HC Deb 05 July 1994 vol 246 cc224-32

3A. — (1) The number of members of each police authority established under section 3 of this Act shall be specified by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument. (2) The number of members of an authority specified by an order under subsection (1) of this section shall be an odd number no fewer than seventeen. (3) An order made under subsction (1) above may relate to the membership of more than one authority, and any such order may be varied by a subsequent order. (4) Before making an order under subsection (1) of this section the Secretary of State shall consult any relevant councils. (5) Where an authority is of the opinion that in order to ensure fair representation on it of—

  1. (a) each relevant council within the authority's area;
  2. (b) the population and geographical density of the area concerned and of each unit of representation within the area; and
  3. (c) the political balance among councils and among members required by paragraph 4(b) of Schedule 1B to this Act
it requires the number of its members to be varied, it shall submit a recommendation to the Secretary of State. (6) Where the Secretary of State receives a recommendation under subsection (5) of this section he shall—
  1. (a) if he approves it, lay an order under subsection (1) to give it effect; or
  2. (b) where he does not approve it, publish his reasons for not approving it and lay those before both Houses of Parliament.
(7) An order under this section shall not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. (8) Schedules 1B and 1C to this Act shall have effect in relation to police authorities established under section 3 and the appointment of their members.".'. — [Mr. Michael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Michael

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this it will be convenient to discuss also the following: New clause 20—Constitution of Northern Ireland Police Authority'For paragraphs 1 and 2 of Schedule 1 (The Police Authority) to the Police Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 there shall be substituted— 1. The Police Authority shall consist of a Chairman, a Vice Chairman and fifteen persons. 2. — (1) Nine members of the Authority shall be members of District Councils in Northern Ireland, appointed by the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland and it shall be the duty of the Association to secure as far as practicable that the members it appoints are representative of the community in Northern Ireland. (2) Five members of the Authority shall be appointed by the Secretary of State and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to secure as far as practicable that among the members appointed under this paragraph is a person representative of—

  1. (i) the trade unions.
  2. (ii) agriculture, industry and commerce, and
  3. (iii) voluntary organisations having as their principle object, or one of their principle objects, the welfare of children or young persons.
(3) Three members of the Authority shall be resident magistrates or judges authorised to exercise the jurisdiction of the Crown Court appointed by the Lord Chancellor after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.".'. Amendment No. 62, in clause 3, page 2, line 20, leave out from beginning to end of line 33.

Government amendment No. 44.

Amendment No. 22, in schedule 2, page 53, line 21, after 'prevailing', insert `between the councils and'.

Amendment No. 16, in page 54, line 34, leave out from beginning to end of line 35.

Government amendment No. 45.

Amendment No. 15, in page 56, line 22, leave out from `years' to ', or' in line 23.

Mr. Michael

I appear at the Dispatch Box as the defender of two endangered species—the Conservative voter and the Conservative councillor. They, too, should be protected from the actions of the Government, and they should have a voice within police authorities. That will not happen if the difficulties of achieving a proper balance of political representation within a police authority is limited in the way the Government wish.

New clause 18, in particular, proposes that, Where an authority is of the opinion that in order to ensure fair representation…of each relevant council within the authority's area; the population and geographical density of the area concerned and of each unit of representation within the area; and the political balance among councils and among members the authority should say that it needs an increase in numbers. It is surely right that there should be a balance on the authority.

First, it is right that each relevant council within the authority's area should be represented. It is important that there is an understanding of the policing of the area among the leadership of the local authority. We have said on a number of occasions that the joint working of police authorities and local authorities is very important. The Minister pays lip service to that, but it is important that it is contained within the institutions.

Secondly, the population and geographical density of the area make a difference, as can be seen within the existing police authority areas. One can look at the Greater Manchester police authority area, or at the changes within the South Wales police area, where the number of unitary authorities will be as large as the number of members under the minimum composition which is allowed at present.

That does not allow for opposition groups, and we feel that minorities within the overall scope of political involvement in an area should be represented. Therefore, either there is a representative from one of those authorities who is not from the majority group and thus cannot speak for the whole council, which means that the leading voice on that authority is not heard, or there is an increase in the numbers to allow for minority representation from within the area.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I can illustrate the hon. Gentleman's point with an example from the Northumbria police authority area. If Northumberland council is to have only one member of the police authority, on the present balance of the council it would probably be a Labour councillor. But the Labour party mainly represents the urban south-east of the county, and the rural areas which are represented by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors would be unrepresented. That point has been put quite fairly to me by police authority members, and it is a view generally shared among all parties on the authority. More than one representative from the county would be needed to achieve the spread that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that illustration. There are a number of examples around the country, although the situation may not arise in some areas—for instance, where there is shire county representation. Where a county is to be moved to a unitary authority, as in Gwent, the number of unitary authorities would still be sufficient for the number of representatives allowed for by the Government to be met while including some opposition representation. That is fine, but it does not apply in all circumstances.

In my view, it would be dangerous to require a composition which does not allow for those minorities. Apart from anything else, the vagaries of political life are such that there can be switches, and it is always best if a minority which becomes the majority has had some experience of the workings of an authority. In view of the need for continuity and in pursuit of conservatism with a small "c", I should have thought that that would commend itself to the Minister, and lead him to accept the new clause.

The Minister stated in Committee that the Secretary of State would not use the powers in the Bill which allow him to vary upwards the numbers on a police authority—an amendment won following a debate in the House of Lords —very often at all. He said that the powers would be used responsibly, but very sparingly—indeed, exceptionally. All that we seek is that the number of occasions on which it is used—whether they be few or many—should be determined by the need for proper representation on a police authority. We therefore seek to persuade the Government that the powers contained in the Bill allow for greater flexibility as to size than the Government seem to envisage.

There are advantages to be gained where it is possible to achieve proper representation within a small size of police authority, but that aim should not be pursued inflexibly or as a matter of dogma. For instance, there are instances in which nine elected members are insufficient to represent a police authority's area and the balance of political interest, so the people there will not enjoy proper representation.

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One amendment in the group seeks to remove the age limit of 70 on police authority members. In the light of debate in Committee, I hope that that will commend itself to the Minister. Magistrates who hold an appointed office, often for many years, are required to retire from front-line judicial service at 70. Their duties beyond that age are judicial service at 70. Their duties beyond that age are fairly nominal, such as signing passport applications. With the loss of active office there follows a requirement to resign from the police authority, if the individual is a magistrate appointed by the local magistrates courts committee. Councillors, however, can hold elected office as long as they are elected to stand for public office and are returned at local council elections, and they are eligible to

A limited number of existing police authority members ably serve their communities on a police authority, and it would be wrong in principle to exclude them on age alone —the popular term is agism. I warn the Minister of the consequences of grey power. He may care to reflect that, as he grows older, he too may still want to make a contribution to public life. There should not be a blanket reason for excluding people.

If individuals under 75, 70 or 60 are not capable and responsible representatives, they should be removed by the judgment of those who appointed them—not by a cast-iron limit in the Bill. In debate on an earlier amendment, reference was made to the administrative predicament for the Bill's draftsmen, who chose a common retirement age for all new police authority members. We argue that is wrong in principle, discriminatory and misconceived.

There are many examples of individuals who assumed high public office beyond their 70th birthday. They include Lord Gladstone, Prime Minister at 82; Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor at 70; Winston Churchill, Prime Minister at 70 and again at 76; Lord Home, Foreign Secretary at 71; Lord Whitelaw, Lord President of the Council at 70; and above all, one example that should make us all pause for thought—Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa at 75. That list demonstrates that persons holding elected office, whether nationally or locally, should not be excluded on the ground of their age alone. The restriction should therefore be removed. I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. Trimble

I shall speak to new clause 20, in my name. I regret that, due to the selection of amendments, I have not had the opportunity to speak to new clause 21, which was tabled at the request of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland to remedy an injustice to 4,614 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—but no doubt there will be another opportunity to address that issue.

New clause 20 provides for the constitution of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. At present, that authority is appointed by the Secretary of State—period. There has been much debate about the extent to which it is proper for the Home Secretary to have some influence on the appointment of police authorities in England and Wales, and a provision has emerged which gives the Home Secretary a limited capacity to appoint one or two independent members to English police authorities.

In Northern Ireland, the police authority is appointed entirely by the Secretary of State. It is true that the Secretary of State is obliged by the Police Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 to consult various bodies, and that he is directed to ensure that the body is representative—but representative as the Secretary of State sees it—and consultation is just that. Northern Ireland has purely an appointed body.

I am pleased that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, is in his place on the Treasury Bench, because the right hon. Gentleman knows that the present situation is becoming untenable. New clause 20 provides a new basis for the appointment of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, based on the provisions in clause 3(1) for the constitution of authorities in England and Wales in future, having 17 members—nine from local authorities, five independent and three magistrates. That is precisely reflected in new clause 20.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) spoke of the difficulty of balancing local authority representation, so he will be delighted to note that new clause 20 states: it shall be the duty of the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland to secure as far as practicable that the members it appoints are representative of the community". I emphasise that, because in the Northern Ireland context that phrase will mean not just geographically representative but representative in terms of shades of party political opinion. That will ensure that appointed councillors are representative of the whole community.

As to the five independent members, I have not tried to replicate the detail in schedule 1 to the Bill but have carried forward some of the provisions of the 1970 Act.

The provision for three magistrates causes difficulties in Northern Ireland. One cannot equate Northern Ireland justices of the peace with those for England and Wales. Northern Ireland JPs have not exercised any magisterial or judicial function since 1935. They are an entirely different breed and not comparable with JPs in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, resident magistrates exercise the judicial function, but the problem with drawing representation purely from resident magistrates is that there are so few of them.

Consequently, I originally drafted the new clause to include others who exercise a judicial function, but I am not sure that that is entirely appropriate. I have not had an opportunity to consult the judiciary in that regard, and they may not be entirely happy with that proposal. It has been suggested to me that the field of selection could be broadened by taking account of lay magistrates, who are appointed to juvenile courts. That might be worth thinking about. I would accept criticism of subsection (3), but the principle that it enshrines—which draws on the precedent set for England and Wales—should remain under consideration.

I repeat that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, knows that the present situation is untenable. We are in the process of appointing a new Police Authority for Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that, in previous months, bodies which must be consulted under existing legislation and which have been asked for nominations have declined to make any because they are dissatisfied with the present constitution and the envisaged future role. The right hon. Gentleman must also find a chairman for the authority. Moreover, he must do so urgently because the authority is due to meet tomorrow and if it does not have a chairman, it cannot meet.

According to newspaper reports on Sunday, the Minister has already approached six people, but they have all turned him down. I understand that an announcement was made today. I hesitate to say that it is a matter of scraping the bottom of the barrel, because the individual in question is a constituent of mine—a professional quango man, whose appointment to a health authority I had occasion to comment on negatively in the House on an earlier occasion. I am tempted to say that his only apparent qualification for the police authority chairmanship, never having sat on one before, is that he is most willing to accept direction from the Northern Ireland Office—but enough of that. The important issue is that there needs to be a rethink about the police authority's constitution. The provisions in new clause 20 would make it more representative and effective, and I tabled it to give the Under-Secretary of State the opportunity to carry public debate further.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, speaking to new clause 5, commented on the absence of a police authority for London. He said that it was outrageous that there was no democratic accountability. I endorse that sentiment, but it is also outrageous that there is no democratic accountability in Northern Ireland. New clause 20 would go some way to remedying that.

Mr. Charles Wardle

The purpose of new clause 18 is to require that the size of each police authority be settled individually before the new authorities are formed, and for the order doing so to be subject to affirmative resolution. It also provides arrangements for changing the size of police authorities subsequently in ways which seem more complex than those available in the Bill.

There are some significant policy and technical problems in the drafting and effect of the new clause. The main difficulty that it presents results from the requirement to subject to affirmative resolution an order to settle the initial size of every police authority. That order could not be made until Parliament returns at the end of October. Appointments to police authorities could not be made until well after that date, and there would be particular delay in the case of independent members. Therefore, it would not be possible to set up the new police authorities in time for them to take the steps necessary for implementation on 1 April 1995, which is the relevant date.

Implementation would have to be delayed for a year, thus prolonging the processes of change and the uncertainty in police forces and police authorities, and that would not be advisable. There are other difficulties. It seems strange that under new clause 18(5) the initiative for subsequent variations in the size of police authorities would rest exclusively with the new police authority. The Bill is deliberately silent on that matter: the initiative for enlargement may come from any interested party, and that must be right.

The new clause provides an exhaustive list of grounds for varying the size of police authorities. The trouble with such a list is that, if an authority wanted to vary the size on some other ground, the new clause as drafted would rule it out and would be unduly inflexible. For those reasons, I urge the House to reject the new clause.

Government amendments Nos. 44 and 45 are technical and deal with the practical consequences of the revocation or variation of an order to enlarge a police authority and are fairly straightforward.

Amendment No. 22 relates to paragraph 4 of schedule 1B of the Police Act 1964, which is inserted by schedule 2 to the Bill. That paragraph sets out certain requirements as to the political balance between the council and members of police authorities. In some police areas, only one relevant council will make appointments to the police authority. In that case, the appointments are made by the council itself and will be required to reflect the balance of parties for the time being prevailing among the members of that council.

In police areas covering more than one relevant council, the appointments are made by a joint committee and must reflect the balance of parties for the time being prevailing among the members of the relevant councils when taken as a whole. Thus, for example, in a police area covering three relevant councils, all of which have the same majority party, the appointments to the police authority would not automatically all come from that party: if there were significant minority parties on each of the councils, their members would have to be considered in assessing political balance. I am sure that the House will agree that that is right.

We should not give the right to representation on police authorities exclusively to those in the majority party on the relevant councils. The amendment aims to do precisely that and seems to want to reflect only the majority party interest. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) goes wider than the South Wales police authority in the three Glamorgan counties, but the principle remains the same. The amendment is wrong and would not deal sensibly with political balance.

I shall now deal with amendments Nos. 16 and 17. Schedule 2 requires all police authority members to step down when they reach the age of 70. We had an interesting debate on that in Committee. The amendments would remove that limit and allow some police authority members to carry on indefinitely, regardless of age. I understand the strong feelings of some hon. Members on this issue, which was discussed at length in another place and in Committee.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth rightly said, there is no hard and fast rule that a 69-year-old is fit and active while a 70-year-old is past it. We could all cite examples, as the hon. Gentleman did, of people who have contributed a great deal, in all walks of life, at advanced ages. Equally, we could cite examples of people who have carried on well beyond the age at which it would have been better to step down.

There should be a clear indication of the age at which police authority members should be expected to step down because that is a fair, consistent and dignified way for people to retire from involvement in a police authority.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

The Minister spoke of a majority party having power under our amendment. The county of Cheshire is controlled by an alliance of the Conservative and Liberal parties, but the power brokers in that situation have chosen to appoint a Labour member as chairman of the authority. Under the clause, he would be disqualified. If the Minister is interested in local agreements, how can he say that such an appointment would be wrong? Should he not reflect further on that?

8.15 pm
Mr. Wardle

I do not think so. As I said earlier, the requirements are that the elected council members of the new police authority should fairly reflect the representation on the constituent councils. It will be up to individual councils to meet and discuss that in the light of the requirement that is placed on them. The requirement is straightforward and understandable. Above all, it is fair.

Returning to the subject of the retirement age, I remind the House that magistrates are already required to step down from the bench when they reach the age of 70. That is why we chose that age for all police authority members.

It seems right that all such members should be on the same footing. The amendments would allow councillors and independent members to carry on indefinitely while their magistrate colleagues would be required to step down. That would be neither logical nor fair, although I understand the feelings that were expressed in Committee, in this House and in another place. The Bill is better as it stands, without the amendments.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I am always glad to listen to advice from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and I did so carefully when he spoke to his new clause 20, which seeks to alter the way in which members of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland are appointed. It would allow the majority of the authority's members to be appointed by the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland.

I am aware that there has been considerable discussion about the composition of, and appointments to, police authorities in England and Wales, but the circumstances in which the police and the police authority must operate in Northern Ireland are vastly different. In Northern Ireland, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State appoints all the members of the authority. He is required to exercise his powers to ensure the appointment of individuals who are representative of various interests such as local authorities, commerce and child welfare organisations and also to ensure that the authority's membership is representative of the Northern Ireland community as a whole.

That was the system recommended in the Hunt report, which has provided the model for policing structures in Northern Ireland since the establishment of the police authority in 1970. The system of appointment has served the Province well since then. The authority has shown commitment and fair-mindedness in performing its functions in the most difficult circumstances. It has sought to serve the whole community in Northern Ireland and for that it deserves the highest praise.

Many of those who have served with such dedication have been local councillors and members of the political parties in the Province. The majority of the members of the authority that was appointed recently—on 29 June—were nominated by local authorities and other bodies; that fine tradition continues.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to the chairmanship. I am glad to confirm that the appointment of Mr. Cook—a distinguished solicitor—was announced today.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman's proposals would endanger the tradition to which I have referred, while adding little in the way of electoral accountability. The Association of Local Authorities for Northern Ireland is a voluntary association with no statutory role in policing matters; nor does it represent all Northern Ireland's local authorities.

I note that the new clause does not explain how the chairman and vice-chairman of the authority are to be chosen. The last thing that I would wish to see is an authority riven by party political considerations, or open to accusations of domination by one group or another. Policing in Northern Ireland must be for all the community, and I consider the hon. Gentleman's proposal a retrograde move away from that principle.

I am far from certain—the hon. Gentleman himself recognised this difficulty—that it would be appropriate for registered magistrates in Northern Ireland who are full-time, legally qualified members of the judiciary to be members of a body whose remit will inevitably involve it in questions with political and security overtones. Their position is different from that of local justices of the peace who serve on authorities in England and Wales.

Finally, as the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently published a document making proposals and inviting comments on the future of policing structures in Northern Ireland. My right hon. and learned Friend is considering the responses, including that of the hon. Gentleman's party—members of which I had the pleasure of meeting recently. Those responses will be considered very carefully.

I suggest that this is not the proper time to make changes to the arrangements for appointing the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, and that the measures proposed by the hon. Gentleman are neither appropriate nor desirable—although I shall of course reflect on them very carefully.

Question put and negatived.

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