Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:19 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:19 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and his passionate pleading for the people of Northern Ireland. We thank him for that. I shall speak about the devolution of policing in Northern Ireland.

The devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland did not take place until 2010. It was called the final piece of the devolution jigsaw. The Good Friday agreement signed in 1998 envisaged that powers for policing would be devolved at some point in the future, but did not specify an exact date. It was to be done with the approval of all the political parties. In September 1999, the Patten report on the future of policing in Northern Ireland recommended major changes to the whole structure of policing. It made 175 recommendations in all.

When I first came to your Lordships’ House 20 years ago this year, I was catapulted by my party to speak on most policing matters in England and Wales, so it was a bit of a shock to find myself thrust immediately into the cauldron of Northern Ireland policing under the beady eye of Lord Smith of Clifton, who was our spokesperson on Northern Ireland at that time. I should remind your Lordships of my interests as set out in the register, most of which are around policing issues, including chairing the North Yorkshire Police Authority for a number of years and being involved in national police authority work.

The Patten report received very mixed views from the public, politicians on most sides and the police themselves. Fundamental changes to policing were being proposed, and I well remember the fierce arguments that were taking place at that time about the very nature of how policing would be delivered. To refresh my memory, I went back to the Second Reading on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill on 27 July 2000 to read again what we were discussing about the new beginning for policing. It makes fascinating reading in the light of our debate today. It reflected, at the time, the very real concerns we would later encounter in Committee on the Bill. How well I remember being loudly castigated by the late Lord Fitt when I made a contentious remark about policing in Northern Ireland with which he vehemently disagreed.

It is worth remembering some of the huge changes that Bill envisaged including the name change—perhaps the most contentious change, which took up hours of time in argument—from the RUC-GC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the creation of a policing board and district policing partnerships, which would include some balance of political party membership for the first time as well as other local consultative arrangements. The Bill also dealt with the registration of interests of police officers and the code of ethics, which eventually became the blueprint for all police forces in England and Wales. It dealt with flags and emblems—I remember that we had huge arguments about cap badges—and also with the arrangements for co-operation with the Garda Síochána.

A reading of that debate will tell your Lordships all you need to know about how far we have travelled since the Good Friday agreement proposals. Indeed, it was to take a further 10 years for the parties to sort out their differences in the overall devolution package, which eventually brought the devolution of policing forward, but not without Stormont having been suspended and then restored on a number of occasions.

Two years without a functioning Government in Northern Ireland has cast a pall over devolution, but devolution of policing powers has undoubtedly had a positive effect. The operation of locally controlled policing, including local decision-making and local accountable bodies, has resulted in increased levels of public confidence in policing since 2010. This has been evidenced through the Northern Ireland Policing Board’s omnibus survey and the Department of Justice’s Northern Ireland crime survey. However, recent trends from both these surveys have given some cause for concern, with early indications of confidence levels declining, in particular in relation to local neighbourhood policing.

While policing has clearly benefited from devolution, two key issues have stalled the continuation of this positive progress. First—this has been touched on—it is worth noting that a Government-led programme of austerity has been in operation since the devolution of policing powers to Northern Ireland, and the PSNI budget has declined by 25% , which is more than £210 million, since 2010. Secondly, there remains the inability of local political agreements to deal with key issues, including those associated with Northern Ireland’s past and issues associated with identity. These alone, without dealing with the day-to-day dangerous work the police undertake, continue to place significant pressures on the organisation. Despite the excellent work undertaken by its soon-to-retire chief constable, George Hamilton, to whom I pay a very warm tribute, and who I am sure has the thanks of everyone in this House, there continues to be a huge challenge in the future of policing in Northern Ireland.

Devolution must be nurtured, watched over and cared for. Like the other constituent parts of our United Kingdom, we neglect this at our peril.