Clause 32 - Conduct of prosecutions

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 12:15, 5 Chwefror 2002

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.