Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik: I listened to the case put by the Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he is being somewhat intransigent in rejecting sensible proposals? The Minister even gives the impression that the Government are not willing to reconsider the matter on Report, despite the case made by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which explain why I am distressed at the Minister's opposition to the amendments. The Government and the Committee may successfully resist them at this stage, although we hope that they do not, as it is not really a party issue, and I hope that members of the Committee will surprise us by exercising their own judgment.—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the intervention of the Government Whip, who can tell when the Government's cause is weak, as it has been on other Northern Ireland issues on which we have eventually persuaded them to change their mind.

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The whole climate of opinion is moving in the direction of the amendments, so, if the Government resist them at this stage, I hope that we shall be able to reconsider the matter later. However, I certainly intend to press the amendment to a Division.

Mr. Mallon: I want to make it clear that I shall seek a separate vote on new clause 2.

The Chairman: Order. May I give the hon. Gentleman some guidance? We shall take new clause 2 when we reach the appropriate point in the Bill, but I take note that he will want to move it formally at that stage.

Mr. Mallon: I am responding to advice from the Clerk, but I take your judgment on the matter, Mr. Pike.

The Chairman: That is the procedure. We will deal now with amendments Nos. 176 and 177. New clauses are dealt with once we reach the appropriate place in the Bill. We have properly debated new clause 2 with this group of amendments, but it cannot be moved formally until we reach that stage. Only then can the Committee divide on it.

Mr. Mallon: Thank you, Mr. Pike, for that advice.

In any society, especially that of Northern Ireland, which has such experience and such division, the public make a judgment about the degree to which justice is seen to be done not just on the number of cases prosecuted but on those that are not prosecuted. I would be concerned about the effect that that could have on public opinion. I am not convinced by the Minister's argument that a presumption in favour of disclosure would preclude particular consideration in relevant cases. I am not convinced that the presumption of disclosure would prevent decisions being made in the public interest and in the interests of justice. For those reasons, I await with interest our debate on schedule 8.

Lembit Öpik: If a vote is called, the Liberal Democrats will support the amendment to make the principle point that it is not clear why the Minister is so resistant to what seems a sensible argument. We feel more comfortable with new clause 2, although I understand that it comes later. I am disappointed that the Minister was not more sympathetic to a common-sense proposal that seems genuinely sympathetic and is in the interests of victims.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 12.

Division No. 10]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Calton, Mrs Patsy
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Hayes, Mr. John
Mallon, Mr. Seamus
Öpik, Lembit
Turner, Mr. Andrew

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NOES
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Dobbin, Jim
Hall, Patrick
Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 177, in page 20, line 8, at end insert—

    '(2A) Where proceedings against a person in relation to an offence are discontinued under subsection (1), the Director must give reasons for the discontinuance of proceedings to those persons listed under subsection (2), unless in the Director's judgement to do so would be against the interest of justice or the public interest.'.—[Mr. Blunt.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 12.

Division No. 11]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Calton, Mrs Patsy
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Hayes, Mr. John
Mallon, Mr. Seamus
Öpik, Lembit
Turner, Mr. Andrew

NOES
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Dobbin, Jim
Hall, Patrick
Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 35

Police complaints

Mr. Mallon: I beg to move amendment No. 201, in page 21, line 14, at end insert—

    '(3A) In section 55 (Consideration of other matters by the Ombudsman), after subsection (1) insert

    ''(1A) The Director shall refer to the Ombudsman any matter which—

    (a) appears to the Director to indicate that a member of the police service may have—

    (i) committed a criminal offence; or

    (ii) behaved in a manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings; and

    (b) is not the subject of a complaint.'''.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 202, in page 21, line 15, leave out

    'in subsection (1) (in each place) and'.

Mr. Mallon: The amendments are directly connected. They attempt to clarify what the DPP must do if he receives information to suggest that a police officer has committed a criminal offence or has

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breached discipline, but a formal complaint has not been made. The DPP must refer such matters to the police ombudsman.

The amendments are intended to give statutory effect to recommendation 21 of the review, which states:

    ''We recommend that a duty be placed on the prosecutor to ensure that any allegations of malpractice by the police are fully investigated.''

Accordingly, the amendments would strengthen the Bill, which gives the DPP only discretionary authority to bring a matter to the ombudsman's attention. The review is fairly explicit. We believe that that recommendation—it also appears in paragraph 4.133—will strengthen not only the DPP and his office, but the position of the police.

In effect, the amendment is an attempt to avoid police bashing, and to avoid criticising the process of justice. Instead, it is an attempt to strengthen both the police and that process, to allow for maximum confidence in their operation and perception. I recommend the amendments.

Lembit Öpik: Once again, I am sorry to say that my questions for the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh might have been better in an intervention.

The hon. Gentleman's intention is clearly to objectify and codify when something will be referred to the ombudsman. Nevertheless, the amendment does not do that, because somebody would still be required to make a judgment about whether an offence had been committed. The subjective nature of such a judgment could simply be bumped up one level, so that if the Secretary of State and the police authority were so inclined they could state that, in their judgment, there was no such indication.

Does the amendment achieve the hon. Gentleman's goal, or does it simply increase the pressure on the Secretary of State and the police authority to say, on occasion, that there is not sufficient indication that a member of the police force has committed a criminal offence or behaved in a manner that would justify disciplinary proceedings? If my concern is founded, that could serve to increase stress on the police authority, and that would worry me.

5.30 pm

Mr. Mallon: I do not believe that to be the case. The amendment is consistent with the review's clear recommendation that a duty be placed on the prosecutor, and it attempts to define that duty. I know that it may not be the best way to approach the matter, but is it conceivable that, in some instances, the director should not ensure that an allegation of malpractice on the part of the police is fully investigated? If so, we shall need to make it clear in what circumstances he should not do so.

Lady Hermon: The hon. Gentleman has kindly outlined why he would prefer a duty to a discretion with reference to the review. Section 55 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, which the clause amends,

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not only treats the Secretary of State's power as discretionary, but states that matters should be referred to the ombudsman

    ''if, after consultation with the Ombudsman and the Chief Constable, it appears to the Authority or the Secretary of State that it is desirable in the public interest that the Ombudsman should investigate the matter.''

That section requires a consultation process. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee why such a process is omitted from his amendment?

Mr. Mallon: Mainly because I am not writing the Bill. The amendment is designed to ensure that, in circumstances where a police officer breaches the rules or does something that would lead to disciplinary proceedings, but is not yet the subject of a complaint, the DPP would have the power and the duty to deal with that.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked what effect the amendment would have on the Policing Board. Let me be honest: if the Policing Board is not strong enough to maintain the highest standards in the police, then it will not survive. I am convinced that it will, and that openness of the type contained in the amendment will help it to do so.

The essence of the amendment is clear. We are in the midst of something new. We have had a horrific 30 years in terms of Northern Ireland society. Allegations have been made against the police and there has been mistrust of the courts. Those things will not disappear overnight; as legislators, we shall have to deal with them through the law that we write and the type of arrangements that we are making under the Bill.

I venture to suggest that, if we were dealing with any other country in the world except Northern Ireland, there would not be a whimper about the matter. I am not sure that there would be any reaction. However, I am aware that the issue raises hackles and causes concern. I do not live in a vacuum. I am aware of the attitudes that exist towards policing, the police ombudsman and the judiciary, but if the Bill is to work, we must place ourselves many steps above those attitudes.

I ask hon. Members to judge the measure on its merits. Is it not right that, if a police officer commits a criminal offence or behaves in a manner that justifies disciplinary proceedings, the DPP should have a duty to investigate? I am not sure that anybody in the Committee would disagree with that solely on its merits, but there are many connotations that might prevent such agreement.

 
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Prepared 5 February 2002