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The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment relates again to the numbers game. It is difficult to understand why, with 19 board members, the cut-off is to be only eight. That is 40 per cent with regard to those who can demand an inquiry. During debate on the previous amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked the relevant question of how often the provision had been invoked to the extent that numbers mattered. At either Second Reading or in Committee, my noble friend Lord Rogan asked the same question. On both occasions, the Minister intimated that it had not been
On another matter, the Minister indicated that evidence relating to how the board had worked justified Government making the change. However, having told us on this issue that there is no evidence whatever, that argument does not stand up. One has to query, therefore, whether the provision relates to the Government's intention to bring Sinn Fein on to the board. I shall not fall out with my noble friend Lord Glentoran when he discovers some good in some parts of the Bill. Nonetheless, we are on dangerous ground when inferring the Chief Constable's support by virtue of a conversation with him which cannot be reported to this House.
In talking about democracy, I should have thought that we would apply some of those democratic rules to the Policing Board and would not be making special arrangements for only 40 per cent of the board to be able to invoke an inquiry. The mischievousness of Sinn Fein at the table when it is not in substantially powerful positions is a lesson which could be learned. I beg to move.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I support the amendment. During debate on removal of the clause, the Minister made a remarkI hope that he will not repeat iton the Chief Constable's experience of the board. There is a brand new Chief Constable: I do not know how that remark came about. In terms of life in the Province, strategic points of view, and so on, six months does not warrant comments about experience of the board. I hope that eventually, under proper conditions, Sinn Fein comes on. The board will change; we have to wait far longer to see how it will work. However, I am grateful for the remarks about how well he thinks we are doing.
At the moment, the board consists of 19 members. We have got 10, which is fractionally over half. It is quite simple. The strength of the Policing Board is that it is community-based and has a collective responsibility in making its decisions; it is a cross-community body. Even though Sinn Fein is not represented, the composition of the board takes into account various community backgrounds. It correctly reflects the community of Northern Ireland and the basic religious divide. So let us not say that because Sinn Fein is not represented at the moment the board does not reflect those proportionsit does.
If and when Sinn Fein is represented on the independent members' side, I understand that, unless there is a change in the law to provide for a different number of people on the board, there will be a slight change in the number of independents. Because there would be two more speaking from the nationalist or the Roman Catholic point of view, a change will be made to the independent side so that the board continues to reflect a balance. So we are not talking about a lack of balance on the board.
At the moment, a decision needs to be taken by more than 50 per cent of the board. In public, a board decision will be a collective responsibility to run an inquiry, report, or whatever. The public see that the decision is made under collective responsibility by more than 50 per cent of the board. It is extremely important that no decision is made without 50 per cent of the board being present.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, slightly side-stepped the question of who had brought forward this issue, but when I spoke to someone in the SDLP about it, he accepted that his party was very much behind it. Whether or not it was put to him in words is neither here nor there, his party was very much behind it. I asked him why and he said it would enable a smaller number of people to cause an inquiry to take place.
I asked how it would work. He said, "If we want an inquiry, we need to get only eight people together for that to happen". I said, "But some on the other side might be against it"although, for all I know, I could be in favour of an inquiryand he said, "Well, under the circumstances, it could happen when no one else was available. We could call a meeting and, with eight of us, we could get it through".
I said, "Okay, let us put it the other way. I want an inquiry into something, how do I run it?" He said, "You find eight people, get agreement and you do it". I said, "But then it is a decision made by less than 50 per cent of the board". He said, "That's right". So I said, "If I wanted to do it and you didn't, what would be your response?" He said, "My response would be that, as soon as I could, I would find nine or 10 members. We would then get together and change the decision".
It is farcical to pose problems that will have to be solved in a totally irrational way. It is amazing that we are setting up a body that, under extreme conditionswe are not talking about something that will happen every daywould allow me to find eight people who will agree with me, get them into a huddle, and make a decision knowing very well that, because I had to struggle, the other 10 members will not agree. I know that, otherwise I would not bother; I would bring up the matter as normal before the board. So, again, there is a safety net.
Let us now assume that I get the decision I want and it is minuted that we will have an inquiry into such and such. One, two or three weeks later, the others, realising that I did this while they were at the opera or the theatre or whatever, get together and decide to revoke the decision because they are the board. It should be remembered that, out of eight members, it would need only five to force the issue. But it is a collective decision, and I believe that the board should, and does, work under the principle of collective decision. I know that certain people do not keep confidences but, on the whole, the board does work as a body.
This is the most amazing enabling clause. It is a farce, and it will be seen as a farce by everyone. The Minister's reply may be that this small group should be allowed to make such decisions because it is so
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, although my Amendment No. 17 is not in this group, perhaps I may speak to it now. It effectively deals with the same issues. I give notice that I do not intend to divide the House on Amendment No. 17 today.
I find it difficult to add to the persuasiveness of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. We have rehearsed the arguments. I understand from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal that Clause 10 represents a lowering of the thresholdwhich it doesand that the important words are "present and voting". But, not for the first time in our discussions on the Bill, I fail to see any logic in the justification for this change.
Certain noble Lords to whom I have spoken have told me that in public bodies of this nature in England, more than 50 per cent of the representatives never turn up; that the figure is usually about 30 per cent or 20 per cent. That is not my experience, but it may be the experience in England. Even if it is, that is all the more reason for maintaining the higher number required to take decisions.
In something as sensitive as policing in Northern Ireland, why are the Government taking risks by reducing the level to below 50 per cent of those required on the Policing Board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland? After the debates in the Grand Committee and recent visits to the Police Service and other parts of Belfast, I cannot see any logic or reason for this. I cannot see the positive side. I cannot see what is so good about this that it is important to change the legislation which, as we have said, is only two years old. It is taking a risk with the security, policing and lives of the people of Northern Ireland. It is time that the Government stopped doing it.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the genesis of this change is in the implementation plan of 2001. The Government intend, after the review, to provide that the number of members present and voting for a proposal for an inquiry should be eight so long aslet me stress these wordsthat is the majority of those present and voting.
It is fanciful to suggest that a gang of eight can bring this about while others are at the opera. First, an inquiry follows receipt of a report under Section 59 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Paragraph 18 of Schedule 1 to the Act provides that at least three members have to have made a written request to the chairman asking him to call a meeting. Paragraph 18(2) states:
The noble Viscount will know as well as I do that in 2002 an overall attendance of 90 per cent was achieved; three-quarters of all board members attended at least 12 of the 13 board meetings. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. The threshold will be lowered to eight although the board consists of 19 members, but there has to be a majority of those present and voting. With deep deference, I believe that the fears are overblown.
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