HL Deb 21 December 1976 vol 378 cc1263-7

6.27 p.m.

Lord MELCHETT rose to move, That the draft Police (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 7th December, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad to be able to move a measure which, in the Government view, will make a positive contribution to the important issue of police/public relations. The main purpose of the order is to introduce an independent element into the procedures for handling complaints against the police in Northern Ireland.

The need for improved machinery was recognised by the Committee chaired by my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner. That Committee noted that the procedures for investigating complaints against members of the RUC were already more thorough than those in existence for police forces in Great Britain, and while the Committee were satisfied that complaints were fully investigated, they nevertheless believed that the introduction of an independent element would be an important step towards restoring universal confidence in the RUC.

The Northern Ireland Working Party on Complaints Procedure recommended that the revised arrangements for Northern Ireland should be similar to those then under consideration for England and Wales, and the draft order now before your Lordships' House corresponds closely with the provisions of the Police Act 1976. It provides for the establishment of a Police Complaints Board for Northern Ireland to which will be referred copies of all complaints and, following investigation by the police and subject to any necessary reference to the Director of Public Prosecutions, copies of police investigation reports.

The requirement that copies of complaints should be forwarded to the Board by the chief constable at the outset is an additional feature of the Northern Ireland scheme. The intention is that the Board will thus be kept informed of the nature and volume of complaints in an up-to-date and comprehensive manner. When sub-mitting investigation reports to the Board, the chief constable must indicate whether or not he has preferred disciplinary charges against the officer concerned and, if he has, of any exceptional circumstances which make it desirable that the case he heard by a tribunal rather than by the chief constable sitting alone. A tribunal is to consist of the chief constable as chairman and two members of the Board not previously connected with the case. The question of guilt will be determined by the tribunal as a whole but the decision as to punishment will rest solely with the police chairman after consulting the other members of the tribunal.

Where the chief constable considers that no charges should be preferred, the Board may recommend and, in the last resort and after consultation with the chief constable, direct that charges should be preferred. There is no reference to the Board in cases where the officer admits disciplinary charges, but the Board is to be given particulars of the case when the charges have been heard. Nor is there any reference to the Board in the case of complaints against members of the part-time Reserve or senior officers, where there is already an independent element in the disciplinary procedures.

The final part of the draft order contains two minor Amendments to the Police Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. The first, in Article 16, relaxes the prohibition on the Police Association being associated with any outside body and the second, in Article 17, enables the Secretary of State to determine the rates of certain police allowances without the need to issue amending regulations. Both these provisions bring the Northern Ireland practice into line with that in Great Britain and are welcomed by the police representative associations. The Government believe that this order will help to encourage all sections of the community to co-operate with the police and to have confidence in their integrity and impartiality. I commend it to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the draft Police (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 7th December, be approved. —(Lord Melchett.)

6.31 p.m.


My Lords, I have mixed feelings about this order. I certainly accept that an independent system of dealing with complaints against the police, which was agreed in the Sunning-dale package in December 1973, should be seen as an element in achieving as widespread support as possible for the RUC in Northern Ireland, and that is something to which all of us would undoubtedly gibe support. However, I should like just to express the hope that, before bringing forward the order, the Government have taken seriously into account that the report of the Gardiner Commission concluded that complaints against the RUC were more thoroughly investigated than complaints against any other police force in the United Kingdom. That is contained in paragraph 96 of the Gardiner Report. Of course, in Northern Ireland, unlike in Great Britain, any complaint against the police alleging a criminal act automatically goes to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

This order, too, was rightly given close scrutiny by another place on Friday and I shall not go over the arguments again. What I am not absolutely clear about, however, is the position of the Police Authority with regard to complaints. I imagine that it has no locus at all in this matter, but I should be interested to hear whether any members of the Police Authority are to be invited to serve on the new Complaints Board or whether they are in any way excluded from doing so.

I feel that I could wish that this order had been delayed. Although the Working Party on complaints against the police included representatives of the Police Federation, I am not aware that the Police Federation supports this order and I feel that that is a pity. However, having said that, clearly, the chief constable in Northern Ireland has every right to be proud of the dangerous work that his force is doing and we all owe a debt to the RUC. I am persuaded, in supporting the passage of this order, that this independent complaints procedure will in time be seen to cast no reflection whatsoever on the RUC, upon whom the future of law and order in Northern Ireland will undoubtedly depend. On those grounds, I would support the passage of this order.

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for expressing support, albeit somewhat qualified, for the passage of the order. The noble Lord mentioned the attitude that the Gardiner Committee took in saying that the procedures in Northern Ireland were, at the time when the Committee was investigating the matter, already in advance of those in operation in England and Wales. Nevertheless, my understanding of the matter is that the Gardiner Committee took the view that Northern Ireland should not wait for the rest of the United Kingdom in introducing a new complaints procedure. The fact is that, having made the decision to set up a Working Party to look into the matter in Northern Ireland, we have Waited for the Police Act 1976 to come into law before acting in Northern Ireland, and we are taking action with the recommendations of the Working Party, which, as the noble Lord said, included representatives of the RUC, in mind.

The noble Lord referred to the role of the Police Authority and asked me whether its members would be involved in the complaints procedures. Because the Police Authority cannot be said to be independent of the force that it is required by law to maintain, it will not, in the Government's view, be able to provide the independent element needed in the com-plaints procedure if the public are to have complete confidence in such a procedure. The Government, of course, attach great importance to the role of the Police Authority, and the Authority will continue to exercise a statutory duty to keep itself informed as to the manner in which com-plaints are dealt with by the chief constable. Moreover, the Complaints Board is required under Article 11 of the order to send to the Police Authority a copy of any report made to the Secretary of State, together with any other infor-mation which the Board considers relevant to the Police Authority's functions. So we would see a continuing and important role for the Police Authority once the order is passed.

The noble Lord concluded by saying that he hoped that, in time, this order would be seen not to be a reflection on the integrity of the RUC. I must say that I would hope —and indeed, I am sure—that the order is already seen by the vast majority of members of the RUC, if not all, as being no reflection on their integrity at this moment; and certainly no reflection was intended by the Government, or the many people who would support the passing of this order. So I hope that we shall not need to see any time pass before that is fully accepted by the RUC and, indeed, everyone else in Northern Ireland.

On Question, Motion agreed to.