Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 9:30 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, I think that it is more appropriate for me to go on with my remarks following that intervention.

Of course we have to recognise that consensus may not be achievable. That is why the Bill provides for regulation-making powers on flags and emblems. Those regulations will now have to come before both Houses of Parliament for approval. That is already a substantial safeguard.

However, I recognise that in taking that power the Government have an obligation to say something about the approach that my right honourable friend intends to adopt if the relevant clause reaches the statute book in its present form. The plan is that the shadow Policing Board will come into being during January and that the new badge and flag will come into use in the autumn, when the first recruits join the new service. However, before that, when the recruitment process starts in April, potential recruits will want to know what has been decided. To allow the necessary preparations to be made, a conclusion on the issues will need to be reached as soon as the board can be formally consulted.

Rather than confronting the shadow board with a blank piece of paper, my right honourable friend will discuss a range of ideas with it, consistent with the objective of securing cross-community support for the new service. It will be open to the board to endorse those ideas or to come forward with alternative proposals.

If the board is able to reach a consensus on an emblem and a flag based on it that is capable of commanding wide support in the new police service and is also acceptable to the Chief Constable, my right honourable friend cannot conceive of circumstances in which he would wish to take a contrary view. That is the simple scenario, which, as I say, is not impossible.

However, matters may not be simple. Therefore, in the absence of a consensus and in the light of comments received, my right honourable friend will need to decide what proposals to lay before Parliament. He has already made it clear that he does not accept that the new symbols must, as a matter of principle, be free of all association with both traditions. Equally, it would be entirely counter-productive to seek to prescribe symbols which have a high probability of being objectionable to one part of the community or another.

So much is obvious. It is not whether we have the right to insist, but rather whether it would deliver the desired new beginning in policing if we were to attempt to impose something that sparked such controversy that it could deter one side of the community from joining or supporting the new police service.

I recognise that what I have said will not be sufficient for those who want absolute clarity before the new board has had the opportunity to consider the options; nor will it be sufficient for those who are determined to hold on to the old symbols for reasons which I well understand. However, I believe that the process that I have outlined provides the best hope for achieving an acceptable and sensitive solution to this most difficult issue. Therefore, I urge the House not to insist on a change to the Bill.

Perhaps I may deal briefly with the specific amendments. I have largely dealt with the points that have been made. The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Desai--Amendments Nos. 61 to 66--would require that the emblem be entirely free of association with both states. As I said, my right honourable friend has made it clear that he does not accept that the new symbols must, as a matter of principle, be free of all association with both traditions.

Amendment No. 67, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, would have the effect of requiring that the current emblem remain the emblem of the police service and be included in the flag. For the reasons that I have already advanced, my right honourable friend has concluded that a new badge is required. Amendments Nos. 61A and 63A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and others, would require that the design of the emblem and flag reflect the traditions of both communities in Northern Ireland and the award of the George Cross to the RUC.

I understand the sensitivity of the amendment and the significance of the award of the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. However, I do not believe that it would be right to fetter my right honourable friend's hand in this way in the discretion that he might need in approaching the potential situation that I outlined earlier. Therefore, I invite noble Lords to reject the amendment.