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Clause 29

Public Prosecution Service

Lords amendment: No. 6.

Mr. Browne: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 7 to 10 and 21.

Mr. Browne: Lords amendment No. 6 makes it clear in the Bill that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be responsible for the funding of the prosecution service prior to the devolution of justice functions. At the time of devolution, this provision will be amended to shift the responsibility for funding to the devolved Administration. Concerns have been expressed in the House that the Bill was not clear enough on the issue, and I hope that the amendment aids understanding of our intentions.

Lords amendment No. 7 is in keeping with the criminal justice review's recommendation that the public prosecution service should establish local offices from which the bulk of prosecutorial work in the respective areas would be conducted. We had originally thought it unnecessary to provide for this in the Bill. However, given that such a power exists in the Prosecution of Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, we thought that we should replicate this in the Bill for the purposes of clarity.

Lords amendment No. 8 expands the existing definition of "police force" in clause 31(6) to include constables appointed under section 57 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. I am advised that there are no such constables in Northern Ireland, but as there is the potential for the appointment, it has to be covered. The Director of Public Prosecutions will be required to take over proceedings instituted by the police forces defined in the clause.

Lords amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are technical. The Bill makes some changes to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 to add the Director of Public Prosecutions to the list of persons able to refer matters to the police ombudsman. When the Policing Board was established, the 1998 Act was amended so that references to the Police Authority were changed to the Policing Board. Inadvertently, in referring to the 1998 Act the Bill did not reflect those amendments. The amendments that we have tabled would correct that error.

Lords amendment No. 21 deals with the time scale for the establishment of a new public prosecution service for Northern Ireland. That proposal has been widely welcomed and work is already under way to provide for the expansion of the existing Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are aware of the potential pitfalls and have learned from the difficulties experienced in setting up the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.

Our priority is to ensure that standards in the administration of justice are maintained, that there is an orderly roll-out and that the new service is properly resourced. However, the time scale for establishing the new service should not be left open-ended. The Attorney General has agreed that we should include a sunset clause in the Bill, which would set a time limit of five years for this to happen, although we hope that the actual time scale will be shorter.

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The updated implementation plan will, of course, provide further detail on the time scale for the piloting and full roll-out of the new service.

Mr. Blunt: On Lords amendments Nos. 6 to 10, I have nothing to add, other than to thank the Government for proposing them, having tabled them in another place in response to concerns expressed in Committee. They certainly make the position clearer.

I thoroughly welcome Lords amendment No. 21 and the fact that it contains a sunset clause. Again, I draw the attention of the House to a concern represented to me when I was preparing for the Bill, about the prosecution service taking over police prosecutions in Northern Ireland. It was said that there was a collapse in the confidence and enthusiasm of police inspectors who have been responsible for the conduct of prosecutions. I do not know whether those remarks are fair. I sincerely hope that they are not and that there will be a seamless transition within the next five years to the new service.

The Minister told the House that the Government are alive to the potential difficulties—difficulties that were experienced far too widely in England when this process was undertaken. It would be regrettable if we had not learned from that experience to ensure that we could avoid such a situation in Northern Ireland.

I caution the Minister that those concerns have been expressed to me and that it may be necessary to roll out the new prosecution service more quickly than would otherwise be the case, given that it is definitely going to happen. I advise the hon. Gentleman to keep an eye on that and to reassure the House that the new service will be up and running without the difficulties that attended the CPS in England.

Lady Hermon: First, I am delighted that Lords amendment No. 7 is to be included in the Bill, which makes it clear that the Director has the discretion to set up offices in such places in Northern Ireland as he considers appropriate. Hopefully, he will read the text of this debate. I encourage him to think about offices west of the Bann. As someone who comes from County Tyrone, I would be delighted if services were set up there instead of always being focused on Belfast.

Secondly, I am disappointed that the opportunity was not taken in Lords amendment No. 8 to clause 31 to amend the proper title of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to what should be the legal title—the Police Service of Northern Ireland incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The title was changed for operational purposes only. I regret that that amendment was not made in another place.

6.15 pm

Mr. Browne: With the leave of the House, I will deal with some of the issues raised in this short debate.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) rightly draws on his experience in talking to the people in Northern Ireland with whom he meets regularly, which—along with our own discussions with such people—is a valuable source of information to the Government. If concerns have been expressed to him about the confidence of officers who are conducting police prosecutions, he is right to bring them to our attention and I thank him for doing so. However, the police are playing a key role in

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the establishment of the new service and I am not aware of any lack of confidence or ability on their part. They are represented on the project board that has been set up to take forward the implementation of these provisions. There is ongoing and close co-operation between the police and the DPP's office on the practical outworkings of the changeover.

I will draw the hon. Gentleman's comments, which were made constructively, to the attention of the DPP to ensure that they are addressed in the context of the joint work that is under way with the police.

I welcome the welcome given by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) to the Lords amendments. Her argument about the necessity for the offices of the DPP to be spread across Northern Ireland, to reflect the work load and to ensure that the service is provided to communities locally was well made. I know from my conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions that he is aware of and alert to the need to ensure that that service, which will be a valuable part of the modernisation of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is seen to be serving local communities. Indeed, if the system is to meet the objectives set out in the Bill and in the recommendations of the review report, particularly with regard to victims, people in the communities will need to have a relationship with the DPP's office so that information can be communicated. I know that her arguments, which were well made, are part of the DPP's planning for the eventual roll-out.

Given the issues that have been raised, it is appropriate quickly to report on some of the progress that has been made on the programme for the DPP's office since the publication of the Bill. As I said, under the sponsorship of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, an implementation board has been set up, with representatives not only of the police, but of the Northern Ireland Office and the DPP's office, as well as two independent representatives.

An implementation plan for the establishment of the new service has been approved by the board. It is intended to roll out the new service as quickly as possible and recruitment of professional staff and managers has commenced. People who have seen the Northern Ireland press in past weeks, will have seen the advertisements. Those staff will form the basis of the new service. I can assure the hon. Member for Reigate that I and other Ministers who share responsibility for that area will be keeping a close eye on developments to ensure that the speed with which the changes are made is commensurate with the best interests of justice.

Work is already under way on a revised implementation plan, which the Government hope to publish some time in the autumn. We expect that plan to be a fuller document than the plan that was published in November 2001. A number of respondents to the consultation exercise that followed publication of the original plan said that they would appreciate greater detail, particularly in regard to time scales, which have exercised a number of people, and we will take that on board.

I think that those comments deal with the issues raised and I urge the House to accept the Lords amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 7 to 10 agreed to.

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