Clause 32 - Conduct of prosecutions

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:15 pm ar 5 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

This is an important and practical clause, under which the Director of Public Prosecutions takes over from the police the responsibility for all prosecutions. When do the Government intend to implement the clause? They have the ability to implement various parts of the legislation at different times—unless the House is minded otherwise—and I presume that they intend to move to that position shortly, irrespective of the formal devolution of justice in its totality. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us his thoughts on that, because it takes place against a certain background. The review states that, in 1997, the DPP carried out 7,262 prosecutions but that the Royal Ulster Constabulary carried out 27,209.

Varying opinions are expressed in the review on the merits of handing so many functions to the DPP from the RUC. Some people say that the RUC prosecutions work well. In my consultations in preparation for the Bill, I encountered the view, not least from the Police Federation, that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Some people referred to the skill of the police prosecutors, who have dealt with the minor cases that come before the courts. No one seemed to have any major concerns about the conduct of those cases. Furthermore, the fact that the police prosecuting inspector had responsibility for them meant that there were good lines of communication with the police who had prepared the cases and taken decisions about whether to prosecute.

In those respects, the way in which the system has been run until now appears to commend itself. However, the majority view was that it was appropriate for the DPP to take over the conduct of all prosecutions and that the boundary between the police and the DPP must be made clear. The Opposition do not dissent from those general conclusions of the review. Indeed, a resident magistrate told me that, given the current situation faced by the RUC, it was urgent that this clause came into effect sooner rather than later. He said that such was the collapse in the morale of the RUC that it had begun to affect even the pragmatic administration of police prosecuting inspectors. Their hearts are no longer in the job and they cannot continue to perform to their previous professional standards, so there is a pragmatic reason for getting on with the change urgently. That is a worrying reflection of the state of the Police Service for Northern Ireland, but I would do the Committee a disservice if I did not relay what had been said to me about the performance of the police in that particular function.

The transfer of functions comes against the background of the English experience of setting up the Crown Prosecution Service. As the review makes clear, that is seared into the position of the DPP. Paragraph 4.183 of the review states:

''We are aware that the DPP has already considered the applicability of Glidewell to his Department.''

I am sure that there is proper concern in parts of Northern Ireland that this substantial exercise in the transfer of functions—27,000 cases, to take 1997 figures—whereby the DPP will ultimately take on five times as many cases as it currently deals with, will have substantial resource implications. I am intrigued by the Government's reaction. In the criminal justice review, the Government have been assiduous about responding to every recommendation, apart from recommendation 66, which states:

''We recommend that those who are considering the resource implications and the organisational issues arising from our proposals in respect of the prosecution function should examine the Glidewell Report, with a view to seeing whether there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of England and Wales.''

The implementation plan moves neatly from recommendation 65 to recommendation 67. I have yet to find another example of the plan going assiduously through a section of the review without responding to recommendations. Of course, there are now important resource implications relating to the funding of the DPP, which, under pre-devolved relations, are matters for the Minister and his colleagues.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I do not want to make too big a point of this matter, but I have already suggested that careful reading is helpful. If the hon. Gentleman looks at page 23, he will see that recommendation 66 is assiduously responded to.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am extremely grateful for the Minister's help. It was my fault for expecting recommendation 66 to appear after recommendation 65. There might have been a cross-reference in the document to assist those of us who did not compile it, and do not understand the odd order in which the Government have chosen to put the recommendations to mislead those of us who think numerically.

I am grateful to the Minister for directing me to the response, and I see that the recommendation was accepted. It is no surprise that the Government are

''fully aware of the findings of the Glidewell Report.''

The response goes on to say:

''Resources will be provided to enable the DPP(NI) to manage the transition to the new prosecution service.''

Will the Minister explain his assessment of the resource implications? The review has a stab at it, stating:

''In short their broad estimate of the additional annual costs of the proposed arrangements was in the region of £1.5 million to £2 million, with additional start-up costs of about £2 million. This does not take account of any redundancies that might be associated with the process.''

Finally, putting the proposals into context, it states that:

''The DPP's budget for 1998/99 was just over £7.5 million.''

I wonder whether the costs might have been underestimated, and I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us about any further work that the Northern Ireland Office has done on the matter, given that five times as many cases are to be handled. I accept that the cases that the police have been dealing with are at the bottom end of the range, but they have involved issues as serious as burglary, which have profound implications for the accused and the victims. You will

know from your postbag, Mr. Conway, and from the people who come to see you—as they come to see all hon. Members—that whether people are being properly prosecuted for offences of which our constituents have been victims is a question of continuing concern.

A failure of the transfer of functions to the new CPS was that some prosecutions were dropped simply because there were not the necessary resources to make the transfer work. Given our experience in England, will the Minister give us not only the grand assurance that the provisions will work but the Government's assessment of the scale of resources needed, and their thoughts on how the clause will come into force and responsibility will be transferred in its entirety from the police? The Committee is entitled to have answers to those questions before it decides whether the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Ceidwadwyr, Harborough 12:30, 5 Chwefror 2002

May I underline one or two of the points made by my hon. Friend? It is important that, if the new Public Prosecution Service is to work under the leadership of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, it must be given adequate resources and be staffed by lawyers and other personnel of sufficiently high quality. To avoid some problems that the CPS and British police forces have had in this jurisdiction, it must be emphasised that proper and continuous communication is necessary between the police and the Public Prosecution Service. Too many cases have failed because of either an unwillingness or an inability of the police and the CPS to communicate adequately. There is anecdotal evidence that, in certain police forces, there is huge professional jealousy and a sense of annoyance that their ability to prosecute has been taken away. I hope that that will not be replicated in Northern Ireland; I am sure that it will not be.

However, it is essential that the Government should give a lead, both through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and through the office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.

I am concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, about the financial estimates for the establishment of the Public Prosecution Service. Such costs tend to grow like Topsy. While all Governments need to keep a firm control on public expenditure, if this is to be got right, it might as well be got right from the start—penny pinching will lead to more difficulties in the future and will prevent the DPP from appointing good lawyers and administrators to his staff. The old cliche about paying peanuts is close to our minds. I hope that the same mistakes are not made in Northern Ireland as were made at the outset of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales. It is hugely important that the code under clause 38 addresses many of the issues and concerns that have been exposed by the development of the CPS since the early or mid-1980s in England and Wales. There are lessons for all of us to learn. Northern Ireland has the advantage of coming at it 20 years after England and

Wales. I urge the Government to use all their powers—their financial power in particular—to make sure that the system works.

The final issue on which I should be interested to hear the Minister's views is whether it is intended that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland should be under one administrative area, covering the whole of Northern Ireland as one prosecuting area, or whether it will be divided into counties or other districts as it is in England and Wales. The hon. Member for North Down mentioned the Glidewell report. It will be interesting to see how that is to be brought into existence in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

May I ask the Minister for an assurance that the references in subsections (6)(a) to (d) are exhaustive and prescriptive, and that any subsequent body of constables that may emerge will not be included?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Let me respond to the last point first. The clause defines ''police force'' extensively and exclusively. Anything that is not referred to in that clause could not be a police force under the Bill. I have no knowledge of what the hon. Gentleman thinks is coming that might constitute a police force in Northern Ireland. If that is the reassurance that he requires, I am happy to give it.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I appreciate the Minister giving way so early in his response. May I ask him again to address the definition of ''police force'' within the meaning of subsection (6). He will recall that, under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, the name of the body of constables referred to as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was changed for operational reasons only. Therefore, for legal purposes, including the Bill, definitions should include the words ''incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary''.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I hear what the hon. Lady says, and she makes an ingenious argument. However, the reference to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the definition of a police force is entirely appropriate and correct. If the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) was asking whether further legislation would be required to establish a new body of constables within the terms of that definition, the answer is that legislation clearly would be required.

We may return to some of those issues, but I should move on. I am grateful for the contributions from the hon. Member for Reigate and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, because the clause goes to heart of the work of new Public Prosecution Service, and it would have been inappropriate to pass over it without debate, even though no one has sought to amend it.

The clause will require the service to conduct all prosecutions that are instituted on behalf of any police force for summary and indictable offences in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Reigate noted, the police presently carry out the majority of prosecutions

in Northern Ireland, and the most up-to-date figure for police prosecutions is 30,000. The hon. Gentleman referred to the proportion of cases handled by the different bodies, but the burden that the new Director of Public Prosecutions will have to carry is about right. Police prosecutions involve exclusively summary cases, which are tried in the magistrates court, while the department of the Director of Public Prosecutions prosecutes only indictable cases and a limited number of summary cases.

To accommodate the definitions in clause 44 of when proceedings are considered to have begun, the clause will require the Public Prosecution Service to take over proceedings that are instituted by the police. It is important to note that, in all cases, the PPS will determine whether to institute proceedings and what charge to put to the court. The clause also requires the DPP to give police forces advice, which will, of course, be limited to prosecutorial matters.

The hon. Member for Reigate raised some important points, and his contribution neatly encapsulated the reason why we cannot give him the firm date that he seeks. A significant amount must be done to facilitate the transition from the present position to that set out in the Bill. The expansion of the Public Prosecution Service and the transfer to it of police prosecutions can start before devolution and will be well advanced by 2003.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

Do the Government envisage a halfway house as regards the implementation of the provisions? To take a hypothetical situation, could the Northern Ireland Assembly refuse to accept its responsibility under the Bill? Are the Government in danger of starting a process that it is not within their power to finish?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position. The Government intend that the transition to an independent prosecution service will take place with or without devolution. It is our aspiration, hope and intention that the stability of the institutions of devolution in Northern Ireland will be such, post the 2003 general elections in Northern Ireland, that they will be able and will want to accept responsibility for the devolution of justice. In those circumstances, the Government will be a willing partner in the transfer of functions to the devolved institutions.

Whether the devolved institutions want the transfer or whether there is stability, the process of change to an independent prosecution system will proceed. The Government intend to achieve the objectives of the review in that regard. For the reasons that the hon. Member for Reigate so ably set out—they were encapsulated in his short speech, but were set out in full in the Glidewell report—the Government are conscious of the dangers of a big-bang approach. A significant number of the problems experienced in England and Wales were due to the fact that the transfer took place when the system was not ready for it.

We have come to the conclusion, advised by Glidewell, that a big-bang approach would be a mistake, as would an over-hasty roll-out of the provisions. We intend to learn the lessons that have been pointed out to the Committee by various hon. Members, and implement the provisions at an appropriate pace to ensure not only that they work in practice, but that the system of prosecution retains the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, especially those with whom we charge the responsibility of investigating crime.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the way in which the police presently deal with matters. The review does not criticise police handling of cases, and nor do the Government. The issue is not the present handling, but whether the present structure of prosecutions in Northern Ireland is appropriate to a modern criminal justice system. To bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales, and for that matter Scotland, through an independent prosecution service is now universally agreed to be appropriate to a modern criminal justice system.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister swept aside my point about the police force as an ingenious argument—I hope that I quote him correctly. When the Minister is on better form, perhaps over lunch, I invite him to check that the title of the Police Service of Northern Ireland was changed for operational purposes only. If he cares to look up the recent legal challenge by Mr. Mark Parsons, he will find that the legal title is

''the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary)''.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

If that was an invitation to lunch, I am grateful to the hon. Lady and would be delighted to accept. Unfortunately, I have a lunch appointment today, but I am sure that we will find a mutually acceptable gap in our respective diaries some time in the near future. I am also grateful to her for pointing the issues out to me, but I think that I made my position clear.

I want to move on to finance, which is important. The hon. Member for Reigate asked some reasonable questions on the subject. In partnership with the DPP, we have examined the likely cost implications of the reforms. The Government believe that the DPP will need more money than the review envisaged, and that the likely cost of the transition was underestimated. I can, however, reassure the Committee that the Government understand the resource implications and accept their responsibility to meet the requirements for resources. That is clearly set out in the implementation plan.

In the 2000 spending review, the sum of £13.5 million over three years was allocated for the DPP. Discussions are about to commence on further funding, but the Government are very conscious of the cost implications. They accept that the review may have underestimated the necessary resources, and are prepared to accept responsibility for making the necessary resources available.

I hope that, in those few words, I have answered all the points that were raised. I have a sneaking suspicion that I have not answered the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. If so, I will write to him on the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.