Clause 11 - Approval of proposals relating to inquiries

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 27th February 2003.

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Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:15 pm, 27th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 78, in

clause 11, page 8, line 23, leave out '(2) and' and insert '(1A) to'.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments Nos. 79 and 80.

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

Having moved the amendments, I shall deal with comments on them later in the debate.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am disappointed. It is difficult to comment on what the Minister means because she has not said anything about the amendments. Will she explain them, so that we can comment on them?

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

In that case, I shall go into greater detail about the intentions of the amendments. I shall first explain the purpose of clause 11, while recognising that we will have a further opportunity to discuss it when we debate amendments Nos. 63 and 34. The clause will reduce the threshold of board members that is required to initiate an inquiry under section 60 of the 2000 Act from 10 to eight, provided that that is a majority of those present and voting.

The Government made a commitment in the revised implementation plan of August 2001 to bring forward such a change in response to concerns expressed by several quarters that the existing arrangements under the 2000 Act set too high a threshold. Some were

worried that, in effect, that gave a veto to groups that were in the majority on the board. I recognise that the issue is sensitive, and that it echoes a debate running throughout politics in Northern Ireland about the checks and balances between majorities and minorities in many contexts. I believe, however, that the amended threshold, taken with the various safeguards that accompany it, strikes the right balance.

It has been suggested that the reduction would pave the way for minority groups within the board to force through inquiries against the wishes of the majority of members of the board. That is not so. I shall spell out the safeguards. For a start, a proposal to initiate an inquiry cannot come out of the blue. The board must commission a report from the Chief Constable under section 59 of the Act. It is only when that report has been received that an inquiry can be contemplated. It is inconceivable that a proposal for an inquiry would take a board member by surprise.

However, even at that point, there are several safeguards under paragraph 18 of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act. First, a request for the board to consider a case for an inquiry must be made in writing to the chairman by at least three members of the board. Secondly, the chairman is required to call a meeting within three working days of receiving such a request and to notify each member of the board of the date and purpose of the meeting. That means that all members of the board will be aware of the meeting and of the proposal that will be before them at that meeting.

Thirdly, there must be a gap between the chairman convening the meeting and it taking place. Those of us who remember the Labour party in the bad old days of the 1980s will remember how important such rules are when making sure that issues are not bounced through by groups.

Amendment No. 79 would amend paragraph 18(3) of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act to put beyond doubt that a minimum of six working days must elapse between the board chairman calling a meeting to discuss a proposal to set up an inquiry and the meeting taking place. Amendments Nos. 78 and 80 are consequential changes. At present, the provision is ambiguous. It could be read either in the way that I have described—which is appropriate—or it could be said that the effect of the reference to ''that day'' in paragraph 18(3) is that the six-day period starts from the day on which the chairman receives the request to call a meeting. I recognise that that is an important safeguard in enabling all board members to attend such a meeting. It is important that there should be no ambiguity on the time scales. I hope that my explanation has satisfied the hon. Gentleman. It may even mean that his contribution to the debate will not be necessary.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Wish on. I have one simple question about that explanation, for which I am most grateful and which covered the issues that, as the Minister knows, are controversial. The fact that I do not want to debate them with her does not mean that I agree with them. Near the beginning of her remarks, she said that the amendments were tabled as a result of pressure from some quarters. Which quarters?

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

The amendments were tabled as a result of our discussions and the agreement that we reached with the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 79, in

clause 11, page 8, line 23, at end insert—

'(1A) In subparagraph (3) for ''that day'' substitute ''the day on which the chairman calls the meeting''.'.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Conservative, Wycombe 4:45 pm, 27th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 64, in

clause 11, Page 8, line 26, leave out from 'Board' to end of line 32.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 34, in

clause 11, page 8, line 29, leave out subsection (3).

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Conservative, Wycombe

The amendment is straightforward. It would ensure that any reports or inquiries by the board were initiated by a majority of the board's members. The clause amends paragraph 18 of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act on the number of members of the board required to initiate an inquiry under section 60 following a report by the Chief Constable. Currently, no such inquiry can be held unless the required number of members of the board who are present and voting approve it. Under paragraph 18(6), that number is 10, which is a majority, as the board consists of 19 members. Under clause 11(2) and (3), however, that number is reduced from 10 to eight, so long as that is a majority of members present and voting.

We believe that the existing arrangements should remain unchanged, but that when the board consists of 19 members, it is perfectly reasonable and proper that the required number of members present and voting to initiate an inquiry is 10. The Government's proposal is an unwarranted concession aimed at making it easier for the board to initiate inquiries following the Chief Constable's report. It makes it easier for those with excessive political zeal, or those who wish the police no good, to make the life of the Chief Constable intolerable. It scarcely needs me to point out that that is a particular worry if and when Sinn Fein members take up positions on the board. That, and the reductions of the grounds on which the Chief Constable can refer such inquiries to the Secretary of State, should be opposed. That is not only our argument, but appears to be the view, if I read his comments correctly, of a previous Secretary of State who served under this Government; the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the architect of the 2000 Act, whose words on the Act have already been quoted extensively in our debates. On Second Reading of the Bill, he said:

''If one considers police authorities in most parts of the United Kingdom, most people would think it extraordinary that it would take only eight members of a board to bring about the instigation of what could be a very major and expensive inquiry with major long-term implications for the police. I recall that there was huge pressure to agree to the paltry figure of eight in the original Bill, and the Government believed that the figure of 10 was very much on the low side. We made it absolutely clear that, if we conceded to an ever-lower figure, that would risk exposing the police to unreasonable political pressure that would reduce the credibility of any such decision by the board. After all, it is a major step to set up an inquiry and, if it can be agreed by eight out of 18 or 19 members, that is bound to reduce the credibility of the decision. If the power was unreasonably or

improperly used, it could lead to an unravelling of confidence by the police and the public in the PSNI's governance. I have heard the reassurances offered by Ministers on that point, but I have yet to be fully convinced that this particular change is necessary or desirable.''—[Official Report, 10 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 684–5.]

Those were the words of a former Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister and Government Back Benchers give them their full weight. They should ask themselves seriously what the right hon. Member for Hartlepool would do if he were sitting as a Back-Bench Committee member and voting on the Bill, the clause and, perhaps, the amendment. However, it is not only the right hon. Member for Hartlepool who supports our position. The Committee on the Administration of Justice, which is not an organisation that is always associated with the pronouncements of Conservative politicians, said in its submission to the Northern Ireland Select Committee:

''We believe that while the holding of inquiries is an important power, there is no reason to lay down such weighted voted procedures in legislation and we would recommend that decisions to hold inquiries should be taken by a simple majority.''

As with other aspects of the Bill, the Government have not even sought to justify the change with regard to the efficiency of the board or the operational effectiveness of the police. They have not to date shown any deficiencies in the current legislation that warrant it. We believe that that is because the change was driven purely by politics and the Government's desire to accommodate Sinn Fein and the SDLP at Weston Park in July 2001. The change proposed by the Government is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Our amendment would restore common sense and basic fairness to the Bill. It would also take us back to the position that was outlined so eloquently and sensibly by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, on Second Reading. We trust that the Government will listen to his wise words and that they will also display some common sense and accept this modest amendment.

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

The hon. Member for Wycombe is right in describing the effect of the clause. It does exactly what he describes, but only provided that there is a majority of those involved in the decision present and voting. The changes introduced by the clause set a more realistic and appropriate threshold, notwithstanding the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool. With the greatest respect to the concerns of hon. Members, I believe that their fears are overblown.

The clause does not give any board member or group a licence to force through unpopular or unrepresentative decisions. It responds to a genuine feeling among some board members that the existing arrangements set too high a threshold and it provides a prospect—no more than that—that a group that perceived that it was a minority might at least have an opportunity to seek to initiate an inquiry if the circumstances warranted it. I hope that the Committee will give the clause a fair wind.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

That is not good enough. I am hearing an argument that says that one of the key principles of democracy ought to be undermined just to accommodate people. When one is using such a serious power, it is not reasonable to say we must rig

the system so that a minority can have its way. What on earth has happened to the principle of democracy, by which the majority decides? We should try to integrate Northern Ireland more fully into the United Kingdom, rather than setting it apart and ignoring the rules of democracy in a way that we would not tolerate in Great Britain.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Conservative, Wycombe

I was rather disappointed by the Minister's brief response. I hoped that she might advance a reason why the change would be beneficial for policing, and she did not. She simply said that the time had now come in which eight would be a sufficient number to determine the course of the kind of inquiry that might be made.

This is an important moment in the progress of the Bill and the Committee because the tripartite relationship between the Secretary of State, the board and the Chief Constable is at stake. It is pretty clear that the Minister does not agree with everything that the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, the former Secretary of State, said on Second Reading. However, I do not think that she has sufficiently considered the fact that the delicate tripartite balance established in the 2000 Act is being nudged recklessly to give far more power of initiation to the board. The theme running through the clauses is that any shifts of power proposed in the Bill are generally towards the board. I cannot recall in the course of these debates one shift towards the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State.

In certain circumstances, there could be Sinn Fein members on the board, and they could play a part in initiating inquiries that would be likely to have severe security consequences in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, that is the result of a deal done at Weston Park; not between all the parties involved in discussions with the Government on Northern Ireland matters, but purely between the nationalist—and indeed republican—side and the Government. I do not think that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann or the hon. Member for East Londonderry were there, or that their parties were consulted. It is entirely right that the nationalist parties should have their say on policing matters, but it seems extraordinary that the Minister will not accept our amendment and that she responds to it in this way, when the origins of the push for this part of the Bill comes from one side of the political community in Northern Ireland.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 80, in

clause 11, page 8, line 34, leave out 'held' and insert 'called'.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.