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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment. The notes to the Bill made it clear, as I pointed out on Second Reading (at col. 1362 of Hansard), that the amended form of the oath was put forward for no other reason than that it goes some way to "meeting nationalist concerns". That is not the same as addressing a perceived problem for Catholics wishing to join the RUC. Those few brave men and women who have done so--few because to do so means putting at risk their lives and those of their families, not only during their service but for ever--had no problem with swearing allegiance to the Crown any more than Catholics did in the Armed Forces or in the UK Parliament, because this is above party.
The only people with a problem are Sinn Fein/IRA. Once again, the Government are putting the perceived wish of a militant minority above that of the majority. The majority of people in Northern Ireland do not vote Sinn Fein/IRA and wish to remain part of the UK. I should dare to guess that if a poll were taken in the RUC, an overwhelming number would wish to keep the present form of affirmation and that they would have the support of the vast majority of ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant.
To put this change through, tucked away in Schedule 2 is one more signal that the Government are more interested in, at worst, pleasing the IRA and, at best, in pandering to a general media view that the Queen, the National Anthem and the sinister word "Royal" are not part of Cool Britannia and can easily be discarded. But I do not believe that that is the view of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland. That is not what they think of the Crown. They value the connection and it means a great deal to them. It is arguable that the RUC's commitment to the Crown and all it stands for, above party, has been a decisive factor in their will to continue to serve.
Do the Government really wish to make a move which is likely to demoralise and anger so many serving officers, let alone those who are in retirement because of injuries sustained in the line of duty? They all have families and the families have votes. This is a time to reassure the majority who want peace but who also want their point of view to be listened to and respected.
I hope that the Government will recognise that to retain the existing oath will send an important message to the majority and will not discourage anyone but Sinn Fein/IRA. No one will grieve for the new formula and I hope very much that the Minister will feel able to accept the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson; namely, that at least a decision might be deferred until the Patten Commission has reported and until it has been possible to see this matter in a proper light, away from the pressures of the coming election.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am so often in agreement with the noble Baroness that it is disorienting for me to disagree with her, as I must do this afternoon. However, I do not support the amendment and I should like to explain briefly why that is so.
It is extremely difficult for us to be discussing the Bill at this particular juncture. The Patten Commission has only just been established and it is obviously crucial that the morale of the RUC, which has borne so much of the heat of the day in Northern Ireland, should be sustained. Nevertheless, this new oath, as contemplated, is not difficult for new members, new constables, to make. It is straightforward.
By contrast, the amendment seeks to say that there is something special about the form of the present oath. That dates back a long way, in fact to the Constabulary (Ireland) Act 1836. Although I can see that in this House we may be particularly watchful of tradition, it is worth noting that the oath which is made on the mainland by MPs, justices of the peace and constables has been revised during the past 160 years. Therefore, there does not seem to be any intrinsic reason why the equivalent oath in Northern Ireland should be immune to change.
However, the crucial reason for rejecting this amendment is, of course, the Good Friday agreement, which was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Monson, and Lord Molyneaux. That agreement states that the participants,
Therefore, the Good Friday agreement makes it plain that the police service must be reformed to accommodate the allegiances, identities and ethoses which were not represented--it is no good pretending that they were--by the 1836 oath. The current drafting of the Bill is entirely in line with both the letter and sprit of the Good Friday agreement. That is why I trust that the amendment will be rejected by your Lordships' House.
I believe that the present oath is fairly inadequate. When you join a serious service, which the Royal Ulster Constabulary is, it should be a serious ceremony. The two lines which constitute the present oath are fairly weak. However, I should be concerned if a person could be found to do something illegal under equal opportunities legislation if that person were part of an organisation in Northern Ireland whose rules require that, to be a member of it, you must take an oath to the Queen, to our Kingdom.
Lord Blease: My Lords, is there anything to prevent this Bill as it stands being examined by the Patten Commission when it is established? If the Patten Commission wishes to examine this Bill, or if anyone
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blease, may have been looking forward to Amendment No. 4 in suggesting that the whole Bill should be left for consideration by the Patten Commission and not implemented until afterwards, but it is a shrewd point.
However, the purpose of this amendment is more limited. It is concerned solely with the change to the oath to be taken by the new members of the RUC. It seems to me that this is a particular example of pre-empting Patten in the name of modernisation, as far as I can detect. The terms of reference of the Patten Commission on policing for Northern Ireland include specifically the composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols of the police in Northern Ireland. The commission is asked to look specifically at those aspects, and the oath is obviously a major part of that process.
Therefore, I believe that this pre-empts Patten in the name of modernisation. The present oath has survived since 1836, so it does not seem to me that there need be any particular hurry to change it when the Patten Commission is to report within 12 months or so. In any event, this Bill will not come into effect for quite a period within that year.
Every change these days is recommended with the single word "modernisation". We hear that all the time. The Government wish to modernise everything and sometimes no other argument is thought necessary. In the particular case of the RUC oath, the two Ministers in the different Houses used almost identical paragraphs on Second Reading to recommend the change. Both of them said that the new oath was "broadly similar" to that in use in Scotland. It is not precisely the same, but it is broadly similar. The Notes on Clauses state that it is copied from the Scottish oath and that ought to recommend it to the unionist community. It is true that the words used in both Houses were not precisely identical because the Minister changed the order of the words in one sentence, apparently to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition. It occurred to me this morning that the Lords Hansard writers may have tidied up the English so as not to record a Member of your Lordships' House speaking bad English, but perhaps that is an unworthy thought!
More significantly, the Minister omitted the last sentence used by Mr. Ingram, the Minister in another place. That was the sentence in which he implied--although he did not exactly say it--that the change of the oath would encourage nationalist members of the community to join the RUC. I do not believe that argument stands up to examination, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said in moving the amendment, and as the noble Baroness said a few minutes ago. I think the Minister was quite right not to pursue that argument in this House and to leave out that sentence on Second Reading.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, spoke of the importance of the morale of the RUC. I believe that morale is extremely important to the future of the agreement and to the future of Northern Ireland. Even if the agreement proceeds in the smoothest possible way, the high morale of the RUC will remain essential to future peace in the Province. This is, of course, a confidence-damaging measure as regards the RUC. I believe it is seen as such by many people who support the RUC, as well as by many members of the RUC itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, drew a comparison with the Garda oath, which was expanded later by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. It is interesting to consider the Garda oath, although I do not think we should consider that the practice in the Republic in that regard should be followed in the north. We all know that the Garda oath reflects the greater political control that is exerted over the police in the Republic of Ireland than is exerted, or should be exerted, in any part of the United Kingdom. There is a different philosophy as regards the policing of the two different countries.
Many noble Lords and others have emphasised my next point on numerous occasions. We prefer the philosophy of the independence of the chief constable and the independence of the police from the political process. However, the position is not the same in the Republic. I do not necessarily say that either approach is more or less valid. Each country must choose the approach which it thinks best for itself. However, there is no doubt about the approach of the United Kingdom. I, for one, believe that it is the correct approach.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, the effect of Amendment No. 1 would be to remove the requirement that every member of the police force be attested as a constable on appointment. I am somewhat surprised that the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord Molyneaux, would wish to proceed in this way. It is the established practice, not only in the UK but in many parts of the world, that every member of the police force be attested as a constable on appointment.
The office of constable is of ancient origins. The hallmark of the present day constable remains, as in previous centuries, his attestation. Until he is so attested, by making the appropriate declaration, he or she cannot hold the office of constable. One of the effects of this would be, for example, that RUC officers would not have a constable's power of arrest while off duty. In view of this I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I turn to Amendment No. 5. I believe we are now getting to the core of the issue. All noble Lords who have taken part in this debate have referred to this amendment, implicitly or explicitly. As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill changes the declaration of office made by RUC constables to a form broadly similar to that used to affirm constables in office in Scotland. This measure is in line with other changes in recent years to oaths or declarations of office throughout the criminal