HL Deb 18 May 1998 vol 589 cc1354-83

7.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The aim of the Bill is to make the policing of Northern Ireland more efficient, more effective, more accountable, and, as a result, more acceptable, thereby commanding increased confidence across the whole community.

The proposals in the Bill are drawn from two main sources. In April 1996 the Labour Party published a consultation document on the future of policing in Northern Ireland. That paper, in turn, drew on recent experience of police reforms in Great Britain.

The other source is Dr. Maurice Hayes' comprehensive report on the police complaints system in Northern Ireland.

Since the Bill was first introduced in the other place in December there have been two significant developments which have a bearing on the future of the Bill. These are the lengthy consideration and amendment of the Bill in the other place, and the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement between the British and Irish Governments, and political parties representing the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

The first of these has fine-tuned the Bill so that as well as achieving its main aims it also takes account of the views expressed by a wide range of individuals and groups. At Third Reading in the other place it attracted wide-ranging support.

In this context I should also mention the police authority, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Independent Commission for Police Complaints which have all made valuable contributions to the Bill during its progress through the other place.

I should now like to say something about the Good Friday Agreement. This Bill is passing through the House at a particularly historic time for Northern Ireland. We have the referendum on Friday and, if the Good Friday Agreement is endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, one of the results will be the setting up of an independent commission on policing.

Many of the key features of this Bill are identified in the principles set out in the agreement and in the terms of reference for the independent commission. The commission will be considering these essential ingredients of sound, effective and widely supported policing arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The question, then, is what is the relationship between the Bill and the establishment of the independent commission? The answer is that this Bill is a paving provision. It is a building block on which other improvements to policing can be made.

The independent commission will, no doubt, look at some of the areas identified in this legislation, as they are areas covered in its terms of reference. I am sure, however, that when it does it will take account of the debates we have had in this House and those that have happened in another place.

In particular, I hope that they will take account of the positive comments made about the Bill at its Third Reading and Report stage in another place.

Before I move on to describe exactly what it is the Bill does, and at a time that Northern Ireland is contemplating more peaceful, more positive times than those it has enjoyed in the past, I should like to pay tribute to those who have formed the shield which protected the people of Northern Ireland from the scourge of terrorism. I refer, of course, to the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and those who work alongside them, in safeguarding the community and upholding the rule of law.

Over the past 29 years, 301 officers have lost their lives as a result of terrorist attack; and many thousands more have been injured. All officers, and their families, have had to live with the constant danger of terrorism.

I should like to mention especially the families and dependants of those who have died; and those officers who survived terrorist attack but whose injuries are such that they will have to live with severe disabilities for the rest of their lives. We have not forgotten their sacrifice.

Indeed, the Secretary of State will be meeting members of the Disabled Police Officers Association next week, and will be listening to their concerns.

We should remember that the threat of violence, which led to so much physical suffering and emotional trauma in the past, has not yet gone away. The RUC, in providing a community police service for all the people of Northern Ireland, continues to face unique and all too often dangerous circumstances as its officers go about their daily duties.

Despite this, they continue to uphold the rule of law and safeguard the lives and the property of all the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that this Bill's proposals will aid them in that task.

I should also ask noble Lords to remember the service provided to the people of Northern Ireland by the members and staff of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. They have stood shoulder to shoulder with the RUC in the fight against terrorism, and have also had to operate under the shadow of threat and attack. The Government and the community in Northern Ireland are indebted to them as well.

I should also like to mention the past and present members of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints, and the staff of the commission, who have played an important part in the accountability framework for the police, again in difficult circumstances.

I have mentioned the Good Friday Agreement and the policing commission; perhaps I could say something about the Government's overall strategy for policing, particularly at a time when there is such uncertainty in people's minds.

Certain things can be taken as read. There is no question of disbanding the RUC. I quote the Prime Minister in an interview on 18th April, We want to get to the stage where the RUC—the Police Service in Northern Ireland—can be a police service that has the consent of both parts of the community doing the job of a normal police service". Nor is there any question of allowing anyone who has been involved in paramilitary activity to police Northern Ireland.

Change will come, of course. We need only look at Great Britain to see this where, for example, many of the police planning and efficiency arrangements contained in the Bill are already in place. These arrangements have clearly improved the community/police partnerships within policing in Great Britain.

I know that changes such as these will be welcomed by the RUC. As the Chief Constable said recently, If we reach a point where the threat of violence faced by my officers and faced by the public is dramatically reduced, people will see a dramatic change in the way we go about our business. We stand ready for change to see us as more representative of all our communities". I should now like to move on to the proposals themselves. In essence, the Bill has four main strands. First, it clarifies the relative responsibilities of the chief constable, the police authority, and the Secretary of State in the governance of policing in Northern Ireland, otherwise known as the tripartite structure.

Secondly, it introduces measures to enable the wholly independent investigation of complaints against the police in Northern Ireland, by establishing the office of the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, the Bill introduces a range of measures intended to make the RUC and the police authority more accountable. Fourthly, the Bill consolidates existing Northern Ireland policing legislation, with the exception of the police and criminal evidence provisions.

Turning to the detail of the legislation, the Bill introduces to Northern Ireland police planning and objective setting mechanisms, similar to those introduced to England and Wales in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. They will allow the Secretary of State and the police authority to set the priorities for policing in Northern Ireland on an annual basis, while safeguarding the chief constable's operational independence.

The chief constable will draft a policing plan reflecting these priorities. That plan will be approved and published by the police authority. Within six months of the end of the year for which the plan was written, the police authority will provide a public assessment in its annual report of the chief constable's performance in carrying out the plan.

The police planning and objective setting provisions have already been brought into effect in Northern Ireland on a non-statutory basis. The plan for 1998ߝ99 was issued by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland at the end of March. The matters dealt with in that plan are important, and it is necessary to ensure they are tackled efficiently and effectively if we are to secure our goal of making life better for everyone in Northern Ireland by reducing the disruption, distress and fear crime brings to the lives of ordinary people.

The Police Authority for Northern Ireland will receive the funds for policing from the Secretary of State and will have the power to determine how those funds are allocated as part of the overall policing strategy. The authority will then delegate the day-to-day management of all the resources needed to deliver the policing service to the people of Northern Ireland to the chief constable, who is empowered to act on its behalf. That includes the civilian staff who work in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

One of the innovations of the Bill is to introduce a new term, the "Northern Ireland Police Service", to describe all those, police constables, support staff, and traffic wardens, who will come under the authority of the chief constable as a result of the provisions of the Bill.

I should also note that the title of the Royal Ulster Constabulary will remain. It will continue to describe the police force, the body of constables who form an essential part, but only a part, of the overall organisation needed to supply a policing service to the community in Northern Ireland.

The police authority will hold the chief constable to account for the delivery of the policing service, and for his stewardship of resources. These proposals will bring policing in Northern Ireland into line with policing arrangements in the rest of the United Kingdom, with clearly defined and logically structured responsibilities and lines of accountability.

The creation of the office of police ombudsman is another important feature of the Bill. It is one which I am particularly delighted to see as, when a Member in another place, I introduced a Private Member's Bill which sought to introduce an independent system for investigating police complaints in England and Wales. Perhaps I should add that that measure did not become law at the time. It does not surprise me that we have now reached the stage where legislation is being introduced in Northern Ireland, and I believe it will be a model system which the Home Secretary will be looking at to see how it operates.

The provisions in the part of the Bill, Part VII, dealing with police complaints, reflect the recommendations by Dr. Maurice Hayes in a report into the police complaints system in Northern Ireland. This report received widespread support in Northern Ireland and, having looked at the report of the debate on Third Reading in another place, it is clear that there was unanimous support for the proposals there. They are extremely important.

Dr. Hayes concluded: The overwhelming message I got from nearly all sides and from all political parties was the need for the investigation to be independent and to be seen to be independent. While there were systematic failings in the present arrangements they lacked credibility because of lack of independence, because it was the Chief Constable who decided what was a complaint, because there was no power of initiative, and because the complaints were investigated by police and others". I found this particularly interesting given my view 20 years ago and, indeed, the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, in 1981 in his report (Cmnd. 8421) into the Brixton disorders. He said: My own view is that if public confidence in the complaints procedure is to be achieved any solution falling short of a system of independent investigation available for all complaints (other than the frivolous) which are not withdrawn, is unlikely to be successful". Almost two decades later, this Bill gives effect to his recommendations.

The key point stressed by Maurice Hayes and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, was independence. Another key point stressed in Dr. Hayes' report is that while public confidence is paramount, it should not be gained at the expense of police confidence. I believe that our proposals will enjoy the confidence of the police and the community.

The Bill's provisions include the establishment, as I have said, of the police ombudsman. This person will be appointed for a period of seven years, or until the age of 70, whichever is the shorter period. Crucially, he or she will have control of the process, deciding what a complaint is, how it is to be investigated and by whom. Unlike at present, the ombudsman will be able to call himself or herself in to investigate cases.

There will be a requirement that the ombudsman should conduct investigations into the most serious cases. In addition, he or she may investigate any other case. What this means is that the ombudsman will be able to conduct not only disciplinary investigations, but also criminal ones. Obviously, his staff will need to have appropriate powers to do this, and the Bill provides for these.

The staff of the body will be drawn from different areas. The Government believe that, initially at least, there will be a small number of police officers on temporary service drawn from forces across the United Kingdom. These officers will be selected by the ombudsman and will be under his or her direction and control. There will also be other "civilian" staff and these will include the current staff of the ICPC, as well as others recruited by the ombudsman. The office clearly needs to be adequately resourced. The Government do not want to see the body's effectiveness hampered by a lack of resources.

I see these provisions as establishing an office which will undoubtedly engender public confidence in the police complaints system, while also, and importantly, providing reassurance to the vast majority of dedicated, hard-working police officers that their work for the community will not be undone by malicious allegations or innuendo. Where a complaint is made, they will have the advantage of being examined not by the police, with the attendant problem of a lack of independence and public trust in the system, but by the ombudsman who by his or her very nature will be independent.

As I have said, these proposals have attracted widespread support, they have been improved in another place, and I hope that this House will support them.

The Bill also changes the declaration of office made by RUC constables to a form broadly similar to that used to affirm constables in office in Scotland. That is in line with a series of other changes in recent years to oaths or declarations of office throughout the criminal justice system in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. Outdated and overly complex language has been eliminated and clear, simple wording used. The new declaration states: I hereby do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable. This is clear, simple wording.

The role of the police in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is not to uphold one political view or another. It is impartially and effectively to protect life and property, to preserve order, to prevent crime, and to bring offenders to justice. That is to what the declaration of office commits RUC officers. They are also aims to which all right-thinking people ascribe.

The Bill also gives the Secretary of State the power to issue codes of practice to the police authority relating to the discharge of its functions. The purpose of that power is to enable the Secretary of State to ensure that the authority follows best practice on openness, community consultation and financial oversight.

The Bill also gives the Secretary of State power to issue guidance to the police in Northern Ireland, enabling her to issue circulars detailing best practice to the RUC, just as the Home Secretary issues such circulars to police forces in England and Wales. That will make relationships between the Secretary of State and the police authority and the RUC more tangible and transparent.

One of the main underlying purposes of the Bill is to improve links between the police and local communities. As part of that, the Government want to ensure that district councils in Northern Ireland are better informed about policing arrangements there. The Bill therefore makes provision for district councils to ask questions of the police authority, and requires the authority to send one or more members to a meeting of the district council to answer such questions, provided suitable notice is given. I am sure that that important step will be welcomed by all who serve on district councils and by the wider community.

As I have already said, the provisions in this Bill are the building blocks on which other sensible improvements can be made if found to be necessary in the future.

I can advise your Lordships that, subject to the House giving the Bill a Second Reading this evening, it will be the Government's intention to seek to have the Committee stage of the Bill considered in the Grand Committee in the Moses Room at an appropriate point in the future.

This Bill introduces sensible, moderate and timely measures which will enable the police service in Northern Ireland to evolve to face whatever challenges the future holds, including the threat of resurgent terrorism. The Bill will ensure safer communities, and better policing for everyone in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Dubs.)

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I welcome much in the Bill, particularly the provision for the complaints procedure which can only do good. However, the Bill comes before the House at a critical moment in the days immediately preceding the referendum and it provides both our own Government and the Irish Government with another opportunity to reassure, not Sinn Fein/IRA, but the ordinary law-abiding people of Northern Ireland by its presentation of the future envisaged by them for the RUC. This will be a touchstone for not only Unionist but moderate Catholic opinion.

The Bill is clearly intended to demonstrate the intention of the Government to meet the commitments set out in the section of the Belfast Agreement on Policing and Justice to, a new beginning in policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole", and, a new political dispensation which will recognise the full and equal legitimacy and work of the identities, centres of allegiance and ethos of all sections of the community as a whole, and which, in a peaceful environment, should he routinely unarmed". Mr. Ahern, commending the agreement to his government, said that the RUC would need to change and that it should be, as the agreement says, professional…accountable…and have public confidence". He added that its "military trappings"—that slightly mystified me—"must be removed" and that, it must be removed…it must be unarmed as the Gardai is". Many noble Lords in this House have pointed out in recent debates that it is no fault of the RUC that it has so few Catholic members, since the whole world knows that a Catholic has to be brave indeed to join, in the knowledge that his life and that of his family will be under perpetual threat from the IRA. I raise this again because I did not quite understand—now that the Minister has spoken I understand much better—why the Bill proposed in Clause 7 to consult the public widely on their views concerning policing, but in Clause 37 issued a statement of policing principles, including the express principle (in lines 23 and 24) that the policing of Northern Ireland should be conducted in an impartial manner. I could not understand why that was coming forward now.

Surely, the RUC has earned the respect of the public for its war against crime, drugs and so forth. I believe that even the paramilitaries of both persuasions who have murdered, bombed and maimed so many would admit that the RUC had done its duty at great risk to its members in bringing criminals from both sides to justice. This Bill implies in much of its language that only after consultation with the people will impartial policing be achieved. Why is this to be done now before the Patten Commission has examined the position and reported; or is the Bill a mechanism put in place so that it can be implemented when the commission has reported? How do we know what the commission will recommend?

I respect the wish of the Government to ensure that nothing should delay the implementation of the agreement if the referendum gives—as we must hope that it will in the absence of any alternative—the go-ahead to proceed with some positive and valuable plans. But I believe that the last thing that will reassure the many doubters, who already see yet further confidence-building measures being given to people whom they have good cause to fear and reject, making possible such scenes as the disgraceful triumphalism at the Sinn Fein/IRA celebration of the release of prisoners, is for the Government to appear to be prepared to politicise the force of law and order.

The Minister's explanation of the Bill has very much calmed my fears in that direction, but I am not sure that the people who are frightened will be calmed. I give one small example of how not to reassure the Northern Ireland majority. This is a matter that has already been referred to by the Minister. Schedule 2 to the Bill sets out a new form for the declaration or affirmation that newly-joined members of the police force will use. The notes on the Bill state:

The new form of declaration is modern, clear and simple"— it is— and does not contain any reference to the Sovereign or any reference to Her Majesty's subjects. This formulation goes some way to meeting nationalist concerns. At the same time, the fact that it is copied from another UK jurisdiction should soften the impact for Unionists". That is exactly the kind of thin end of the wedge—the weasel words—which will be seen to be designed to propitiate Sinn Fein/IRA and which takes little account of the message sent to the people to whom the Crown still means, as it does to the forces and to the police, something deeply valued and above party. I believe that that issue is very important. The Minister rightly said that there must not be political allegiance, but the Crown is above that.

The Catholics who are in the RUC—there are some brave men and women who are members of that force—have had no difficulty with the existing form of declaration. The Government speak often of respecting other cultures. Why should that mean rejecting the majority view in favour of the brutal and aggressive paramilitary minority? The Queen has many loyal Catholic subjects who have never thought it incompatible with their religion to serve the Crown, whether in the forces or in the police. It is only Sinn Fein/IRA that has had a significant problem in that direction.

The RUC is likely to view this as a significant step, and the general public may very well share that view. Reasonable though most of this Bill is, this is a time when people feel threatened. This is one more issue on which the Government need to pay greater attention to the deeply frightened and angry majority and less to the militant minority. Without a majority of that majority there will be no effective agreement. Although I share the widely held view that an agreement that must be taken as one package but contains no binding and effective commitment to decommissioning is deeply flawed, nevertheless it must be given the chance to work.

The Government need to make it absolutely clear that the RUC is trusted and valued, as it now is; that HMG will not use this Bill to pre-empt the report of the commission which is to be set up under the agreement; and that consultation with the people means all the people and is not a codeword for asking the IRA to provide its own blueprint and its own thought police. I believe that there is scope for real and valuable co-operation with the Garda. I have great respect for very many of its recent actions. Perhaps in future we shall not see the Slab Murphys of the IRA able to defy it by stepping across the border into Northern Ireland, and vice-versa. Meanwhile, surely we must be seen to be taking every opportunity to support and take pride in the RUC as a magnificent force.

In the past year I have had the privilege to learn something about the difficult and heroic lives led by members of the RUC's Disabled Police Officers Association, many of whom have been maimed and mutilated and their lives and those of their families destroyed at a comparatively young age by the paramilitaries of both persuasions. I am particularly glad that the Government intend to provide some money to help them. I know that the Secretary of State is to see them. But they still receive threats even in that situation. These are the brave, dignified and loyal people to whom we should listen. They must not be given cause to believe that it was all in vain.

Sinn Fein/IRA has no problem with the agreement because it sees it as just another stage, this time political, in its struggle. It has achieved its object of acquiring political respectability, despite the fact that the IRA has made the extraordinary admission that members of Sinn Fein who are also members of the IRA may stand for election to the assembly. Everyone seems to be able to swallow that. It will suit it splendidly to find itself in a crippled assembly because of the possibility of a Unionist split. The Prime Minister has seen the danger and made a fresh commitment to decommissioning and related issues to reassure the majority, and that is good. However, it is difficult to see how, given the impossibility of unpacking and repacking the agreement, he can deliver. Just about the only certainty at present in the lives of many is the continuing power of the RUC and, if necessary, the Armed Forces to guarantee law and order. They need to have and be seen to have unequivocal support. The Crown is an important symbol of that because it provides their link with the UK, in which they need to continue to believe.

believe that the Bill has much to commend it. Now that the Minister has spoken I understand better than I did its genesis. But I still believe that this is the moment when the way it is handled will have almost disproportionate political importance.

8.17 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness's clear insight into so many of our problems. I am sure that we all join in her generous tribute to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I also warmly support the words of the Minister in his tribute to those who improved the Bill in another place. We owe a particular debt to those who served on the Committee stage of the Bill in another place—which was rather protracted—and should record our appreciation of the care taken by Ministers and Members of the Committee to correct many drafting errors. That is no reflection on the draftsmen, because at Northern Ireland and UK level they are working under very great pressure. That would normally be expected in the first Session of a new Parliament, but superimposed upon that mechanism has been the unexpected burden of many items of new legislation arising from what has been called the Northern Ireland peace process, which it is not. Rather, it is a political process which at most may improve the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland.

Ministers have been very prudent in resisting quite unnecessary structural changes in the Royal Ulster Constabulary when the level of terrorism constitutes grave concern. The IRA has bequeathed to its sub-contractors the capacity to launch attacks at any time and at any point of their choosing. Such perpetrators may pretend to be at variance with the main contractors—namely, the Provisional IRA—but their differences are really limited to the speed of the conveyor belt delivering concession after concession. The so-called sub-contractors want the belt speeded up; the main contractors realise that that may not be possible; but they are all agreed that at least it should be kept moving.

While the whole fiendish game is being played out, as the Minister said, lives will still be at risk and Her Majesty's Government's Ministers recognise that they have a continuing responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. The life-preserving instruments in Northern Ireland are the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Army and we should not forget other forces of the Crown, in particular as I have a vested interest as a former member of the Royal Air Force. The Minister has conceded very wisely that now is certainly not the time to tamper with the efficiency of any of those forces.

Whatever the course of political events, there will be confusion and instability and it is essential that such anxieties be not increased by the unnecessary removal of familiar landmarks. That is a very important lesson which we should bear in mind.

During past months, we have had more than enough of confidence-wrecking measures. A lengthy pause in that operation would be beneficial to all. One is reassured by the Prime Minister who, in his revised list of disqualifications, included those who practised intimidation and targeting of persons in public life. In particular, I am thinking of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, their wives and their families. While such activities have not deflected policemen from doing their duty, it is something which would not be tolerated not only in any other part bf the United Kingdom but in any other part of the European Union, with the possible exception of "Mafia land".

As regards the propaganda campaign for change of title and replacement of cap badges, I must ask whether anyone really believes that the Republican sub-contractors who planted that huge bomb at the police station in the city of Armagh just a few days ago would have stayed their hand by reason of a change in headgear of the occupants of the station. The sad reality is that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army will always suffer attacks because they are seen to be the upholders of freedom and democracy. Therefore, they are automatically the enemies of evildoers of all categories.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the Minister at this stage is a very arduous task. Their words will certainly be read with great interest and with a great sense of solace, to some degree, by many people in Northern Ireland tomorrow morning.

The Minister has gone into some detail in explaining this legislation to the House this evening. I am really heartened by the words and thoughts expressed so clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. They have made the Bill, which is a massive piece of legislation, more easy to understand. It is a difficult piece of legislation to understand both in relation to its content and its application to the situation in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may turn to the issue of this House dealing with the legislation. It will be noted that in general terms of parliamentary legislation, the Bill is a formidable piece of legislative work to undertake. It has eight parts, 77 clauses, and six schedules. As has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, there was purposeful debate on the Bill in another place. Since its First Reading on 5th December and its Second Reading, there have been 15 sittings of the Commons Standing Committee. Therefore, there is a tremendous burden on us to deal with this legislation in the context of daily events which may influence certain decisions concerning the Bill.

It is interesting to note also that it was debated in the Northern Ireland forum during the month of March. It is interesting to observe how this Bill shaped up with the elected representatives there. On reading the debate this evening, they may change their views to some degree. However, there are deep-rooted attitudes which have been formed over the years by many in public life.

I cannot add to anything that has been said by the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Park, or the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in the tributes which they paid to the RUC and to all those involved in the policing services. Those people have stood on the bridge and will continue to do so unless dramatic changes take place in the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

The Minister was right at this stage to refer to the impact which may arise from the appointment of Chris Patten to preside over the commission dealing with policing in Northern Ireland. There is bound to be an overlap and changes are bound to take place. I do not know how flexible we can make the legislation to deal with policing and the new commission which is to be established. It needs to be flexible so that it can adjust to the needs of the particular situation in Northern Ireland. Those needs must be met with certain standards. Standards of law and order must be maintained in Northern Ireland, including the way it is financed. The RUC has upheld those standards over the years by trying to make life there worthwhile and to bring hope and prosperity to the community.

The proposal to take this Bill in the Grand Committee is a worthwhile step forward. It will meet the needs of the changing circumstances which we shall probably meet as the weeks pass by during the passage of this legislation. As I say, I pay tribute to the RUC in Northern Ireland. That point has been well made by the Minister and there is nothing I can add to that. I am sure that it is the wish of this House that the Bill should go forward in a manner which will help the situation in Northern Ireland, and will help in particular those who must stand on the bridge on a day-to-day basis.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in this debate. I must apologise to your Lordships in that I shall be unable to stay until the end. I make this contribution as I have served on two occasions with my regiment in Belfast and in the country areas. Although it was many years ago, my memories and impressions are very vivid. I shall not refer to the technical aspects of the Bill, which I found most interesting as explained by the Minister, as I wish to concentrate on the Royal Ulster Constabulary and to make some wider and more general comments on policing in Northern Ireland, which is difficult to do anywhere outside the confines of this Bill.

Policing in Ulster is a joint matter between the RUC and the Army, with support from various intelligence agencies. I should like to make the point here that it is vital to continue to have a co-ordinator of intelligence drawn from either the RUC or the Army to disseminate intelligence in a timely manner so that it can be acted on with success. The Army is in support of the civil power and the success of these combined operations is due to the close working relations between the RUC and the Army, established and developed over many years, although there have been periods when this relationship has not been as close as it should have been. The policing of Northern Ireland is essentially a combined operation and the conditions of any forthcoming agreement must take that into account. The authority of the security forces must not be undermined, particularly during any transitional stage resulting from any political agreements.

There are concerns emanating from the present agreement, which will be voted on by the people of both Northern Ireland and Ireland on 22nd May. Without the necessary guarantees, some people in the north might not cast a "Yes" vote. It is of the greatest significance that Ireland has rescinded its territorial claim to Northern Ireland—a fact that should be recognised and clearly understood before people vote in the referendum. There are three major concerns, which have much commented upon in press reports and indeed some have been mentioned in your Lordships' House tonight. They are matters which will be the responsibility of the police. First, is the release of prisoners; secondly, the handing over of weapons; and, thirdly, the review of the RUC. All these three matters are of the utmost importance and I wish to stress that the timing of any review into the policing of Northern Ireland could be critical to the successful future operations of the RUC.

Without a fully functioning and efficient police force the monitoring of the release of prisoners and the handing in of weapons would be impossible to achieve. It is for this reason that no independent inquiry should be instigated into the future of the RUC until the release of prisoners has gone smoothly and according to plan; and weapons have been handed in. It is vital that the Prime Minister's four measures to clarify whether the term and the spirit of the agreement are being met and whether violence has been given up for good are put into legislation and placed before Parliament. He said that the first test was a clear commitment that there was an end to violence for good and that the so-called, "war" was finished, done with and gone. Secondly, the ceasefire had to be complete and unequivocal, and this condition included punishment beatings and the need for dismantling para-military organisations. Thirdly, there had to be full co-operation on the decommissioning of weapons and ammunition with the independent commission. Fourthly, no other groups were to be used deliberately as proxies for violence.

How can the police ensure that those conditions are monitored if, at the same time, an inquiry into their organisation, roles and responsibilities is to take place? Any inquiry will lower morale and affect the confidence of all ranks of the RUC at the very time when all their skills will be required to ensure the prescribed conditions are met if there is a "Yes" vote in the referendum next Friday. Now is not the time to carry out a review of the RUC.

The men and women of the RUC are quite rightly considered to be some of the bravest people in the world, displaying immeasurable courage and, on many occasions, acts of gallantry that go unreported. Their devotion to duty and loyalty to the Crown have been and remain at the highest levels. They have lived continuously for about 29 years in extreme danger and under threat throughout their lives, many of them living in the same places all the time. They have performed their duties in the face of the most difficult circumstances, upholding law and order, preventing Northern Ireland slipping into anarchy. Now is not the time for their morale to be dented but rather for the Secretary of State to be seen to be visiting police stations and Army locations very much more frequently than in the past, where her lack of interest in visiting the RUC and the Army has been noticed by the forces of law and order, and has rightly angered members of the security forces.

I started my comments with the fact that successful policing of Northern Ireland is a joint matter concerning the RUC and the Army. Until there is a police settlement, that will continue to be the case. It is vital that the morale of these two organisations is kept at the highest possible level and that their performance should be no less than excellent at all times. In this context, and without going into any great detail, I wish to bring briefly to your Lordships' attention the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. I do so because, as I have already said, the Army is part of the policing equation and without it the RUC would not have been able to manage. I believe that there has been a gross miscarriage of justice and that these two guardsmen should be released immediately.

There are many reasons to substantiate this claim, which has recently been submitted to the Ministry of Defence. I will not tire your Lordships tonight with the reasons for this, but perhaps two of the most striking are the facts that the other two soldiers in their patrol—namely, Sergeant Swift and Guardsman Williams—were not called to give evidence and that, on behalf of the prosecution, the RUC questioned Sergeant Swift in a hostile manner in a military barracks at Windsor shortly before the trial. I am led to believe that the Secretary of State has the discretionary power to release any prisoner at any time. In view of the circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland today, and because it seems that there has been a miscarriage of justice, both these soldiers should be released forthwith. The imprisonment of those two soldiers has had, and is having, a most unnerving effect on soldiers carrying out policing and anti-terrorist duties in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I believe that there is a case for a review of the RUC during which the chief constable should address all the changes that he may wish to make. The review should be in two phases. Phase I could start once the result of the referendum is known and should establish the terms and conditions of reference; the official nomination of a chairman, members and secretariat support; the methodology to be adopted; and the systems for reporting and discussion. Phase 2 should consist of the actual inquiry, but, not before violence has ceased; weapons have been handed in; a smooth release of prisoners has taken place; and the guarantees given by the Prime Minister have been implemented.

8.38 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I must, first, apologise for not having put down my name on the speakers' list. I calculated that this debate would start between 6 and 6.30 p.m. and I knew that I had to be at a meeting elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster until 7 p.m. Most of the points that I wish to make can in fact be made in Committee, but I have three specific questions for the Minister. The first one may seem trivial and I suppose that it is. However, as it relates to the contents of the "Explanatory and Financial Memorandum" of the Bill and not to a clause or schedule, this is the only forum in which I can raise it. The explanatory memorandum states: The Bill will give effect in Northern Ireland to certain proposals for police reform…set out"— not in a government White Paper or Green Paper but— in the Labour Party consultation paper". I may be exceptionally unobservant, but that does seem to me to be a trifle unusual. As I said, it is not terribly important, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister's response on that point.

Secondly, and more importantly, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that the name of the RUC would not be changed—or, at least, that there are no present plans to change its name. Therefore, can the noble Lord assure the House that there is absolutely no substance in the prediction made by that respected elder statesman, Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien, while taking part in an "Any Questions?" programme in Belfast on Friday, which was repeated this Saturday lunchtime, to the effect that not immediately, but before very long, the word "Royal" would be dropped as a result of pressure from the pan-nationalist front?

My final point concerns the revised form of declaration which is rightly criticised in my view by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. Is the Minister in a position to tell us what form of declaration there is in the Irish Republic for those who join the Gardai? Is the form of declaration there phrased in such a way as to be wholly inoffensive to the tiny handful of Unionists left in the Republic? In other words, is sauce for the goose sauce for the gander?

8.40 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I apologise for not having added my name to the speakers' list as I did not think I would be in your Lordships' House today. I have two questions for the Minister. Did I hear, in what I believe was about the 15th minute of his speech, that the total number of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who had met violent deaths as a result of the troubles was in the region of 300?

It may interest the Minister to know that one day when I was in Northern Ireland I had to write letters to the widows of the 199th and 200th members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That was 14 years ago. At a rough calculation, over 30 years and 300 deaths, an average of 10 men and women have met violent deaths each year. Will the Minister let me know at some stage the total number of men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who have met violent deaths since the start of the so-called peace campaign of September 1994? The figure of 10 per year does not sound an awful lot, but in mathematical terms that would equate to about 300 to 400 members of the police force on the mainland murdered every year.

Clause 27 of the Bill is headed, Members of RUC engaged on other police service". That appears to me to be rather an odd phrase. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that Clause 27, makes provision for members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary engaged on service outside the RUC". That is perfectly clear to me. I believe that the terms of this clause may be taken from Scottish or English and Welsh police procedure. I hope that the Minister will confirm that, perhaps at a later date. Perhaps we can discuss this in Committee if I am allowed to participate in the Grand Committee. The phrase "other police service" is interesting. It makes me wonder what other activities are included in the phrase.

The Minister referred to the Royal Ulster Constabulary's duties. As he spoke a shiver went down my spine. I have heard those words used by paramilitaries on both sides of the community in terms of keeping order—as they term it—in their respective communities. They have used precisely the same words to justify their actions as the Minister used. As I said, that sent a shiver down my spine. However, we can discuss that in Committee. Above all, I hope the Minister will inform me how many members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary have been murdered or have met violent deaths between 1994 and today.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, it is impossible to refer to policing in Northern Ireland without acknowledging the extraordinary risks that have been run by members of the RUC, by their families and by other public servants who have supported their duties over many years. We often think of those who have died—the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, has mentioned them—and of course their families. We think, too, of the many who have been disabled. Their situation has been drawn to your Lordships' attention.

It is almost impossible to overstate the strain and difficulty that have hung over members of the RUC, the RUC reserve and their families over the past 30 years. Indeed, it is only when things begin to improve and the strain starts to lift that many of them realise the great cloud that has hung over them. When they leave home in the morning they leave behind partners and families who wonder whether they will return in the evening. Members of the RUC have often been uncertain whether they would return or whether they would return to find their own families had fallen victim to paramilitary attacks. That is an extraordinary kind of service which is unequalled in almost any part of the democratic world, not only as regards its difficulty but also its prolonged nature. We cannot pay full enough tribute to those who have served in this way.

It is important to ask why these people have found themselves in that situation. It is because of the extraordinary responsibilities that the RUC has shouldered. The responsibility of most police services is to ensure good community policing and the maintenance of law and order within society. That is the responsibility of the RUC within Northern Ireland, but its responsibility goes far wider than that. From the very beginning it has been its responsibility to act in defence of the state. The very state itself has been under threat from the beginning. That is the nub of the problem for members of the RUC in terms of the size of their responsibility, and the nub of the problem for Nationalists joining the RUC.

It has been suggested that it is really only those who are extreme in their republicanism and violent in their operation who find it difficult to play a role in the RUC. I wish that was so. However difficult we may find it to acknowledge, it is precisely because the RUC has found itself in a political position in the maintenance of the state that a much greater difficulty has arisen. It is sometimes thought that the police could be improved in this way or that so as to obtain the confidence of the community as a whole. A Member in another place with whom I have considerable political disagreements pointed out recently that when the RUC has to deal with burglary, car theft, rape or all kinds of other issues, there is no lack of confidence as regards the propriety with which it deals with such a matter or the professionalism it brings to that. There is an appreciation right across the community that the RUC brings a degree of professionalism to the job which is second to none. However, the problem for Nationalists is their perception that the RUC exists to defend a state to which—at least until now—they have not been able to give allegiance. That is an awful burden which the RUC has borne on behalf of the community and which we must not forget.

I believe that there is an opportunity in the next few days and over the next few months—as this is not so much an event as a process—to bestow a legitimacy (through a referendum throughout the island of Ireland) to a political settlement which may begin to remove some of that burden from the RUC. It is not a burden which the RUC created for itself; it is a burden it has borne for the community. Allegiance could be given to a settlement which would enable matters to begin to change, but only if that settlement is supported widely throughout the community.

Those who have deep in their hearts a commitment to support the RUC must understand that one of the greatest things they can do to cancel the invidious position in which the RUC finds itself would be to ensure an agreed settlement throughout the island of Ireland. That would inform Irishmen North and South that the RUC does not exist to defend and maintain a state from which they are alienated. The RUC exists to ensure good rule of law and order for all sections of the community. I believe that is what a "Yes" vote would achieve for the RUC. I believe it is within the terms of a settlement that things can begin to change.

While I support many of the provisions of this Bill, it is rather extraordinary that it comes to your Lordships' House at this time—and indeed that it came to another place when it did, in December of last year. I say this, having said so at the time to the Minister with responsibilities in another place. At that time you will recall that we were right in the heart of negotiations about the future of Northern Ireland, and policing was to be one of the very central issues that we would have to address. Yet this Bill was already passing through the other place. When I raised the question, it was said to me by the Minister—I do not think I am breaching any confidence here—that now that we have a legal instrument going through the House, if it is the case that matters should arise in the context of the negotiations, they will of course be able to be brought in.

That seemed to be a not unreasonable proposition at the time but it has not turned out to be so, because in the agreement we were not able to come out with a series of agreed propositions of what could be done with policing. I have to say that, had such an outcome come about, it would have removed a good deal of the fear that is now in the community about issues of policing, prisoners and other matters. Instead, what we have is a proposition for a commission on policing. I do not suggest that the commission is an inappropriate vehicle. In particular it is good news that it may well be chaired by Chris Patten, a man of great distinction, who is held, I may say, in great respect and affection in Northern Ireland. I do not pour any cold water on that at all, but it does mean that this legal instrument now going through the House cannot itself contain any of the propositions which might be consequent on the settlement itself.

So we have a curious device going through, which makes some changes of a kind that could have been made at any time in the last dozen years or so. Indeed, many of the propositions here are propositions for which my colleagues have striven for quite some time. I refer to matters like an ombudsman; a completely independent process for dealing with complaints. I wonder, referring to that matter, whether I may ask the Minister to confirm that the ombudsman will himself be able to employ officers to proceed with investigations. One of the great difficulties with the police independent complaints commission was having to use officers operating within the RUC. That cast some kind of doubt on whether the officers could in fact operate in an entirely independent fashion. This is no reflection on the individual officers, but it simply concerns the fact that they were operating within the police, and continuing to do so.

It is not the case that all the propositions were inappropriate but simply that it is curious that they come at this particular juncture, when it can hardly be doubted that within a year or 18 months we shall find ourselves having to explore some further provisions. Of course, when these provisions are already in law the question will arise for many people in Northern Ireland: what more do you think should be done?

There are also some issues concerning the structure that is proposed. It is rightly said that this piece of legislation clarifies relationships between the components of the tripartite structure: the Secretary of State, the police authority and the chief constable. The current chief constable, I may just say to your Lordships, has performed sterling duties on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole and has played a remarkable role in carrying out his responsibilities as chief constable recently. However, it does seem to me that at best there has been a lack of clarity between the three elements of the tripartite structure at times in the past, and particularly under one previous chief constable, when the responsibilities and rule of the police authority appeared to be somewhat in doubt, certainly in the mind of that particular chief constable. I think it is helpful that that matter has been clarified.

However, I have to say that I really do not see the structure as being a very satisfactory one now. It seems to me that, if part of the problem for the police has been that they have been seen to be maintaining a political institution with which part of the community did not feel a kinship, the best way of dealing with such a situation is not just to have a political settlement but to ensure that the police are entirely accountable to all the people of Northern Ireland. And this could be done quite simply. We are talking about devolution. We are exploring the question of how many government departments there ought to be. If the Government were to put in place a department of justice which took responsibility for policing, prisons and all such matters, then it would be able to be accountable to all the people of Northern Ireland.

There would be a minister for justice. He would he scrutinised by an assembly committee of representatives of all the people of Northern Ireland. It is my belief that such a development could be of enormous value. I accept that it may be difficult to pursue this line immediately at this point, but I would like to ask the Minister, first of all, is it possible to construct a kind of "infant" department of justice, as it were, based on a minor expansion of the office of law reform, which could subsequently take on these other areas of responsibility without major change? Or at least can I have the Minister's assurance that, when the settlement Bill comes to us, it will be constructed in such a way that devolution of responsibility for policing and other matters will be something that can be done without further primary legislation? And can we have some clarification as to how that might be agreed to come about?

If, for example, a new assembly, voting by the cross-community procedures which are to be put in place were to agree that it wanted to take that responsibility, would that in itself be sufficient to persuade the Government that those matters should be devolved? This is important, because it is the way we could really get some accountability and some assurance for all the people of Northern Ireland that their affairs will be considered properly. I have to say that in some ways the conduct of matters of justice in the last couple of weeks, conduct primarily by those in positions of responsibility outside Northern Ireland but with an interest in Northern Ireland—and I say it plainly: the Governments in London and Dublin—has been profoundly unhelpful and would not have taken place if the responsibility had been that of politicians of almost any frame of mind within Northern Ireland. That is why this whole area of accountability in Northern Ireland is supremely important.

Then, a police authority would be something completely different. There would be the opportunity for, as it were, a regional police liaison committee, something which did not have on it appointees from the Secretary of State but rather representatives coming up from police liaison committees, so that one had a regional advisory body for Northern Ireland, advising an assembly with its roots in local government and advising a minister of justice with responsibility for policing.

I point all this out because it seems to me that we are putting in place here a structure which, if things go well, ought not to be in place in a couple of years' time. That poses to me the question: why are we going down this road if it is something that can only have a relatively short lifetime? I would emphasise that in no way do I want to see the operational independence of the RUC chief constable tampered with. That is absolutely crucially important, whatever structure may be established.

There are a number of other issues to which I would wish to advert. In particular, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister: when there is reference in paragraphs 8 and 27 to the opportunity for police officers to operate outside the Northern Ireland context and perhaps in an international context, would that be sufficient authority for police officers from the RUC to work with officers of the Garda Siochana in a joint body established by ministers of the north and south, or indeed by the British and Irish Governments? Would this be sufficient authority for that kind of work to be done? I believe that people of all types and descriptions north and south would be happy to see the RUC co-operating with the Garda Siochana on issues such as drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime? I think we should leave open the opportunity for that to be done.

There is much more one could say about these matters, because policing has been such a central issue in Northern Ireland affairs and in Northern Ireland life. It is an extremely sensitive one. I hope that when we debate the legal outcome from the Patten Commission, if we may presciently describe it as such, it will be in a context where, because we do not have a terrorist campaign under way, it will be possible to have fewer police officers. Where it is possible for us to have adequate policing without the current number of police officers, can the Minister assure us that government money will be forthcoming in substantial amounts to ensure proper financial recompense for those who will be taking early retirement or otherwise will no longer need to continue in the RUC?

For those who are younger, and have the ability to take up other careers, can the Minister assure us that there will be proper retraining, and that investigations will be taken up in the remainder of the United Kingdom and other places? I refer, for example, to the Government of the United States, and others. I have recently been talking with the Tanaiste in Dublin about the possibility of using the PHARE project, fully paid for by the EU, for members of the RUC and the Garda Siochana to help to train police services in central and eastern Europe which badly need the level of professionalism, experience and skill of the RUC. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will go to great lengths to ensure that RUC officers who are no longer needed will still be valued, recognised, recompensed and their abilities and skills well used outside Northern Ireland when they are no longer needed inside Northern Ireland because matters have improved so much in the way that we wish to see?

9.1 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, we have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. However, the Bill is about the management of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The first point that we should remember with due modesty here in Westminster is that we at both ends of this building have been in overall charge of the RUC for nearly 30 years. People sometimes speak as though Ulstermen, in particular Unionists, have been in charge of it. But Whitehall and Westminster have been putting in place the legislation, appointing the chief constables, deciding how much money it should have, and so on, for years. Some of those functions have been exercised through the police authority (PANI), but that was set up and appointed by the Government. They were doing so at one remove. Therefore any criticisms of the way in which it works now are criticisms of ourselves, of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, and are not so much criticisms of the Unionist community or anyone else in Northern Ireland. If the tripartite structure is unclear and needs reform, so be it, but it is Whitehall and Westminster which put it there in the first place.

The Bill's aim was described as making policing in Northern Ireland more efficient, more effective, more accountable and, as a result, more acceptable, increasing confidence across the whole community. We can all agree with the idea of improving efficiency and effectiveness. But, as has come out in the debate, acceptability is more complicated. In the Northern Ireland situation, it is difficult to make something more acceptable to one group of people without making it less acceptable to another. But it is also axiomatic that no police force which does its job is acceptable to everyone. Criminals and terrorists want a weak, inefficient, unacceptable police force. That is much the best for them. A police force which was acceptable to criminals and terrorists would be hopeless. It would be a disgrace and worse than useless in performing its function. So I believe that everything said about changes to the police by political representatives of terrorists should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

My next point is that acceptability is not the same as accountability to a political entity. Some police forces, including, for example, the Garda, are answerable to a much greater degree to politicians for their operations, the appointment of officers to a quite low level, and so on. That is not a good way to run a police service. It is well outside the British tradition of the operational independence of the chief constable, about which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke a moment ago.

The noble Lord also spoke of the possibility of the assembly, or a committee of the assembly, taking over responsibility. Even if everything goes as well as we all hope, I think that that should not be rushed. It is a long-term programme, not a quick one. But of course it does and will depend on the way the security situation develops over the next few months and years.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, criticised some decisions of recent days. If I have guessed correctly which they were, they were essentially operational decisions. They were not decisions which should have been taken politically but from an operational base. I think that they may have been taken politically, and that may have been part of the problem. But acceptability is about both symbols and mechanics. The Bill affects both. I shall come back to the mechanics—the complaints procedure, and so on—in a moment. Part of the nervousness about tinkering with the symbols is that, as the Minister stated, this is said to be the start of an ongoing process. That makes people nervous about the next thing that will be tinkered with in this way.

The Bill tinkers with the name of the police, introducing the concept of the Northern Ireland police service. That makes people nervous that the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary might be changed. The Minister was precise that the name will not be changed. I am grateful for that assurance. No other force has remained as steady and has improved its reputation under such appalling pressure from terrorist criminals, as we heard tonight from several noble Lords. The RUC has a proud record of service and an excellent reputation. It would be wrong to change the name when so many have died and been mangled and disabled in its service.

The Bill also changes the form of the oath and affirmation. That was presented by the Minister as a simplification of the wording: a modernisation to make it rather more straightforward. However, as we know, the changes crucially remove the passages about loyalty to the Crown. The idea that the present oath incorporating the notion of loyalty to the Crown somehow deters Catholics from joining is a mistake. The oath taken by a Member of Parliament when joining the other place does not stop many Catholics from Northern Ireland and indeed other parts of the United Kingdom becoming Members of Parliament. The same is true of this House. The present RUC oath was used in exactly the same form by the Royal Irish Constabulary, the gallant predecessors of the RUC. That force had a majority of Catholics. So I do not believe that the oath itself has deterred Catholics from joining.

Many may have been deterred, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, by unwillingness to support the idea of the present system of government of the Province. But the major reason deterring Catholics has been the targeting of Catholics by the IRA. I refer not only to the murders, though they are a part, but to the fact that they are effectively driven out of their communities. My noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth referred to that. I remember meeting an inspector from the RUC and speaking about this problem. He told me that he was a Catholic. If I recall the conversation correctly, he had been married for 17 years, and had never yet been able to visit his in-laws because they lived in a difficult area. His concern was not so much that by visiting his in-laws he might risk exposure himself, but that he would expose his in-laws if he were recognised as an inspector by somebody with whom he had had to deal. He also drew my attention to the difficulties of ordinary parish life. He could not take mass in the same church each week. He had to move about; otherwise he would have been greatly at risk of exposure. That is the sort of thing that deters Catholics from joining the force, not the oath. Incidentally, it is also a tremendous measure of the dedication of those who do join.

The reason why people shoot at members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is not that it is largely a Protestant force—in fact, Catholics in the force are targeted more than Protestants. After all, the Royal Irish Constabulary had a majority of Catholics and was attacked just as fiercely. It is that the RUC upholds the democratic right of the people of Northern Ireland to choose which state they wish to belong to and how they are governed. The RUC has defended democracy and the people of Northern Ireland against ferocious terrorism of all kinds. It has held the line for the Government and for the people against all comers—at times from both traditions. It is worth recalling that the clear-up and conviction rates of the RUC are higher for crimes committed by Loyalist terrorists than for crimes committed by Republican terrorists. Therefore the Government should be careful not to damage the symbols of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The Minister recognised that, even if everything goes as well as we all hope, the RUC will still be needed—supported by the Army—with high morale and high efficiency. As the Minister said, the dangers have not gone away; nor are they likely to do so. The dangers are from political terrorism by those who do not accept the settlement and also from the financial rackets, which have a momentum of their own quite separate from the political momentum—which will tend to mean that the RUC has an important job to do over and above the job done by every other police force.

Turning to some of the mechanics that are being changed, the post of ombudsman is being set up. I certainly accept and welcome the basic recommendations put forward by Dr. Maurice Hayes, which are translated into legislative form in the Bill. It is good to have the independent investigation provisions in particular.

There may be difficulties over the definition of a serious complaint and a less serious complaint. We can return to that matter in Committee. Clearly, the seriousness should be judged as objectively as possible and should be related to the substance of the complaint rather than the person making it. I am unhappy about the definition being left, as it is in part, to regulations.

The Bill also restructures the tripartite structure. I believe it is not unfair to characterise it—to cartoon it, as it were—by saying that it devalues the police authority and builds up the relative position of the Secretary of State and the chief constable. The whole point of PANI was to provide an independent link in the chain. Cutting it out or reducing its scope means that there is a more direct route from the Secretary of State to the chief constable, which leads to the dangers of more political control—or what might be thought to be more political control, which is just as damaging.

The brings me back to the point I made about acceptability and accountability to the Secretary of State being different things. I do not believe that greater accountability to the Secretary of State will make the RUC more acceptable to people. After all, individual Secretaries of State go up and down in the public estimation and are held in different degrees of estimation by different groups among the public. Nor do I believe that it is particularly desirable that politicians should be thought to be controlling the police. We shall have to look carefully at those provisions when we come to the Committee stage. Incidentally, I am content that that should be through the Moses Room procedure which was suggested by the Minister.

Overall I find the Bill acceptable; but, as has been pointed out, its timing is odd and I think likely to lead to misunderstanding and mistrust. The Minister of State said in another place at Second Reading, at col. 46 of Hansard, that, if necessary, the Bill would be used to implement appropriate parts of the agreement. I gather from the Minister's remarks that that is no longer envisaged and is not what we are expecting, but it shows the rather curious background which exists to this Bill at this particular time.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary is a most effective force, with a high reputation for courage and resilience. Every society owes a debt to its police force, but I find it difficult to envisage a society which owes so much to the dedication of its police force as does Northern Ireland. That does not mean that nothing should be changed, but we must always remember what an excellent force it is now and tread with great care.

9.16 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps I may say, first, how grateful I am for the many tributes that have been paid to the RUC throughout the debate, tributes richly deserved by a force to which we all—we here and the people of Northern Ireland most of all—owe an enormous debt.

A number of themes have run through the debate and I shall refer to them in dealing with the various questions that have been raised. One of the most important is the need to reassure ordinary people in Northern Ireland that they will be made safer through any changes that take place to the RUC, and to reassure the members of the RUC that they have nothing to fear from the changes that are contemplated in this legislation.

I am aware from the time that I served in the other place that there are frequent changes to policing—for example, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and many other measures. I do not think that they were seen by the police or the people in England and Wales as being a particular threat. I think they were seen as ways in which the police were responding to changes in society, ways of responding to the changing demands on the police, and so on. I should like to feel that changes to how the RUC operates or to the context in which it operates would also be seen in that way and not as posing a particular threat either to members of the RUC or to ordinary people who depend upon the RUC for their sense of safety in their homes and when they go about their work. I hope that the House will accept that changes may often be helpful and necessary, without being threatening,

I remember that in the early 1980s there was much criticism of the Metropolitan Police. I referred earlier to the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman. There were two waves of rioting in Brixton and other places. There was a general feeling that all was not well. I should like to pay tribute to the Metropolitan Police for the way in which, as a force, it adapted rapidly to changes in order to cope with very difficult situations as regards inner-city policing. It became more sensitive to local communities and more effective. Looking back upon it, it was a period of change for the Metropolitan Police but it was change from which both the Metropolitan Police and the communities it policed benefited. I say that simply as background. But one of the main elements running through the debate was the need to reassure ordinary people, and changes need to be seen in that context.

Perhaps I can deal now with the many specific points raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to the fact that Protestants and Catholics all need good policing. Of course they do. The majority of people in both communities appreciate the work done by the RUC. However, it must be said that in some areas the RUC is less acceptable than in others. If we can achieve changes to make the RUC equally acceptable among both communities, that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the RUC in dealing with crime.

I was told many years ago by the police for England and Wales that their success in clearing up crime depended on the level of co-operation that they received from local communities. One of the aims of this Bill is to enable the RUC to achieve a higher level of co-operation from ordinary people in some of the communities where there has not been quite that level of co-operation up until now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to the change in the oath, as did other Members of your Lordships' House. The change in the declaration for the RUC was recommended by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland—the body responsible for putting forward the views of the community in Northern Ireland on policing. We have considered it carefully and believe that it represents a sensible change, clarifying what a police constable is undertaking when he or she takes up office.

I understand the sensitivities of those who would prefer not to see changes. But, as I said earlier, change is the essence of policing and, given that the Police Authority for Northern Ireland made the recommendation, it is proper that we should respond to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, also referred to that in the wider context of policing symbols and said that such changes would not stop Republican attacks. Of course not; nobody suggests that they will. But the Government are changing the oath and introducing the new term, Northern Ireland Police Service, in response to requests from many groups in Northern Ireland, including the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, whose members and staff have stood shoulder to shoulder with the RUC during years of terrorism.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked about the use of the term "impartial". The requirement as regards impartiality was put into the Bill during consideration in the other place. It was a request from a number of parties, including the body which represents the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness also asked whether the Bill was a mechanism for implementing the agreement. The Bill is a paving measure. It makes modernisation of policing possible. The commission may recommend further changes and I should point out that the Bill conforms with the terms of reference for the policing commission set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

If I can make the link in response to other questions which were asked, we have a Good Friday Agreement from which stems the Commission on Policing. However, the Bill paves the way to make the conclusions of the Commission on Policing effective, otherwise we would have to wait even longer to have the Bill after the Commission on Policing set out its support. The two go well together.

The noble Baroness asked why we should press ahead now. The text of the Good Friday Agreement and the terms of reference for the independent commission were predicated in the passage of the Bill on its early implementation. It is regarded by the Government as a foundation order; as a paving provision. It puts into statute a number of structural changes which we expect the Commission on Policing will want to build. It shows that sensible, evolutionary change is possible and will produce real benefits within a finite timescale providing, essentially, assurance for the community as a whole.

The need for this Bill is amply demonstrated. Had we waited until later, we would have been accused of not getting on with the job of making changes, many of which have been asked for in Northern Ireland and which are sensible.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asked about Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. Perhaps I may say for the record that Mr. Justice Coghlin has indicated that the reserve judgment on the judicial review will be delivered on 22nd May, which is this Friday. It would not be appropriate for me to say any more on that at this stage.

The noble Lord also suggested that there should be no independent inquiry into the RUC until prisoner releases and decommissioning had been completed. But we are bound by the terms of the agreement to complete the Patten review within one year. The agreement specifically stipulates that the terms of reference of the policing commission include maintaining a police force capable of responding effectively to any terrorist threat. It will also, if I may quote the Chief Constable of the RUC, allow the RUC to counter the bombardment of propaganda levelled at us and will see the true value of what the men and women of the RUC have done and are doing and will continue to do". The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked about the Labour Party paper. I do not know whether it is unusual. However, we put on the record what the origins of the Bill were; namely, a Labour Party consultation paper and, indeed, the Hayes' proposals as regards the ombudsman. The changes to the governance of the police in Britain were made in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act. The Bill replicates that measure. So I think the Labour Party was right to say that this was a sensible measure to extend to Northern Ireland. I do not think there is any harm in the Labour Party actually admitting to the origins of a measure now that we are in government.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to a comment made during the "Any Questions?" programme, which I missed, at the weekend. It concerned the use of the word "Royal". The Government are aware of the sensitivity of this issue. However, it is something that the independent commission will no doubt want to consider. I think I had better leave it at that.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked what the declaration was for the police in the Republic. I am afraid I do not know. I shall see if I can find out and write to him. He also asked about the meaning of the phrase in Clause 27 "other police service". That allows members of the RUC to serve with the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is a UK-wide service. It also allows them to serve on other bodies—the other bodies are listed in Clause 27—and it provides for the RUC to send members abroad—say, to Bosnia—to assist police forces and to provide RUC expertise worldwide. That is a wholly new provision and reflects the provisions of the Police Act 1996 that apply to England and Wales. That gives part of the answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about the RUC being used in training police forces elsewhere. The RUC will now be able to do that as a result of the phrase incorporated in Clause 27.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked how many RUC officers had been killed in the course of duty since 1994. Since the Provisional IRA ceasefire in September 1994, I believe that five members of the RUC have died as a result of terrorist action. However, I hope the noble Lord will bear with me if I say that I will write to him if there is any difference between that figure and the truth if by any chance I have made a mistake.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, very aptly described the dilemma of policing in Northern Ireland that has been faced by the RUC for many years. I can do no more than say that he has put it better than I could. He raised a number of specific questions. He asked about the process or mechanism by which the Government might decide to devolve responsibility for security and justice to the assembly, as the initial proposals for the assembly are that responsibility for these matters will stay with the Secretary of State. It is not on the immediate agenda. It is an issue that we shall need to return to at a later stage.

The key points that I would like to note are that the issues are likely to be determined very much by the level of terrorist threat. As long as the security situation requires the active deployment of the Armed Forces in support of the RUC, underpinned by emergency legislation, then I anticipate that the matter will remain the responsibility of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. But it is a matter that we shall want to return to as the circumstances permit. Obviously, the Secretary of State will be able to take the initiative in any changes suggesting a transfer of these responsibilities to the devolved assembly.

The noble Lord also asked about the possibility of establishing a department of justice. As I believe the noble Lord knows, the Good Friday Agreement provides the terms of reference for a review of the criminal justice system. They are put in the following terms: The structure and organisation of criminal justice functions that might be devolved to an assembly, including the possibility of establishing a department of justice while safeguarding the essential independence of many of the key functions in this area". So the review of the criminal justice system would be able to engage in the issue of whether there might be a department of justice in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord also asked about the ombudsman's ability to employ police officers to conduct investigations. Clearly, in establishing a police ombudsman one has to start from somewhere. Initially there will be a need to find people who have the necessary investigative skills and experience. It seems to me that one need look no further than to the police force for the whole of the United Kingdom as providing some people for that purpose. However, the police ombudsman will also wish to recruit other people without a police background. Gradually, over time, I imagine that those other people will form a larger proportion of the investigative staff than the police ombudsman will have. As I have said, the staff could be police officers from any United Kingdom force or civilians such as lawyers and Customs and Excise staff who have investigative experience. They will all be firmly under the direction and control of the ombudsman. They will be responsible entirely to him or her.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, also asked about the timing of the Bill and that has already been referred to by other noble Lords. This Government introduced these changes—which, as the noble Lord said, are much needed—as soon as they could. I do not want to speak for former administrations, but modernising policing is important. I believe that paving the way for the policing commission will begin to introduce real benefits. It would have been wrong to deny to the people of Northern Ireland, for the time it will take to review, consider, draft and implement further changes resulting from the commission, the benefits contained in this Bill, especially given the widespread support for these provisions.

The noble Lord referred to the settlement Bill and whether certain measures could be included. I have heard what the noble Lord has said. I am sure that his comments about what it might contain will be brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Political Development in another place. I do not believe that it would be proper for me to make any further commitment here and now.

The noble Lord also asked whether the Bill will allow RUC officers to serve in the Garda Siochana. The provisions of Clauses 8 and 27 will allow that in appropriate circumstances and with the approval of the police authority and the Secretary of State. So it is a possibility that we envisage.

I wish to pay tribute to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, about the police and I thank him for his support for the measure. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that there was a nervousness about change. I understand that. Of course, there is nervousness about that in the particular circumstances that are faced in Northern Ireland, but I hope that what I said earlier will reassure him that we see these changes as bringing the police up-to-date—I am not saying they are out of date and perhaps I should re-phrase that. I hope that what I said earlier will reassure him that the police can move forward as the changes in circumstances in Northern Ireland suggest and in the hope that there will be long-term peace in Northern Ireland enabling the police to adapt to that situation, given that for 30 years they have been the targets of several vicious terrorist organisations. So I hope that there will not be this nervousness of change. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for the concept of an ombudsman to deal with complaints. I can give the noble Lord and the House the assurance that political control of the police is not what is intended and will not be the case.

We want to improve the links between the police and local communities in order that local communities have confidence in policing and in order that the RUC gets the maximum support in its work from local communities.

The Bill should be seen in the context of sweeping changes which are being made in policing thoughout the United Kingdom. The prosect is opening up for the police in Northern Ireland of finally being able to make the transition from a force geared and equipped for safeguarding the community from a vicious and long-running terrorist campaign, to a service which, like police forces throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, can concentrate on delivering ordinary policing to all parts of the community.

That is a great opportunity, and I believe these proposals will equip the RUC to exploit it to the full, prepare properly for the changes it will bring, and enable them to continue to deliver a police service of the highest standard to everyone in Northern Ireland.

That is something which will be to the benefit of the whole community in Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, before the Minister sits down I wonder whether I could recall to him that I sought some reassurances that the Government would make available the necessary and, I hope, generous resources, retraining and other measures which will be required if there is peace and if it is then possible to reduce the size of the RUC. I think there is a real nervousness that their value and their future may not be so high up the priority list as the requirements of some others.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am happy to do that. We certainly value the contribution the RUC have made. If it were possible because of peace to have a somewhat smaller RUC in Northern Ireland than we have had during the difficulties of the past 30 years, the Government would want to ensure that there are adequate redundancy provisions for those who might be declared redundant; that there are opportunities for retraining, and that we would use the RUC for training other police forces where that was also appropriate. I am happy to give that assurance.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.