Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 23rd October 2000.

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Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 9:00 pm, 23rd October 2000

It may be for the convenience of the Committee if with this amendment we debate all the amendments up to and including Amendment No. 85.

Amendment No. 80 is largely a probing amendment. Clause 19 empowers the board to issue or revise a code of practice for district policing partnerships. That is sensible. However, the clause then provides that they may do so only with the consent of the Secretary of State. I wonder why. The board is charged with ensuring that policing in Northern Ireland is carried out properly. Why does one not let them get on with it? One assumes that the people appointed to the board will be responsible and sensible. Clearly, ultimate responsibility lies with the Secretary of State. However, we all know that when the Secretary of State moves over from policy to more detailed matters, he is likely to spark off inflammable material and store up trouble for himself. Therefore, I ask simply: what is the thinking behind that requirement?

I turn to Amendment No. 83. Clause 19 empowers the board to issue a code of practice. Subsection (2) very sensibly provides that, before doing so, it,

"shall consult ... district councils; and ... the Chief Constable".

This amendment simply seeks to explore whether all the other obvious consultees are to be left out of the process. If the answer is that it is unnecessary to make specific provision because they would be consulted without specific provision, then if my noble friend and I can continue our tennis match, perhaps I may lob the ball back over the net and say that, if specific consultees are listed, are the others not relegated to the second division? I wonder why there should be that distinction.

First, there is the district policing partnership itself. Should it not be consulted about the code of practice which is to be imposed on it? I cannot believe that it is intended that the code should be sprung on it as a fait accompli. However, if the argument is that it is unnecessary, we return to the question of whether that is not also true of the many provisions in the Bill where an authority is enjoined to consult.

In Clause 5(5), before making regulations for the transfer of staff the Secretary of State is required to consult the board, the chief constable and organisations representing the interests of those affected. Does that imply that in the absence of a statutory requirement he might not consult them? A requirement to consult serves as a reminder. Perhaps that resolves the issue between my noble friend and myself. It is a reminder to officials to consult when working on a project and, perhaps only in the last resort, it is a trigger for a challenge to an unco-operative Secretary of State.

The amendment would also require consultation with the Police Ombudsman. He or she should provide a mine of information. The ombudsman has been learning where the shoe pinches. Then there is reference to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, which over the years have developed substantial expertise. To make a case for consulting them is superfluous and I shall not take up the Committee's time. It would be an insult or an act of madness to produce a code without inviting their comments.

At the risk of being tiresome, perhaps I may speak also to Amendment No. 84. This amendment serves as another reminder. Subsection (3) relates to some of the matters with which the code of practice may deal. Surely the DPPwill wish to have ongoing consultations with those organisations which have something to contribute to the combined wisdom and whose support would ensure that the public are informed about and agree with the arrangements for policing in the area. That has been the subject of an earlier debate and I shall not elaborate on it.

The code of practice is to set out various arrangements. Would it not be wise to set out how the consultation process will operate: how those concerns will be notified as to what is to happen or what is proposed and how they will be invited to submit their concerns; at which point should those views be fed into the machine; and most particularly, how far the process should have proceeded before various people are consulted and in what order they should be consulted? Very often, such matters can touch off an explosion. As we all know, sometimes an unnecessary crisis is sparked off because A was told about something before B. Would it not be wise to have a structure in place to ensure that no crisis occurs before someone's attention is distracted at the wrong moment? I beg to move.