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Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that unequivocal assurance. Where there is an unequivocal assurance, it is not my intention—or the intention of those associated with me—to frustrate or hold up the Bill. The discussion has been useful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. Noon

The Deputy Speaker (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo): My Lords, before calling Amendment No. 4, I must inform the House that, if it is agreed, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

[Amendments Nos. 4 to 6 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Board's policing objectives]:

[Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.]

Clause 3 [Public meetings of the Board]:

Lord Smith of Clifton moved Amendment No. 9:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 stipulated that the board meet 10 times a year. The Bill reduces that to eight times a year. The reduction in the number of public meetings of the board each year is a departure from Patten.

In Committee, the Minister explained that those changes had been made at the specific request of the Policing Board, as it wanted greater flexibility over when it could hold meetings. However, that flexibility can be achieved under subsection (2), which removes the time limit on the holding of public meetings. The 2000 Act already compromised Patten on that point by reducing the minimum number of meetings from 12 to 10. To reduce it further—to eight—would be a retrograde step for transparency and public accountability. Flexibility is not a good enough reason for the change. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's concern, but all that we are doing here is setting a different minimum. It is important to recognise that that is all that is proposed. I return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth: the board is settling in well and learning through experience. The board specifically asked us to put the minimum at eight.

As it happens, the public meetings are not well attended. I cannot think why. The board needs to have many private meetings, for obvious reasons that we all understand. Occasionally, with the pressure of private meeting business and the squalls that sometimes come up over Christmas or other holiday periods, the board finds it logistically difficult to comply with the statutory minimum.

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The board, which is developing its own authority, has made the request. Its judgment should be trusted, and we want to accede to the request. I hope that it will help if I stress that it is not the board's intention—nor the Government's—to do anything to undermine its accountability or, in particular, its transparency, the aspect referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I ask the noble Lord to bear in mind the reassurance that I have sought to give and not to press the amendment.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation. I do not entirely accept that reasons of logistics and so on should prevent the board holding a minimum of public meetings a year. Thankfully, the apathy of the public, who do not attend, means that things are going well. When things are not going so well, people should have the opportunity to attend public meetings.

I shall not press the amendment at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 [Reports of Chief Constable]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 10:

    Leave out Clause 8.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we return to the battle that was fought long and hard in Grand Committee about Clauses 8 and 9. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 do virtually the same thing. The nub of the argument comes later, with Amendment No. 35 to Clause 19, but there are more ways than one of discussing the matter.

I fail to see why it is necessary to interfere with the operational responsibility and independence of the Chief Constable. That is what the clause does. What has changed since the 2000 Act? Nothing has changed, other than the fact that there have been some off-the-record agreements at a place called Weston Park that have nothing to do with the Belfast agreement and nothing to do with Patten.

The clause will reduce the grounds on which the Chief Constable can refer a request for information to the Secretary of State. That is a particularly important matter in Northern Ireland where the maintenance of the operational independence of the chief officer of police is such a sensitive issue. Under the 2000 Act, the Chief Constable is not allowed a veto over the board on whether a report on a matter specified by the board should be made. The amendments to be made to that Act by the Bill will be damaging.

I fear that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will say that he does not foresee a situation in which our fears would be relevant. I cannot agree. Friendly as we are most of the time, we disagreed about that in Committee, and I am concerned that we may fall out again today. Forcing a Chief Constable to report to a board in a way that was likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders must be wrong in any part of the kingdom.

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In Committee, I asked the noble and learned Lord why the Government felt it necessary to make such an extraordinary change and what had changed so dramatically in Northern Ireland between 2000 and January 2003. I was not satisfied with his explanations then. He may be able to help me today, but I am not optimistic. I beg to move.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, nowadays, in serious fraud cases, the courts make provision to lighten the load of a jury by laying on electronic recall of complicated documents and projecting the results onto screens all around the court. That makes it easier for the jury to follow what is said to them, however complex. I wish that something of the same could have been made available while we discussed this amendment. It would make it easier for people who have not been initiated—"blooded" might be another word—by a discussion of at least an hour in Grand Committee to follow the way in which the Bill changes an important part of the law. Its importance was conceded by the noble and learned Lord in Grand Committee when he dealt with the grounds for the amendment with his customary care and accuracy. Because I have kept quiet so far this morning, perhaps I might be indulged in explaining what is done at a little length.

The matter can be put simply—it has to be without the kind of aid to the drafting changes that are involved—but nonetheless accurately. The context is the duty of the Chief Constable, as explained by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, to submit to the policing board reports whenever he is required by the board to do so. What kind of reports?—reports on any matter that the board may specify in its requirement. How soon must he comply?—within one month of any such requirement or—the noble and learned Lord placed great emphasis on this in his reply to me—any such longer period as may be agreed by the Chief Constable with the board. We will return to the significance of that provision.

I referred to the present law. How old is it? It is not as much as three years old. It comes from Section 59 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. It may even be less than two years old, because Section 59 did not come into force on the passing of the Act but on some later date ordered by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that I have not been able to determine.

This being about the policing of Northern Ireland and the history of Northern Ireland—not, as we have been reminded, of Surrey—some safeguards were included against the consequence of tensions between the policing board and the Chief Constable. We all are grateful for the fact that the board seems to be settling down and is working. It is greatly to our advantage that we have among us the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, as a member of that board, which adds enormously to our discussion of these matters.

It was anticipated by Parliament a short time ago that tensions could arise between the Chief Constable and the board. I do not believe that it would be realistic

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to suppose that anticipation is entirely eliminated by the encouraging but early start that has been made. It was anticipated that those tensions could arise in such a way that the Chief Constable would be asked to report on a matter that he thought would be bound to contain information that ought not to be disclosed for one or more of four reasons. They are interests of national security; because the matter relates to an individual and is of a sensitive and personal character; it would or would be likely to prejudice proceedings which have been commenced in a court of law; or the critical reason for our discussion, in Section 59(3)(d) of the 2000 Act, which is that,

    "it would, or would be likely, to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders".

The character of the safeguards are to be found in the same section. The Chief Constable can refer any such requirement to the Secretary of State, then it will be over to him. He can do what he likes. He can amend the requirement or override it. It is over to him and off the responsibility of the Chief Constable.

I believe that it is still necessary that all such grounds should be open to the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, the Bill removes paragraph (d). The prosecution of offenders, and more especially perhaps the apprehension of crime, fall absolutely fair and square within the operational discretion of the Chief Constable. They are for him and him alone. I leave aside the later stages of prosecution, which of course become the responsibility of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I invite the House to agree that it is terribly important that the Chief Constable's operational discretion—the noble and learned Lord confirmed a moment ago that the operational management of the police is for the Chief Constable—should not be trenched apart. If one takes away the ground contained in Section 59(3)(d), one opens the way—it may not be readily foreseen but could be taken—to covert prevention of crime being apprehended in one particular or other and to not being able to prosecute some individual because the trail has been muddied or for some other reason.

We fasten upon that because of its importance. In Grand Committee, the noble and learned Lord said:

    "This is a topic of great seriousness. It may be the most important aspect of our discussions at this stage".—[Official Report, 9/1/03; col. GC68.]

When he first put forward the justification for what is being done, the noble and learned Lord drew attention to the point to which I have already alluded—that there can be postponement of the report if that is agreed between the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State. It has to be delivered in one month or such later time as may agreed. One hopes that there would be agreement, but the necessity for the safeguards that I have mentioned has been the anticipation that there may be such tensions between the Chief Constable and the policing board that a reasonable demand is not made or that reasonable agreement is not available. That in itself is not sufficient.

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The noble and learned Lord relies upon the Patten report and the implementation plan. He had to concede, not surprisingly, that the Patten report came before the 2000 Act, which contains the law that I have explained and which is now sought to be changed. The noble and learned Lord reminded us that the implementation report published in July 2001 stated that the Government intended to remove Section 59(3)(d)—claiming that that had effectively been recommended by Patten. What has changed? If, notwithstanding Patten's recommendation, it was thought necessary to include the safeguard in paragraph (d) in the 2000 Act, why by 2001 was it thought necessary to remove it? Who asked for that to be done?

Even if the Government gave notice of their intention in the implementation plan of July 2001, surely there is some ground for reviewing that decision or at least for explaining the rationale. One should not regard the implementation plan in the way that the German general staff regarded the mobilisation plan in 1914—"Because it's in the plan, it can't be changed. The trains are moving and that's that". From time to time, there is just a little room for a slight accretion of wisdom as the years roll by—for example, after a manifesto has been published. We should not be bound hand and foot to the plan's implementation or otherwise.

Therefore I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Lord when he says that this is probably the most important feature of the Bill and a matter of great seriousness. Of course we agree that the necessity for relying on the safeguard is unlikely and we all pray that it will never arise. But it might. What is the justification for removing something which Parliament, in its wisdom, thought it necessary to include as recently as three years ago?

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