Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I suggest that the legislated-for role of the police ombudsman would have all credibility removed from it if the amendment were carried. It would render the office inoperable. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman wants that, but perhaps some people do. After all, who inspects the chief inspector? That is the logical question if the chief inspector is to inspect the ombudsman. Finally, no one from the ombudsman's office is present to refute any allegation or imputation against it. I take it on myself to do so—

The Chairman: Order. This is an intervention and they must be brief.

Mr. Blunt: The answer as to who inspects the chief inspector is that he is accountable to those who appointed him—the Secretary of State before devolution, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister thereafter. They in turn are held accountable by Parliament or the Assembly. I have half a notion of the Latin phrase for ''Who guards the guardians'', but I shall not try it.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that this issue relates to confidence in the office of the ombudsman. I do not think that it is appropriate for the ombudsman to sit unregulated outside and above the whole criminal justice framework. Because it has an investigatory function, it is necessary that certain standards of investigation are adhered to. It is a unique role, and the ombudsman and her office are finding their way within the law as laid down. It is necessary, precisely because we need confidence, to be able to say that the standards of conduct in the ombudsman's office are subject to some outside vetting and inspection.

That is why I have moved the amendment. The same principle applies to other bodies that have roles in the criminal justice field and there are limited roles for the groups named in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. As I have said, I have an entirely open mind about supporting those. If those organisations have a role in criminal justice, they should come within the purview of the chief inspector.

Lady Hermon: To enlighten the hon. Gentleman, I have included Consignia, the Financial Services Agency and the Inland Revenue because I have it from the most reliable of sources—the House of Commons Library—that all those bodies have criminal investigatory powers. Consignia, for example, can investigate postmen who might dispose of letters. I mean, of course, no criticism of postmen.

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Mr. Blunt: The hon. Lady gives us a preview of the remarks that she will make on her amendments. She has gone most of the way towards convincing me that her amendment is better than mine. It properly addresses the issue of who has a prosecutorial or investigatory role in the criminal justice system, and it is clear to me that those bodies should come within the ambit of the chief inspector.

The purpose of the chief inspectorate is to give people confidence in the institutions that will be subject to its attentions. It would be good for the ombudsman to be brought within the ambit of the inspectorate because that would reinforce the confidence of the whole community, especially of the police, that proper standards were being applied. I know that the Police Service for Northern Ireland, at representative level in organisations such as the Police Federation and among the chain of command, is anxious for the amendment to be made. Given the delicate nature of morale in the police service, the amendment would be good for the ombudsman and for the police, because it would reinforce their confidence that the system by which the Police Service for Northern Ireland is be judged will operate fairly.

7.30 pm

Lady Hermon: I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 181 and 188.

I considered the functions of the chief inspector as far back as last autumn, so my comments predate Omagh and everything that has happened since then.

Mr. Browne: I am sure that no one doubts the hon. Lady's word, but I can confirm that I had a conversation with her before the most recent controversy about these issues, as matters of principle rather than matters relating to any individual.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for putting that on the record because that is how matters stood last autumn, and that remains the case.

I am concerned that the functions of the chief inspector should be set out in a comprehensive list that includes all organisations that have criminal investigatory powers. Last autumn, I suggested that the office of the police ombudsman should be included in the list, which already includes Forensic Science, Northern Ireland, the State Pathologist's Department, the Police Service for Northern Ireland, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, health and social services boards, health and social services trusts and the Compensation Agency. It is a long list, but my amendment would make the list comprehensive. Let us get the Bill right now instead of waiting and having to amend it.

I know that the Minister is likely to draw my attention to clause 46(6), which states:

    ''The Secretary of State may by order amend subsection (1) by—

    (a) adding any organisation having a role in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland...

    (b) omitting an organisation, or

    (c) altering the description of an organisation.''

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I am aware that that provision is available to the Secretary of State, but I thought that it was intended to cover organisations that might be created in the future.

The current position is that Consignia, the Financial Services Authority, the Inland Revenue and the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland all have criminal investigatory powers. To remind hon. Members who may not have been present when I raised the matter with the Minister on Second Reading—although given their great interest in Northern Ireland and the reform of the criminal justice system, I hope that they were present—he said:

    ''That issue has exercised the hon. Lady for some time and she and I have discussed it previously. I can give an assurance that the organisations that will be subject to inspection by the inspectorate will be kept constantly under review. That is why the clause has been drafted as it has . . . All organisations that have criminal investigatory powers and powers to prosecute in Northern Ireland are being considered for incorporation in the list.''—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 690.]

We have the opportunity to make the list comprehensive. Amendment No. 188 makes it obvious that the power of the chief inspector to investigate is limited to the criminal justice functions that might be performed by Consignia, the Financial Services Authority and the Inland Revenue. The wording is similar to that used for the limitation on the investigation into the health and social services boards and health and social services trusts. It is not a free-for-all; there are defined limitations. I want the Bill to be right. We have the opportunity—let us make it comprehensive.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): The hon. Member for North Down has made the point, but I would emphasise that it seems only right for any organisation with an ability to bring prosecutions or to investigate matters that could lead to a prosecution to be investigated by the chief inspector. Amendment No. 188 stipulates that the chief inspector should only investigate matters pertaining to Consignia, the FSA and the Inland Revenue if they relate to Northern Ireland, as the hon. Lady said. I support the amendments.

Mr. Browne: This debate is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it gives me an opportunity to dispel some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh about the functions and roles of the chief inspector. It is a pity that the debate is taking place in extra time because, for example, the hon. Member for Reigate is accompanied only by his Whip, the Liberal Democrats have only 50 per cent. representation and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) is not here. His absence particularly concerns me because of the lengths to which I went to ensure that his party was represented in Committee in response to what I thought was a reasonable concern that it had not hitherto been represented in debates and had a contribution to make. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman's party has not taken up that opportunity, except to put one minor question.

The issue before us is important. The other point—

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Browne: No. The hon. Member for Reigate might want me to give way, or to add to what he has to say, when he hears my comments. This is a helpful opportunity for debate. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman used it—for blatant political reasons—to make a pejorative remark about the ombudsman, although he cannot possibly have had the opportunity to read in full either the ombudsman's report or the Chief Constable's response to that report. He cannot have done so since they are not in the public domain and are not available to him.

I have had that opportunity. Even having done so, I find the complexity of the matter and the sensitivity of the issues to be such that I would not make any qualitative remark about the report until I had given it considerably more thought. I say that with a background of professional involvement in investigations that have ranged over a year and have produced detailed reports, such as those in relation to Omagh. It is a great pity that people take it upon themselves to make ill-informed, pejorative and partial remarks. They ought, first, to consider the effect on the people of Omagh, who were the victims of that atrocious—

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Browne: No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman should content himself. He will get an opportunity to come back, but I shall not give way at this point. He raised the issue and then sat down. I deplore the fact that he raised it in this context, especially as he could not have informed himself in sufficient detail to be able to reach the judgment that he offered, and I deplore the fact that he did it apparently without regard for the effect that it would have on the people most directly affected. I say publicly that I will deplore it if he does that again. We should all think long and carefully about what we do and say on such important matters. I am not taking sides. I want to be absolutely objective. The Secretary of State will make public his views on the matter in due course. It helps not a jot to throw such spanners into the works. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will want to share that part of Hansard with certain people, but he can share this bit as well.

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