Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Clause 70

Community safety strategy

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I beg to move amendment No. 240, in page 60, line 15, at end insert—

    '(d) such other persons or organisations as he thinks appropriate.'.

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I should be able to deal with this probing amendment quickly. We want to know whether it is the Government's intention to prescribe who must be consulted when altering or devising a community safety strategy. Will the Secretary of State be able to consult others, or will he be confined to the three parties referred to in subsection 4(a), (b) and (c)?

Mr. Browne: The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult any

    ''other persons or organisations as he thinks appropriate''

when devising or altering a community safety strategy for Northern Ireland. We endorse the principle of wide consultation on the strategy, and will publish a draft community safety strategy shortly for just such consultation. I welcome comments from all interested parties and organisations, particularly from those who work in the field of community safety. Should we want to make substantive changes to the strategy once it is established, we will consult widely. The amendment would add nothing to the Bill, and if the hon. Lady accepts my reassurance of a commitment to consultation, she will conclude that it is not necessary.

Mrs. Calton: That satisfies our concerns. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Blunt: With you indulgence, Mr. Pike, I should like to debate clause 70 stand part with arguments relating to the clause 71 stand part debate. That would help the Committee. If you agree, I will not seek to catch your eye during the debate on clause 71 to repeat my arguments.

The Chairman: I accept that, and hope that other hon. Members will do the same. If they do, I will not allow a debate on clause 71 stand part.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful. We have had a debate on the importance of implementing the review, and of the Government being faithful to it. We have said that the purpose of the Belfast agreement was to set up a review, and that it would be wholly unreasonable to expect the Government neither to abide by its terms nor to introduce the necessary legislation to implement it. However, that is what the clause is inviting us to do in respect of community safety.

I commend the section of the review on community safety, and it is a pity that the Government have chosen to ignore it. The review's specific recommendation is not for community safety partnerships, but for community safety and policing partnerships. An important debate is going on—I accept that, as the Government say, it is current—about how, and by which bodies, community safety strategy is to be implemented. The conclusions and recommendations of the review represent a strong strand of argument that the local authority structure, and the geographic district structure, should be part of the community safety strategy and, therefore, that community safety should be implemented by community safety and policing partnerships, thus

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rolling the district policing partnerships into the community safety partnerships.

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I am convinced by the logic of the arguments and by my experience as a Member of Parliament in the county of Surrey. Satisfactory arrangements for dealing with community safety have resulted in the overlap that has been achieved since the Greater London Authority Act 1999 was passed. The police boundaries in Surrey now align precisely with the boundaries of the county of Surrey. That means that there is effective co-operation not only at county but at district and borough levels in dealing with issues of community safety.

For example, discussions now take place on housing matters, because the troublemakers in the community—those people who cause rows with their neighbours—whom the housing authorities deal with are precisely the same people who come to the attention of the police. It is very important to align the responsibilities for community safety with police responsibilities.

Police in Northern Ireland have told me that the legislation that the Government are proposing, instead of a review, is wholly unwelcome, because the local police commander of a district must agree a policing strategy with his district policing partnership. It is unrealistic to expect him then to look to a totally different body for community safety.

The Government have acknowledged the difficulties in this area. When the Secretary of State introduced the Bill on Second Reading, he said:

    ''Another subject on which we have received a number of submissions is community safety. There was widespread support in the local government sector for a provision in the Bill to give councils clear statutory authority to undertake community safety work. I very much welcome the councils' intention to play an active role in community safety, which will contribute to reducing crime and the fear of crime in their localities. In order to facilitate that, I am minded, subject to consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, to bring forward an amendment on those lines.''—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 646.]

I have been waiting in hope for the Government to come forward with an amendment on community safety in order to make sense of their provisions. Instead, they have simply taken the powers in the widest possible sense. By doing that, they will reinforce rather than allay concern about what community safety partnerships mean and exactly who will be involved in them.

There is an on-going and important debate in Northern Ireland about community restorative justice and schemes in the unofficial sector of justice, which obviously apply mainly in republican areas, but in some loyalist areas as well the writ of the police does not run. Community restorative justice schemes range from the basest example of justice, administered by a bullet to somebody's kneecap, to schemes that—in the absence of anything else, and if I were to take a wholly pragmatic judgment—might actually contribute in some way to community safety. Some community restorative justice schemes have tried to establish an oversight board not moderated by the Government but by non-governmental organisations; for example,

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the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. However, the concern must be that the powers that the Government are taking will give them the ability to bring those schemes within the remit of community safety, which would alarm members of the community in Northern Ireland.

I note that Government amendment No. 302 to clause 88 would ensure that any future changes that the Government might make would have to be done by affirmative resolution. At least the Government have gone some way to addressing our concerns on that matter. It would have been utterly and wholly unacceptable if the Government had decided to take those powers without further reference to Parliament. However, the Government have gone far enough. In particular, I do not understand why the Bill does not deliver the review. From experience gathered elsewhere, it seems quite proper for the district policing and community safety partnerships to run alongside each other, based on local authority boundaries. In that way, there would be a clear responsibility within the local structure, and one would know exactly who was dealing with what. One of the criticisms in the review is that that responsibility is not clearly set out.

Mr. Browne: Is the hon. Gentleman conceding that the strict model that is recommended does not reflect the partnership that he expects community safety partnerships to have? The strict model that is recommended translates the membership of the district policing partnership into the membership of the community safety partnership. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that it is deficient to that extent.

Mr. Blunt: I would draw the Minister's attention to the Government's conclusions in the implementation report. They state:

    ''The Government strongly supports the idea of local structures to drive forward an inter-agency approach to community safety, and intends to consult closely with the Executive on the way ahead.''

They then say:

    ''Accordingly, the Government believes that it would be premature to make firm decisions now on the future shape of local community safety arrangements.''

The arrangements that the Government want to put in place are extremely important. They should be subject to primary legislation. It is not acceptable for them to take such wide powers by a series of measures and then say, ''Oh, but they will be done by statutory instrument and will be subject to affirmative resolution when we come forward with the details.'' The Government have had a long time to consider the proposals. If they are not ready now—if it is premature because of difficulties in this area—they should wait until they are ready and come to Parliament with properly thought out proposals. They should not give themselves the power under the Bill to bring forward proposals later.

I am happy to accept the Government's conclusion that it is premature to come forward with those proposals. It is therefore not appropriate for the Government to take such wide powers under the Bill. If the House were more effective in dealing with subsidiary legislation, we could have a greater debate,

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but it is not. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs. Those important powers should not be taken under statutory instruments. That should be done by primary legislation, which can be properly debated. It is terribly important that those arrangements are properly set up.

With the absence of detail and with no further Government amendments likely, as the Secretary of State hinted on Second Reading, the Opposition will oppose clauses 70 and 71 stand part.

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Prepared 12 February 2002