Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland: Independent Evaluation

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 18th October 2021.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 4:45 pm, 18th October 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the need for an effective, efficient and independent structure for dealing with complaints against police officers; believes the current operation of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) falls well below the reasonable expectations of complainants, serving and retired police officers, as well as the wider public; expresses deep concern regarding the grave findings as expressed in recent court judgements touching upon the methods and standard of investigative practice, the inordinate delay in concluding investigations and the submission of files to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) as required by due process; notes that this has resulted in a severe negative impact on natural justice and the legal rights of all concerned; criticises, in particular, the practice of the ombudsman in arriving at determinations that exceed the statutory powers of the office; condemns the use of Police and Criminal Evidence Order (PACE) powers to investigate allegations of non-substantive or non-existent criminal offences and to arrive at conclusions outwith any due process or independent scrutiny of what is alleged to be evidence; further notes the adverse impact this has on the reputation of the policing service; stresses that practical consideration should be given to establishing an independent complaints mechanism to promote accountability for misconduct, poor practice and administrative standards within PONI: and calls on the Minister of Justice to commission a fully independent inspection of PONI, including its investigative capability, financial management, security of information handling, operating practices and how it complies with its mandate to build trust and confidence, before the end of the current mandate.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Please open the debate on the motion, Mr Storey.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The DUP welcomes the opportunity to bring forward the motion as the issues that it raises are far-reaching and critical to increasing public confidence in the criminal justice system. We want to make it clear from the outset that the debate is not about calling into question the need for impartial, effective and robust structures for investigating alleged police misconduct and criminality. That should be at the heart of any democracy. We stand four-square behind the principle that everyone should be equally subject to the law. Instead, the motion is about ensuring that the core principles underpinning Police Ombudsman's remit are delivered upon in a way that is lawful and procedurally fair. It is about ensuring that investigations are completed both to a high standard and in a timely fashion. Concerns regarding current operational practice in the Office of the Police Ombudsman are not restricted to one aspect or, indeed, any individual investigation. Fears have been expressed by retired officers, serving police officers and, equally and as importantly, families of victims whose murders or deaths are being investigated by the office.

Let me give the House some examples of what we are discussing in the motion. Examples of poor practice include the willingness of the Police Ombudsman to exceed the office's statutory powers in making determinations that certain crimes have taken place; the trend in the ombudsman's office to interpret court rulings in order to establish and adjudicate on offences that are not actually prescribed in law, such as collusive behaviour; the failure to demonstrate procedural failures; the failure to show fairness to officers who have been implicated in its investigation reports; the protracted delay in completing historical investigations, with some lasting 17, 18 or 19 years; the impact of investigating delays on the health and well-being of victims, witnesses and retired and serving police officers; the growing failure of the ombudsman's office to present evidence to substantiate or explain the conclusions that it draws as part of its investigations; fears about its operational independence in the light of concerns that were raised by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) as far back as 2011; the hounding of former police officers over many years on the basis of flimsy and unsubstantiated evidence that has been provided by police informants and other witnesses; the level of reports that have had to be amended or withdrawn — the catalogue could go on.

In 2016, the then Police Ombudsman, Michael Maguire, made a public statement on the office's second investigation into the Loughinisland murders in 1994. That included the following statement:

"When viewed collectively I have no hesitation in unambiguously determining that collusion is a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders."

In response to the judicial review of the PONI statement, which was brought by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association, Judge McCloskey stated:

"the Police Ombudsman's 'determination' of police collusion in the Loughinisland murders is unsustainable in law as it was not in accordance with the Ombudsman's statutory powers ... the 'determination' that Mr Hawthorne was guilty of 'an act of negligence'" is

"in breach of the legal requirements of procedural fairness and unlawful in consequence."

In June 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled on the matter of whether the 2016 public statement (PS) should be struck down. The Court considered that the determinations made by the ombudsman in the paragraphs on collusion were "not ... decisions or determinations" to which the 1990 Act applied and that they:

"overstepped the mark by amounting to findings of criminal offences by members of the police force."

It is striking that nowhere in the PS did the ombudsman state that he had determined that the report did not indicate that a criminal offence may have been committed by a member of the police force.

Separate high-profile judgements, including in relation to previous investigations into the horrific "Good Samaritan" murders perpetrated by the IRA, have been scathing of the ombudsman. There has been particular criticism of PONI's failure to properly explain or provide evidence for the often significant and sensationalist conclusions that it makes. Serious failings call into question the independence and the fairness of the office. The Police Ombudsman is supposed to be the gatekeeper for the human rights of police officers as well as complainants, yet, in practice, that obligation has been shirked on numerous occasions.

Unacceptable levels of performance affect bereaved families. For years after lodging a formal complaint, aided and assisted by my friend and colleague the MP for East Londonderry, Mr Gregory Campbell, the family of David Caldwell, who was savagely murdered by the Real IRA in 2002, are still waiting for a probe of the police investigations to be completed. That is only one example. We must always remember the damage to personal health and well-being that is caused by these inappropriate, inordinate and unexplained delays.

We accept that these failings have not appeared overnight, but they cannot be allowed to persist. The onus is on the Minister of Justice, who is accountable to the House, to ensure the independence and efficient performance of the Police Ombudsman and to investigate and challenge poor standards of investigation and practice.

Let me be clear: the independence of the office does not preclude the Minister from taking lawful and impartial steps to ensure that PONI is performing to a standard that is acceptable and conducive to public confidence. Inspections by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland have been sporadic and often limited to particular themes or aspects of the Police Ombudsman's remit. There is, therefore, a need for a comprehensive and fully independent evaluation of its performance.

Part of the reason that we have tabled the motion now is that the Minister is completing work on oversight of police accountability arrangements. As part of that, the Police Ombudsman is seeking further powers, including the power to compel serving and retired officers, "as witnesses and suspects", to attend for interview and the ability to "determine" a complaint where no misconduct or criminality has occurred but where there is still a "legitimate grievance". Ultimately, the balance and standard of investigations by PONI will not be addressed by a major expansion of powers. That would instead shift the focus even further towards former RUC officers and potentially create new getaways for vexatious and unsubstantiated investigations.

Alternatively, there needs to be a deep-dive review of how the existing tools at PONI's disposal are applied. That should entail more effective and regular monitoring of their use, with additional oversight and enhanced training for the staff and investigators. We also need to look at how the public interest tests are currently relied upon by the ombudsman and how they are operating. For example, under section 60A of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, PONI has the right to launch a policy or practice investigation into the PSNI. That was used to initiate a review of the PSNI's handling of the Black Lives Matter protest. Similar dedicated attention was not granted to the events of the Storey funeral.

The ombudsman's powers must be applied consistently to all circumstances and all communities.

The DUP does not believe that it should fall to the courts or the Secretary of State to ultimately hear complaints and identify poor practice within the office. PONI is investigating extremely serious and sensitive allegations, and yet there is no form of independent complaints mechanism for either complainants or officers under investigation. There needs to be consideration of how those concerns can be addressed practically.

We are clear that the predominant role of PONI's historical investigations directorate is, rightly or wrongly, influencing public perception about the focus of police complaints in Northern Ireland. With 400 active cases, of which half are pending, that workload shows no signs of waning any time soon. Therefore, whilst we reject utterly the proposals for a de facto amnesty, the integrity of and confidence in the Police Ombudsman will only be fully restored when alternative mechanisms are agreed to deal with legacy cases.

It is clear that these problems cannot be stored up for another day, but, without clear and immediate action, that is exactly what will happen. The Minister cannot ignore the issues and problems that exist and that need to be addressed. The culture and practice in the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland must change and change quickly. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 18th October 2021

I declare that I am a member of the Policing Board, which is something that may have to be declared. I oppose the motion, which reads as though it was written by a committee. Whatever about the detail of what we have heard, the motion is an outright attack on the Police Ombudsman, the functions of its office and specifically — even though this was only mentioned at the end — its role in historical investigations. This follows the Police Ombudsman's report on the Loughinisland massacre, which was mentioned by the Member, and the ombudsman's report on Damien Walsh's killing that was released earlier this year. Both reports founds that elements in the RUC colluded with loyalists. That led to the DUP attacking the Police Ombudsman, because it does not like the truth coming out about collusion between elements in the state forces and loyalist killers. Again, the Member mentioned this. Do not mention collusion; you cannot mention it, even though everybody knows that collusion existed.

Like any organisation, the Office of the Police Ombudsman has its deficiencies. However, the office is a crucial and fundamental part of our established accountability mechanisms and should be defended. The Office of the Police Ombudsman has had to deal with a number of significant challenges, including a chronic lack of funding that does not allow it to complete investigations quickly enough; the reluctance of former PSNI and RUC officers to give evidence and/or information; and its lack of powers to compel retired police officers to cooperate with its investigations, which, again, was mentioned by the Member. Why anyone disagrees with that is beyond me.

There are also issues regarding the lack of disclosure of information and evidence from the PSNI and the long, protracted legal challenges that impede the ability of the office to fully investigate and to fulfil its duties. That has all led to significant delay. The motion is cynical and is a misguided attempt to point the finger of blame for all those issues in the wrong direction. The ombudsman's office cannot be held responsible for all those impediments that are outside its control.

In 2018, the Police Federation warned that former RUC and PSNI officers would not cooperate with the proposed and agreed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU). The HIU was a central part of the Stormont House Agreement, which was agreed by both the Irish and British Governments and the political parties. The federation's position is in direct contravention to everything that human rights-compliant and accountable policing should stand for. The Police Federation, some retired police officers and political unionism are on the attack because the RUC's reputation for collusion and cover-ups is being exposed more and more. Former ombudsman Michael Maguire was forced to threaten to take the Chief Constable to court over the PSNI's failure to disclose information.

The motion talks about a:

"negative impact on natural justice and the legal rights of all concerned".

It does not, however, consider the negative impact on natural justice and the legal rights of families bereaved in the conflict, whose attempts to seek truth and justice are being thwarted at every turn.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

No.

For example, the family of Damien Walsh, whose case had lain with the ombudsman's office since 2004, saw the report published only in July of this year, owing to a combination of all the above impediments. The ombudsman's report found collusion among the RUC, British intelligence and the UDA. It found that the police investigation into Damien's murder was flawed from the outset and that the police had attempted to whitewash that collusion. The reason that it took nearly 30 years for the truth to be published is because of delays by police personnel themselves. Moreover, the British Army acknowledged only last year that it had the murder scene under surveillance, so it was holding back information as well.

Such cases are why the Office of the Police Ombudsman is so important. Over 400 outstanding historical investigations are waiting to be dealt with in the ombudsman's office. That is why it is so important to oppose the British Government's legacy proposals, which will attempt to close down all forms of truth and justice for victims of the conflict. Indeed, we are told today that any idea of an independent public inquiry into Pat Finucane's case has now been put back. There is a suspicion out there that the purpose behind the paper that the British are bringing out is to introduce legislation that stops all of the truth being known.

Many historical investigation reports have not yet been published. Their publication requires adequate resources. The British Government's legacy proposals are in direct contravention of those that were agreed by the main political parties and the Irish and British Governments in the Stormont House Agreement. The principles that underpin the Stormont House Agreement are the basis for dealing with the past. All parties unanimously rejected the amnesty proposals that were outlined in the British Government's Command Paper.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I will finish on that. I oppose the motion.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of the SDLP, I oppose the motion. It is a matter of regret that, in the absence of legislation from the Executive Office, we are going over old ground once again in arguing about the Police Ombudsman.

The motion deals with the:

"reasonable expectations of complainants, serving and retired police officers, as well as the wider public", but a cursory glance at the findings of any of the recent independent and impartial reports on confidence in policing will tell you that, from 2003 to 2004, when public satisfaction stood at 58%, the trend has been upwards, and up to 80% in 2019-2020. In the past year, the percentage has fallen, which is not surprising, given what the COVID regulations and the confusion around the implementation of the restrictions have meant for public confidence in policing.

A 2020-21 report on serving police officers' satisfaction with the ombudsman's office found that 78% believed that complaints had been dealt with independently and that 63% felt that that made the police complaints system more accountable. We all know how important accountability is, not only for public confidence in policing but for the legitimacy of policing in any democratic society.

The proposer of the motion laboured the point about how the Office of the Police Ombudsman deals with legacy cases and how long those have taken to come to fruition. As Mr Kelly said, that is, in part, down to a lack of financial resources for legacy cases, which has been deliberate on the part of the British Government and others, and the continued delay in implementing the Stormont House Agreement, which the majority of parties here supported. The House continues to reject the British Command Paper on legacy. Far too many victims and survivors are still awaiting truth, justice and accountability, and many players have to step up to that particular mark.

In recent weeks, we have seen the importance of police accountability, particularly around the Office of the Police Ombudsman and for confidence in policing, in sexual misconduct cases, which are very much part of the public discourse at the moment following the dreadful murder of Sarah Everard.

Another matter of interest for many is the rise of domestic violence during the COVID pandemic. The Police Ombudsman gives confidence about how those cases are dealt with, as well as confidence in relation to spit and bite guards, which are a matter of concern to many in society and amongst human rights activists in NGOs. Only last week, the Police Ombudsman published a report in which she largely concurs with the Children's Commissioner that spit and bite guards should not be used against anyone under 18. At a recent committee — I should have declared an interest as a member of the Policing Board — she also catalogued and gave examples of her concerns about the cases that she investigated, stating that spit and bite guards should not be used. That all gives an additional layer of accountability and confidence for others.

If it had not been for the Police Ombudsman, would the Omagh families be where they are today? It was a former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan who, in her investigation, found that there was a lack of support when it came to the investigation and sharing of information in relation to the Omagh bomb. Those families would still be —.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for raising the issue of the Omagh bomb. I remind the House that, as a result of the investigation of the Omagh bombing, one of the previous incumbents in that office had to issue an apology to three members of the RUC because of a complaint that was upheld in relation to what was included in that report. If we are going to talk about fairness, equity and impartiality, we need to put all the facts out there; not just some facts that some people like to labour more than others.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the Member will take on board his own advice about labouring on certain elements in reports. When evidence has been lacking from the ombudsman's reports and new evidence comes to light, it is right and proper that apologies are issued. That is correct.

When it comes to the wider legacy and the delays, we know that the police, both the RUC and the PSNI, operated a policy of what they called a "slow waltz" of disclosure. That was in relation not only to the Coroners' Court and the inquests but the Office of the Police Ombudsman. That was a huge factor in delays.

We already have an Office of the Police Ombudsman that works for everyone. We have seen impartial and independent evidence presented by adjudicators other than this House. That evidence is in the public domain and is available from the Assembly's Research and Information Service's (RaISe) team. I have no hesitation in rejecting the motion.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Some Members expressed regret about the fact that we are having this debate. My regret is about some of the tone and content of the remarks to date. It is easy — you might even say that it is quite lazy — to attack the debate on the basis that it is political unionism getting excited, as if every unionist always thinks the same way on any given subject. That is palpably and clearly not true. If we are going to talk about rights, do we have to do it in a whataboutery way in which we say, "What about my rights, never mind your rights?"?

The Ulster Unionist Party is a party of law and order, with no ifs and buts. It believes that the PSNI is probably at its best when it has the resource, the headcount and the leadership commitment to neighbourhood policing, in which officers are known, trusted and respected by the local community that they serve and protect. We in the party think that that is the most effective and efficient way of delivering policing. It is important, however, that the officers are accountable to those communities and that the communities understand that there is an accountability mechanism for when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. That is why we support the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the principle of an Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Everybody in the House has to acknowledge that the PSNI is one of the most accountable police forces and services in Western Europe and possibly much further afield.

It is simply a fact that, just as the Chief Constable has immense scope to shape the operational nature of the PSNI, so the Police Ombudsman has the power to set a direction of travel for their office. The difference, of course, is that, while the Chief Constable is accountable to the Policing Board, the same does not apply to the ombudsman. I stress that the Chief Constable is operationally independent but fully accountable to the board for his or her decisions.

To date, we have had four ombudsmen: from 1999 to 2007, it was Nuala O'Loan; from 2007 to 2011, it was Al Hutchinson; from 2012 to 2019, it was Michael Maguire; and since then it has been Marie Anderson. They are four very different characters who brought a mix of experience from a variety of backgrounds. I first became aware of Nuala O'Loan as a law lecturer. Al Hutchinson, of course, had experience in policing from Canada. Michael Maguire was a public servant and a specialist in management consultancy. Marie Anderson came to the job from her role as the Public Services Ombudsman. They all brought very different approaches, backgrounds and perhaps even value systems.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Just let me finish this. The Chief Constable, of course, whatever he is, comes with a background in policing. That is an imbalance that we need to consider. I give way to Mr Chambers.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Does the Member agree that it would be desirable for the Police Ombudsman to have a practical understanding of policing?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank Mr Chambers. I certainly see the logic of that, and it is worth looking at. People with other skills, such as management or governance, can add something to the mix, but, if we are talking about making the police accountable, a knowledge of policing is highly desirable.

Mrs Kelly talked about a recent example of the ombudsman's views, which is to oppose the use of spit and bite guards with people under the age of 18. I put the point to the ombudsman: what if a police officer comes across somebody who is 6 feet 4 inches, 14 stone, a very fit Gaelic or rugby union footballer, and is 17 years and 11 months old? The police officer may make a reasonable assumption that they will use a spit and bite guard. However, that young person, who is 17 years and 11 months, could go to the ombudsman. What happens to the officer who has made a decision in the heat of the moment?

There are a lot of issues. I am running out of time — no, I have an extra minute.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Yes, I do not have to use it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

It is not compulsory to take it, mind you, but go ahead.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I hear that in stereo, thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The ombudsman was unable to answer me in any effective way about what would happen to that police officer who deployed a spit and bite guard under those exact circumstances. To me, it illustrates that there is a significant difference between theoretical policing, which, it seems to me, is what the ombudsman practises at times, and practical policing, which is what we ask the 7,100 officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to conduct on our behalf to keep us safe and to keep order in society.

On that basis, an independent review seems reasonable to me. The Ulster Unionist Party will support the motion.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I declare that I am a member of the Policing Board. I acknowledge the challenging year that it has been for the Office of the Police Ombudsman and all other bodies involved in our police scrutiny structures. They have endured a lot, like other public bodies. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been far-reaching in society as a whole. No individual or organisation has remained unaffected. The impacts on the Office of the Police Ombudsman were sharply felt, but those services, it should be said, continued.

I also welcome the recognition from the Members who tabled the motion that there is a need for an effective, efficient and independent structure for dealing with complaints against police officers.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman, which operates independently of the Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, is constituted to secure an effective, efficient and independent police complaints system that is capable of securing the confidence of the public and the police. Where there are concerns and frustrations about police actions, police officers themselves need to believe that complaints against them will be treated fairly and impartially, while the community requires confidence that the accountability mechanisms in place are robust and able to deal with concerns around policing. In fact, the last annual survey of police satisfaction with the services of the Office of the Police Ombudsman found that 91% felt that they were treated with respect, and 79% felt that they were treated fairly.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On public surveys, will he also include some of the legal profession who have said that there are issues when you consider the number of reports that had to be amended or withdrawn, the catalogue of failed prosecutions initiated by the office and the many adverse comments by the judiciary concerning the poor quality of investigations? Maybe that would also give balance, fairness and transparency when we are looking at this organisation.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I may not have time to reflect on or, indeed, research every single survey on every single issue over all the years, but I am coming to some detail on additional surveys, which the Member may want to listen to.

The comparable statistics for complaints made by the public are that 73% felt that they were treated with respect, and 57% felt that they were treated fairly. Also, it seems that a huge proportion, an estimated 99% of complaints against the office, were from those who were seeking a review of the outcome to their complaint that was given to the ombudsman's office in the first place. In addition, there seems to be widespread public confidence in the office. The Northern Ireland life and times survey found that 76% of the general public were either fairly confident or very confident that complaints are dealt with impartially, and 83% believed that the Police Ombudsman helps to ensure that the police in Northern Ireland do a good job. These statistics are evidence that the office is meeting the expectations of the wider public. Additional statistics, which I referred to a moment ago, are available from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) and other organisations, and most of them paint a similar picture. The figures are publicly available. It is a matter of perception, perhaps, how they should be matched with expectations, as mentioned in the motion.

The motion refers also to recent court judgements, touching on the methods and standards of investigative practice. The 2020 Court of Appeal's findings in respect of a judicial review taken against the Office of the Police Ombudsman relate to a report published by the previous ombudsman, not the current ombudsman. The ruling clarified that the role of the ombudsman is to investigate and not adjudicate.

Cases relating to retired police officers are also referenced in the motion. It has to be said that these are often high-profile cases involving many sensitivities and related to historical investigations on Troubles-related matters. It could easily be argued that they should not be sitting with the ombudsman at all but that they are there simply because of lack of political agreement to do otherwise. The Police Ombudsman's office was not established to investigate legacy matters, yet the office currently has 457 complaints, involving over 550 deaths, relating to legacy matters and has a staff of around 30. I am therefore pleased that the Minister has secured additional funding for the year for the Office of the Police Ombudsman to recruit an additional 16 investigators to deal with legacy cases. Hopefully, that will help to provide families with long overdue answers.

The PACE powers referred to in the motion are a vital part of the legislative framework of police powers for combating crime. Therefore, it is not only right and proper but unavoidable that the use of PACE comes with a range of duties for Office of the Police Ombudsman investigators, who have the powers of a constable in the investigative duties related to their job. Whilst the court referred to in the motion made criticisms in one case out of many thousands over the years, those are being addressed. There are already bodies with scrutiny monitoring reporting duties in relation to the work of the Police Ombudsman, and these include the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland.

In addition to the inspection processes in place, reporting by the ombudsman and actions undertaken as a result of recent reports and, indeed, the court outcome, it is imperative that the work of the ombudsman, like all organisations in the policing and justice system, remains independent and free from political interference and influence. That was the intention when the current structures were set up 20 years ago, following a much darker time for policing and the public alike. With that in mind, I, along with Alliance colleagues, am therefore unable to support the motion.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I am not going to beat about the bush with this today, because this motion is so crass that it must be called out as such and opposed outright.

We have to ask this question: what is the DUP's motivation in tabling the motion? Is it to whitewash the role of the RUC in the conflict? Is it to scrap the accountability and scrutiny mechanisms that are enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement? If that is its motivation, that cannot be entertained by any right-thinking person in the House or elsewhere.

As the Member who has just spoken alluded to, the Office of the Police Ombudsman has over 400 outstanding historical investigations to consider. That is 400-plus families impacted by delay after delay. That is even more stark in the face of British Government legacy proposals that will attempt to close down all forms of truth and justice for victims of the conflict. Statutorily barring the Police Ombudsman from investigating conflict-related incidents would bring an immediate end to criminal investigations and to the prospect of prosecutions. Whilst that might be the desire of some retired RUC personnel, it would be a disgraceful affront to all families who were bereaved by the conflict.

It is worth reflecting on why we need a Police Ombudsman in the first place. We have a Police Ombudsman because, historically, we have had to endure bad policing, collusion, shoot to kill and deplorable interrogation methods. We have a Police Ombudsman because it is a crucial and fundamental part of our established accountability mechanisms. While today's policing is a far cry from all that, we have to ensure that those things can never happen again. Yet in the face of all that, here we have the sum of the DUP's response to those agreed accountability and scrutiny measures.

Like any organisation, the Office of the Police Ombudsman has its flaws, but it is key to the agreed policing and accountability arrangements, and to besmirch those in any way is dangerous. The DUP should explain why it seems to have chosen that direction of travel.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I will not at this stage, thank you.

The motion talks about the:

"negative impact on natural justice and the legal rights of all concerned".

I do not hear concern in the motion for the legal rights of Damien Walsh's family or the 400-plus families who are involved in historical investigations and still awaiting justice. The motion does not mention the reason why Damien Walsh's case lay with the Police Ombudsman's office since 2004 and was published only in July of this year. It does not mention that the Police Ombudsman's report found that the police investigation into Damien's murder was flawed from the outset and attempted to whitewash collusion. The motion does not honestly acknowledge the chronic lack of funding that has resulted in the Police Ombudsman not being able to complete investigations quickly enough, and neither does it mention the reluctance of former PSNI and RUC officers to give evidence and information or the ombudsman's lack of powers to compel. It does not mention issues regarding the disclosure of information and evidence from the PSNI, and it does not honestly account for the long, protracted legal challenges that impede the office's ability to fully investigate and fulfil its duties. The motion does not honestly address any of those issues because it is not about strengthening the ability of the Police Ombudsman to function in the way it was intended. The motion is about diminishing the functions of the office and, specifically, its role in historical investigations.

The DUP is making a cynical and misguided attempt to point the finger of blame for all those issues in the wrong direction. The Office of the Police Ombudsman cannot be held responsible for impediments that are out of its control. From start to finish, the motion reads as an outright attack on the Office of the Police Ombudsman. I call on all right-thinking Members across the House to oppose it.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I thank my colleagues for tabling the motion. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

We have heard much about the ombudsman's office, but let us recall why it was set up. It was set up to play a specific role in providing independent, impartial investigations into complaints arising from allegations of failures by police officers while on the line of duty and to investigate complaints into some quarters of civilian employees of the Police Service. While we recognise the need for robust, impartial and effective structures to be in place for investigations into alleged misconduct or criminality — such structures lie at the very heart of a democratic society — and a binding principle that everyone is equal under the law and subject equally to the law, the fact is that any such investigations must be carried out in a way that is fair and equitable and that demonstrate independence and impartiality in the ombudsman's office. That is where it has miserably failed.

While the ombudsman has the power, under section 55 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, to commence an investigation where a complaint has been received and it:

"appears that a member of the police force may have— (i) committed a criminal offence; or (ii) behaved in a manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings", she cannot step outside those boundaries and parameters as that would exceed the statutory powers of her office. When that has happened, the work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman has been undermined and public trust has plummeted.

Of course, concerns about the Office of the Police Ombudsman and how it conducts investigations have not just arisen recently. They date back to at least 2005. Some 16 years ago, the Criminal Justice Inspection report stated:

"Inspectors' inability to examine individual cases posed a particular problem", in that investigations had taken too long and officers had not been properly treated and or duly informed of the progress of their investigations.

In another report in 2011, the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland commented on the way that complex and high-profile historical cases were investigated and handled. The chief inspector stated that:

"the ways in which the Police Ombudsman's office has dealt with these cases has served to undermine rather than enhance its decision-making capacity. As a consequence of these contributory factors, its operational independence has been lowered".

He went on to point out that flaws had been identified in the investigative processes, that reports had been heavily influenced by feedback from non-governmental organisations, that divisions in senior management had created a dysfunctional environment, and that:

"This inspection has highlighted the flawed nature of the investigation processes in historical cases".

What has changed? We have seen a change in personnel, but what has changed as far as the investigations are concerned? While those inspections have highlighted serious flaws in the Office of the Police Ombudsman, they have only been sporadic and often limited to particular themes or aspects of the Police Ombudsman's remit.

There is still widespread concern about the balance and standard of investigations in that office, which is why there is a need for a comprehensive and fully independent evaluation of its performance. There needs to be a root-and-branch review of the operation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman and the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism to promote accountability for its misconduct, poor practice and administrative standards.

We are calling on the Justice Minister to commission, before the end of the mandate, a full independent inspection of the Office of the Police Ombudsman, which will cover its investigative capability, financial management, security of information handling, operating practices and how it complies with its mandate to build trust and confidence.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I will speak in opposition to the motion. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

The motion is purely an attempt to undermine the independent role of the Office of the Police Ombudsman in holding the police to account. It is important that there is independent oversight of policing in the same way as oversight is carried out of a range of other public-sector bodies, including those in health and social care and education and the Housing Executive. Oversight ensures that we can have public confidence in those bodies, and that there is an accountability mechanism to deal with poor practice and concerns relating to any public-facing service.

Yet, as we have seen recently, the DUP is not happy when it does not get the results that it wants and will do what it can to attack, undermine and dismantle the credibility of those delivering the findings. Throwing the toys out of the pram when you do not get what you want is not an approach that will help to build confidence or trust in the police service. However, letting the Office of the Police Ombudsman do its job will reassure the public that there is a mechanism that they can access if they feel that they have not been properly treated and will help us move forward from the legacy of the past.

It is important to remember that the Office of the Police Ombudsman was not established to deal with historical investigations, as others have said. The British Government bestowed that role on it as part of a package of measures in response to a number of adverse findings by the European Court of Human Rights that the British Government were in breach of their obligations, under article 2, to provide an effective investigation into certain conflict-related deaths from 2001 onwards.

Statutorily barring the Police Ombudsman from investigating conflict-related incidents would only bring an immediate end to criminal investigations and the prospect of prosecutions. If that was allowed to happen, it would be a disgraceful affront to all the families who have been bereaved by the conflict.

I ask Members to join me in rejecting the motion on the basis that it attacks the whole idea of accountable policing. We know from our history that —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

No, I will not.

— where there is no accountability, innocent people are the ones who suffer most.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

The DUP welcomes the motion. I thank my colleagues Mr Storey and Mr Clarke for tabling it.

The ombudsman's role is to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from Departments or other public organisations. The role of the Police Ombudsman is a serious matter and should be of concern to all law-abiding members of our community. The ombudsman has notable powers. Section 55 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 affords that the ombudsman has power to commence an investigation on her own motion where she has not received a complaint and it appears that a police officer:

"may have— (i) committed a criminal offence; or (ii) behaved in a manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings".

Section 60A gives the ombudsman the power to:

"investigate a current practice or policy of the police if— (a) the practice or policy comes to his attention" via a complaint and is in the public interest. Section 61 provides for statutory reports to be made by the Police Ombudsman. They might include a general report on the functions of the ombudsman or a report on matters that have come to the attention of the ombudsman on matters of public interest. They certainly will include an annual report to the Department on the discharge of functions under the 1998 Act and a report on the review by the ombudsman of the 1998 Act at least every five years. We are asking the Minister to consider a report and investigation by the end of this mandate. Section 66 of the Act requires the Chief Constable to provide any information that the ombudsman may require, and, on the point made by Mrs Dolores Kelly, all to be independent and in an impartial manner. We should all be concerned when the judiciary raises concerns.

The DUP welcomes the opportunity to debate the motion. The issues that the motion raises are far-reaching and are critical to increasing public confidence in the criminal justice system. The debate is not about calling into question the need for impartial, effective and robust structures for investigating alleged misconduct or criminality. That is at the heart of any democracy. We stand four-square behind the principle that everyone is equal before the law and equally subject to the law. Instead, the motion is about ensuring that the core principles underpinning the Police Ombudsman's remit are delivered in a way that is lawful and procedurally fair and ensures that all investigations are completed to a high standard and in a timely fashion.

We believe — there are examples — in the willingness of the ombudsman to exceed its statutory powers in making determinations that certain crimes may have taken place; the trend of the ombudsman interpreting court rulings to establish and adjudicate on offences not prescribed in law, such as collusive behaviour; and the failure to demonstrate procedural fairness to officers implicated in its investigation reports. The protracted delays in completing the historical investigations referred to by other Members, often lasting 17, 18 or 19 years, impact on the health and well-being of victims, witnesses and, indeed, retired and serving police officers. Mr Storey referred to fears about the operational independence of the police in light of concerns raised by CJINI, which date back as far as 10 years ago. Ten years ago, CJINI was raising concerns, and we are raising the concerns today.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 6:15 pm, 18th October 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. A number of Members have raised the 2011 CJINI report, but none has raised the follow-up report in 2013, in which CJINI said that it was satisfied that the ombudsman had addressed the concerns that had been raised in its original inspection in 2011. Does the Member accept that it is not that matters have not been addressed in the last 10 years, but, in fact, they were addressed in the first two years after the original CJINI report?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I accept what the Minister has said. The fact is that there was concern 10 years ago that the matter required investigation. When CJINI says, "Look, this is such a serious matter that we require an investigation to be carried out", which was brought to a conclusion after three years, surely the whole basis for that investigation would not give the public confidence. Indeed, the hounding of former police officers over many years is often on the basis of —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

— flimsy and unsubstantiated evidence, provided —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

— by police informants and other witnesses.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I take the opportunity to thank the Police Service of Northern Ireland for the service that it gives the community. As Members referenced earlier, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is one of the most accountable police services in the world. We have the Policing Board, district policing partnerships and the Police Ombudsman contributing to that framework. It was a privilege for me to serve as a member of the district policing partnerships and to see at first hand the excellent work being done in engagement and accountability through those mechanisms.

The Alliance Party is a party of the rule of law and is absolutely clear that independent, robust complaints processes are vital to ensure the highest standards of best practice, accountability and public confidence in any organisation. As we know, that is vital for a police service in a democratic society. I do not believe in any way that the case for an independent review of the Police Ombudsman aspect of the framework has been well made. In the interaction between the Member for East Belfast and the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, the CJINI 2011 report was cited as supporting the case for the independent review. Despite the Justice Minister's confirmation that issues raised in that 2011 report had been addressed in the 2013 report, the Member continued to use the 2011 report as a basis for the independent review, which seems illogical in the extreme.

The motion says that the Assembly:

"believes the current operation of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) falls well below the reasonable expectations of complainants, serving and retired police officers, as well as the wider public".

As other Members have referenced, the independent Northern Ireland life and times survey findings simply do not support that assertion.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree that such is the PSNI's faith in the Office of the Police Ombudsman that it has referred itself to the ombudsman?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will do my best not to use it, Mr Speaker.

I acknowledge the Member's intervention. Indeed, I was going to reference the NISRA statistics that found that 79% of officers felt that they had been treated fairly; 91% of officers felt that they had been treated with respect; and 74% of officers felt that staff were knowledgeable.

Of course, there are always matters on which improvements can be made. In that regard, the Office of the Police Ombudsman is overseen by a range of mechanisms, including the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, to which other Members have referred, the Information Commissioner's Office, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office and other bodies.

As I said at the outset, we do not believe that the case for an independent review has been well made. On those grounds, we will not support the motion.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will keep my remarks brief. I will oppose the motion, as we view it as problematic on the part of those who tabled it. It is a hypocritical attempt to undermine impartial investigations. It is hypocritical because it comes from a party that often cries, "Law and order", but goes on to pick and choose which crimes are and are not scrutinised. I certainly do not think that the system of law and order here or the ombudsman is perfect — far from it. I am worried, however, that the motion would, in essence, inevitably result in undermining the scrutiny of certain elements of the security forces in relation to the legacy issue and could be used to shield the exposure of wrongdoing on behalf of the state. I believe that to be the motivation for the motion.

My view on the issue begins with the hundreds of families across various communities who have waited patiently for years — decades, in fact — for the ombudsman to conduct investigations of the killing of their loved ones. If a motion such as this were passed or acted on, it could result in delaying the publication of major reports such as the investigation of the Sean Graham bookmakers massacre and Operation Greenwich, which looks at up to 22 murders in south Derry. I suggest that the DUP ought to think of the families involved in the killings instead of tabling motions like this.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call the Minister of Justice, Naomi Long, to respond to the motion. The Minister will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Hopefully, I will not need to use all that time.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion tabled by the Member for North Antrim and the Member for South Antrim. While there are aspects of it that I cannot support, I will seek to address some of the issues that have been raised. It is important to do so.

I welcome the support expressed in the motion for an effective, efficient and independent structure for dealing with complaints against police officers. The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, to which I will refer as "OPONI" from here on, is an important part of our policing oversight arrangements. As well as giving the public assurance that there is a means of redress when things go wrong, an independent complaints body offers police officers protection from unfounded and unfair complaints against them. The office was set up following the Hayes report of 1997 as an independent body to handle complaints about the conduct of police officers. Its independence is enshrined in legislation, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, in order to safeguard against any undue political interference, whether actual or perceived. That is why the ombudsman is appointed by Her Majesty The Queen, acting on the advice of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, rather than by the Justice Minister. The First Minister and deputy First Minister are responsible for setting the criteria for that appointment. It is worth noting, however, that, in England, Scotland and Ireland, those with policing backgrounds are excluded from serving on their complaints body. Indeed, the Hayes report envisaged that it would be much more of a judicial office. I hope that that goes some way to answering why it was structured in the way that it was.

In order to protect the ombudsman's independence, my Department's role is confined to its governance, including how the office is funded, and I have been given no role in the conduct of investigations or in respect of the ombudsman's decision-making. That is not to say, however, that the Office of the Police Ombudsman is beyond scrutiny, although some today may have created that impression. It is subject to a number of oversight mechanisms that I will come to later in my response.

OPONI's role is widely accepted and supported. Indeed, the last annual survey on police satisfaction with OPONI found that 91% of officers felt that they were treated with respect and 79% felt that they were treated fairly. Comparable statistics for complainants are that 73% felt that they were treated with respect and 57% that they were treated fairly. In addition to that, the Northern Ireland life and times survey found that 76% of the general public were either fairly confident or very confident that complaints are dealt with impartially.

I see no evidence there for the plummeting levels of confidence that some Members referred to in their speeches.

The motion refers to recent court judgements, touching on the methods and standards of investigative practice. I am aware of the Court of Appeal's findings in respect of a judicial review that was taken against OPONI, which relate to a report that was published by the previous ombudsman. The judgement raised a number of issues and OPONI has, through the established governance arrangements, provided assurance that actions have been taken to address those. For example, any public statement that is published by OPONI includes any response from anyone who has been criticised in the report.

At the end of last year, the ombudsman published a report on the five-year review of her powers, and I am considering its recommendations alongside a stocktake of policing oversight and accountability more generally. In order to address issues that were raised in the judgement, the report includes a recommendation for a statutory right to due process for officers who are subject to a complaint and a statutory requirement for the ombudsman to take those views into account and reflect them in any report.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I will not because I have a lot to cover in responding to Members' queries.

The ombudsman has also proposed a specific power to determine a complaint. In addition, there are measures to make greater use of mediation and local resolution to deal with less serious complaints as well as measures to deal with vexatious complaints. Those are proposals, and I will be consulting on the report in the coming weeks.

Part of the difficulty in discussing the review of the ombudsman's powers comes when they are viewed through the prism of legacy. Many of the cases that were quoted by the proposer of the motion and its supporters are historical. The ombudsman's office was never intended to be a body that dealt with legacy cases. It was part of the new beginning for policing, as envisaged by Patten, and was intended to focus on contemporary complaints about policing. However, in the absence of an effective and comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the legacy of the past, OPONI has been put in the unenviable position of having to deal with a substantial historical caseload. As with the rest of the justice system, it was never designed nor intended to carry the weight of legacy cases, and the requirement to retrofit legacy processes into the criminal justice organisations is deeply unsatisfactory.

As I have said many times before, the current legacy arrangements are not delivering for the families and are not sustainable. They also create practical problems for those who are accused of wrong doing many years after an event has occurred. I have met with representatives of the Retired Police Officers Association and heard them express legitimate concerns at first hand, such as the challenges that are inherent in defending historical actions without access to the contemporaneous records of those incidents.

In the absence of a better option, I have been able to secure additional funding this year for OPONI to recruit more investigators to deal with legacy cases. In the 2021-22 budget allocation, we gave OPONI the full amount that it required for its historical business case. However, that was only an interim measure that I took to ensure that we progress some cases and provide answers for some families. It is not a complete solution, given the level of resource that would be required across the system to deal with the entire legacy backlog. It also means that legacy cases continue to be dealt with on a piecemeal and fragmented basis by a range of different organisations.

The arrangements set out in the Stormont House Agreement would have meant the transfer of historical cases that currently with OPONI to a new historical investigations unit. That would have been a much more effective and coherent approach. This debate underlines yet again the need for the UK Government to reach agreement with political parties here and the Irish Government on a suitable way forward for dealing with legacy. The current arrangements are simply not fit for purpose.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I will not. As I said, I have a lot to cover in addressing the issues that Members raised.

The motion also calls for the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism to promote accountability for misconduct, poor practice and administrative standards in OPONI. First of all, I want to point out that OPONI is an ombudsman, which is, by definition, an oversight body. That said, in her five-year review report, the ombudsman has recommended that her office should come under the remit of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman for complaints of maladministration. In the meantime, there are already arrangements in place that are capable of addressing concerns raised at an individual and systemic level on an independent basis.

A number of Members referred to those.

For concerns about how a complaint has been handled, the office has a customer complaints policy, which includes provision for an independent external assessor to consider the complaint where a complainant remains dissatisfied. It is also possible, as is illustrated by the reference in the motion to court judgements, to challenge reports through the mechanism of judicial review.

On the operation of the office more generally, OPONI already falls under the remit of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland. It is open to CJINI to inspect the ombudsman as either an individual body or as part of a thematic inspection. In addition, the Department has the power to require the chief inspector to carry out reviews of matters relating to the justice system in Northern Ireland. The chief inspector consults annually on her inspection programme for the year ahead. Members have the opportunity to contribute to that process. Members made reference to the 2011 CJINI report and asked what has changed since then. Of course, as I pointed out, CJINI did a follow-up inspection in 2013 and was satisfied that the issues that were raised in 2011 had been satisfactorily addressed.

My Department has already demonstrated its willingness to request the chief inspector to undertake a review where an issue of sufficient concern has arisen in the operation of the police complaints process. That was the basis on which the Department invited the chief inspector to undertake a review of the methods used by the PSNI to disclose information in respect of historical cases to OPONI. The chief inspector reported on that last year and made a number of recommendations. The Department took that step on foot of compelling evidence that there was a significant issue of public importance that needed to be addressed.

OPONI is also under the remit of bodies such as the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office, the Office for Communications Data Authorisations, the Information Commissioner's Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Taken together, that represents a comprehensive and proportionate approach to the oversight of the ombudsman's office that is fully in line with how the office was established in statute.

The motion also calls on me to commission a "fully independent review" of OPONI. I am not, at this point, minded to do so. As I frequently stress, the ombudsman is an independent office. There would need, therefore, to be compelling evidence presented of widespread dysfunction in the office to justify such a review. It is not sufficient simply to make generalised criticism of the office or to refer to individual cases. In this instance, strong evidence of systemic problems that would justify such a review has not been offered, so I cannot accede to the motion's request.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I will not, because I have not given way to other Members, and, out of courtesy, I do not want to change that kind of procedure.

Finally, the motion refers to "inordinate delay in concluding investigations". I recognise the sensitivity of that issue for families and for those who may stand accused of wrongdoing. However, the office routinely monitors case progress and sets targets for completion. In 2020, which is the most recent year for which data is available, it completed 63% of category B cases within 110 working days, against a target of 70%. It completed 93% of category C cases within 90 working days, against a target of 85%. Most of the cases that it receives are in categories B and C.

It is true to say that complaints relating to historical cases can, by their very nature, take longer to conclude, but there are also factors outside of OPONI's control. For example, where a file is sent to the PPS, the office must await the outcome of PPS considerations, and, where other investigations are ongoing, it is normal practice for the ombudsman to await their outcome. It is not true to suggest or imply that 17, 18 or 19 years is a typical length of investigation, which may have been the impression that some would take from the debate. When the UK Government gave OPONI responsibility for historical cases, they did not transfer with that power the resources to allow those cases to commence, so while many cases transferred to the ombudsman's office at that time, they were not under active investigation until much later, when resources were received.

I welcome the opportunity to debate matters relating to the ombudsman's office. However, the debate would benefit from detaching legacy from the general performance of that office and setting the vexed issue of historical cases in its proper context.

I have sought to do that in my response.

We should also consider the proposals that have been put forward by the ombudsman for the reform of her powers to ensure that her office is equipped to deal with complaints in a modern policing environment and the challenges that we face. I understand that the ombudsman has already met stakeholders to discuss her proposals. I encourage all Members to engage with the ombudsman, explain their concerns and hear from her directly about her plans for the office.

I also look forward to engaging with stakeholders during the Department's forthcoming consultation. I will consider the recommendations from the five-year review alongside a stocktake of policing oversight and accountability more generally. The fundamental principle of an independent complaints body is sound, but a mature and constructive debate on the ombudsman's powers is long overdue.

Many of the proposals that the current ombudsman is putting forward echo those of her predecessors. While I suspect that not all of her recommendations will be capable of achieving the level of consensus that would be required for them to be taken forward, many could and, indeed, should, including those that are designed to streamline and speed up the processing of complaints.

While the court made criticisms, those are being addressed. I have not seen sufficient evidence to justify any additional independent evaluation. I am, therefore, sadly, unable to support the motion, but I look forward to further engagement on this really important issue.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

As many other Members have, I put on record that I am a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

I listened to many of the Members who spoke, particularly those across the Benches, and I looked up in amazement. It was as if we were asking for something that is outwith the control of the Assembly. You will correct me if I am wrong, Mr Speaker, but no amendments were tabled to the motion. If Members look very closely at the wording of the motion, particularly the last part of it, they will see that its whole purpose is to try to bring scrutiny to the Office of the Police Ombudsman. Indeed, as referenced many times today, that has been done before through previous reports.

I am unsure how anyone could suggest that it would be wrong for us, as a party or, indeed, an Assembly, to ask the Minister to commission a fully independent inspection of PONI, given that something similar was done in the past. Indeed, when he was the Minister, the Minister's former colleague stated in the foreword to the 2012 consultation paper:

"The findings of external and internal reports into the Office over recent months are such that public confidence has been damaged in respect of the adequacy of processes, robustness of report conclusions".

If he came to that conclusion as a Minister, I am unsure why the current Minister would not afford the House the same opportunity for scrutiny. Of course, when the Minister was on her feet, she said, quite rightly, that those concerns were addressed satisfactorily in 2013.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I understand the reason why the Minister did not give way. However, thankfully, she gave us a window of opportunity, when she said that she would consider any evidence. It is not enough for PONI to determine that it adequately responded to the concerns that were raised by a court judgement. Surely, it should be in the hands of someone else to adjudicate and determine whether that was done adequately. We look forward to providing the Minister with evidence that she can consider.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Member for the intervention and agree with what he said.

Of course, it would be fair to assume that, given the findings of failings of that office in the past, it could derail itself once again. I am unsure why all those Members — those very law-abiding Members — in the Chamber want to hold the Police Ombudsman in such high regard as to believe that she is outwith making mistakes or, rather, that the office, not the individual, is outwith making mistakes. As a scrutiny body and as an Assembly, it would be right and proper to look at it very carefully and make sure that those mistakes are not being made.

Much has been said about the balance of the debate. I do not see any reference in the motion to unionists, Protestants or RUC men in particular. It refers to the office and its conduct. Some Members wanted to use the debate to reference some other cases. Indeed, they were critical of the length of time taken to investigate and the findings of some of the previous reports.

Surely that suggests that they have some reservations about the office, but it seems strange that they do not want to join us today in calling for a review. Indeed, a review may find some things that may be useful to them in those investigations.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

It seems to be the case that, because the DUP is asking for it, Members will not allow it. That is what it seems like. It is like most debates in this House now. If the DUP wants it, no one else wants it. I assume that Mr Allister in the corner will probably join us today, but it is them versus us —

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

— not right against wrong.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has clearly indicated that he will not take an intervention.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

My colleague who opened the debate asked for it to be far-reaching. I do not see anything wrong with being far-reaching and looking into what the ombudsman's office has done, whether it has been done correctly or incorrectly, or whether it is procedurally fair. Are Members suggesting that, if there was an investigation and something was found to be unfair, the office should continue to do things the way that it has always done them? This is not about challenging the impartiality of the office. This is about making sure that the office is fair to everyone, regardless of their colour, creed, religious background or otherwise, and that, whether it be retired officers or members of the public, they get a fair representation from the office.

Gerry Kelly was very quick to oppose the motion. There was a theme from some Members on the opposite Benches that suggested that it was an attack on the ombudsman's office. It is nothing of the sort. If any sort of report or investigation is done, it may be helpful to the office. It may highlight some issues that came up previously in the 2011 report. The Minister quite rightly said that there was a review of that in 2013. CJINI did another review and was satisfied that those things were taken on board. So it has happened before.

Then there is the old adage that Gerry likes to put out about the RUC and collusion. I am not sure why he has to centre that one out on every occasion. Many Members of his own party will know all about collusion with state forces, maybe not on this side of the border but across the border, but dare we ever say that?

Reference was also made to the Police Federation. It was an attack, I believe, from a member of the Policing Board on the Police Federation, which is a federation that is there to defend its members. He referred in his comments to the federation and to retired officers, but surely the whole purpose of the ombudsman is to bring fairness and impartiality. It seems that some Members do not want that fairness or impartiality. Indeed, from Mr Kelly's comments today, that was fairly obvious.

Dolores Kelly said that she regrets that we are covering old ground. I am not sure how we are covering old ground by simply saying that we want a review of the ombudsman's office to make sure that it continues to operate fairly and impartially and continues to give everyone a fair hearing.

Lots of statistics were referred to today, and Mrs Kelly mentioned some. Indeed, there must be a sharing of statistics amongst most Alliance Members, because they talked about the life and times survey. I am not sure that many members of the public will lift the life and times survey to see the findings of that particular document, but, at the Policing Board last week, I referred to people coming to my office — I am sure that they come to other Members' offices as well — and referring to the interaction that they have had with the ombudsman's office, and it is not always very glowing. Some people are very disappointed with how their issues have been handled and the conclusions of the ombudsman's office.

Mr Nesbitt raised the issue today about spit and bite guards, as did Mrs Kelly. The ombudsman could not even give the Member an answer to that last Thursday, but Mrs Kelly wanted to put words in the ombudsman's mouth, because what she did not say today was that the ombudsman was not suggesting the removal of spit and bite guards, so Mrs Kelly went short of that. She talked about the bits that she wanted to talk about because it suited a particular narrative.

Members on these Benches have always supported the police having everything at their disposal to carry out their job in a safe and fair manner. However, Mrs Kelly omitted to say that the ombudsman did not rule on that. The difficulties with the office were identified when Mr Nesbitt raised the question on that particular issue last Thursday. Of course, on the cases that she referred to, the ombudsman had the pleasure, or otherwise, of seeing the footage because that person had been in custody previously. There are many occasions, of course, when police come into contact with individuals whom they will never meet. Therefore, there are issues with how the ombudsman does her job. This would have shone a light on that.

John Blair also indicated that he, amongst others, was a member of the Policing Board. There are probably more Policing Board members here than anything else. That is just the nature of where we are. He said that he believed that officers were treated fairly. In the main, it is probably reasonable to assume that. Of course, when you have the federation itself making representations to the contrary, the doubt, suspicion and suggestion is that it may be otherwise. I probably agree with John in that most officers whom I have spoken to believe that they have been fairly treated. However, if the Police Federation believes that officers have been unfairly treated, there is an issue. For that reason — even for that reason alone — the Minister should allow —

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

— a review of the ombudsman's office.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thanks to all Members for their contributions.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 37; Noes 46

AYES

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Clarke, Mr Storey

NOES

Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin

Tellers for the Noes: Ms Ennis, Mrs D Kelly

Question accordingly negatived.

Adjourned at 7.03 pm.