New clause 5 - Time limit on investigations by the Ombudsman

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 11th March 2003.

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'After section 63 of the 1998 Act there shall be inserted—

63A Time limits on historic investigations

(1) The Ombudsman shall not investigate any complaint made to him under section 52(1) or any matter referred to him under section 52(1), 55(1), (2), or (4) if the actions, behaviour or conduct to which the matter relates took place more than 12 months before the date on which the reference is made.

(2) The Ombudsman shall not at any time commence a formal investigation under section 55(6) of any matters if the actions or behaviour to which the matter relates took place more than 12 months before that time.''.'.—[Mr. Trimble.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause was largely inspired by clause 12, which empowers the police ombudsman to investigate current police practices and policies. I note that the Government clearly confined the ombudsman's role under clause 12 to dealing with current matters, an approach with which I heartily concur. I have not had the opportunity to check the report that led to the creation of a police ombudsman, but I am sure that it was not in the minds of those who decided upon such a role that it would be appropriate for her to conduct inquiries into events that occurred a long time ago. In principle, that is undesirable, but regrettably she has done so. Indeed, one of her first inquiries was into events that occurred some 30 years ago. That is quite wrong.

The provision has to be seen in the light of the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement. During those negotiations, the question of whether we should follow the South African practice and have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was canvassed. I and my colleagues took the view, as did others, that that would be undesirable. We acknowledged—everyone knows it—that during the past 30 years quite a few terrible things had happened, and that a large number of members of the community had been injured or victimised by events; but we said that, having agreed upon new structures and procedures, and having agreed a settlement, it was necessary that the settlement should be allowed to bed in, and to be broadly accepted.

We felt that the settlement would not bed in if people had the opportunity to pick and scratch at all

the sores in the body politic that had been occasioned over the past 30 years. Consequently, the greater number of those involved in the negotiations took the very conscious decision that we should not go back and revisit all the things that had happened in the past. Yes, we have to have concern for victims; and, yes, things should be done for victims—and things have been done for them. However, to allow people somehow to re-run all the arguments of the past 30 years, to give people a means of settling whatever scores they believed still had to be settled, would be wrong in practice.

That is one of the reasons why some of us have been so critical of the Government's decision to institute inquiries such as that now sitting in Londonderry. That inquiry has raked up at least £100 million in court costs—the costs are likely to exceed £200 million by the time that it is finished—but it is a wholly misconceived approach, which is doing nothing to encourage reconciliation in the community. But that is by the way.

I mention that simply to make the point that we considered it best to draw a line, and to persuade the community to move on. In that context, it would be wrong for the police ombudsman to go back into the past; she has done so once, and she may do so again. We entirely approve of the approach adopted by the Government in clause 12, whereby the ombudsman will be directed to deal solely with current matters. We think that that should be the case with regard to other complaints received by the ombudsman. That is the reason for new clause 5.

The new clause would limit the ombudsman to dealing with complaints relating to matters that have taken place within the last 12 months. That is a reasonable and adequate period for all those who believe that they have suffered as a result of an abuse of police powers. Indeed, some might feel that 12 months is a bit generous, and that if people want to pursue a complaint they should do so within 12 months of the incident. It is obviously a matter of balance as to how far back one should go, and we chose 12 months.

I raise the issue in order to direct the Government's attention to the matter. I suggest that, having adopted such an admirable approach in clause 12, they should be consistent and apply the principle elsewhere.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

In principle, I support what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann has proposed. However, I am not sure that 12 months is an appropriate time limit. It could be argued that a two-year period would be necessary to enable people to collate enough evidence to justify what they are doing. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will not want to go to the stake for the sake of 12 months; he has certainly made the point.

The right hon. Gentleman might also have addressed the fact—perhaps he will reflect on it on Report—that not only is it sensible to say that there has to be a time limit that starts from the date on which the complaint is made, but there is still an opportunity to delay the procedure for a huge length of time in the hope that something else might turn up

that would be handy to the investigation. I support not only a time limit backwards from the point of making the complaint, but a limit on how long a person making a complaint can work at keeping the file open by saying that more information will be supplied before the investigation can be completed. There could well be a time limit within which the ombudsman has to complete the investigation. I commend that to the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right.

The role of the ombudsman is to address, for the future, the sort of complaints that have been made in the past, relating to minor issues, rather than Bloody Sunday-type issues. I understand the Government to have stated that the ombudsman should be a safeguard for the future of the Northern Ireland police service. However, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that intention has already been changed into something entirely different—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was given as an example. Had the intention in creating the role of ombudsman been that that person would play the role of the president or chairman of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Government should have said so at the time and we could have debated the matter.

If the Government accept the right hon. Gentleman's argument that that is not the way to proceed and that it is sensible to draw a line in the sand to show that what had happened in the past was dreadful but it had happened, so it was time to move on, I would have though that they should accept the new clause in principle, even if they want to debate the length of time that is specified. That would put it beyond all doubt that the purpose of the ombudsman is to secure the future of the Northern Ireland Police Service rather than to provide yet another vehicle for raking over the past.

I have watched events in South Africa with amazement and interest and can see the value for some people in the approach taken in that country. However, I have also looked at what has happened in respect of the investigations into what happened in Londonderry all those years ago—at the moment the only beneficiaries are the lawyers, and I suspect that at the end of the day the only significant beneficiaries will be recipients of the £200 million in fees run up by the legal profession.

You might be interested to know, Mr. Amess, that at one stage I tried to rent a flat in County hall across the river to help me do my job here, only to discover that virtually every single available flat had been taken, at exorbitant rents with no negotiations, by lawyers who were coming across to appear at Methodist central hall. Some of the inflation in rent was due to an inquiry.

That illustrates my point. What good that is supposed to do to truth and reconciliation, I do not know. It is good for the landlords over there and it is good for the lawyers who are across the way arguing. All that it has done, and all that it will do, if the ombudsman goes down the same route, is that the moment that the Bloody Sunday thing gets out of hand someone will come along and say, ''We must have something about the Omagh bombing.'' We will have to do the same thing all over again. There will

almost be a bidding war to see who can spend the most on which inquiry.

I cannot believe for one minute that that is what the Government intended for the role of the ombudsman. If the Government agree with that argument, I suggest that there is a way of making it absolutely clear once and for all that the ombudsman is about the future of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and not yet another vehicle for raking over things that are probably best left buried in the past. I do not believe that we will make progress or improve the situation in Northern Ireland by endlessly raking over the past. However, I do think that we will make progress by making sure that the future is safeguarded, and the new clause goes in exactly in the right direction.

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

We do not accept the need for new clause 5, because the point is already covered in regulations. The general principle, set out in the RUC (Complaints etc) Regulations 2001, is that it is a requirement that a complaint is about the conduct of a member of the police service

''which took place not more than 12 months before the date on which the complaint is made.''

However, there are three exceptions to that general principle, and those three exceptions, where they are demonstrated, allow the ombudsman to investigate an allegation of an incident that may have taken place some time previous to that 12 months.

It might assist the Committee if I briefly spell out the three exceptions. First, if there has been a delay in complaining, if it appears that a criminal or disciplinary offence has been committed or if the complaint is not the same or substantially the same as a previous one, the ombudsman may investigate if she considers that justified by exceptional circumstances or the gravity of the matter. Secondly, she may take on a case even if it has been dealt with before if there is new evidence and it appears that a criminal or disciplinary offence has been committed, and, again, that the matter is grave or exceptional.

Thirdly, even if the grave or exceptional test is not met, the ombudsman may take on a case where she believes that the officer may have committed a criminal offence if the complaint has not been dealt with before or if new evidence has come to light. The proposal tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann would remove those exceptions. Investigations, therefore, are already confined to complaints about incidents that are no more than 12 months old, unless the exceptions apply.

The great value of the office of the police ombudsman is to build confidence in the police service of today, not continually to rake over the coals of the past. The right hon. Gentleman is right on that point. From my contact with the ombudsman, I believe that she shares that view. The office is not a truth commission. It is, however, a mechanism for ensuring the proper investigation of complaints and for ensuring transparency and justice.

I know that the ombudsman and her staff fully recognise the vital role that they have to play by securing the confidence of the public and of members of the police service. It is appropriate to pay tribute to

the work of the ombudsman's staff in successfully operating a completely new and independent police complaints system that has been functioning for just over two years.

The Government agree with the general principle articulated in new clause 5. Indeed, it has already been established in regulations, but the principle is in the regulations, subject to the exceptions, which we believe are important. Therefore, we do not believe that the amendment is appropriate or necessary.

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

I thank the Minister for her contribution, but I still believe that such an amendment is appropriate and necessary. It will be ineffectual to rely purely on the regulations, as they are subject to exceptions that are drawn in such a way that the ombudsman, if so minded, would have no difficulty in pursuing any matter whatever. She merely has to say that she considers that an offence might have been committed. The other exceptions are couched in such broad terms that they could easily be exploited in the circumstances.

I am heartened that the Government consider my approach to be right in principle. I urge them, therefore, to examine the regulations more carefully and to consider whether it would not be much better to write such an approach into primary legislation rather than relying on regulations that are so widely drawn that they have not prevented the ombudsman from raking over a case that is more than 30 years old. There is a danger that that might happen again, and in circumstances in which the ombudsman feels like getting a little more publicity. I do not share the Minister's confidence in the system and it is appropriate for those matters to be covered in primary legislation. I want to return to them on Report, however, as they should be discussed again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.