Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I wish to make one or two observations. The points made by the hon. Member for Reigate were relevant, but I ask him to consider that it may not be possible to write that script for some time. Much as I would like to agree with him, I want the Government to be tied down to firm and specific proposals, and I shall tell the Committee why.

I represent the constituency of Newry and Armagh, which contains south Armagh. There are parts of Northern Ireland where enthusiasm for the Good Friday agreement and all that it entails is not as strong as it might be and as it possibly will be. There are parts of what would be termed, erroneously in my view, loyalist areas of Northern Ireland, where the same would apply. The most appalling examples of justice, in inverted commas, is meted out by those who take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner.

The script—the detail—will have to be painstakingly written. That is why I have been so adamant in trying to ensure a feeling of change. We need the right attitude towards the future, so that at least as a community we can start putting those building blocks together, one on top of the other. It will take a considerable time to do that, and to do it well, but the final product will be the answer to many of the political problems in the north of Ireland and many of the divided attitudes there. The final answer as regards policing will be arrived at in the same manner.

The community, by which I mean the people of Northern Ireland, and the various subgroups within it on which we tend to put labels, will have the opportunity to create for themselves, with the political process, a whole new beginning. That is why I tend to agree with the Government at this stage. It is probably too soon to start painting in the detail, until the broad scene begins to be characterised by hope and belief that can be developed and fostered.

Mr. Blunt: When the Government are in a position to paint in the detail, they can place the necessary legislation before Parliament. None of the hon. Gentleman's arguments deal with the fact that the Government are taking the powers in the measure prematurely. That is the burden of my argument.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, but there is a job of work to be done in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive with regard to community reaction and where the community stands in relation to these issues. The problems surrounding Holy Cross school are a prime example. The wider community, including those living in the area, were precluded or excluded from having the influence that would have been desirable.

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In normal circumstances, and had we been further down the line, I would have been in full agreement with the hon. Member for Reigate. However, it may not be possible to paint in the detail until other things fall into place and a broader and more general acceptance that we are serious about change emerges. When that starts to take root, it will be much easier to work on the details, whether that work is done in this Parliament or taken on board by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, as I hope that it will be. That will be the acid test.

Lady Hermon: As we will not have a separate debate on clause 71, I want to raise a matter concerning the composition of the local community safety partnerships. I invite the Minister to respond to points on clause 71 when he responds to clause 70. Would that be in order?

7.15 pm

The Chairman: I said that I did not want to go through the same arguments again on clause 71. There is an amendment to clause 71, but I would be prepared to allow a debate on any points that do not apply to it. If there is to be a clause stand part debate on clause 71, I would expect it to be much reduced because of what this debate has covered. I hope that that helps you, Lady Hermon.

Lady Hermon: Do you want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Mr. Pike?

The Chairman: I cannot totally eliminate a clause stand part debate on clause 71 yet, but I do not want to cover the same ground again.

Lady Hermon: I do not want to do so.

Mr. Browne: I shall try to assist the hon. Lady. Amendment No. 241, in the event that it is moved by the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) or for Montgomeryshire, will raise the issue that exercises her at the moment. If we have a debate on the composition of community safety group partnerships, I shall have something to say then.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Minister's advice, and I shall reserve my remarks until the appropriate time.

Mr. Browne: I shall endeavour to deal with the serious issues that the hon. Member for Reigate raised. The Government seek to strike a balance between the position recommended in the review and the position that he espouses, which, for reasons that I shall come to in a moment, is closer to the Government's position in relation to the shape of the bodies that should deliver community safety.

It would be inappropriate to seek to shape those agencies now, because it would require anticipating significant changes that are taking place in Northern Ireland. We do not know what those changes will bring. Despite all that and for the reasons to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh alluded, the Secretary of State seeks to take the powers now because some local councils want to deliver on community safety and are getting on with doing so.

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They are rightly concerned that what they are doing should be supported by the shape of the legislation.

The Government have introduced provisions for consulted responses. We propose to ensure, in a careful fashion, the maximum consultation and the maximum opportunity for debate once the framework of the provisions has been formed. They will of necessity be interim provisions, as I shall explain.

Clause 70 requires the Secretary of State to devise a community safety strategy for Northern Ireland. Community safety is about reducing crime and the fear of crime. It involves measures to address not only criminal behaviour, but antisocial behaviour and other factors that affect people's perception of their safety. The strategy will set out key targets to be addressed by those working on community safety. It will also inform the local strategies produced by each of the local partnerships that will be established under clause 71. As I said to the hon. Member for Cheadle in an earlier debate, we will shortly publish a draft strategy for consultation.

Clause 71 contains powers for the Secretary of State to establish local community safety partnerships. As the hon. Member for Reigate said, a partnership-based approach goes to the heart of what community safety is about. He tells us that he has experience in his locality of its effectiveness and, from a different model in my locality, I accept that the sort of partnership that he describes is important.

A local partnership can tackle the unique concerns of an area with measures tailor made to meet the area's needs. Each partnership will conduct an audit for the area for which it is responsible to identify issues of local concern. Taking into account the results of that audit and the Northern Ireland-wide community safety strategy published by the Secretary of State, it will produce a plan for addressing community safety in that area.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I shall explain further before I give way.

With respect to the shape of the local partnerships, the Government believe that it would be premature to make firm decisions. The review recommended that community safety policing partnerships be established not with partial composition but with the same composition as district policing partnerships. Those district policing partnerships have not yet been set up, so we cannot work with them, although we hope that they will be established soon.

For the reasons articulated by the hon. Member for Reigate, it is not clear whether that model would produce effective co-operation and partnership with agencies with responsibilities relevant to community safety. Bodies responsible for housing, social services, probation, policing, education and the environment are not presently members of policing partnerships. The hon. Gentleman argues for a community safety partnership that includes those very agencies. If we were to respond strictly to the review's recommendation, we should exclude a large number of agencies that the hon. Gentleman says should have

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a role to play. Those agencies would be essential, because they would be called upon to deliver many local services.

Mr. Blunt: I understand the Minister's point, but in Surrey the organisation to which I referred sits not because legislation demands it, but because boundaries have been set up and people's interests are aligned. They have one point of contact and the police need only look in one direction in their relationship with the community.

Of course, there will be difficulties in Northern Ireland. That is why the local administration review in Northern Ireland was asked to address the matter of where authority for housing would lie. Again, we can see from that example that it is premature to create powers for structures in such a controversial region before the review is completed and we know what the future local government structure will be and where powers will lie.

Mr. Browne: I think that the hon. Gentleman has the point, because he anticipates my second argument. Another reason why creating powers for structures would be premature is that the Northern Ireland Executive announced in their programme for government that they would establish a review of public administration. That is likely to result in significant changes to existing rules and responsibilities in organisations that could be expected to contribute to community safety. In view of that important development, which the criminal justice review was unable to take into account, it would not be sensible to fix long-term arrangements before the future shape of public administration in Northern Ireland becomes clear. I think that we are at one thus far.

In the interim, community safety will be supported from the centre, but that will be an interim measure. Detailed proposals will be set out in the draft community safety strategy to which I referred and which is referred to in the clause. A key element will be to encourage the early formation of non-statutory community safety partnerships, building on current best practice to tackle relevant issues at local levels. In developing those arrangements, the Northern Ireland Office will consult departments on the scope for aligning the community safety partnerships with the new structure of local strategic partnerships established by the Executive.

Thus a significant amount of work remains to be done. The purpose of clauses 70 and 71 is not to give the Secretary of State powers that he will exercise willy-nilly, but to enable him to have a statutory structure in which he can respect and incorporate existing good practice in the interim and engage in necessary discussions, such as open discussions with the Executive. Unless that consultation takes place, in the context anticipated by clauses 70 and 71, we shall not be able to establish the structure. Given that much of the delivery of safety is to be by those who exercise transferred powers, it would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to set out a shape for them, even in the interim. The Secretary of State does not seek to exercise the powers without proper scrutiny and discussion; he does so in order that we can have the

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consultation in a changing environment, recognising the fact that people want the community safety work to take place in the interim. They cannot wait for the length of time suggested by the hon. Member for Reigate to have their communities made safer.

We have given as much detail as we can in the primary legislation of the Government's current thinking and will come back with proposals that can be debated. In that context, I ask the Committee to support the clauses as they are drafted.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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