his great knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland. I very much respect him. But I really do believe that many in the RUC, like the majority, Catholic and Protestant, who want to stay in the UK, do attach importance to belonging and to having a unifying symbol. They have joined a service. When you join a service, you normally expect to have a central point to which to look. I accept that, maybe one day, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland government may prove to be that unifying factor. But I believe that it does need to exist.

However, in the light of the Minister's usual careful and courteous reply, I realise that I have failed to persuade him. I urge the Government at least to consider leaving the decision on the question of the form of the affirmation to the Patten Commission. Incidentally, there will be no reason why it should not be taken in Irish. The form of the oath means quite as much to the RUC as it does to any putative nationalist recruit; and indeed far more. I urge that the matter might be reconsidered by the Patten Commission in the whole context of the needs of a most admirable force which deserves the very best. We are all agreed on that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 75 [Commencement]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 39, line 21, at end insert ("but there shall not be appointed under this section, except as necessary to bring Part VII into operation, any day less than six months after the publication by Her Majesty's Government of the report of the Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, appointed under the agreement set out in Command Paper 3883.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment attempts to postpone the coming into operation of most of the Bill--not the part dealing with the ombudsman but the rest of the Bill--until after the Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland--the Patten Commission--has had the opportunity to report and its report has been considered. When the Bill started its course through Parliament, the situation was different. That was before the agreement was reached and before the decision had been taken to set up the Patten Commission, let alone before it had actually been put in place, as it now has been.

It seems to me that some aspects of the Bill should not be pursued at this stage until the Patten Commission has had an opportunity to report and suggest what it believes should be the way forward. When the responsibilities of an organisation like the RUC and bodies such as the Police Authority and others are reorganised, the cost is enormous both in time and money. It is a great distraction to all concerned when there is great organisational upheaval.

In the case of the RUC that is at a time when it has to continue to deal with all kinds of incredibly difficult situations such as we have seen recently, as well as dealing with the most vicious terrorists. Much as we would like to hope that those will be modified as time goes on, as the agreement and the Assembly begin to do their work, there will be a considerable amount of terrorism, violence and difficulty for the RUC to deal

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with for quite a long time. Some terrorists have not accepted the agreement and will continue to pursue violence for political reasons. In addition, the rackets continue, which also involve violence.

When the RUC has such a difficult and vital job to do it is unwise to subject it to long periods of continuous reorganisation and change. It can be damaging to morale. Without necessarily urging every detail of this particular amendment on the Government, I suggest that when considering which parts of the Bill should be brought into effect and at which stage, Ministers think carefully about the effect on the work of the Patten Commission because it is very important for the future acceptability and work of the RUC that the commission is able to give the matter proper consideration and to make recommendations which can then be considered and put into effect. But those recommendations may well mean further upheaval.

First of all, the Patten Commission will have to undertake its considerations during one period of upheaval, and that may be followed fairly quickly by more upheaval following the recommendations of the commission. That is why in putting this Bill into effect the Government should think carefully about its various sections and the timing. I beg to move.

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