HL Deb 02 December 1969 vol 306 cc36-41

4.2 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, the constructive support which this measure has received this afternoon from the noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and also, possibly, the absence from the Benches opposite of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, who it had been thought would speak in the debate, have reduced my task to one of relative simplicity. But before I turn to deal with the few points which were raised, may I make a number of general observations upon this measure which I hope your Lordships may regard as being in point?

Here in your Lordships' House and in another place, and indeed throughout the length and breadth of our country, during these last months the trials and difficulties of the people of Northern Ireland have been much debated; and the issues, the great issues it may be, have been explored and examined—sometimes, perhaps understandably enough, with a passion reflecting the tension and violence that lurk in the background to all this. The short debate o which we have listened this afternoon reflects the circumstance that what we are now embarked upon is, quite simply, the rather more prosaic task of applying practicable and effective solutions to those problems—problems which we have all known about for so long, but which, for a variety of reasons, have recently led to that tension and violence to which I have referred.

Is it too much to hope that the vigorous initiatives which have been taken—and, I hasten to add, taken not only by the Governments which are involved, because many other people and bodies of people have played their part—will themselves contribute to the creation of the kind of atmosphere in which we shall be most likely successfully to solve the problems and right the wrongs? The problem with which this particular Bill is concerned is the relationship between the police and the public. To quote the words of the Report of the Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: … a good relationship is vital if a police force is to be effective". This is a small Bill, as my noble friend the Leader of the House said in opening the debate, and on one view involves little more than a technical exercise. It is, however, a not unimportant part of a series of legislative and administrative measures here and in Northern Ireland, and the Government commend this particular item as likely to make a significant contribution to the solution of one aspect of Northern Ireland's problems. The Bill derives, again as my noble Leader said in opening, from certain of the recommendations, particularly those in Chapter 7, of the Hunt Report—that historic document which won such unstinted and, if I may humbly say so, such well-deserved praise in your Lordships' House during the debate oil October 15. So the Bill is a necessary first step in bringing about a situation in which police forces in England and Wales and Scotland may be more closely associated with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The reasons why this is a desirable and worthwhile step are set out fully in the Hunt Report, and it is not for me, in closing this debate, to take up time in repeating them.

However, before I turn to deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, may I say just a word on the subject of the Northern Ireland (Special Powers) Acts? This legislation, so far as I have been able to find out, has no friends left. If perchance it has, I do not imagine that they are the kind of friends with whom most of your Lordships would wish to be associated. It would not be relevant to the debate to enter into a detailed examination of the Special Powers Acts. Suffice it to say that, while some of the regulations are not especially contentious, others are. And it is recognised by all, including the Government of Northern Ireland, that part of the return to normalcy in Northern Ireland must be the replacement of these Acts. Your Lordships will recall that progress in that direction has in fact from time to time been interrupted by acts of sabotage, as when, for example, in April of this year Belfast water supplies were cut off as a result of an explosion.

Let me say that the Government have a clear policy in regard to these Acts. The Northern Ireland Government said in November, 1968, and again in October, 1969, that they were prepared to abandon special powers so long as this could be done without undue hazard. As has been said, the Government here took them at their word and the Home Secretary, through the Minister of State, gave an assurance in another place on November 17 that he would enter into negotiations with the Northern Ireland Government upon the matter. It seems sensible to us that those of the powers which ought to be part of the legislation of any State but which, in the case of Northern Ireland, happen to be special powers, should be provided for in permanent legislation, and that the others should be dropped as soon as possible.

It is not for me here, of course, to say how quickly this exercise might be concluded, but the Government consider that it should be given priority, and everyone who wishes the powers to go will, I hope, help to ensure that they are not needed. Of course as always, unhappily, in these situations—not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere—some of those who are most vociferous in demanding the abolition of this legislation are the very people who, by their actions, encourage the kind of fears that persuaded others that the legislation must remain in being. The relevance of these Acts to this debate was of course focused in the debates in another place, where concern was expressed lest police officers from other parts of the United Kingdom should be expected to implement the provisions of the Acts, and it was suggested that it was difficult to link the police forces of Northern Ireland with those of other parts of the kingdom if they were operating, as it were, under two philosophies of the law.

Paragraph 143 of the Hunt Report was also founded upon that. This paragraph, your Lordships will remember, referred to the view which had been expressed to the Committee by a number of experienced police officers, that the relationship between the police and the public would be important if the Acts were to be repealed. In this context I would repeat the assurances given in another place both by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and by my honourable friend the Minister of State. First, my right honourable friend made it clear that he intended to consult the various police organisations before fixing the date for the appointed day.

Perhaps I should apologise to your Lordships for repeating these assurances because in large measure the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, expressed himself, as I understood him, as being satisfied in this particular context. Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I emphasise it, but my right honourable friend also stressed that he would consider very carefully the date of implementation and the date of making a commencement order if the Bill became law. He recognised, too, that mutual aid should not be made operative until he was satisfied that the conditions of service would be fair to those required to serve under these arrangements The Minister of State repeated the assurance, given by my right honourable friend in another place on November 17, during the Second Reading of the Bill, that any British policeman who went over to Northern Ireland on short-term mutual aid would not be called upon to operate the Special Powers Act. She went on to say that this was also the intention of the Northern Ireland Government. My Lords, the problem presented in this context is a real one, but I am content to leave it to the judgment of your Lordships whether the Government's approach to it is or is not the right one.

May I now turn to the points put to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent? As I understood it, he expressed some concern lest the tour of duty under a mutual aid arrangement might drag out unduly. I think he acknowledged that assurances have been given that aid under Clause 1 will be sent only when conditions in Northern Ireland are broadly those which apply to police service in Great Britain. In my view, the very fact that this would be so would tend to contribute towards keeping the tour of duty under control. The noble Lord suggested that perhaps experience in Anguilla indicated that what had started as a temporary demand might extend alarmingly in time. I think I can assure the noble Lord that the situation in Anguilla was in a number of respects different from that with which we are dealing in Northern Ireland. This mutual aid arrangement is useful, and is thought of as being useful, only in meeting a short-term need for additional men. It is not thought of as being useful to provide a strengthening of a force for more than a few days; and ordinary policing, as opposed to, say, crowd control—be it a procession or the like—demands a knowledge of local geography, local law and local conditions which members of an outside force would not normally have.

In my view, the crux of the matter is that the nature of mutual aid is that it could afford help only in dealing with short-term problems, and in relation to Northern Ireland it will not be used for long periods. I have said that the Anguilla situation is wholly different. The Anguilla police unit, I understand, is a local police force established under the Police (Overseas Service) Act 1945. The British police who had gone to Anguilla had accepted short-service engagements of the sort contemplated under the present Bill, not by Clause 1 but by Clause 2.

The second point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, related to the possibility that, in present circumstances in Northern Ireland, the Army might become overstretched. I shall not attempt to take up the noble Lord's general point—and I do not think he would expect it—about the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the Army, except to say that I think he mistakes it. The fact remains that the Army has nearly ten major units in Northern Ireland and is at present meeting its commitments successfully, and Her Majesty's Government do not envisage that a situation will occur where the Army will be so stretched that police on mutual aid will be left stranded.

The third point of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, with which I have to deal relates to the position of the constable. He asked, by reference to the constable's oath of service, under what law is he serving. As I understand, it, a constable must perform his duties according to law, and that means the law applicable in the place where he is doing his duty. But, of course, in relation to this matter your Lordships have the assurances as to the practical working of this which have been given by my right honourable friend and to which the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, and I myself, have already referred.

In commending this Bill to your Lordships, may I conclude simply by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for everything they have said to-day, and for, as I have already described it, the constructive support which they have given to this small but important and not insignificant measure.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.