Clause 46 - Functions of chief inspector

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 7:15 pm ar 5 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 7:15, 5 Chwefror 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 26, line 30, at end insert—

(k) the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland.'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 181, in page 26, line 30, at end insert—

'(k) Consignia,

(l) the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland,

(m) the Financial Services Authority,

(n) the Inland Revenue.'.

No. 188, in page 26, line 42, at end insert—

'(5A) An inspection carried out by the Chief Inspector of Consignia, the Financial Services Authority or the Inland Revenue may cover only functions relating to the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland.'

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

The amendment is straightforward. I look forward to hearing arguments from the hon. Member for North Down about the inclusion in the chief inspector's remit of Consignia, the Financial Services Authority and the Inland Revenue as well as the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I approach the hon. Lady's amendments with an open mind, and if her arguments are as convincing as I expect them to be, I shall withdraw my amendment in order to allow hers to be put to the Committee.

The major issue before us is the role of the police ombudsman. It is important that she and her office should be brought within the chief inspector's remit. The reasons for that are blindingly obvious. The ombudsman has an important role in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. Regrettably, she got off to a somewhat unhappy start in her relationship with the Chief Constable and the controversy over her investigation into the Omagh bombings. Clearly, that is to be regretted. The Committee have debated whether to give the police ombudsman additional responsibilities, and I have tabled amendments to that effect. If the ombudsman is to have the important role that she has been given—and perhaps an enlarged role as time goes on—it will be necessary to have some form of inspection to ensure that that office is performing its functions in, at the very least, an administratively effective and competent fashion. That is one of the remits of the inspectorate.

It would seem odd that the ombudsman should stand outside the chief inspector's remit. Given all the other bodies that will be subject to the inspectorate, I should hope that the ombudsman and her office would not object to some form of outside inspection of how they carry out their role. That is important. There is also a sense of fairness. Because the role given to the police ombudsman is important in the criminal justice

area, there is concern, certainly within the Police Service for Northern Ireland, that it may be possible for that office to behave in a perhaps capricious fashion. It is terribly important that that notion is corrected. If there is some sense in which the police ombudsman can be subject to a set of standards and inspection by the chief inspector, that would help to address the issue of the professional competence of the ombudsman and her staff.

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

I suggest that the legislated-for role of the police ombudsman would have all credibility removed from it if the amendment were carried. It would render the office inoperable. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman wants that, but perhaps some people do. After all, who inspects the chief inspector? That is the logical question if the chief inspector is to inspect the ombudsman. Finally, no one from the ombudsman's office is present to refute any allegation or imputation against it. I take it on myself to do so—

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

Order. This is an intervention and they must be brief.

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

The answer as to who inspects the chief inspector is that he is accountable to those who appointed him—the Secretary of State before devolution, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister thereafter. They in turn are held accountable by Parliament or the Assembly. I have half a notion of the Latin phrase for ''Who guards the guardians'', but I shall not try it.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that this issue relates to confidence in the office of the ombudsman. I do not think that it is appropriate for the ombudsman to sit unregulated outside and above the whole criminal justice framework. Because it has an investigatory function, it is necessary that certain standards of investigation are adhered to. It is a unique role, and the ombudsman and her office are finding their way within the law as laid down. It is necessary, precisely because we need confidence, to be able to say that the standards of conduct in the ombudsman's office are subject to some outside vetting and inspection.

That is why I have moved the amendment. The same principle applies to other bodies that have roles in the criminal justice field and there are limited roles for the groups named in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. As I have said, I have an entirely open mind about supporting those. If those organisations have a role in criminal justice, they should come within the purview of the chief inspector.

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

To enlighten the hon. Gentleman, I have included Consignia, the Financial Services Agency and the Inland Revenue because I have it from the most reliable of sources—the House of Commons Library—that all those bodies have criminal investigatory powers. Consignia, for example, can investigate postmen who might dispose of letters. I mean, of course, no criticism of postmen.

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

The hon. Lady gives us a preview of the remarks that she will make on her amendments. She has gone most of the way towards convincing me that her amendment is better than mine. It properly addresses the issue of who has a prosecutorial or investigatory role in the criminal justice system, and it is clear to me that those bodies should come within the ambit of the chief inspector.

The purpose of the chief inspectorate is to give people confidence in the institutions that will be subject to its attentions. It would be good for the ombudsman to be brought within the ambit of the inspectorate because that would reinforce the confidence of the whole community, especially of the police, that proper standards were being applied. I know that the Police Service for Northern Ireland, at representative level in organisations such as the Police Federation and among the chain of command, is anxious for the amendment to be made. Given the delicate nature of morale in the police service, the amendment would be good for the ombudsman and for the police, because it would reinforce their confidence that the system by which the Police Service for Northern Ireland is be judged will operate fairly.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 7:30, 5 Chwefror 2002

I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 181 and 188.

I considered the functions of the chief inspector as far back as last autumn, so my comments predate Omagh and everything that has happened since then.

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

I am sure that no one doubts the hon. Lady's word, but I can confirm that I had a conversation with her before the most recent controversy about these issues, as matters of principle rather than matters relating to any individual.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for putting that on the record because that is how matters stood last autumn, and that remains the case.

I am concerned that the functions of the chief inspector should be set out in a comprehensive list that includes all organisations that have criminal investigatory powers. Last autumn, I suggested that the office of the police ombudsman should be included in the list, which already includes Forensic Science, Northern Ireland, the State Pathologist's Department, the Police Service for Northern Ireland, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, health and social services boards, health and social services trusts and the Compensation Agency. It is a long list, but my amendment would make the list comprehensive. Let us get the Bill right now instead of waiting and having to amend it.

I know that the Minister is likely to draw my attention to clause 46(6), which states:

''The Secretary of State may by order amend subsection (1) by—

(a) adding any organisation having a role in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland...

(b) omitting an organisation, or

(c) altering the description of an organisation.''

I am aware that that provision is available to the Secretary of State, but I thought that it was intended to cover organisations that might be created in the future.

The current position is that Consignia, the Financial Services Authority, the Inland Revenue and the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland all have criminal investigatory powers. To remind hon. Members who may not have been present when I raised the matter with the Minister on Second Reading—although given their great interest in Northern Ireland and the reform of the criminal justice system, I hope that they were present—he said:

''That issue has exercised the hon. Lady for some time and she and I have discussed it previously. I can give an assurance that the organisations that will be subject to inspection by the inspectorate will be kept constantly under review. That is why the clause has been drafted as it has . . . All organisations that have criminal investigatory powers and powers to prosecute in Northern Ireland are being considered for incorporation in the list.''—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 690.]

We have the opportunity to make the list comprehensive. Amendment No. 188 makes it obvious that the power of the chief inspector to investigate is limited to the criminal justice functions that might be performed by Consignia, the Financial Services Authority and the Inland Revenue. The wording is similar to that used for the limitation on the investigation into the health and social services boards and health and social services trusts. It is not a free-for-all; there are defined limitations. I want the Bill to be right. We have the opportunity—let us make it comprehensive.

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cheadle

The hon. Member for North Down has made the point, but I would emphasise that it seems only right for any organisation with an ability to bring prosecutions or to investigate matters that could lead to a prosecution to be investigated by the chief inspector. Amendment No. 188 stipulates that the chief inspector should only investigate matters pertaining to Consignia, the FSA and the Inland Revenue if they relate to Northern Ireland, as the hon. Lady said. I support the amendments.

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

This debate is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it gives me an opportunity to dispel some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh about the functions and roles of the chief inspector. It is a pity that the debate is taking place in extra time because, for example, the hon. Member for Reigate is accompanied only by his Whip, the Liberal Democrats have only 50 per cent. representation and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) is not here. His absence particularly concerns me because of the lengths to which I went to ensure that his party was represented in Committee in response to what I thought was a reasonable concern that it had not hitherto been represented in debates and had a contribution to make. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman's party has not taken up that opportunity, except to put one minor question.

The issue before us is important. The other point—

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

No. The hon. Member for Reigate might want me to give way, or to add to what he has to say, when he hears my comments. This is a helpful opportunity for debate. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman used it—for blatant political reasons—to make a pejorative remark about the ombudsman, although he cannot possibly have had the opportunity to read in full either the ombudsman's report or the Chief Constable's response to that report. He cannot have done so since they are not in the public domain and are not available to him.

I have had that opportunity. Even having done so, I find the complexity of the matter and the sensitivity of the issues to be such that I would not make any qualitative remark about the report until I had given it considerably more thought. I say that with a background of professional involvement in investigations that have ranged over a year and have produced detailed reports, such as those in relation to Omagh. It is a great pity that people take it upon themselves to make ill-informed, pejorative and partial remarks. They ought, first, to consider the effect on the people of Omagh, who were the victims of that atrocious—

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

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman should content himself. He will get an opportunity to come back, but I shall not give way at this point. He raised the issue and then sat down. I deplore the fact that he raised it in this context, especially as he could not have informed himself in sufficient detail to be able to reach the judgment that he offered, and I deplore the fact that he did it apparently without regard for the effect that it would have on the people most directly affected. I say publicly that I will deplore it if he does that again. We should all think long and carefully about what we do and say on such important matters. I am not taking sides. I want to be absolutely objective. The Secretary of State will make public his views on the matter in due course. It helps not a jot to throw such spanners into the works. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will want to share that part of Hansard with certain people, but he can share this bit as well.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for giving for giving way. If he had not been so anxious to indulge in that rant, he might have listened to precisely what I said. All that I regretted was the controversy that arose from the ombudsman's investigation. I did not take a view on the merits of either side. I was careful not to do so. The Minister has simply ascribed to me what he believed my position to be, rather than what it is—or what I said it was. If the record shows that I was simply regretting the controversy that had occurred as a result of the ombudsman's investigation, quite apart from the merits of the investigation—the Minister is right to say that I am not in a position to make a judgment—

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

Order. I must return us to the amendment.

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

Thank you, Mr. Pike.

The Minister made a serious allegation. If he examines the record and if my remarks bear the import that he put on them, I shall withdraw them because, as he properly pointed out, I am not entitled to draw those conclusions. However, I am entitled to regret the controversy with the Chief Constable that was caused by the investigation. If that was the weight of my remarks—it was certainly what I intended—I hope that the Minister will withdraw his remarks.

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

I will of course read the record. However, I heard what I heard, and words on the page do not always bear the implications that they clearly bore when they were said. I have no doubt that other members of the Committee heard what was said and will know exactly what was intended.

In order that the Committee should understand my views on the amendment, I shall explain what the Government believe the chief inspector's principal roles and responsibilities should be. Although the chief inspector will be appointed by the Secretary of State, it will be done independent of Government. He or she will be responsible for ensuring that organisations within the criminal justice system achieve their internal objectives, as well as those set by the Government. The chief inspector will be charged with considering issues of cross-cutting concern, and I see the inspector as being uniquely placed to examine issues such as delays in the progress of cases in the criminal justice system.

The individual inspections of what I would call agencies and the thematic inspections that would cross-cut agencies will be designed to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in the criminal justice system and to ensure a more joined-up system of justice. They are intended to make the system more transparent and accountable, two of the principles at the heart of the Bill and the review. I say that to give a degree of reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. It is not intended to give the chief inspector the sort of powers that some have suggested he should have or that the office was intended to have. The question is one of administration and is not to do with the way in which individual cases are dealt with. In that sense, it does not concern the ombudsman.

My second point is that those hon. Members who know their way around the review will recognise that, in general, the Bill's provisions faithfully reflect the review's findings and recommendations, including the list of organisations to be covered. On this particular matter, the Bill does just that. Since the review was published, and since the understanding of the chief inspector's role has grown, particularly among the organisations covered by the provision, there has been general agreement that the description of the organisation should be a matter for inspection. However, there have been further suggestions, and the hon. Member for North Down is not alone in making them, that the list should be extended to other organisations.

One of the significant omissions from the list is the courts themselves. They are not on the list in any capacity. Suggestions have been made to me that they should be included. I understand, therefore, the suggestions made by the hon. Members for Reigate and for North Down about extending the list of organisations included in subsection (1). Whether or not it was intended to be for such a purpose, I would have thought that the Secretary of State would use clause 46(6) to add organisations to the list if it were thought not to be comprehensive. That subsection would also be used for adding new organisations, were any to come on stream.

Since one of the principle purposes of having a chief inspector is to allow cross-cutting inspections, it is crucial that we provide the office of chief inspector with access to all the relevant organisations with a role to play in the criminal justice system. Otherwise, the chief inspector is likely to come to a block that will prevent them from performing their role. That is why the Bill includes clause 46(6)—to allow, by order, the list to be amended.

On Second Reading, I said that I intended to review, and I am currently reviewing, the list of organisations that the inspectorate must inspect. My review so far suggests that it will have to be added to, but it is important that we consult any organisations proposed for inclusion before they are added to the list. The review's recommendations have been in the public domain for some time, and those organisations that were listed in the list that is reflected in the Bill have known what was coming and have had an opportunity to contribute to the consultation process. They have engaged with officials and others—sometimes at our instigation—so they know what is coming.

The other organisations--I include Consignia as a neutral example--have not expected this new requirement to be imposed on them, and it would not be appropriate or fair on them to impose it now without consultation. For that reason, I give an undertaking that consultation will take place with the organisations that the hon. Lady lists in her amendment, and other organisations as they come to my attention as having a role in the criminal justice system. On that understanding, I invite both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Reigate to withdraw their amendments.

My problem is that I cannot give a guarantee of when that consultation process will be concluded, but I shall do everything that I can to ensure that it is concluded before Report stage.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 7:45, 5 Chwefror 2002

For clarification, has any consultation taken place with the police ombudsman about the proposal to extend the chief inspector's investigative powers to her office? I ask that only because reference was made to it at a conference last autumn.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

Order. Before we go on, as only one amendment is being moved at the moment, Lady Hermon will have the right to indicate whether she wants to press her amendment to a Division. Her amendment would then be moved formally.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down for her intervention. Some communication has taken place with the police ombudsman, but it would be inappropriate of me to describe that as consultation.

My plan is to identify as comprehensive a list as possible before indulging in consultation with the organisations. I suspect that, with organisations such as Consignia, such a provision would take a bit more explaining than with other organisations, as they would want to know why they had been incorporated into the inspection process. Therefore, the list might not be comprehensive at Report stage. However, I need first to go through the process of consultation. I cannot comment on discussions that have taken place at conferences or elsewhere, which have involved people other than myself, but I accept that there is an issue here. We need a comprehensive list, and I shall do my best to make one before the Bill completes its stages in the House.

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

I hear what the Minister says about dealing with this matter on Report. I would be happier if the requirement were to remove people from a list that the Committee had placed them on, rather than proceeding from consultation to the compiling of a list and additions at a later stage.

The hon. Member for North Down made a convincing case for the addition of the three institutions to which she refers in her amendment. If she can tell me that she intends to press that amendment to a Division, I shall withdraw amendment No. 31.

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

It may help the hon. Gentleman to decide what to do if I tell him that I am reassured by the Minister's commitment to have a comprehensive list by Report stage. That persuades me, with full confidence and peace of mind, not to press my amendment to a vote.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for that information, but my own judgment is different. It would be better to have the police ombudsman in the list at this stage. That would come as no surprise to the police ombudsman, with whom, as the Minister told the Committee, there has been some contact, although the Minister would not say that it represented a formal consultation over the list of the inspectorate.

It is important that the Committee expresses a view at this stage. Opportunities will occur at later stages of the Bill, both on Report and in another place, for the Government to remove the mention of the police ombudsman if circumstances merit them doing so, although that would hugely surprise me. Therefore, I intend to press amendment No. 31 to a Division.

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

I must urge the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the commitment that the Minister gave to make the list comprehensive. It is ill-advised to take from the agreement that we have been given for a comprehensive list and single out one office.

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

I understand the hon. Lady's reservations, but she and I part company over the merits and practicality of the matter. I take into consideration the time that we may have for Report stage. We have no idea with how much time the Government will grace the proceedings on Report, and we may never have the possibility to consider this measure in the form of an Opposition amendment, should the Government choose not to introduce it following consultation. Therefore, I hope that she will forgive me if my experience of dealing with Her Majesty's Government means that, at this stage, I am not prepared entirely to take them at their word, largely because of the way in which they handle legislation in this place. That is why I want to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 13.

Rhif adran 13 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 46 - Functions of chief inspector

Ie: 2 MPs

Na: 13 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eight o'clock till Thursday 7 February at half-past Nine o'clock.