I beg to move,
That the draft Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 (Commencement No. 2) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 6th June, be approved.
Hon. Members will recall that, during the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, the Government made a commitment that, in view of the importance of the issue, the commencement order would be given full consideration by both Houses at the appropriate time.
The context for tonight's debate is, of course, very different from that at the time of the original legislation. Following the historic commitment to policing and the rule of law that Sinn Fein made earlier this year, there is now a firm foundation for stable devolved government, and a new era for politics in Northern Ireland.
I am confident that the Assembly will sustain the commitment that it has already shown and continue to move Northern Ireland forward towards a shared future. Of course, there are many challenges ahead—not least the need to reach a decision on the devolution of policing and justice. I am pleased that the Assembly has already established a Committee to consider that and that it is due to produce a report by
The progress on support for policing has been remarkable. With Sinn Fein members having taken their place on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the prospect of inclusive policing—supported by the entire community—is at last a reality. A key element in the structure of accountability built around policing is the network of district policing partnerships, which are now in place throughout Northern Ireland. Since they were established, DPPs have played a unique role in helping to build a safer Northern Ireland by empowering local communities to play their part in shaping local policing.
District policing partnerships have faced many challenges and I am sure that the House will join me this evening in paying tribute to the work of DPP members—and the courage that many of them have shown in the face of threats and intimidation. District policing partnerships have made a positive impact and will continue to do so, and the policing oversight commissioner shares that view. However, we now need to build on that success—that is why we have decided to introduce the commencement order.
Patten recommended that both independent and elected members of the Policing Board and DPPs should play their full part in making the police accountable. The provisions that we are now considering had their origins in the revised implementation plan of 2001, in which the Government undertook to consider, in the context of a review of policing arrangements, whether the existing provisions in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 remained appropriate. That review, which was published on
The Government believe that the time is right to commence those provisions as well as the related DPP provisions in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. We intend that all those interrelated provisions should come into force on
The order deals with three specific issues: the requirement for independent members of DPPs to make a declaration against terrorism; the rules concerning disqualification; and the functions of the Belfast DPP sub-groups. The order inserts a range of provisions into the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, and, by its nature, is complex. I therefore hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I go through the detail.
Article 2 brings into force section 15(1) to (5), section 16(1), section 19(1) and schedule 1 of the 2003 Act. Section 15 brings the arrangements for independent members into line with those that already apply to political members in requiring them to make a declaration against terrorism before the Policing Board can consider their application. It is in the same terms as the declaration that prospective local councillors are already required to make. If an independent member appears to have acted in breach of his or her declaration against terrorism, it will be within the power of the Policing Board, or the council with the approval of the Policing Board, to remove that person from membership of the DPP.
Section 16 amends the disqualification provision in paragraph 8 of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act. The legislation currently provides that no one who has received a custodial sentence, regardless of how long ago or for what offence, should be allowed to serve as an independent member of a DPP. Section 16 changes that and, instead, provides that a period of five years must elapse following a person's discharge in respect of an offence before he or she may be considered for appointment to a DPP. That change brings the arrangements for independent members into line with those for political members of DPPs, who are drawn from the local council. Similar arrangements apply for appointment to police authorities in England and Wales.
Section 19 and schedule 1 deal with the arrangements in Belfast for the sub-groups of the DPPs. Section 21 of the 2000 Act requires Belfast city council to establish a sub-group of its DPP for each police district in Belfast. The functions now proposed for the sub-groups mirror those for DPPs, which are contained in section 16 of the 2000 Act. We believe that that should help strengthen the relationship between the local community and the police service of each area in Belfast.