Clause 19 — Department with policing and justice functions
Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill
1:04 pm

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 13, line 41, leave out 'and justice'.

It is a delight to be back in the Chamber to discuss the Bill, and I am sure that the Minister shares those sentiments. He had a lively and enjoyable time yesterday, so I am sure he was impatient to get today's business under way.

Clause 19 is the central feature of the Bill and proposes the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland. It was the measure's original core, around which all the other miscellaneous elements have been wrapped to give the clause some cover and the Bill some substance.

As drafted, the clause is curious because it provides that

"if an Act of the Assembly . . . establishes a new Northern Ireland department; and . . . the purpose of the Department is to exercise functions consisting wholly or mainly of devolved policing and justice functions",

there will be two options. If the Assembly decides that policing and justice is to be devolved to it, the clause proposes that either two Ministers "acting jointly" should look after only one Department or that one Minister with a junior Minister should do it and rotate every six months.

I would dearly appreciate an explanation from the Minister of how we have reached the presumption that there will be only one Department.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for several models. The clause proposes two additional models, but a range of options already exists. We are not trying to restrict options for the Assembly to determine.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

The Minister must clarify exactly what he means by that intervention. Does he mean that there is a range of options for Ministers to act jointly or every six months? The reason for the amendment is that I would like the Minister to articulate why policing and justice should be devolved to one Department.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

The 1998 Act already allows for separate Departments, if the Assembly chooses that option. The Bill provides for two additional models, which the 1998 Act does not cover.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

The amendment aims to discover what is in the minds of those in the Northern Ireland Office, if that is possible—it varies from month to month and sometimes from one week to the next. We have separate Departments for England and Wales—the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which covers justice issues, and the Home Office. We have just heard a statement from the Home Secretary. Is one of those separate Departments the Northern Ireland Office's preference, or is it completely neutral about the matter? The Minister indicates that he is entirely neutral. That is a happy outcome. Given that there are two separate Departments in England and Wales and Ministers are not required to act jointly or swap places every six months, it is a little odd that that could happen in Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

It might help the hon. Lady to know that we are entirely neutral on which form of devolution—should it exist—the Northern Ireland Assembly should introduce. The Bill provides two models that at present are not available to the Assembly, but we are neutral; it is for the Assembly to determine how it proceeds.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am exceedingly grateful to the Minister for that helpful intervention.

As that matter seems to be resolved, let us think about the long term. If policing functions were devolved to a Department—or two Departments, if the Assembly so chose—what would be the implications for the Policing Board? The board was the creation of the Patten committee and its report, and in the absence of an Assembly with devolved policing functions it was given political accountability by Members of the Legislative Assembly serving on it. However, in a new scenario in which policing is devolved to the Assembly—I hope that we shall see that one day—I presume that there will be a committee of Assembly Members to scrutinise policing. The Minister—or perhaps the two Ministers—will therefore be accountable to, and have their actions scrutinised by, that committee. What long-term impact would that have on the Policing Board and its composition? I would appreciate an answer from the Minister, who seems to have addressed the other issues. Will it be up to the Assembly to establish whether one or two Departments are involved? Will policing and justice powers be devolved at the same time, or will one be devolved ahead of the other?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I hope that my earlier comments about the amendment satisfied the hon. Lady. The Government's purpose is to ensure that when the Assembly judges the time to be right to seek the devolution of policing and justice powers it can implement whichever model it concludes is appropriate. The amendment would have run counter to that purpose, because it would have restricted the number of options available to the Assembly rather than enhancing it. The Government believe that the Assembly should choose whether it has two Departments, how it runs them and how accountability to the Assembly is determined.

The hon. Lady made an important point about the Policing Board. She will note that paragraph 4.5 of the discussion paper, "Devolving Policing and Justice in Northern Ireland", which we published earlier this year, stresses the importance of considering the political oversight of policing and whether any Assembly committee performs that role. That will need to be considered in the light of the Assembly's wishes. The Patten recommendations set out key roles for the Policing Board, on which a number of MLAs are represented. The document states:

"Providing clear lines of accountability will be important to ensuring the system works well."

It will be up to the Assembly to consider those matters.

Photo of Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

Under the options that the Minister has provided, if the Assembly were to decide to devolve policing and justice matters to one Department, would that Department have to be part of the overall bidding under d'Hondt, or could it be dealt with separately?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I would imagine that it would be as normal under d'Hondt, but I will check on that.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I think that the answer to the question put by Mr. Robinson lies in some of the clauses and schedules that we are about to deal with. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Patten report—which, as he rightly said, established the Policing Board—dealt with the devolution of justice and policing powers, and stated that steps would have to be taken to protect the integrity of such structures as the Policing Board, to ensure that devolution did not have adverse implications for its role?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. In principle, devolution will be undertaken when the Assembly wants it, when the Government agree to it and when the House of Commons votes for it. The Assembly has the freedom to consider whatever model it wishes, and the Bill will add models to those set out in the 1998 Act for the Assembly's consideration. The position of the Policing Board needs to be examined, and the future of any Assembly committee overseeing policing will need to be considered in the light of the important role played by the board.

I can confirm that d'Hondt will be the method used for the single Minister option, if that is chosen. I hope that that answers the question put by Mr. Robinson.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am most grateful to the Minister for his response. I am greatly encouraged by his closing remarks, in which he said that clause 19 gave "freedom" to the Assembly to decide which model it wants to use, whether to have one or two Departments, and which provisions of policing and justice ought to be devolved to it.

In the light of the point made by Mark Durkan, and the Minister's response to it, I would like the Minister to reflect again on the impact of these measures on the Policing Board. If there were a scrutiny committee in the Assembly to look after policing, on which MLAs would serve, as well as the Policing Board, on which other MLAs serve, there could be rivalry and claims of superiority between the two. That is a really serious issue.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I was perturbed to see her name misspelled in yesterday's Hansard. I can assure her that none of us in the House is in any doubt about who she is, despite the fact that somebody cannot spell.

The hon. Lady seems to be raising two separate points in regard to her amendment. On the first substantive point, does she not agree that the joint declaration of 2003 did in fact provide for these alternative models? Is it not a good thing to give freedom to the very people who should be organising the affairs of the people of Northern Ireland, so that they may be allowed to do so?

1:15 pm
Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention, and I am delighted that he has put on record the fact that the misspelling of my name worried him so much that it caused him a sleepless night—

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

That is even more impressive.

The point of my amendment was to ask the Minister to clarify the wording of the Bill. Clause 19 and subsequent provisions always refer to

"a new Northern Ireland department".

That implies that there will be only one Department.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I have listened to the hon. Lady's comments on her proposed amendment, and to her concern about the implications for the role of the Policing Board and its possible duplication by a departmental committee. Would her amendment not compound the problem? If the only role of the Department and the committee were to oversee policing and not wider justice issues, the problem that she describes would definitely arise.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. That is precisely what I needed to find out from the Minister. It seemed to me, when I read the Bill, that I had missed the entire discussion on whether there was to be simultaneous devolution of policing and justice to a single Department in Northern Ireland. That is what appears in the Bill, and my purpose in tabling this probing amendment was to discover the words that the Minister would use to justify the drafting of clause 19. I am not prescribing my preference.

Having said that, I am reminded of the fact that the Belfast agreement establishes that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. I am therefore concerned that justice and criminal law issues will be devolved to the Assembly. Antisocial behaviour orders might be withdrawn in Northern Ireland, for example. I am worried about policing and justice powers being devolved at the same time, because we have two separate Departments in England and Wales to deal with those issues, and they do not necessarily integrate or sit easily together. However, the Minister has given the House an assurance that clause 19 gives "freedom" to the Assembly to choose the format, the timing and the combination of powers that it wishes to see devolved.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

Clause 19 gives freedom to the Assembly in conjunction with the 1998 Act, which includes several potential models.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am most grateful to the Minister for confirming that clause 19 gives freedom to the Assembly in conjunction with the 1998 Act, with which I am perfectly content—the 108 Assembly Members are entitled to make up their minds about the Department's configuration. With that assurance from the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 14, line 4, at end insert—

'( ) The Act may provide for the department to be in the charge of the First and Deputy First Minister acting jointly.'.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst

Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 19, in page 14, line 5, at end insert—

'(aa) for the department to be in the charge of the First and Deputy First Minister supported by junior Ministers;'.

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

These too are probing amendments. The Bill as it stands allows for the Assembly to provide that the new police and justice department be in the charge of two Northern Ireland Ministers acting jointly or a Northern Ireland Minister supported by junior Ministers, and for them to rotate. My amendments would give the Assembly the power to provide for the Department to be in the charge of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly and/or the First Minister and Deputy First Minister supported by junior Ministers.

The reasoning behind the amendments is twofold. First, the Department will be of such importance that putting it in the charge of the most senior Ministers in Northern Ireland should rightly be an option. Secondly, that kind of arrangement could provide cross-community control of policing and justice with all the necessary checks and balances in place. I feel that that would have the potential to give at least some confidence to both communities.

I will not press the amendments to a vote, and I will not detain the Committee long on them. The option was in the discussion paper circulated a while ago, and I was a little surprised that it did not find its way into the Bill. Since the amendments were tabled, the Minister has been kind enough to assure me that it is covered in the 1998 Act. I would like his assurance that the situation that I describe is a possibility should policing and justice be devolved.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I note that the amendments are probing. Obviously, were they included in the Bill, they would make the devolved policing and justice powers part of the portfolio of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I know that that was one of the options on the menu that might be considered in party discussions, but I can advise Members, as someone who has served in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, that it would be a most unwelcome and unhelpful arrival in that Department. It would not assist the competent performance of the Department at large, and it would add unduly to the burden of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and handicap the good conduct of those devolved responsibilities.

I do not fret about the absence of that option. The significance of the Bill setting out some options is that it raises questions: if such matters are to be the subject of agreement by the parties, does not it make sense to ask the parties to have those discussions, reach agreement and then legislate on known outcomes? We have seen some of the folly and futility of legislating for all sorts of potential options, which then turn out not to be needed and are withdrawn subsequently or overtaken by other legislation.

I note that the d'Hondt option is available for appointing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or the Assembly can decide not to appoint by the d'Hondt system. Of course, under the Bill, that decision would be entirely under the control of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party—no doubt a marriage made in heaven. They, through their control of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and of the voting mechanism proposed in the Bill, would determine that entirely. An option of joint Ministers and rotating junior Ministers is given, but no option is given for the Assembly to say that it will be outside the d'Hondt system and that the Assembly will elect, through cross-community support, a single Minister. In discussions, the parties might agree that they want to go for that option. The House could therefore find itself having to legislate for another option in future—unless, of course, there has been prior agreement on some of the options under consideration.

Many of us have questions about that. Martin McGuinness tells us that the whole question of how and what things were to be transferred was done and dusted in the negotiations leading up to the so-called comprehensive agreement of December 2004. With regard to the comments of Mr. Robinson, we know that we did not see everything that was agreed in the comprehensive agreement of December 2004, because the documents published were accompanied by up to 100 different side-notes, letters and clarifications. Does that cover some of how devolution of justice and policing was to be handled and transacted? Does it mean that there has been a prior agreement involving Sinn Fein and the DUP about some of the models? If not, surely the likelihood is that we will face new legislation to provide for what is agreed in the future? If Democratic Unionist Members are going to tell us that none of that is agreed, and none of it will matter, why is the Committee being asked to pass this legislation?

The answer, as I said on Second Reading, is that we are being asked to deal with parts of the Bill that are something between a figment and a fig leaf. They are in the Bill to create a pretence that it is securing as a fact the devolution of justice and policing, so that Sinn Fein can pretend that there has been some significant new gain or development and then modify its position and language on policing. The fact is that the power to devolve justice and policing already exists. It is in the 1998 Act. The Bill only gives us options as to the furniture arrangement for the devolution of justice and policing. It does not take us substantively on to the devolution of justice and policing.

In fact, some of the models proposed in the Bill could delay delivery of the devolution of justice and policing, as, contrary to how Sinn Fein will present the passing of the legislation, the mechanisms in the Bill—which Democratic Unionist Members indicated they did not see—effectively provide a multiple lock on any prospect of the transfer of justice and policing, as well as on who can be appointed. We will make further points about that on future clauses.

Photo of Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

I have been provoked by Mark Durkan into responding, which I presume was his purpose. First, I remind him that for many years he was happy to slink off here and there with Governments and other parties, make side deals, announce them to the public after the event, and never mention them to the Democratic Unionist party. That was par for the course. When it comes to an occasion when he might be outside the door, and the Democratic Unionist party might be inside, apparently that is a gross betrayal of democracy.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, first, his party withdrew from the negotiations leading to the agreement and refused invitations to a variety of subsequent negotiations and talks. On any occasion when the question arose as to whether talks should be on an inclusive or exclusive basis, we always insisted on an inclusive basis. We complained about the exclusive basis of talks over a number of years after the agreement. We always advocated that the DUP and all other parties should be invited and included, and insisted on building inclusion into the agreement.

The Chairman:

Order. I think it might help the Committee if I suggest that we are moving well beyond the scope of the amendment. We have a full agenda today, and I think we would do better to remain strictly within the rules of order.

1:30 pm
Photo of Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

I am happy to follow your advice, Sir Alan, because I think that we were moving beyond not just the scope of the amendment, but the scope of historical fact. The revision of history by the hon. Member for Foyle is perhaps best left to one side.

Whatever the Committee does today will not bring the day when policing and justice powers are devolved in Northern Ireland one moment closer. No decision by the House of Commons will provide the enabling powers; the decision will be made only when the people of Northern Ireland are apprised of the method of devolving the policing and justice powers and of whom they will be devolved to. That is an essential issue, which is dealt with in later amendments.

We are not afraid of enabling powers, provided there is some democratic control over the enabling process. We have tabled a new clause, because the Minister will doubtless wish to honour the private undertaking—no doubt the hon. Member for Foyle would describe it as a side deal—that he gave us when he met my right hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley and other colleagues in a Committee Room of the House. He assured us then that there was no mischief in the fact that a crucial safeguard had been deleted from the legislation. The Government have made no attempt to restore that safeguard by means of an amendment, however, and we shall want to discuss that later as well.

I understand that this is a probing amendment, and I am satisfied that the menu to which the hon. Member for Foyle referred is as expansive as possible, although, like the hon. Gentleman—but for entirely different reasons—I am not sure that involving the First and Deputy First Ministers is the most appropriate way of dealing with it. It is in the nature of policing and justice, especially policing, that it must be possible to make decisions on the spot when circumstances require it and the public interest demands it. A First and a Deputy First Minister acting jointly will need a longer time in which to make decisions. If the amendment did not just make provision but contained a requirement, I would have some misgivings about the ability of a First and a Deputy First Minister acting jointly to make decisions in the time required on crucial issues that would have an impact on public safety.

The hon. Member for Foyle seemed to think that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister was so overworked that the additional massive burden would be too much for them to carry. In fact, when the devolved Assembly was operating and we had a First and Deputy First Minister, they were foraging everywhere for work. They had so little to do that they were sticking their noses in other Departments, and removing and duplicating what was being done there. I have no doubt, therefore, that the office would have the capacity to take on more work.

Photo of Jim Devine

Jim Devine (Livingston, Labour)

The job description that the hon. Gentleman has just given for a First Minister is not one that I would recognise in a devolved Scotland. The First Minister in a devolved Scotland is a political leader and a political driver who sells Scotland abroad—and sells it very successfully, given that we will host the Commonwealth games in 2014.

Photo of Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

I would be content to exchange not just the First Minister but our whole Assembly for the Scottish Parliament. Our First Minister in Northern Ireland spent about 80 per cent. of his time trying to keep his party together, never mind the country.

I recognise that the option may be withdrawn, but I do not believe that any of these provisions will be sufficient to secure the devolution of policing and justice. Further legislation will undoubtedly be required, because there are weaknesses and gaps in the existing legislation.

I assure the hon. Member for Foyle that no deals have been done with the Government or any other party in relation to my party's participation in any Assembly, any Executive or any devolved institutions, including policing and justice. No agreement has been made on those aspects. I greatly doubt that, in my lifetime, we shall ever see circumstances in which they could be devolved, although I would be happy if that were possible.

One suggestion that I did make was that if there were a single Department with a single Minister and if it could be bid for under d'Hondt, my party, being the largest party, would secure that office. That would be a way forward for Northern Ireland, and if other parties are willing to consider it we shall be happy to oblige.

Photo of Lorely Burt

Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister (Small Business), Trade & Industry; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)

I have a practical question. We would have no objection to the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly, or for that to be an option that the parties could consider in deciding how to arrange a Department with policing and justice functions, but, although I may well be wrong, it seems to me that the amendment is superfluous. I see no reason why the joint exercise of the powers by Ministers could not involve the First and Deputy First Ministers. Does the Minister agree that it is for the parties in Northern Ireland to decide how they organise their own Departments?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am grateful to those who have spoken and hope that I can deal with their points.

As I told Mr. Robertson privately outside the Chamber before the debate, if he examines sections 17, 19 and 21 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, he will see that his amendment is unnecessary. What he wants it to do is already possible and need not be included in the Bill. Sections 17 and 19 of the 1998 Act provide that the First and Deputy First Ministers may, with cross-community Assembly support, determine the functions to be exercisable by the holder of each ministerial office, and that will include themselves. I hope that that will allay the hon. Gentleman's fears, and those of the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

Photo of Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds (Belfast North, DUP)

What practical difference will the clause make, given the existence of powers in the 1998 Act and the political reality that exists in Northern Ireland today?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

Additional models need to be applied to support the potential options for the Assembly to choose, in due course, what form the devolution of policing should take. If we did not include those additional models, we would restrict the Assembly's choice. That relates particularly to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Foyle, who said that it was a case of rearranging the furniture. That is not so: the 1998 Act, as it stands, is insufficient without further primary legislation.

Photo of Mark Durkan

Will the Minister address the possibility that the Bill will limit the choices? If the parties in the Assembly are confined to the models in the Bill, we shall not be able to agree that a sole Minister could be appointed, outside d'Hondt and by direct election, on the basis of cross-community support by the Assembly. We shall not be allowed to pursue that option. If we do, surely new legislation will be needed and the Bill will be redundant.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

A number of potential options in the 1998 Act allow the appointment of Ministers, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, and set out the way in which such appointments are made. This Bill is adding to that by putting in place a number of additional options to allow what I believe individuals want in due course, which is the potential to devolve policing and criminal justice.

I find myself in a strange situation. Yesterday, I was arguing to have Assembly matters devolved back to the Assembly and to give away my responsibilities for housing, culture, arts and leisure to the Department for Social Development and my colleagues in the Assembly. Today, I am proposing giving my criminal justice powers to the Assembly when the Assembly wants them. It is strange to be giving away powers on both occasions for devolution to the Assembly yet to find difficulty in terms of the wish of hon. Members to receive those powers in due course.

Photo of Mark Durkan

Can the Minister tell us where in the Bill the power is being given away and what power? While we have all sorts of options in the Bill as to how Ministers might be appointed, it is silent on what their powers would be.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

The Bill will devolve criminal justice and policing when the Assembly wishes on a cross-community vote in due course—

Photo of Mark Durkan

Where in the Bill does it say that?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have given previous commitments that devolution of policing and criminal justice will happen. The Bill sets the framework for that. Part of the 1998 Act relates to that framework. As the Minister now, I am saying to the Committee, as we said on Second Reading, that, if at some point in the future, when the Assembly is reconstituted—as I hope that it will be by November—and if it wishes to have devolved to it criminal justice and policing, if the Secretary of State wishes to agree to that and if the House of Commons supports it, devolution will take place.

I can confirm that it is possible under the 1998 Act to do what the amendment seeks to do, and I recommend that Mr. Robertson withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed. I recognise the objections that have been made, although the amendment seeks to give the Assembly the option of that particular arrangement. Given that the Minister has put on the record an assurance that an option already exists, I am happy to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 14, line 12, at end insert—

'(4A) No person shall be appointed as Minister or Junior Minister of a Department to exercise functions consisting wholly or mainly of devolved policing and justice functions pursuant to this section if he has—

(a) been convicted of a criminal offence and had a sentence of imprisonment imposed whether suspended or not; or

(b) failed to make a declaration to the Assembly of unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary).'.

The Chairman:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 21, in schedule 2, page 26, line 9, after 'until', insert '—

(i)'.

Amendment No. 22, in schedule 2, page 26, line 10, at end insert—

'(ii) has made a declaration before the Assembly supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and pledging to uphold the rule of law; and'.

New clause 3—Northern Ireland Ministers—

'In section 18 of the 1998 Act after subsection (8) insert—

"(8A) A Northern Ireland Minister shall not take up office until he has made a declaration before the Assembly pledging to support the Police Service or Northern Ireland and uphold the rule of law.".'.

New clause 4—Exclusion of Ministers from Office—

'(1) In section 30 of the 1998 Act after subsection (1)(b) add—

"(c) because he is no longer committed to supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland.".

(2) In section 30 of the 1998 Act after subsection (2)(b) add—

"(c) because it is no longer committed to supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland.".

(3) In section 30 of the 1998 Act after subsection (7)(d) add—

"(e) is committed now and in the future to supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland.".'.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

It is essential that the amendment be included in clause 19. It may be helpful for hon. Members if I read it out, because I am sure that many hon. Members will wish to speak to it. It says:

"No person shall be appointed as Minister or Junior Minister of a Department to exercise functions consisting wholly or mainly of devolved policing and justice functions pursuant to this section if he—

or presumably she—

"has—

(a) been convicted of a criminal offence and had a sentence of imprisonment imposed whether suspended or not; or—

this is an important alternative—

(b) failed to make a declaration to the Assembly of unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary).'.

That last phrase is, of course, the proper title of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as established by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

I am sure that Members throughout the Committee agree with me that it would be inconceivable that a Home Secretary or a Minister for Justice should have a criminal record that has involved a prison sentence, whether suspended or not. The wording has been carefully drafted to refer not just to small, technical although serious criminal convictions. Traffic offences can certainly be very serious indeed. It refers to criminal offences that carry with them a sentence of imprisonment, whether suspended or not.

As I say, it is inconceivable that a Minister for Justice or a Minister for Home Affairs in Northern Ireland with responsibility for policing and justice should have a criminal record. It is also inconceivable that such a Minister should not give their absolute unwavering support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the courageous work that it undertakes.

I am always reminded by the Government and by the Prime Minister when he visits Northern Ireland of the key words "building trust and confidence" among the community in Northern Ireland. Having had 30-plus years of absolute mayhem in which more than 3,000 people have lost their lives in hideous and horrible circumstances and many thousands have been seriously injured and will carry those wounds both psychological and physical for the rest of their days, the words "trust and confidence" must mean something, rather than be simple words poured out by the Prime Minister and a series of Secretaries of States and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. "Trust and confidence" means that those who take a very responsible office in charge of policing or justice as a junior Minister or a more senior Minister, whether it is a rotating option every six months or a joint ministerial appointment, must meet the terms of the amendment. It is essential that the amendment be incorporated into the Bill.

1:45 pm
Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

I fully accept all the points that the hon. Lady made. Does she also accept that the conditions in the amendment should apply to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and any other Minister who will be in a position of trust?

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting and, of course provocative suggestion. He knows that that provision is not included in the 1998 Act. I confirm that we are talking here about policing and justice. It is a serious issue.

Photo of Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Assembly Members on the Policing Board should also be able to meet the criteria that she sets down?

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is a matter of considerable regret that, when the Bill which became the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 was being debated, amendments were rejected that would have required that those who sat on the Policing Board would be disqualified and prevented from taking their places if they had a criminal record. It is a matter of regret that such a provision was not written into that Act.

Here we have an opportunity that the Minister can ill afford to decline this afternoon. If key new Departments are to be created in Northern Ireland and powers devolved to them, it should be a prerequisite that any Minister who takes up a post should not have a string of criminal convictions and should support the police without hesitation.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady's presentation of the amendment. I am in no way persuaded to offer it any support. I shall give a number of grounds for that. First, in the negotiation of the Good Friday agreement, a clear, deliberate, collective decision was made that we would not build in any vetting requirements, qualification or screening in relation to ministerial appointments. To use this Bill to do so now would take us on a path that departs from the spirit, the letter and the principle of the Good Friday agreement.

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Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

The hon. Gentleman indicated earlier that my colleagues were not involved in those negotiations, so perhaps he can give us some illumination. When he talks about a collective decision, which parties took that decision?

Photo of Mark Durkan

The parties who were present in the negotiation. I can advise the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Donaldson—his own party colleague now—was prominently involved in the precise decision that in no way should we have arrangements that would allow other parties to vet or veto anybody else's choice of Minister. We took that decision because to create such powers would force parties to use the power to vet or veto other people's choice of Minister. The hon. Gentleman was clear on that and I remember being directly involved in negotiations in that context with him. I remember it clearly, although I am sure that he tries to forget it.

Photo of Mark Durkan

The hon. Gentleman asked what parties. The main person who negotiated for the Ulster Unionist party is no longer in that party. That is the unfortunate problem. I did not want to tell a partial truth. I told the whole truth without being diverted from the issue.

To include these sorts of requirements, tests and blockages would depart from the agreement in that regard.

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Nigel Dodds (Belfast North, DUP)

I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying on this issue. Would he be content for a known racist, for example, or someone who held extreme right-wing or left-wing views to hold this sort of position? Would he have no difficulties whatever with that?

Photo of Mark Durkan

We decided clearly in the agreement that there could not be all sorts of tests of people's views, qualifications and records. Many of us believe that there are people of extreme views in some parties. When we agreed inclusion without a test in the agreement, we said that that would apply to members of parties who were not even involved in the negotiations and members of parties whom we find to have extreme and intolerant views on a number of issues, including homophobia.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned homophobia. He may recall that his party led the charge to ensure that someone who had been accused and convicted of making homophobic remarks was taken off, not as a Minister of Justice, nor even as a member of the Policing Board, but as a member of a lowly district policing partnership. If such remarks exclude a person from being a member of a DPP, why not from being a Minister of justice?

Photo of Mark Durkan

I see no proposals from hon. Members to make the case. That is a matter of political choice.

Several hon. Members:

Wholly exposed.

The Chairman:

Order. We must conduct these proceedings with a proper sense of order. All this sedentary comment and noise is not helpful to proper, moderately worded and conducted debate.

Photo of Mark Durkan

We are in no way exposed in relation to this point. I am explaining carefully and clearly how the decision to appoint Ministers by respective parties was reached. Obviously parties and party leaders would be held to democratic account in different ways for their choices of Ministers. Elsewhere in the agreement we wanted to create an all-Ireland charter for human rights that would be signed by all parties. We always hoped that that would include parties and party leaders making clear declarations about such issues.

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Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a charter of human rights, and I know that later this afternoon we shall come to amendments in his name that relate to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the increased powers proposed for it by his party. His party claims to support human rights, of which the right to life is the most fundamental. How can it reconcile appointing a justice or policing Minister who may well have snuffed out and taken the life of another person with showing respect for human rights?

Photo of Mark Durkan

I take the hon. Lady's point. Many people are suspected of exactly the sort of crime that she is talking about, but have no conviction. It may well be possible for somebody whom many people believe has committed such a crime to be appointed a Minister. They would not be disqualified by her amendment, which relates purely to a conviction and imprisonment, so there is no contradiction in our position in relation to upholding human life as the most fundamental human right.

A further reason why I oppose the amendment is that it may have unforeseen applications. If someone is to make a declaration to the Assembly of unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, some of us could argue that the Ulster Unionist party now is potentially showing equivocal support. It has a semi-detached position in relation to its membership of the Policing Board. It has some sort of observer status. The UUP members in Belfast are still not sitting on the district policing partnership, as part of their continuing protest at police practices in relation to the Whiterock parade—an occasion when the police face violent and vicious attack. Rather than condemning those attacks first and foremost, many Unionist representatives sought to condemn the police, the Parades Commission and the Secretary of State. For many of us that raises the question how truly those parties are upholding the rule of law and supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jeffrey M Donaldson

Jeffrey M Donaldson (Lagan Valley, DUP)

In my absence, I believe that the hon. Gentleman referred to my role in the negotiations leading up to the Belfast agreement. May I put it on the record that it has never been my position that Ministers involved in criminality, paramilitarism or terrorism of any kind should hold Government office? He will know that I have devoted the last eight years of my life to opposing the proposition that any Minister who has a connection with a paramilitary terrorist organisation should be a Minister in the Government of Northern Ireland. There is nothing in the Belfast agreement that suggests otherwise. The hon. Gentleman will know that it contains provisions, flawed though they are, to apply sanctions to any Minister who is in breach of the ministerial code.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I was clear in the recollection that I shared with the Committee on the negotiation of the d'Hondt mechanism. At no point did I say that the hon. Gentleman advocated that people with convictions should be appointed Ministers. I said that he, as one of the negotiators then for the UUP, was clear in accepting the d'Hondt mechanism, and that it would be wrong to have a means whereby parties could be seen to be vetting or vetoing—we used those words at the time—each other's ministerial appointments. I can recollect further, but I do not want to embarrass him by doing so now. I can share recollections with him outside. I have a colourful recollection of that particular point in the negotiations and his prominent and, I believed at the time, constructive involvement in it.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

Before the hon. Gentleman closes his remarks, may I say quietly and calmly that I take serious exception to the implication in his earlier remarks that the UUP does not give its full support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland? He will know that my party leader has difficulties with breaches of commitments that were given by the Secretary of State and with the turning of the Policing Board into a quango, instead of a body as suggested by Patten. The implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is most unfortunate.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I take the hon. Lady's sentiments, but she has in no way answered the question about the position of UUP members in Belfast who refused to sit on the Belfast district policing partnership and who withdrew in the aftermath of the Whiterock parade, but who continue to sit on the north and west Belfast parades forum with representatives of the very paramilitary organisations that carried out those violent attacks on the police service.

I am simply making the point that the language in this amendment, and in some of the others that have been selected for debate later, can be used to catch and challenge parties in a way that Lady Hermon may not have considered. We can ask fundamental questions about the attitudes of the parties involved, and the US envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, did just that in respect of Unionist leaders after the Whiterock riots. He has always been very clear and firm about the need to uphold the requirements of a lawful society. He wants Sinn Fein to meet those standards, but he also reminded Unionist leaders that their commitment to those requirements was open to question.

That is another reason why we cannot support the amendment, which raises a number of contradictions and difficulties.

2:00 pm
Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

We are discussing the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as and when it is up and running. There is much concern on both sides of the House that there is a possibility that the responsibility for such important matters could fall into the wrong hands.

At a recent meeting with the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, I was told about the fears that members of that organisation felt at the prospect of the Assembly controlling policing and justice. I understand that those fears have been communicated to the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Woodward.

The amendments in my name—Nos. 21 and 22, and new clauses 3 and 4—address those fears, and would go some way to easing them. They would ensure that people would not be able to take ministerial office in Northern Ireland unless they made a declaration, before the Assembly, that they supported the Police Service of Northern Ireland and pledged to uphold the rule of law.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 would amend paragraph 5(8) of schedule 2, which states:

"The relevant Ministers . . . shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the . . . pledge of office".

That pledge includes a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Given that we are seeking to devolve policing and justice, it does not seem to me to be asking a lot for potential Ministers to affirm their support for the police. The extra requirement in the amendment is a very minor adjustment, and I should have thought that its inclusion should be axiomatic. Although it might seem a small step to me, I accept that it might seem a large one to some people, yet it would give at least some confidence to members of those political parties in Northern Ireland that show no reluctance about supporting the police and upholding the rule of law that people seeking to hold office would have the appropriate objectives. In other words, the amendments would add to the pledge of office a commitment to support the police. I think that that is reasonable.

New clause 3 would amend section 18 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure that people appointed as Ministers have declared before the Assembly that they also support the police and uphold the rule of law. New clause 4 would amend section 30 of the 1998 Act to allow for the exclusion from office of any person who is no longer committed to supporting the police and upholding the rule of law. It would also provide for the exclusion from office of members of any political party that is no longer committed to supporting the police and upholding the rule of law. Finally, it would empower the Secretary of State to require the presiding officer to move a motion in the Assembly excluding people from office if they or their party do not support the police or uphold the rule of law.

I do not see why there should be a great deal of difficulty with the amendments. I heard what Mark Durkan said, and I agree with much of it, although I draw a different conclusion. If we leave matters as they are, I understand that there will be stumbling blocks to the devolution of policing and justice, and that more or less the same stumbling blocks would obstruct getting the Assembly up and running in the first place.

I want the Assembly to be up and running, but first we must address the real and legitimate fears of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. One fear is that Ministers will come to office who are not persuaded that they should follow exclusively peaceful means. Another is that some members of the Assembly might be Ministers by day and terrorists—if I may use that word—by night.

Those are real fears, and the Government must put pressure on the appropriate people. We have had many debates, in the House and in Committee, and as I said yesterday, the Minister of State has been unfailingly courteous. I cannot remember one occasion when he has refused an intervention, and I am sure that he will agree that members of all parties that have taken part in the debates have behaved in a very reasonable and constructive way.

However, one party has not taken part—Sinn Fein. The blame for the fact that the Assembly does not sit should be placed not on the constitutional parties that sit in this House, but on the party that does not appear here, and on the IRA. If the Minister accepts the amendments, that would go some way towards addressing the real and legitimate fears expressed many times in the House by the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

Like most hon. Members, I am reluctant to be seen in opposition to the hon. Member for South Down

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I apologise: not only is Lady Hermon known to have one of the best legal brains in the House, she is also unfailingly courteous and charming, and I understand the motivation behind her amendment. However, I have no such inhibition about amendment No. 22, in the name of Mr. Robertson.

With her amendment No. 31, the hon. Member for North Down has moved the debate on from the minutiae of who did what to whom, in what guise and wearing what colours on a Good Friday late in the last century. Instead, the amendment focuses on the core question of what we are trying to achieve today.

This is the second day of debate on this Bill. Yesterday, we heard one of the most extraordinary statements ever uttered in this House, when Sir Patrick Cormack said

"1.7 million does not buy an awful lot these days"—[Hansard, 19 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 171.]

We have gone from the depths of that comment to the heights of the points made by the hon. Members for North Down and for Tewkesbury, and various others. The key question is: can a democracy flourish or even function if some of the people in the democratic process have pasts that might be bloody and bitter, and whose lives have been lived in opposition to the principle of democracy?

It would be otiose for me to make the obvious point that, if the sort of filter or block that is proposed in the amendment had been imposed in the past, people such as George Washington, Jan Smuts, Menachem Begin and Nelson Mandela would never have held office. As it happens, all four held the highest office in their respective nations, and did so with distinction.

Some may say that there is a difference between a declared war and the sort of activity that we are talking about. That would be true in the case of three of the people whom I mentioned, but in one case it would not.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I will give way in a moment, but before I do I want to emphasise that I have chosen my words very carefully. I understand how difficult this matter is. We are talking about actions as bitter as wormwood and gall to many hon. Members, and I understand that their communities have suffered for many years in ways that are inconceivable to people who live in comparative safety and comfort in Great Britain. However, people in my borough of Ealing have been affected physically—and lethally—by the conflict. Therefore, I feel that I have the right to speak about these matters in this House, and to say that it is vital that we thaw the permafrost, escape from the past and move forward.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

The hon. Gentleman is trying to divert attention away from the essence of the amendment. This is not only about people who have a past; it is about people with a present and particular attitude to the police. The second part of the amendment requires such people to make a declaration of support for the very service that, as Ministers, they are supposed to be in charge of.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I am very grateful—rather more often than I expected to be—for the hon. Gentleman's interventions, but I disagree profoundly with the point that he makes. If that were the case, we could understand the need for the amendment. If we say, as one of the amendments specifies, that everybody holding office has to swear to uphold the rule of law, that implies that we can pick and choose our obedience to the rule of law. Every single one of us is subject to the rule of law, so it is otiose and unnecessary to say that we will respect it. It is like saying that one gets wet when it rains—these are facts of life.

Sammy Wilson referred earlier to the past and the present, and he is absolutely and precisely right. Although the past is in some ways uncertain because it is constantly reinterpreted, at least we know what happened in the past, and we can examine it. What we cannot do is to legislate for attitude. How in heaven's name can attitude be analysed, delineated, listed and then legislated for? I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman's comments should not commend themselves to the House, because of the simple fact that it is impossible to analyse attitude.

Photo of Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)

The issue has been raised of past miscreants who engaged in criminal activity perhaps becoming, for example, Justice Ministers in Northern Ireland. Such people may currently support illegality and criminality; indeed, some would say that they do. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that we need a clear definition from these people that they have departed from their past—if it is indeed their past—and that they must demonstrate credible support for law and order if they are ever to become Ministers?

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Few statements are less equivocal than the statement that was made to the effect that the war is over. The hon. Gentleman will probably say that although statements can be made and words uttered, they may be blown hither and thither on the wind, but what on earth would it take to prove this commitment? One could say, "Here is a form of words that constitutes a continual raising of the bar, which has to be jumped over before such people are acceptable." However, although it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to speak for the Government—I have no doubt that I will never be called upon to do so—I would suggest that the participation of individuals in the democratic process is in itself a statement of intent. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred, somewhat exotically, to someone choosing to be a legislator by day and a terrorist by night, but that simply does not happen: it is not practical and there is no historical precedent for it.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

The hon. Gentleman referred to a phrase used by the leader of Sinn Fein—the statement that the war is over. If the war is indeed over, why do Sinn Fein refuse to take their places on the Policing Board, refuse to call upon young republicans to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland and refuse to give any hint of support for the police service? That is the issue that he must address.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I carry many a heavy load on my journey through this vale of tears that we call life, but one thing that I do not, cannot and shall never do is answer for Sinn Fein on the Floor of this House. That is not my job and in all frankness, it is not one that I would choose to apply for. I cannot speak for them; they can, and do, speak for themselves, albeit not here.

2:15 pm
Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman needs to make a better attempt at answering the very reasonable question asked by Lady Hermon. He said that the IRA stated that the war was over, but he knows as well as the rest of us that the elected Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House because they do not recognise the legitimacy of this Parliament. Similarly, they do not recognise the legitimacy of the police in Northern Ireland. Surely it is reasonable to expect someone who takes office and takes charge of the police to recognise their legitimacy. That is what my amendment seeks to ensure.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

Recognising the police's legitimacy is one thing; having to swear a secondary or tertiary oath is entirely another matter. All Members of this House swear an Oath of Allegiance and we accept that. We have never been asked to swear a second or third oath, and frankly, introducing an additional filter of oath-taking would be provocative.

As I said earlier, I do not speak for Sinn Fein in this House, nor will I, but based on my tiny amount of knowledge of the subject, the consistent political position of Sinn Fein, who believe in an all-Ireland party and who do not wish to sit in the legislature of what they consider another country, is understandable and legitimate, even if it is not endorsed by many—about four, I should imagine—Members of this House. It would be easy for them to turn up, collect their pay and rations and keep their fingers crossed when they swear the Oath of Allegiance. They do not do so and I almost admire them for that, even if they do not have my personal sympathy.

Photo of Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)

Does the hon. Gentleman not concede that Sinn Fein have said repeatedly that they do not accept the legitimacy of the army of the Irish Republic—the "Oglaigh Na hEireann", as they call it—let alone this House or this jurisdiction? Given that attitude, can we accept the bona fides of such a person if they aspire to be a Justice Minister in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

The description "Oglaigh Na hEireann" was in fact used for a different army on a number of occasions, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware. I repeat—I hope for the last time—that I cannot speak for another political party; indeed, I can scarcely speak for my own on many occasions. I say, in a sincere attempt to cut through the mist and obfuscation and the terrible dead weight of the past that hangs so heavily on our shoulders, that were I faced with choosing between an individual committing acts of terrorism or them being in a state legislature, choosing the latter option might well stick in my craw. I accept that entirely, and I cannot say too often how much I understand the difficulties that Northern Ireland Members have faced over the years, but given the choice of such a person being at the Dispatch Box or wielding a nail bomb, I am absolutely sure which I prefer.

Winston Silcott, the man accused of the appalling murder of PC Keith Blakelock at Broadwater Farm, was later released from prison and took part in a youth diversion programme in the borough of Haringey. People said exactly the same thing then: how can somebody accused of such a crime now be on the side of law and order? However, I am delighted at every sinner who repents. [Interruption.] I appreciate that we are moving away from the subject for debate, and before your eyebrows rise any higher, Sir Michael, I will return to the point at hand. I say with the deepest respect to the hon. Member for North Down that she has made the mistake of confusing policy and personalities. If Sinn Fein were not involved and there were no Provisional IRA, nobody would be talking about constantly raising the bar in this way. What we are talking about is a disqualification mechanism when in fact, we should be thinking of mechanisms for inclusion. We are talking about a way of preventing people from participating in the democratic process when we should be drawing people into that process, and if they bring with them a trail speckled with blood, I must reluctantly accept that that was the past but that this is the future, and people change.

I respectfully suggest that there is enough evidence to indicate that people have changed, although not, in heaven's name, nearly enough to satisfy every Member of the House. I would not be so foolish or presumptuous as to imply that those people have changed completely, but they have changed, so to apply yet another series of filters can only be seen as a force against inclusion.

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Iris Robinson (Strangford, DUP)

Will the hon. Gentleman try to see our side of the argument by answering this question? Ten or 15 years down the road, would he accept into the Government the people who committed 7/7 in London? Will he balance that with what he is asking us to do? Let us not forget that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was disbanded and its name blackened across the world to satisfy Sinn Fein-IRA, yet even though that was done and we now have the Police Service of Northern Ireland they still do not accept the PSNI, despite 50:50 and the Government turning cartwheels to accommodate every demand put to them. Can the hon. Gentleman understand that we have 3,500 dead in Northern Ireland, most of whom were Protestants, from the Protestant community? That does not take away the fact that it is immoral to murder Catholics too.

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Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I do not mean this ungraciously, but the hon. Lady frequently throws a bucket of cold water on us because she shocks us into—[Interruption.] No, I am complimenting the hon. Lady in a roundabout way. She shocks us into facing the realities of the consequences of some of the things we talk about on the Floor of the House. To respond to her question, leaving aside the two facts that the majority of people killed during the 30 years of the troubles were Roman Catholics and that the people who committed 7/7 are all dead, not only would I welcome into the House a disaffected Muslim youth who had been a supporter of the murderous people who committed the crime of 7/7, I would actually drive them to the door if necessary. I do not want people slaughtering my fellow citizens on tubes and buses and if an alternative is to bring them in so that they are not living on the wilder outer fringes of lunacy, where they believe in some nonsense that they can bomb their way into a different world order, I would welcome them.

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Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

Sir Michael, I understand the rules of good manners and the rules of debate, and that this one finishes at 6 pm, but I shall give way to Dr. McCrea.

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William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he really want the House to believe that the murderers of 7/7 could come to the House and be good candidates for the position of Home Secretary or Home Office Minister?

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Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

In making his point so dramatically, the hon. Gentleman rather loses the precision of the point originally made by Mrs. Robinson. We are not talking about the individual who committed the act—[Hon. Members: "We are."] Not in respect of 7/7; those people are dead. I am talking about a far more dangerous grouping—the people who provide the sea in which terrorist fish swim. Those people are so disaffected—to recognise that that disaffection exists if not necessarily to approve of it—that they see only one route to realise their ambitions. Would I rather see them participating in the democratic process? For heaven's sake, would not every one of us rather see them doing that, even if sometimes, Sir Michael, you have to hold your nose when you look around and see what democracy has thrown up? We may not like the Hamas victory in Palestine, but is not it better that people are participating in the democratic process?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

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Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I have a worrying suspicion that interventions could continue for some time, so I shall conclude on the two most serious points.

I apologise for reiterating the first point, but it bears repetition: at a personal level, I profoundly regret any impression that I or any of my colleagues may ever give that we are less than sympathetic to the reality of life as it has been and is being lived in the north of Ireland. We understand in many cases, even though we may be confused in some cases. We may sometimes be the victims of history or our personal prejudice, but if there is one thing that overarches every syllable that has been uttered in the Chamber over the last two days, if there is one aim and one light that we can surely walk towards, it is the possibility—the prospect—of that shimmering chimera of the future where we can have a peaceful community.

To reach what is not nirvana, but an achievable situation, we have to make some unpleasant decisions. We have to live with some unfortunate facts. We have to live with things with which, frankly, we would rather not live. But the alternative is to be for ever frozen in a bloodstained past with no hope and no future whatever. I am not happy with the situation. I do not like it, and in an ideal world I would have nothing to do with it, but we live in a real world and constantly to tell people, "We will not allow you in unless you tick this box, tick that box, jump this bar and swear that oath," is ultimately prohibitive and negative, and will detract from the one thing that every democrat in the House of Commons wants—a peaceful future for the people of a Province who have suffered for long enough.

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Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

May I respond to the remarks of Stephen Pound? Earlier, he indicated his propensity to read Hansard reports of previous sittings. Tomorrow, when he reads his contribution to this debate, he will realise that it did him no credit. He started by struggling and ended by wriggling.

I want to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about the people who will be Ministers for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. They could be chosen—and are likely to be chosen if there are joint Ministers—from those who have engaged in the most heinous crimes imaginable in Northern Ireland. The current Sinn Fein-IRA spokesperson on policing and justice is Gerard Kelly, who, among his achievements, was responsible for the bombing of the Old Bailey and the attempted bombing of New Scotland Yard—policing and justice in one go. The same person was jailed in the Maze prison and led an escape in which one of my constituents was killed by being stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver. That is a person whom we are asked to accept as a Minister for policing and justice in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend Dr. McCrea intervened to indicate that the hon. Member for Ealing, North was saying that he would welcome certain people to come into the heart of government in the United Kingdom, and the comparison to be made is exactly as my hon. Friend said: it is like bringing a member of al-Qaeda who has been responsible for terrorist offences into the office of policing and justice as the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom. Not one hon. Member would contemplate that; why should we contemplate it in Northern Ireland? That is what the hon. Gentleman is asking us to do.

What offends the hon. Gentleman, if he is offended by the proposition of Lady Hermon? She suggests that in the circumstances, given the history of the parties in Northern Ireland, it is proper for people who are to attain that high office, that responsible post in Northern Ireland, to be prepared to pledge themselves to support the police service that they will administer. Is that an outrageous suggestion? Is it so off the wall to expect those who will be responsible for policing and justice in Northern Ireland to say, "We support the police"?

The hon. Gentleman thinks that it is awful to ask those people to pledge themselves in that way. He says that we come to the House and we make pledges, but no one asks us to take a second pledge. Well, he asked me to take a second pledge in Northern Ireland, because he supported the enactment of the Belfast Agreement in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which required a pledge of office to be taken by Ministers in Northern Ireland.

A pledge of office had to be taken, because of the recognition that, in the special circumstances of that Assembly, it was necessary for those Ministers to pledge themselves to certain standards and behaviour. Is there something different in the office of policing and justice? Is it not more required in those circumstances that a pledge of office be taken? I fully support the proposition of the hon. Member for North Down, and I hope that, given the sincerity of Unionist Members and the severity of the criminal and other offences committed in Northern Ireland, the House will consider that it is a necessary requirement for the post that is being discussed.

2:30 pm
Photo of Lorely Burt

Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister (Small Business), Trade & Industry; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)

I almost hesitate to rise to speak, after the passion and eloquence of the contributions that we have heard from hon. Members. I have listened very carefully to everything that has been said this afternoon, particularly the point made by Mark Durkan about paragraph (a) in the amendment proposed by Lady Hermon, which relates to criminal offences and sentences of imprisonment debarring anyone from holding office. I have taken the hon. Gentleman's argument about that going against the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

I have also listened very carefully to the eloquent and persuasive comments made by Stephen Pound. At the same time, however, we very much understand and sympathise with the feelings of many people in Northern Ireland about the fact that they wish for reassurance that those people who will take responsibility for their policing should also be part of the process. It is a great hope that, when that day comes, those people who take such responsibility will automatically take part by taking their seats on the Policing Board and becoming part of the community and structures in which they serve.

I find myself in a little bit of a dilemma. Although we are minded to support the first and second parts of the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for North Down, we are also minded to support new clause 3, proposed by Mr. Robertson. If the amendment is pressed to a vote, I should be extremely grateful if it could be possible to reflect those two elements of support in the voting pattern.

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

I am sure that the debate has certainly stirred the hearts of quite a number of Northern Ireland Members, especially given the contribution made by Stephen Pound. He tells us that we must live in the real world. With the greatest respect to him, no one, but no one, is living in the real world more than the people of Northern Ireland. We must tell the Government that, many times, they seem to be sleepwalking. They are not facing the realities of the situation. They are not part of the real world whenever they make demands and requests of members of the Unionist community or the nationalist community who have suffered grievously under all acts of terrorism.

The hon. Gentleman said that we must move away from the sad past to a peaceful situation. Again, I say to him genuinely that there is no one who wants to see Northern Ireland in a peaceful and prosperous state more than the Unionist Members here today, and the Unionist family completely. We genuinely want Northern Ireland to move into a peaceful state, but the reality of the situation is that yesterday, a bomb was being prepared in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Simpson, in Lurgan, by the republican movement. In the constituency of Foyle, a few days before that, once again there was a primed bomb ready and activated to carry out a dastardly deed—certainly, we believe, of destruction and we were told by the police that it would have brought forth the reality of murder, had it gone off. That is the reality of the situation, and we close our eyes to it if we do not face that.

Photo of Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound (PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office; Ealing North, Labour)

I read the details of the discovery in Lurgan with great interest. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the point is that those suspected of preparing that lethal device were identified by the headline of "dissident republicans"—the very people who are trying to stop other republicans taking part in the democratic process? Does his argument not support my thesis that it is better to have people in Stormont than in a lock-up in Lurgan?

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but people in Northern Ireland know fine well that the title of "dissident republican" has been used to cover a number of sins. In the case of some of the actions in the past, we have known that the dissidents have been working hand in glove with the provisionals. In that situation, we have got to ask ourselves, when does that title mean dissident and when does it mean something else? We know that, in certain parts of the Province, no dissident could do anything if the provisionals did not agree with it being done. They would not survive without that agreement, because the provisionals have a wonderful way of ensuring that people do not undertake action on their territory if they do not want them to do so. That has been proved in the past. We have to look at a situation in which neither the Police Service of Northern Ireland, nor the Garda from the Irish Republic, have stated with certainty what happened in the murder of Denis Donaldson, which could have been the act of the Provisional IRA.

Yes, people can have a past. But the reality is that there has been no remorse—or no expression of remorse—from those persons who have been actively engaged, right up to the present time, in murderous activity. This House is being asked to give credence to someone who in actual fact has planned the murder—not only given credence to, but actually could have planned the murder—of police officers or members of the security forces. We are being asked to give credence to making them Minister for policing or justice. That is without any expression of remorse, regret or any other thing.

A Provisional IRA member was caught red-handed a few days ago, but then, of course, the provisionals stated that they did not send him out and that he did not go with their agreement. Now they are trying to say, "Oh well, it wasn't approved by the army council." That is very interesting, because the IRA's last act before it started its supposed ceasefire was to be the murder of my wife, my children and myself—that was its last hooray. The next morning the ceasefire was declared. Those responsible have never been brought to justice—those who shot at my home, which was riddled by 60 bullets from an AK47, and directly at my daughter of seven years of age. Nobody has been brought to justice. What did the IRA say? The persons were not acting with their approval. Now, that would have been very nice if they had been carrying my wife and my children down the road in coffins. I would have been greatly encouraged if the act had not been approved.

With the greatest respect, the hon. Member for Ealing, North and the House cannot understand the depths of what the past 35 years have done to the people of Northern Ireland. To sweep it away and put in control of policing or justice in Northern Ireland someone who not only agreed with murderous intent, but was an active participant in it, would be an absolute insult, as well as injury, to the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that nobody, but nobody, on the Government Benches would ever suggest that a member of al-Qaeda or those responsible for 7/7 in the city of London would be at any time a suitable person to be Home Secretary, put in the Home Office, or put over the police. We must especially bear it in mind that these people will not even be asked to support the police, or give a pledge of their support of the security forces.

I must say something to Mark Durkan about people disagreeing with certain police decisions about a parade. When he talked about an attack on the police, he gave the impression that the attack came simply from the loyalist community. Talk about a revision of facts. Whenever there have been Unionist and loyalist parades, constant attacks have come directly from the republican community. There is a vast difference between disagreeing with a police decision in a peaceful manner, even if that involves stepping aside from the district policing partnership, and allowing there to be someone over the police who does not support them and has actively participated in campaigning against them and actively supported a campaign of murder against them. Trying to equate those two things pushes matters beyond the realms of what I can accept.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not trying to equate those two things in any way. However, I was pointing out that the language used in the amendment tabled by Lady Hermon could give rise to questions about other incidents. I further make the point that attacks made on the police by republicans—as the hon. Gentleman says—in the context of parades have always been fully, totally and properly condemned by the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

With the greatest respect, I would prefer it if we did not necessarily go down that road. I remember sitting in a meeting of Magherafelt district council many years ago on the night of the Warrenpoint bombing, in which 19 soldiers were murdered, when a member of the hon. Gentleman's party, who is no longer with us, stated—this is in the minutes of the council, so the hon. Gentleman can check it—that he would shed no tears over them. I think that that person regretted saying that afterwards, so I will not attribute that opinion to the SDLP in general, or try to paint everyone in the SDLP as black, but the words were said.

Members of the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and, indeed, members of the SDLP—namely, Mr. Attwood—have condemned many of the actions of the police in the past and disagreed with them, but that does not mean that they have given credence to terrorism, or that they should be brought into question as if they were somehow to be equated with persons who were actually evil participants in the murder and destruction of members of the police or the security forces.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North said that Sinn Fein-IRA said that the war was over. The person who said those words denied that he was a member of the IRA army council. After denying for 30 years that he and Martin McGuinness were members of the army council, he told the community that they had resigned from it. With the greatest respect, one cannot resign from something if one was not a member. We are led to believe by those fanciful words that the war is over. Let me make it clear to the House that the IRA did not change its policy because it had a change of heart—9/11 changed Sinn Fein-IRA policy. It could not go back to what it knew best, because the international community would not allow that to happen, so it had a good dose of reality.

To this day, the structures of terrorism are in place, and individuals who could be in office accepted those structures. The structures of the grouping that murdered people for 35 years are still in existence. Someone can demand that they remain in place but, at the same time, they could be the Minister of justice or of policing. No one can ride two horses at once, and the reality is that terrorism, whether by the loyalist community or the Unionist community, is terrorism, and must be condemned unreservedly. I do so in the House without equivocation. Any Minister who takes such a role must not only condemn terrorism but give unreserved support to the forces of law and order who go out to sacrifice themselves in the defence of the freedoms of that community.

2:45 pm
Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

We have gone over the issue a great deal, but I should like to take up a couple of points made by the hon. Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). There has been an attempt to use passion to cover up the lack of logic on the part of some Members who argued against a perfectly reasonable amendment. Lady Hermon is asking for two things: first, anyone who is in charge of policing in Northern Ireland should not have a serious criminal record and, secondly, they should be prepared to support the police service, and give public expression to that support. I do not know why that generated so much opposition, as both requirements are logical.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North said that there were two reasons why he could not support the amendment. He said that we should not confuse the past with the present—just because someone has a past, that does not mean that they cannot have a present or a future. He may have stolen those words from the previous leader of the party of the hon. Member for North Down. On the issue of whether having a past disqualifies someone for office, I believe that it is difficult for someone with such a record to be in charge of policing or to have any credibility in such a role. Setting that aside, proposed paragraph (b) requires Ministers in charge of the police service to give support at the present time to that service. I do not see why that should create a problem. How could anyone say, "I wish to be in charge of policing in Northern Ireland, but by the way, I am so suspicious of the police service, or I have such antipathy towards it because of its past record, that I could not make a declaration of support for it"? There is no logic in that. The hon. Member for Ealing, North must have understood that, so he became quite passionate, to overcome the lack of logic in the position that he had adopted.

The hon. Gentleman asked what it would take to make a member of Sinn Fein acceptable as Justice Minister. Let me tell him. I shall give some recent examples of the practical implications of not supporting the police service. A young girl from England, walking home late one night in west Belfast last summer, was raped by three fellows. They videoed it on her phone and sent the pictures to her mother in England. Sinn Fein would not encourage the people who had witnessed that event to give evidence to the police. What would it take? It would take members of that party at least to have enough willingness to support the police to encourage their constituents and those who look up to them to give evidence.

What would it take? The hon. Member for Ealing, North has sat in a Northern Ireland Committee and listened to some of the evidence given about organised crime in Northern Ireland. When the police raid the home of someone who has hidden 600,000 under hay bales and hidden evidence of his fuel laundering and smuggling, it would take Conor Murphy and Gerry Adams not to attack the police for raiding the home of someone who is only a poor republican farmer and who supports the police process—the implied threat being that by raiding that home, the police are disturbing the chance of peace in Northern Ireland. That is what it would take.

What would it take? Let me tell the hon. Member for Ealing, North. I serve on Belfast city council. Every year the police give awards for a rambling scheme. When it comes to allowing council facilities to be used to give out those awards, Sinn Fein's opposition to the police requires them to vote against that every time. I am not talking about an individual member of a party. I am talking about the collective attitude of Sinn Fein towards the police. If the hon. Gentleman believes that some member of a party which adopts that attitude towards the police is fit to be in charge of the police and to stand up in the Northern Ireland Assembly and defend the police, answer questions about the police and explain police operations, there is no logic in that. I hope the hon. Gentleman will rethink his position.

I think the hon. Member for Foyle was having an experience similar to the experience that the Minister had yesterday, when he was trying to explain the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might refuse to allow the electoral officer to hold an additional canvass. He scratched around for reasons, and he came up with two—yesterday, the Minister came up with three, but they were no more convincing than the two that we have heard today.

The first reason was, "We do not believe in building in a vetting requirement." I have pointed out that SDLP members on the Policing Board believe that the members of lowly district policing partnerships should be vetted. The Policing Board has a vetting procedure, which SDLP members argued for furiously. The code of conduct will require people on the Policing Board to have due regard to equality and diversity requirements. That means that even if someone expresses in a private capacity a religious belief deemed to be against equality and diversity requirements, they cannot sit on the Policing Board. Do not tell me about vetting.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I have never said that the SDLP has no time for vetting of any kind. In negotiating the agreement, it was clear that the appointment would be made by the d'Hondt system with no qualifications or vetting by any other parties, but the amendment would go against that aspect of the agreement. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the agreement included a pledge of office, and that we have said that we would look again at the pledge of office, including in relation to policing.

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Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I did not realise that my argument had such force, but perhaps he is coming round to our point of view.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the record of our submissions to the review of the workings of the Good Friday agreement in 2004 shows that we made it clear that the terms of the pledge of office might need to be looked at. We also made that point as far back as 2003, when the question of the devolution of justice and policing came up—at that point, it was agreed that a series of arrangements needed to be looked at before that issue could be examined.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP)

Lady Hermon has given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to move in that direction by including in her amendment a requirement that those who take on the role of policing and justice Ministers must pledge to support the institutions which they are going to govern.

The second argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman—that the amendment could have unforeseen applications—was as weak as his first. The hon. Gentleman did not let the Minister off with weak examples yesterday, but the only example of an unforeseen application that he could provide was that the Ulster Unionist party in Belfast has withdrawn from the DPP, which could be interpreted as not supporting the police. I will not defend the UUP, because the hon. Member for North Down is quite capable of doing so, but by no stretch of the imagination could that example be described as not supporting the police in the same way as Sinn Fein members do not support the police.

We will support the amendment, despite the lack of consistency—the position is no more or less important than any other office in an Executive in the Assembly, and the provision should apply to all Ministers and all ministerial posts. At least the amendment is a start, and when we discuss the pledge of office, hopefully the hon. Member for Foyle and his party will have changed their position sufficiently to include the provision in all pledges of office for Ministers in any Executive in Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I thank hon. Members for their powerful contributions to the debate. I particularly appreciate the comments made by the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They put their case powerfully; I cannot in any circumstances understand the difficulties that they and their constituents have faced.

I shall not condone or defend the actions that hon. Members have described. Indeed, I condemn them with every fibre of my body. Terrorist activities—such as the cowardly attack against the family of the hon. Member for South Antrim—need to be, and will be, condemned by me from this Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government. I will not condone or support any of the actions that have been mentioned, because they are intolerable and incompatible with a democratic society and with the values that we hold dear in this House.

I understand the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). Support for law and order authorities and the rule of law are fundamental to democracy and to the good working of the Assembly in having control of policing and criminal justice in future. Nevertheless, I cannot support their amendments, for reasons that I hope to explain in clarifying the Government's view.

Amendment No. 31 states:

"No person shall be appointed as Minister or Junior Minister"—

in a Department responsible for criminal justice and policing if they have—

"been convicted of a criminal offence and had a sentence of imprisonment imposed whether suspended or not".

I understand why the hon. Member for North Down tabled the amendment, but I cannot support it. In the House of Commons, the disqualification arrangements for ministerial office are broadly the same as in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In this House, a person who is detained in prison for a year or more is automatically disqualified from membership of the House and therefore from holding office for the period of his or her detention. Section 36(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that a person is similarly disqualified from the Assembly if he or she would be disqualified from the House of Commons. I can see no good reason to bar an individual in Northern Ireland from holding ministerial posts on the basis of any criminal conviction or to depart from the Westminster model.

I do not wish in any way, shape or form to equate the situation in South Africa, for example, with that in Northern Ireland. However, my hon. Friend Stephen Pound pointed to three or four examples of individuals who have served criminal sentences in jurisdictions and who have gone on to serve their nation with distinction because, however much we may dislike the views that they express, they have ultimately, just like the hon. Member for South Antrim, had crosses put by their names on ballot papers by individuals in their communities. That is the test of democracy. They are in those Chambers with the legitimacy of those crosses, even if they have had convictions in the past for events that were, by any stretch of the imagination, intolerable at that time.

If we introduce special provisions on disqualification relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly, they will not apply in the House of Commons. When I researched the amendment, I found, surprising as it may seem, that a Home Secretary of today could have a past conviction. Provided that they are not in jail now, they could serve as Home Secretary. Likewise, no such provisions for disqualification apply in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Although there are special and difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland, to introduce that condition would disqualify individuals on the basis of their past sentences, not on the basis of where they may be currently. Indeed, there may be Members of the House who currently could not serve in a Northern Ireland Executive because of the disqualification for which the amendment provides. That is unacceptable and generally unfair to society.

Secondly, I believe that the protections for which the 1998 Act provides are sufficient. The hon. Member for Foyle mentioned the pledge of office. As hon. Members know, all Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly must affirm it before taking up their posts. It already requires them to make a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) also referred to the pledge of office. The protection of exclusively peaceful and democratic means already exists.

If that were not enough, amendments to the 1998 Act to facilitate consideration of Independent Monitoring Commission recommendations provide sufficient safeguards when Ministers and parties fail to observe the pledge of office. Hon. Members know that if the IMC reports that activity of a criminal nature has taken place, it can be debated in the Assembly. Safeguards therefore exist for Ministers and the Assembly.

3:00 pm
Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

It is nice to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Michael. I am grateful to the Minister for taking an early intervention.

Will the Minister explain what appears to be an absurdity in the Bill? Clause 8 provides that the chief electoral officer can be dismissed for having a criminal conviction, yet we have a lacuna whereby a Minister of justice or policing cannot be dismissed or disqualified if that individual has a criminal conviction. Will the Minister reconcile those irreconcilable facts?

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David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

Let me say again that, whatever the opinions of individual hon. Members—and we all have our disagreements—I believe that if a person has a cross put next to their name and sufficient support to take up a place in a Chamber, whether it is this Chamber, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament, provided they are not serving a prison sentence, it gives them the legitimacy to enter that Chamber, and, if they have majority support, to hold office. That may be distasteful. There are some people whom I would not wish to see walking through the door into the Chamber—[Hon. Members: "Who?"] There are all sorts of individuals whom I could cite as an answer. However, those who walk into the Chamber do that because people have put crosses next to their names on ballot papers. That could be distasteful because they had committed horrendous acts in the past, including such acts as those that the hon. Member for South Antrim described. They are painful for him—it is painful to listen to their description—and for the community that he represents. However, the cross on the ballot paper confers legitimacy.

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David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am making the point that a previous conviction does not bar an individual from holding office. A Prime Minister's judgment when deciding to appoint a Home Secretary could be a matter of concern.

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Iris Robinson (Strangford, DUP)

The Minister talks about recognising a mandate. When we were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, our mandate was for a no vote against the Assembly being up and running. We were treated appallingly, for example, by not being given Executive papers, simply because we voted no. Our mandate was not recognised. We were treated like lepers and demonised as being against peace simply because we said no. How does the Minister reconcile our treatment with being so flexible with Sinn Fein/IRA at every turn?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am not being flexible with Sinn Fein or the IRA. If the matters that we are discussing are devolved in due course, there will be a triple lock. Devolution will happen only when the Assembly votes for it on a cross-community basis. After that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must agree with the vote and, subsequently, the House of Commons must vote for it. In the meantime, I do not believe that the amendment should be accepted and applied if an individual is nominated to the position of criminal justice Minister. Nor do I believe that any past criminal convictions should be material to the exercise of a person's function now, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned.

This is a difficult issue. I have listened with passion to the points made by my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the Member for South Antrim, and I cannot imagine facing such situations in my daily life, with my children facing machine gun bullets from an IRA terrorist. Having said that, should we bar someone who received a conviction 20 or 30 years ago from holding office? I believe that the rules that apply to the House of Commons should be the rules that apply to the Assembly.

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Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

The Minister has centred on the first part of the hon. Lady's amendment. I take it that he will come to its second part and, indeed, to my amendment. When he does so, will he tell the Committee whether he would be happy to have a Minister in charge of the police—given the crucial role that they play in any society—who did not recognise the legitimacy of that police force?

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David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I want Sinn Fein to take part in the Policing Board and play a role in policing. I want to see that support for policing in the community.

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Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)

It is one thing for the Minister to say that the rules that apply in the House of Commons should apply in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If everything was standing on all fours, that would be a sound argument to make. However, that is not the case. The Executive here are formed by means of a voluntary coalition. The Executive that will be formed in Northern Ireland will be a mandatory coalition under the Belfast agreement proposals, and under any other proposals that the Government have considered. On that basis, there will be no Prime Minister choosing the suitability of individuals. As Mark Durkan has said, they will not be vetted in any way, so there will not be a similar set of circumstances, and that is why the conditions set out in the amendments must be applied.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I understand that point, but I stick to the principle that the cross on the ballot paper provides the legitimacy for a person to walk into a Chamber, and in my view the rules of this House should be applied separately.

Hon. Members have raised points about the rule of law. Of course we wish to see the rule of law upheld. If the hon. Members for North Down and for Tewkesbury seek confirmation from the Government that the police service deserves full support from all quarters in Northern Ireland, of course I will say that it does, and of course the rule of law should be upheld. The answer to that is unquestionably yes. However, I must say, with respect to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, that to impose a legal requirement for a person to support law enforcement organisations, in whatever circumstances, or face expulsion from political office will give rise to problems. I do not wish to fetter Ministers in the future.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some examples. In regard to the separation of executive functions and operational independence, the Minister responsible for a police force has to be able to offer constructive criticism on the appropriate occasions to members of that police force. In addition, the Minister might have to consider appeals against decisions made by the Chief Constable or other members of the police force. That is the case with medical and firearms appeals, and a declaration of the kind that the hon. Gentleman seeks, giving full support to the police service, would be incompatible with the requirement for the Minister to act impartially on such issues.

Photo of Lorely Burt

Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister (Small Business), Trade & Industry; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister seems to be giving the second part of the amendment some credibility. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is clearly not the same as that in England. Given that the people of Northern Ireland have a history of worrying about involvement in policing, and given the lack of involvement by certain parties, does not the Minister agree that it would give a great deal of reassurance to vast numbers of people if the person responsible for policing had overtly given their support for the whole policing system?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. If we reach the stage whereby policing is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, by the Assembly voting for it, the Secretary of State agreeing to it and this House voting for it, the situation will have arisen in which political parties in Northern Ireland are supporting policing. That will provide the confidence to undertake that.

I do not believe that the amendments will achieve their intended objectives.

3:15 pm
Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I simply do not believe that the Minister has given an adequate explanation of why anyone would not want to support the police. Why on earth should they not want to do so? Can he give one reason?

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I have tried to say to the hon. Gentleman that support for policing is important and fundamental. On occasions, however, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not support the police. As a Minister, he will take decisions that override the requests or decisions of the police.

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

It is not about that.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman says that it is not about that, but that is the effect of his amendment. Any Minister with responsibility for police should support the rule of law and law and order. The amendment, however, will ensure not just that, but will fetter the independence and management of the police service by Ministers.

I understand why the amendments have been tabled. Despite the passion expressed by hon. Members, whom I thank for sharing their experiences with the House, I am not able to accept the amendments. If they are not withdrawn, I will have to urge my hon. Friends to vote against them.

Photo of Lady Hermon

Lady Hermon (North Down, UUP)

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I am not prepared to withdraw the amendments. I am disappointed with his woefully inadequate response to the significant points made by many Members in this lengthy debate.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that all police officers in Northern Ireland must make a pledge when they become serving constables. That pledge is in statutory form—it is in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Every constable must declare and affirm that they will

"faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and . . . to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties thereof according to law."

If that is the requirement that the office of a constable must undertake, it is shocking that the Minister found himself unable to support the amendment this afternoon.

It is inconceivable to me and fellow Unionists that the Minister found himself unable to accept that those with a criminal conviction might well have been responsible for the murder not just of one police officer—let us remind ourselves that 302 police officers have been murdered in Northern Ireland. Does he honestly believe that it will inspire confidence and instil trust within the police service if a Minister cannot make a declaration in public of his or her support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland? Likewise, will it inspire trust and confidence that those with a string of convictions can hold important ministerial posts as Ministers with responsibility for policing or for justice, either at six-monthly intervals or acting jointly? The answer is undoubtedly no. I therefore want to press the amendment to the vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 130, Noes 293.

Division number 212

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

3:19 pm
Photo of Lorely Burt

Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister (Small Business), Trade & Industry; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 14, line 24, at end insert—

'(8) The Secretary of State shall not lay an Order under section 4(2) in relation to any matter which is specified in any of paragraphs 9 to 12, 14A and 15A and 17 of Schedule 3 unless—

(a) a period of two years has passed since a restoration order was made under section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 2000; and

(b) he is satisfied that the Assembly is stable and secure.'.

This is essentially a probing amendment. We hope that the Government will give us appropriate reassurances that the devolution of policing and justice functions to the Assembly will not occur until that body is on a secure footing.

We hope that the Government will not misinterpret the intentions behind the amendment. The Liberal Democrat party is a devolutionist party, and our policy for a number of years has been that policing and justice functions should be devolved to the Assembly. We generally welcome part 5, but the importance of policing to society was shown clearly in the previous debate, so we must be careful about when, and under what circumstances, those functions are devolved.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for three and a half years. In the period between the elections of 1998 and the beginning of the current suspension in October 2002, the Assembly went through a stop-start process, with various periods of suspension. Even when it was functioning, there were several crises involving the resignations of First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers.

Given that instability, it would be wrong to devolve policing and justice functions to the Assembly. We cannot allow something as important as policing to be devolved to an Administration that does not look as though it will stand the test of time. It would be disastrous for policing to be in the hands of an Assembly Minister one week and the responsibility of a Minister in Westminster the next. Of all the areas of life for which Parliament is responsible, policing is one of the most fundamental.

We recognise that the amendment may not be perfect, but hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance when he responds. It is relatively simple and provides that the Secretary of State could not lay an order before Parliament to devolve any policing or justice functions to the Assembly unless two conditions were fulfilled.

The first condition is that the Assembly must have been up and running for a continuous period of two years. We chose that length of time because it was mentioned by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in the proposals for the comprehensive agreement in 2004.

The second condition is that the Secretary of State must be

"satisfied that the Assembly is stable and secure."

I realise that defining "stable and secure" is difficult, but I suggest to the Committee that we will know that the state has been reached when we see it. However, it would be helpful for the Minister to describe the factors that he will take into consideration when the time comes to lay an order before Parliament to devolve policing functions to the Assembly.

As I said, this is essentially a probing amendment. We hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on the matter.

Photo of David Hanson

David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)

I am grateful to Lorely Burt for moving the amendment. I share her concern, in the sense that the conditions should be right before the devolution of policing and criminal justice functions takes place but, with all due respect, her amendment applies a precondition that is not necessary. We have already put in place secure processes to ensure that, should devolution take place, it does so with the support of a range of bodies and institutions. Under the terms of section 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, policing and justice will not be devolved until the triple lock, as we have termed it, is in place. The first element of the lock is that the Assembly itself must vote on a cross-community basis for such devolution before it can take place, so in the first instance, the ball is firmly in the Assembly's court. On the Assembly's not being "stable", as her amendment describes it—it remains to be seen how we define that—she will doubtless recognise that the Assembly would want to devolve policing and criminal justice only on the basis of cross-community confidence in such devolution.

The hon. Lady has witnessed today the great strength of feeling that exists in all parts of the Committee on several issues appertaining to building the confidence that will allow policing and criminal justice to be devolved. The Assembly itself must first have such confidence. Secondly, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must agree to introducing the relevant order in this House; in other words, the British Government must first take into consideration the Assembly's stability, safety and security. Finally, the House of Commons must vote in favour of the transfer order before the devolution of policing and criminal justice can become a reality.

With due respect to the hon. Lady, the two-year period to which her amendment refers would prove arbitrary. The Assembly, the Secretary of State and the House of Commons could support such devolution as soon as this December, following the Assembly's restoration—we hope—on 24 November at the latest. Alternatively, such support could be forthcoming in one, two or five years' time. Establishing an arbitrary limit of two years would not add anything of substance to the safeguards.

As the hon. Lady herself seemed to recognise, every lawyer in the United Kingdom would find it difficult to define the phrase "stable and secure". The use of such a phrase would not help the Secretary of State in reaching a judgment on the timing of devolution, with which section 4(2) of the 1998 Act already deals. I accept that her objectives are sound—she wants to ensure a "stable and secure" environment before such devolution takes place—but her amendment would add nothing to the Bill. I therefore hope that she will reflect on my comments and withdraw it.

Photo of Lorely Burt

Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister (Small Business), Trade & Industry; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)

I am very grateful to the Minister for his comments and I have taken on board the points that he made. Given the power and passion demonstrated on both sides of the argument this afternoon, two years could well be an optimistic assessment of the period required, but we shall see. Although we reserve the right to reintroduce it at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.