HL Deb 03 April 1996 vol 571 cc272-4

11.22 a.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the circumstances and what are the implications of the dismissal of the chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Authority, Mr. David Cook, and one of the members, Mr. Chris Ryder, by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has a statutory duty to appoint and maintain a police authority. Following votes of no confidence in Mr. Cook and in Mr. Ryder, and after consideration of the issues involved, the Secretary of State concluded that the authority could not function effectively with Mr. Cook and Mr. Ryder as members. The issues at stake were not substantive policy questions but involved the way in which business was conducted. The deputy chairman, Mr. Pat Armstrong CBE, has been appointed chairman. Members are now continuing their important function of securing an adequate and efficient police force.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Clearly, this is now water under the bridge. But I wonder whether I may ask her in these unhappy circumstances and at this sensitive time in Northern Ireland, first, whether this might not be an opportunity for the Northern Ireland Office and the Government to express their appreciation of two people who have given considerable public service in Northern Ireland over the years and, even more importantly, whether the Minister can reassure the House that the process whereby the authority has been driving towards greater accountability for the police in Northern Ireland, which is surely crucial—it proved to be crucial in South Africa in cementing the idea that the police force there was the force for the whole community—should in no way suffer in the change of personnel at the top of the Police Authority.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is precisely because we did not want that important work to be impeded in any way that the Secretary of State took the action that he did. We have just had the most comprehensive review of public opinion on policing in Northern Ireland which has ever been undertaken. I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that 600,000 homes received mailshots and that there were public opinion surveys and a series of meetings. All of that work continues, including a review of the structure of the Police Authority and the police force.

At the forefront of the Secretary of State's mind has to be the proper functioning and credibility of the authority. That is why he took the action that he did. The votes of no confidence were overwhelming and they were followed by interviews with each member of the authority. It became clear that there was so little confidence in those two gentlemen, Mr. Cook and Mr. Ryder, that it was in the best interests of the authority that they should be removed.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in my view the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had no option but to act as he did given what happened on the Police Authority? However, will she indicate to him that I hope that the services of those two men will not be lost? Chris Ryder knows Northern Ireland inside out. He used to work for a British newspaper and it was worth buying that weekend paper because he knew what he was talking about. That is true also of David Cook. Their views on these matters are well worth listening to, even if they did not act wisely on the Police Authority.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, a distinction should be made between the proper functioning and authority of the Police Authority and the particular service of those two gentlemen. It would be improper of me to secondguess how the Secretary of State dealt with the matter when he visited those two gentlemen. He gave them both the opportunity to present their cases to him, and I have no doubt that he would have done that with the utmost courtesy, recognising the positive contributions that they have made. However, for the proper authority of the Police Authority it was important that he took the action that he did.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, is there any difference in terms of policy between Mr. Cook and Mr. Ryder on the one hand and their remaining colleagues on the authority on the other, or was it simply the case that personal relations had so broken down that the efficient functioning of the authority could not be guaranteed?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it was mainly a question of style and of the way in which those gentlemen operated as a member and chairman of the authority. That came across clearly in the interviews with members of the authority.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does not my noble friend the Minister agree that the issue has been that those two men, valuable though everyone recognises them to be, chose to discuss a leaked document and thus to pre-empt the discussions and consensus view of an authority of 20 people, which by any standards is not very sensible, and that as a result they have perhaps put a rather good consultation process in jeopardy? I am sure that that is the last thing that they would have wanted to do, but it has been the effect.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point which was indeed material. The way in which some information of the authority was represented not as the collective view of the authority but as individual views, and the fact that information was often injudiciously placed in the public domain, were two of the reasons behind all this. I refer to the conduct of the chairman and the member.