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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

(First Day) Wednesday, 8th January 2003.

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale): Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. The Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes. In this connection, the Chairman's watch is always right even when it is wrong.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Consultation with Board]:

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Lord said: First, I apologise for my voice. I hope it will last for four hours. There are those who may, before the day is out, hope that it fails me.

When we debated the Bill at Second Reading, I was initially more than surprised at the lack of substantive responses from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, who, in my short experience in your Lordships' House, has been the very epitome of courtesy, understanding and helpfulness. Yet, in retrospect, I think I understand the Minister's reluctance to attempt to counter the widespread objections that I and others voiced in respect of the Bill, and recognise how he may have felt constrained by more than the time considerations on that occasion.

The extent to which he was unable to give assurance that what is before us is not a softening-up process for the Government's Text for Consideration, which

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accompanied the Bill has caused me some considerable anxiety. I hope that before today is out he will reassure me that further clauses deriving from the Text for Consideration will not be introduced to the Bill at a later stage or in the other place.

This amendment to leave out Clause 1(1) addresses the issue of policing objectives as society as a whole requires them to be. It seeks to contest how Government seek to tailor them so that terrorists and their political acolytes can participate in a process that is alien to them and to which they are antagonistic. There is no doubt about that antagonism or the ongoing involvement in terrorism of the very people that the Bill is designed to accommodate. Indeed, a local paper states that the,

    "IRA now holds enough guns for 1,500 terrorists".

I do not think that any of us are surprised by that revelation in the Sunday Independent of 29th December, nor by the fact that the people whom the Government are seeking to accommodate are involved in very serious racketeering and carrying out acts such as so-called punishment beatings against those—some of their own people; some business people in the Irish Republic—who fail to hand over millions—millions that no longer; I say at least this with some thankfulness, come as easily from America, following the 9/11 incident.

In his response to me on Second Reading, at column 508, the Minister told me why Surrey would not allow criminals on district policing partnerships or its police board: basically, because it did not have to. But that means simply that terrorism pays. In other words, the pressure coming from Sinn Fein/IRA is such that we have to—Surrey does not—admit criminals to our police board.

The great danger with the Bill is that it is not here for our consideration because society requires parliamentary debate on the matters that it addresses but because our Prime Minister has already reached an exclusive understanding with a terrorist fraternity and requires Parliament to accommodate that agreement. That is why we are here, but that is not democracy—it is effectively government by diktat. The Bill undermines the very fundamentals of democracy, of law and of order. It simply means that terrorism pays.

Lest the Committee think that I stray from my amendment, let me try to illustrate what the Bill does and so put the clause in context. The Bill comes to us in a form in which any particular element is difficult to recognise as fundamentally undermining the democratic process. It is cleverly structured, but prepares the way for erstwhile terrorists, or criminals, to be members of the police board. It would reduce the number of board members who can cause an inquiry to be held from 10—a majority of the board—to eight, which is a minority. It would also reduce and dilute the basis on which the Chief Constable can object to an inquiry being held or, crucially, on which sensitive information can or cannot be made available.

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If we put those three things together, we find that the Bill opens the door to exploitation of the institutions that are intended to protect society by terrorists whose objective has been to destroy the very structure of that society.

One has to understand this cumulative effect of the Bill to be able to recognise that Clause 1(1) is but a device to relegate the professional opinion and the influence of the Chief Constable to below a level that can be virtually dictated by some people who we would not permit to sit on the committee of our local sports club.

Amendment No. 2 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt of Greetland, which we are shortly to debate, would ensure that this was to happen. But even without that amendment, there is no evident let out for the Secretary of State should he fail in his efforts to obtain agreement on long-term policing objectives. He is given the task of obtaining agreement but if we have this weighting of boards to permit terrorists, criminals and those associated with them to be part of the board; if we reduce the numbers of those people who are able to bring about inquiries, we open the door to a landslide of complaints and mischievousness that will have huge repercussions for ordinary members of society.

It is of little consolation to be told—I have no doubt that I shall be told—that the Secretary of State ultimately would have no alternative but to go ahead without agreement after having sought to obtain it, if that were not possible. But that brings us back to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and forces me to ask why we change it. That is properly structured; this is not. If I am right that the Secretary of State would go ahead if he failed to obtain agreement, no doubt the Minister will enlighten me. But if he is able to go ahead in the final analysis, could that decision then not be dictated by what the Prime Minister might agree with Sinn Fein behind closed doors, as happened at Weston Park? That is the problem I have with this clause. The Prime Minister can once again, through diktat, decide what arrangement will be provided for the benefit of Sinn Fein rather than for society as a whole.

If Clause 1(1) stands as drafted and the influence of the Chief Constable is relegated to the status of others, as in the current Clause 1, the Secretary of State could be deemed to be without justification for decisions he may take. Perhaps I may illustrate the dangers in that. Where we relegate the professional opinion, we seek agreement from those who represent the lowest common denominator. What will society as a whole benefit from that? Sometimes we find that we begin to mend things that ain't broken. For example, Patten has set in motion a very expensive inquiry into the use of baton rounds. I do not know how long the exercise has been under way—no doubt the Minister can tell me—but it has achieved nothing conclusive. We are now hearing that in Northern Ireland the police can use water cannons for crowd control. In 1970, 1971 and 1972 that was frowned on. Water cannons were withdrawn in those years because they were allegedly indiscriminate.

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Worse still, we are now contemplating issuing police in Northern Ireland with CS gas. Nothing could be more indiscriminate as a means of crowd control than CS gas. In the final analysis, those of us who have lived, worked and soldiered in Northern Ireland and worked with the police there know that for as long as there is disruption on our streets, for as long as there are those who orchestrate violence, there will be a need to use baton guns.

I do not intend to stray from the amendment but throughout today's proceedings it will be important to look at how each element of the Bill affects every other element of the Bill and how it undermines the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. We must endeavour to persuade the Government. I hope that we will get a more definitive and perhaps sympathetic answer from the noble and learned Lord when we come to conclusions on each element to be debated here today. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Rogan: I support the amendment. The aim of subsection (1) is to promote and elevate the role of the board above others in determining the long-term policing objectives. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, has said, the duty to determine the long-term objectives rested with the Secretary of State under the 2000 Act. That will remain so under this clause. However, the changes made in the clause will elevate the board above the Chief Constable in importance in determining the long-term objectives. Under the 2000 Act the Secretary of State is obliged to consult the board, the Chief Constable and any other persons he thinks appropriate. This clause will oblige the Secretary of State to consult the board with a view to obtaining its agreement and merely to consult the Chief Constable and any other person as before.

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