Clause 3 - Public meetings of the Board

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 25th February 2003.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 3:00 pm, 25th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in

clause 3, page 2, line 13, leave out subsection (1).

I can be brief on this amendment. I do not take exception to the clause, but I am a little puzzled by subsection (2), which reads:

''In paragraph 19(2) of Schedule 1 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (public meetings of the Board) for 'ten' substitute 'eight'.''

As I understand it, the Government wish to say ''You don't have to hold 10 meetings. You only have to hold eight.'' I have a simple query: why?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman asks a straightforward question. The clause amends the 2000 Act to reduce the minimum number of public meetings that the Policing Board must hold each year and, more importantly, to remove the requirement that at least 28 days must elapse between meetings. Why? These changes have been introduced at the specific request of the board, based on its experience over its first year of operation. Their purpose is to give the board greater flexibility in managing its business. Again, the Select Committee, having asked a similar question, endorsed greater flexibility for the board in its report of 28 January.

The amendment would maintain the status quo in relation to the minimum number of public meetings that the board must hold each year and would be contrary to the Policing Board's express wishes. However, the Government do not intend, nor does the board, to reduce transparency. We merely want to ensure that the board has sufficient flexibility in conducting its business. The statutory requirement is a minimum. The board may want to continue to have more frequent public meetings.

As the amendment runs contrary to the board's wishes, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw it, given my assurance that we do not expect any reduction in the public transparency of the board's workings.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I note the amendment. I note the clause. I also note what Patten said. He said clearly that the Policing Board should meet in public once a month to receive a report from the Chief Constable. There was already a reduction in Patten in the statute requiring the board to meet 10 times. The clause now requires the board to meet eight times.

I carry a torch for the board, because it is the first of its kind and is doing an enormous job in extremely difficult circumstances against huge odds, but that does not absolve it from meeting its responsibilities under Patten. I listened to the case made by the Minister. I could make a case for it not meeting in January, because January comes after Christmas, which is a time of rest, but I cannot make a case for it not meeting in August. I believe that one of the board's requirements is that it does not meet in August.

August is a holiday period, but for many in the north of Ireland it is a time when things become very difficult. I should have thought that it was the last time in the year when the board would not meet to receive a report from the Chief Constable. If we are not to endorse Patten or the present statute, it is crucial that the board meet during the summer months and should not be absolved, especially in August, from its responsibilities.

I have spoken to some board members about that. They plead, as we all do, overwork. It is true that they are overworked. They are working hard and, in my opinion, working well. However, the last people to require a statutory break in the dilution of Patten that took place in the 2000 Act are the board. For that reason, I am very concerned. I believe that that which

is in statute should not be changed, despite the board's hard work.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I seek to reassure my hon. Friend. This request came to us with the unanimous support of all parties on the board and was, as he rightly says, a reflection of the heavy workload pressure to which board members are subjected. It is my expectation, given the way in which this board has performed over the last year, that they may well seek to have more than eight meetings. Whether or not they will be held in public is a matter for the board. They made it very clear to us that the way in which is was legislated for in the Act was so prescriptive that, as a board, it made their working life very difficult. Faced with what we felt was a reasonable cross-party request, we took it at face value and brought forward that change. I do not expect that it will in any way reduce transparency or the ability that the public has to examine the workings of the board.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I have no wish to be the dog in the manger about this, but will the Minister confirm that as of present, the board does not meet in January or August? If that is the case and if there were to be a further reduction in the number of public meetings, could we insist that one of them be in August?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend is incorrect. I have no knowledge of a desire on the part of the board to avoid, in principle, meeting in August. As things stand, it is a matter for the board. If the situation were to be particularly difficult—it has been a difficult time over the past 15 months, not least in public order terms—and the board felt it necessary to hold a meeting, no doubt it would do so. It has conducted itself with great responsibility over the past 15 months. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that it is not our intention wilfully to dilute the Patten principle contained in the original clause. I hope that the Committee will accept that this change has been brought forward as a result of the consultations that I have had with a number of organisations—not least the board itself—on what could be done to make the working arrangements more effective. I hope that the clause will be given a fair hearing.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Well, well, well. I had not expected that this would develop into a debate of this sort. I agree with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. It is always a great pleasure to do so. On this occasion he argues that he might agree to a dilution of the Patten proposals from 12 to 10, but not to eight. In the past, our arguments concerned whether or not we should stick rigidly and completely to Patten. I do not agree with that. If we stick to anything, it should be the Belfast agreement.

We are faced with a dilemma. My amendment says that we should not let it go to eight, but stick at 10. The hon. Gentleman, with whom I am anxious to agree, says that that is not enough. The only compromise that I can think of is that if the hon. Gentleman would like, on Report, to table an amendment saying ''delete 10 and insert 12'', I would be inclined to vote with him, to help him get as close to Patten as he possibly can. If he does not want to get that close to Patten in this instance—there are many arguments on why we must stick to Patten in future—I

would be undermined. I hope he argues for consistency.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 3:15 pm, 25th February 2003

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The difference in this instance is that there is a unanimous request by the Policing Board itself concerning its timetable. I disagree with it. August is a month when the Policing Board could meet in public. The issue cannot be dealt with on Report. I know from bitter experience that there may be provisions in the Bill that we have not fully considered in Committee, which should take precedence over the number of times that the board will meet in public. I ask the hon. Gentleman to recognise that I am making a huge concession by agreeing to move from 12 to 10.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am grateful for that. At least we have now established that the hon. Gentleman will interpret Patten as seems appropriate on the occasion, rather than insist that we stick rigidly to it. That is some sort of progress, so I am pleased.

It is claimed that we should make the change because the board wants it, but that is a rotten reason for legislating. The board is a transitory arrangement; there will be another board in due course, as people retire and so on. Are we setting a precedent whereby we appoint more members to the board, invite them to go away and decide how often they want to meet, then provide them with an Act saying that is how often they need to meet? That seems an extraordinary state of affairs. The one reason I had not expected to hear for making the change in legislation was that a little group of people find not having to meet so often much more convenient.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if anything, it is extraordinary to find a provision in legislation that requires the board to meet in public a specific number of times a year? The whole provision is otiose. It is the sort of thing that one expects to be covered in a code of practice, for which there is ample provision under the legislation.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

That is slightly better than suggesting that we should give the Secretary of State powers to decide how many meetings there are to be, which goes back to dictatorial government rather than legislation and Parliament. I hope that that offers a compromise. Are we to come back and have this discussion every time there is a change of board?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I note with great interest the point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. Years of experience gave rise to the very reason why such a provision had to be enshrined in statute. What was regarded as a policing board, which was then the Police Authority and the Chief Constable, refused ever to meet in public and totally rejected transparency. That is the reason why such a provision is written into legislation.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I do not want to intrude on private griefs—[Interruption.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) cannot negotiate with civil servants from that position.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

As I say, I do not want to intrude into a private dialogue between the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. Suffice it to say that there is another, much more significant and serious point that needs to be made. Most people would agree that, if we are to make progress in Northern Ireland along the lines of the Belfast agreement, policing should be at the top of the agenda for building cross-community confidence. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that the board needs to meet in public and I wholeheartedly agree. I have no difficulty with that—the board needs to meet frequently. It therefore needs to be a body that is right at the top of the list of priorities for people to target. I find it strange to be told that that body, which represents an attempt to make policing acceptable across the community, is sufficiently low down the list of priorities that the people on it do not want to meet so often so that they can do other things.

There is another way of looking at the matter. If policing is so important but people do not have the time to do the job properly, they should find people who do have the time. That would be another way of solving the problem, rather than legislating for the convenience of existing members. If policing is the priority, people should give their time to it and something else should go. That would be better than holding fewer meetings.

The Minister made it quite clear that the Bill is intended to make more of the board—to give it more power and responsibility and the right to take more of the initiative. More and more work is being given to the board and it is entirely proper that it should meet in public to do much of that work. The Minister argues that the board is being given more to do and more responsibility, yet we are being asked to say that it does not need to meet as often in public. That is a contradiction.

I am deeply unhappy about this matter. I see the Minister shake her head, but it is not something for which I want to go to the stake. I have made it clear that I will sign an amendment tabled on Report by hon. Member for Newry and Armagh if he wants to increase the number. For the moment, having made my points, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.