Clause 39

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 18th January 2007.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party 3:15 pm, 18th January 2007

Given that, in our earlier exchanges, we touched on the possible role of the independent assessor, it is important that we test a number of points on clause 39. The clause provides for the Secretary of State to appoint a person to review the powers as an independent assessor. That assessor will have limited powers to oversee how the Army investigates complaints and will not have any powers to investigate complaints. That is no substitute for the office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland being able to investigate the Army when it plays a supporting role for policing. The reviewer will come each year, and the British Army is obliged only to give such information and documents as the independent assessor might reasonably require. By contrast, the police ombudsman has the power in the conduct of her duties to get any document that she needs.

Given that the Minister explained earlier and that it is pretty clear in the Bill that the Army does not have to keep any records of what it does or of its justification for it in the exercise of a lot of its powers, it is hard to know what the independent assessor will assess. We are told that the annual review of how the powers work will be the subject of a robust or significant report to the Secretary of State, and so the question arises of how there is to be an independent review that does not require renewal by Parliament if there are no records in relation to the Army.

The Committee earlier dealt with clause 36, which requires the Chief Constable to make records of the use of emergency powers. Of course, that does not apply to the Army. It does not have to keep any records. It is hard to see how the role of the independent assessor is in any way significant in relation to the Army’s use of the powers.

Let us remember that the Bill institutionalises emergency powers for the British Army—emergency powers that used to have to be renewed annually in the heat of the troubles and in the face of all sorts of violence, difficulty and turmoil. Now, in a morebenign situation, they are being institutionalised as permanent. Will the Minister give us a clear assurance that the references throughout the legislation to Her Majesty’s forces will apply only to the Regular Army and not to MI5 or MI6, for instance?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

The Committee needs to bear in mind when considering the clause the exceptional and limited role that the Army will play in Northern Ireland beyond the summer of this year. My hon. Friend asked about the role of the reviewer. The reviewer will be asked to respond to three specific areas. First, he will be asked to review the operation of sections 20 to 31, which are the measures that we debated this afternoon. What the reviewer has to say about that will play an important part in the Secretary of State’s judgment on whether to repeal any of the powers. The Secretary of State will consider other matters, too, but the reviewer’s report will be essential in the consideration of whether to appeal any of the powers.

The second role of the reviewer relates to military matters. The clause makes it mandatory on the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland to ensure that he passes over to the reviewer all information relating to the investigation of, and response to, complaints so that the reviewer can be satisfied that the complaints have been properly and adequately dealt with. I expect that those complaints would be few in number by virtue of the fact that the military plays a rare role in Northern Ireland at present. I confirm that the only personnel who would be subject to that would be those who were under the command of the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland.

There is a third category of event or circumstance that the reviewer may consider, and that is any specific matter that the Secretary of State asks the reviewer to consider that is not already covered in the first two remits that I have outlined. For example, if the Secretary of State were concerned about the use of baton rounds in a public order scenario, he could ask the reviewer to undertake a piece of analysis and to report back to him. That is a limited role for the reviewer, but it is important both in underpinning public confidence and the confidence of the House in relation to the measures and in informing the Secretary of State and helping him to reach a judgment about when the right time might come to repeal some of the powers.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.