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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Column Number: 233

Standing Committee F

Thursday 7 February 2002

(Morning)

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

9.30 am

Clause 46

Functions of Chief Inspector

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I beg to move amendment No. 290, in page 26, line 15, after 'inspections', insert

    'of the efficiency and effectiveness'.

This addition would make it clear that the role of the chief inspector of criminal justice was to inspect the various criminal justice agencies to ensure that they carried out their functions efficiently and effectively. As it stands, the Bill is somewhat vague about the inspector's role and about the inspections that he should carry out. The amendment would establish parameters within which he could carry out his functions, and similar parameters define the role of other inspectorates. For example, section 41(2) of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 empowers Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to inspect and report on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The amendment would tidy the clause up and give it more focus.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) for moving what I believe is intended to be a helpful amendment. However, although the sentiments behind it are entirely consistent with the review, it could have unfortunate unintended consequences.

One of the chief inspector's responsibilities is to inspect the Prison Service, but prescribing his role in the way set out in the amendment would prevent him from reporting on the condition and treatment of prisoners and children who were detained in juvenile justice centres or secure accommodation. That is just one example, but I am concerned that the range of bodies to be inspected is such that there may be others.

We must ensure that we do not inadvertently preclude the chief inspector from properly carrying out his functions in relation to all the bodies on the list. I would, therefore, be grateful if my hon. Friend would withdraw the amendment.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): On a point of order, Mr. Conway. I am sorry to interrupt the Committee's proceedings, but when we last met there was an unfortunate exchange between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt)—you were not in the Chair, although I know that you follow proceedings with

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almost legendary diligence. The Minister made allegations about what my hon. Friend had said, and the wiser members of the Committee agreed that my hon. Friend should withdraw his remarks if the record bore out those allegations and that the Minister should do likewise if it did not. I was waiting for the Minister to speak, in the hope that he would withdraw his allegations.

The Minister also made remarks about the possible accuracy of the record:

    ''I will of course read the record. However, I heard what I heard, and words on the page do not always bear the implications that they clearly bore''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 5 February 2002; c. 227.]

That rather casts doubt on the writers of the Official Report, which is unfortunate and something which I think the Minister will regret.

I know that the Minister is a reasonable and fair man, and that a reasonable and fair spirit has allowed the Committee to be productive. He has now had a chance to read the record, and, with your indulgence Mr. Conway, I simply wanted to give him the opportunity to put matters straight so that we could return to the equanimity and happy state that we previously enjoyed and which I hope that we shall enjoy again.

The Chairman: I read the Hansard of the sittings that I do not chair, to make sure that my co-chairmen and I are at least ploughing the same furrow—an unusual thought. The Committee seemed to be getting interestingly frisky towards the end of the last sitting. As far as I can see, the difficulty occurred in columns 226 and 227, with the word ''pejorative''. However, I took the precaution of going to the Library to check the Oxford English Dictionary, and I found that the word was not unparliamentary. It is not a word that the Minister could be required to withdraw. It may be considered hurtful, but it is not considered unparliamentary.

With regard to the Minister's observations on the Official Report, I am not sure that it was his intention to question it. That is not how I interpreted them, but if I misunderstood, I am sure that the Minister will put me right. I consider that I have no cause to require the Minister to withdraw anything he said. He may wish to add some remarks on a point of order, which I would take, but I have no grounds for requiring him to withdraw any remarks he made in columns 226 and 227.

Mr. Hayes: Further to that point of order, Mr. Conway. I will not detain the Committee for very long. I accept entirely what you said about the Minister not needing to withdraw remarks in the parliamentary sense. However, given the way that the Minister has conducted himself in the Committee thus far, and the positive and constructive atmosphere that has prevailed, I felt it was appropriate at this juncture to smooth things over. I hope that it is possible, without resort to the formal procedure of withdrawing remarks, to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate that his honour and integrity have not been brought into question by the Minister.

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Mr. Browne: Further to that point of order, Mr. Conway. If I say a few words we may be able to move on from the matter in the spirit described by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). I accept and recognise his description of the way that the Committee has conducted its affairs up to now. There is no question that the temperature of discussion was raised in the context referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

I have read the words that were said. You were correct to point out, Mr. Conway, that there was no suggestion that the Official Report would not properly record what had been said. Having read the words, and without requiring anybody to get into interpretations, definitions or descriptions, I am happy to put on the record that I accept that the hon. Member for Reigate did not intend that the words he used should have the meaning that I ascribed to them.

At that time, I considered the hon. Gentleman's words, in the wider context of what was going on in Northern Ireland, to be particularly unfortunate and capable of being so interpreted. However, I am happy to accept that the hon. Gentleman did not intend that. If these words restore the honour of the hon. Member for Reigate to the extent that it may have been taken away by something that I said, I hope that we can leave the record as it is without withdrawing anybody's remarks.

The Chairman: I am grateful to the Minister and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings for clarifying that matter. Committees do, from time to time, become excitable, and that is perfectly understandable. However, the consideration of the Bill has in general been reasoned, so let us hope that we can proceed on that basis.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Conway. To bring the matter to a conclusion, I am grateful for the Minister's remarks. I will go on accepting entirely what he says, and I hope that he will continue to accord me the same privilege.

The Chairman: We can now return to the Minister's contribution.

Mr. Browne: I had only one sentence left to deliver, but it may turn into two or three now. I was requesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh withdraw his amendment. However, I was also offering him the opportunity to continue his debate with me, either in the Committee or outside it, between now and the remaining stages of the Bill's passage. I would like to find out whether he can persuade me that what I fear would be the unintended consequences of his amendment would not, in reality, occur.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the Minister for his contribution. If he would suggest what some of the unfortunate consequences might be, it would help me to decide whether to pursue the matter.

Mr. Browne: I am anxious to curtail the debate, which is on comparatively narrow matters, but I will make a further contribution. In my short remarks, I

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suggested that the amendment would prescribe the inspector's role. I gave the example of the reporting of conditions and treatment of prisoners or children detained in juvenile justice centres or secure accommodation following an inspection by the Prison Service. I also suggested that there might be other examples due to the extensive nature and diversity of the bodies, but that that example was sufficient for me because it involved children. I hope that that helps my hon. Friend.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the Minister. I know of his interest in the Bill's dealings with young people, and that his concern is genuine. I am not convinced that the words ''efficiency and effectiveness'' would have detrimental consequences, but I want to have further discussions with the Minister, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I beg to move amendment No. 157, in page 26, line 31, leave out 'must not' and insert 'may choose not to'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 289, in page 26, line 31, leave out 'must' and insert 'need'.

Mrs. Calton: I was interested in the previous amendment, and was concerned that it might reduce the abilities and powers of the chief inspector. Amendments Nos. 157 and 158 are intended to probe the Minister on the powers of the inspector. We want to find out exactly how the Government envisage his role, as there seems to be some confusion as to how he should carry out his duties.

The inspector's function should be either to consider strategically all the organisations listed in subsection (1)—to do so properly, he would need the ability to investigate them all as he saw fit—or, as is suggested under amendment No. 158, to investigate only those matters that have been brought to his attention. Such matters are likely to come from individual cases, so he would need to be able to investigate such cases. The two amendments stand together.

The chief inspector's hands seem to be tied. As a matter of course, he cannot investigate all organisations listed in subsection (1) as he sees fit, and he cannot investigate in individual cases.

 
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