New clause 6 - Eligibility for appointment as

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:00 am ar 14 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

'No person shall be eligible for appointment as a court security officer pursuant to section 78 if he has at any time in Northern Ireland or elsewhere been convicted of a criminal offence.'.-[Lady Hermon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is straightforward and would exclude from appointment as a court security officer, pursuant to clause 78, any person who has

''at any time in Northern Ireland or elsewhere been convicted of a criminal offence.''

As the Bill stands, those with criminal convictions will be eligible for appointment as court security officers.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the aims of the criminal justice review, as set out in the Belfast agreement and repeated at the beginning of the review. Those aims include delivering

''a fair and impartial system of justice to the community''

and, importantly, ensuring that the justice system has

''the confidence of all parts of the community''.

Throughout our consideration of the Bill, I have tried to ensure that all sections of the community will have confidence in the criminal justice system. I tried to ensure that those with criminal convictions would not be eligible for appointment to important bodies such as the Judicial Appointments Commission, the lay magistracy and-I dealt with this as recently as Tuesday-the local community safety partnerships. I have been disappointed to date and I have worked in vain to secure confidence in all aspects of the judicial review procedure, but I am giving the Minister one last chance to assure us that those with criminal records will not be eligible for appointment as court security officers.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 10:15, 14 Chwefror 2002

I rise briefly to support the new clause. It seems eminently sensible that people charged with court security should not have a criminal record. It is not the equivalent of employing bouncers through a security firm, when different standards might apply. It is an important part of the judicial process, and the hon. Member North Down is right that we should have confidence in it.

The standards of recruiting to the armed services have gone up and down from time to time; the Army, for example, has had to reflect on the fact that, although recruits may have convictions for drug or other minor offences, they should no longer be a bar to joining the Army. Although I endorse the general approach of the new clause, I recall that 30 per cent. of the male population has acquired a criminal conviction-I do not know what the figure is for Northern Ireland. However, the Minister may advance pragmatic arguments about the nature of the court service and the sort of people who are likely to be recruited as court security officers.

I shall listen carefully to the Minister's response, because if I am right, a clear case can be made for some form of gradation. However, that would need a rather more sophisticated provision than the hon. Lady's new clause. If the Minister advances arguments on practicality, we shall need to return to the subject later. We shall need to be clear as to exactly what offences would be acceptable if people with criminal records were to be considered as court security officers.

The new clause is simple and straightforward, and its guiding principle should be our starting point. I look forward to hearing the Minister's objections. If they are practical, they will merit consideration, but the Government will have to come forward with a rather more sophisticated version of new clause 6.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Sir Drefaldwyn

A wise man once said that, simply because a person has a past does not mean that he cannot have a future. Once again, I am sympathetic to the sentiments of the new clause. Will guidelines be put in place on what those recruiting such individuals should watch out for-a case could be made that repeat offenders should not be considered-or does the Minister feel that such matters could be adequately dealt with in the recruitment procedure?

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

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire paraphrases the words of the wise man. He also paraphrases the Leader of the Opposition, who not long ago used the same words in the context of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for North Down seems to think that my only merit is that of consistency. I shall nevertheless remain consistent to the position that I have adopted throughout in relation to amendments of this nature. As she said, the new clause seeks to bar anyone with any sort of criminal conviction obtained at any time from employment in the court security service. It is the Government's view that that is too restrictive. If a formula such as the one suggested by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) can be drafted, the hon. Lady might take that view herself. However, I suspect that it is the difficulty of trying to do that without being too restrictive that compels her to seek a blanket ban.

I have not sought specific advice on the matter. My understanding is that, if a serving police officer in Northern Ireland were to accumulate a comparatively minor conviction-I shall give examples of what I consider to be a minor conviction in a minute-it would not necessarily lead to consequential dismissal. At the moment, a police officer who has a minor

conviction is not barred from providing security in a court. It seems inconsistent if, going by my unresearched understanding of the status quo, that remains the status quo. It is certainly the position in Scotland, and I know from experience that serving police officers were often sent to work in the courts after they had accumulated such convictions or disciplinary marks. I have worked closely with people who have policed courts having transgressed some disciplinary code and collected a minor conviction. There is no history of minor convictions and minor transgressions of disciplinary codes preventing people from doing that sort of work. I would be concerned, in the context of the Bill, if that were introduced.

Prospective court service employees and contractors complete a form that requires them to declare any conviction that they or their employees have. The court service has discretion as to whether to act on that information. In line with the Northern Ireland civil service guidelines, the court service would not employ someone with a conviction that was incompatible with his duties. The Committee might like to have access to those guidelines; I can make them available to anyone who would like to see them. However, in certain cases-I have experience of this in practice in Scotland, if not in Northern Ireland-for example, in relation to a conviction for a minor motoring offence, the court service would use its discretion. The new clause would remove that discretion and, with it, what has been seen as useful flexibility in the area.

I suggest that everyone, including the hon. Lady, would agree that it would be ineffective to tie the hands of the court service in that fashion. The policy is in line with that applied in England and Wales, where the Lord Chancellor's Department uses its discretion when employing staff with convictions, including court security officers. I can assure the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Reigate that individuals with inappropriate convictions will not be employed as security officers.

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

Will the Minister confirm that an inappropriate conviction will be a conviction for a scheduled offence?

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

Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh, we have heard that a number of people in Northern Ireland have already accumulated what can be described as scheduled offence convictions because of the way in which they parked their vehicles. I have not researched that, but I accept that it is true; it was not questioned by those with greater knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland than I have. I cannot, therefore, give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation.

However, I can say that in deciding whom to employ in these jobs, serious regard will be given to the nature of the convictions and each case will be dealt with on its merits. All the provisions that apply to all prospective employees in all circumstances will be applied to people who apply for those jobs; they will be dealt with in relation to the equality provisions as they apply to the court service and their rights will be

respected in line with the Human Rights Act 1998. In addition, security considerations will be uppermost in the minds of those who make the decisions. I have not a jot of concern that inappropriate people will get the jobs. In order to ensure that people whose pasts are inappropriate for security in courts are not employed, I do not think that we need to try inexpertly-it will turn out to be inaccurately as well-to designate and delineate certain types of people as disqualified from such jobs.

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

My point relates to the subject of assuring those in Northern Ireland that inappropriate people will not be employed in such positions. A parking offence may formerly have been a scheduled offence, but it is unlikely that a person would be sentenced to imprisonment for it. It is not beyond the wit of the Committee to phrase a new clause to deal with scheduled offences that lead to conviction and imprisonment for a certain time. That would clearly reflect the seriousness of the offence. The Minister could phrase an assurance in such a way, because those in Northern Ireland seek an assurance that inappropriate people, especially those with a paramilitary background, will not provide security in courts.

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

The hon. Gentleman seeks to make me try to say what would be almost impossible in a form that would stand the test of time. Where does the concern that such people will be employed in the security service come from? Where is the practice by the Northern Ireland Court Service to suggest to anyone that such people will be so employed?

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

I appreciate the Minister giving way, as he invited someone to say where the concern came from. It comes from the recommendation of the Patten report that district policing partnership boards, as they were formerly titled, could buy in additional policing services. At the time, it was well known that paramilitary organisations were forming themselves into private security firms so as to provide additional policing services. Since then, there has been concern that paramilitary organisations will continue to turn themselves into nicely named private security organisations and will turn up in nice uniforms to provide security at courts.

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

The Bill does not lend itself to the realisation of that concern. I give the unequivocal assurance that great care will be taken to ensure that people with inappropriate convictions are not given the jobs. If the hon. Lady accepts that assurance, she might agree to withdraw the motion. If she insists on pressing it, I shall resist it.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Given the way in which the Minister tackled the matter, I was not sure that he would deal with scheduled offences, which the hon. Member for Reigate mentioned.

I want to speak against the new clause, partly from the experience of serving on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and at one stage sharing a room with 20 paramilitary loyalist ex-prisoners who between them had many scheduled offences. They worked closely in the days before the Belfast agreement on how to involve themselves in the

development of the peace process. I am sure that many of those people could not and should not be trusted. A couple of them have reoffended and associate themselves with the Red Hand Defenders and other such groups.

The overwhelming attitude of those ex-prisoners was, as one of them suggested, that he did not want his children to grow up in the society in which he had grown up. In that community, many had felt that they had no alternative but to commit actions that were outside the law. They had felt required to defend their views and their community. Whether or not one agrees that that was necessary, it was at least some people's opinion. Those people were working for a discontinuity in society in Northern Ireland, so that what was once deemed necessary by quite a large number of people would eventually be seen to be unnecessary by the community as a whole. Although some of the people in that room should not be trusted with responsible positions in Northern Ireland society, some have gone on to hold such positions and have worked with passion, commitment and intellectual dedication to the peace process. It is right that they should hold some of those positions in Northern Ireland society.

In arguing against the amendment, I am telling the hon. Member for North Down and those who might support her that perhaps the thinking behind the Belfast agreement involved recognising that something had been broken and needed to be mended. Part of that process of mending is to accept that some of those who thought that violent behaviour was necessary in the past could be implicated in the development of a society where violent behaviour would not in future be thought justified or necessary.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 10:30, 14 Chwefror 2002

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important part of the debate. One of the most difficult things about the Good Friday agreement for all of us is, was and will be the inclusivity that it requires. That was obvious from the first day of negotiations. Many of us will never forget the first time we were in that room where there were political parties, paramilitary groupings, Governments and everyone else. Inclusivity is difficult, and that will not change. It will not get easier. However, it will-and already has-put distance between what is happening and what happened before.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who is not here at present, said something pertinent a few days ago; she said that legislation is about the future. Already, remarkably, I have found, while working with young people as I do regularly, that a section of the young population is growing up without the memory of violence. It is strange for us, but they do not remember it. It has not been a part of their lives, whereas it was always part of the lives of my generation. Those young people see things differently. Time and the future will look after the issue, and it is important for us to allow that to happen.

I want to comment on the implication that, somewhere or other, paramilitaries are sitting

looking at the advertisement columns in the Belfast Telegraph or The Irish News to discover which hugely well-paid job in the Court Service might be available to them. From my experience of paramilitaries or ex-paramilitaries in the north of Ireland, they would not deign to consider working for the kind of salary that would be on offer. That applies to all paramilitary groupings.

The era of paramilitant involvement, with prison sentences served, is being left behind. We need to think about what will happen in the future if, as the Minister rightly said, we use the constraints of the legislation in relation not to what might happen but to what is past and done, and will not-in my view and, I do not doubt, everyone else's-happen again. I envisage no great queue of paramilitaries or ex-paramilitaries wanting to don the uniform of a prison service security officer, because they have ways of making much more money than any of us could ever dream of.

In essence, the Minister is right. I know why the hon. Member for North Down tabled the new clause. We had similar discussions during consideration of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and we continue to debate such issues in relation to the district policing partnerships and Policing Board, but we must deal with the society that exists in Northern Ireland, not the society that we would like to have or the one that we keep contriving, because, in many ways, it is being artificially contrived.

It is not right to try to contrive a society or to draft legislation on that basis. Although the fears that the hon. Member for North Down expressed were legitimate, the provision will not have the effect that she envisages. If one or two people with previous convictions were seriously to regard serving the community in that way, as part of their new way of life, would not more be gained than lost? That is a different scenario from the one painted by the hon. Lady. She was right to the extent that I know of security companies being set up by an amalgam of tinpot Hitlers whom one would not allow into any organisation, but they were not intending to serve the community; they wanted another means of imposing their weight on the community while making another bag of money as a security firm. That is different, but I would not worry about the occasional person who wanted to leave behind his paramilitary past out of a genuine desire to serve the community. In fact, I would welcome that. The more that people who have had that sort of unfortunate past move into a different mode, the more we will succeed in what we are collectively trying to do.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

Looking at the new clause, I have no difficulty supporting its underlying emphasis and aim. More often than not during the past few weeks, the Minister has not convinced me of his rationale, but he is coming close in his opposition to new clause 6. I am struck by the level of offence and the length of time after conviction to which the new clause would apply. Irrespective of how relatively minor the offence committed, the new clause would debar the person from consideration. For that reason, I support the emphasis of the new clause, but I fully understand the

Minister's explanation as regards people who otherwise might be considered for other positions but debarred from this one.

I must comment on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. Sometimes, in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster, it may be relatively easy to become detached from what is happening in Northern Ireland. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman intentionally wanted to be detached from that reality, but he succeeded when he suggested that some young people growing up now might not remember the violence. In the past three years, there has been a massive increase in paramilitarism and a horrendous increase in punishment beatings. A bomb went off in my constituency at the weekend, very seriously injuring a security officer-and that was not the first, second, third or fourth such incident. Numerous attacks have taken place.

In the past three years, the violence has not improved but got worse-not directly as a result of the Belfast agreement, but that has certainly not improved matters. I have spoken so far of the violence alone, but the sense of isolation is another factor in many communities in Northern Ireland.

I shall wait to see whether the hon. Member for North Down will withdraw her new clause in the light of the Minister's remarks, or if the Minister is prepared to contemplate rewording it. From what he said, and in the interests of retaining the consistency to which he alluded, I do not imagine that he will do that.

In conclusion, I repeat that I have empathy with the underlying emphasis of the new clause. However, I draw attention to the fact that, if the clause were to succeed, a person who had been convicted of a criminal offence would not be eligible to be employed as a court security officer. In contrast, the Belfast agreement, from which the review has emanated, would put such people into the Government of Northern Ireland.

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

I am not at all surprised that the Minister has not changed his position-in fact, I would have been amazed had he done so. I expected him to be consistent in his arguments, and he has proved me right in that respect.

By tabling the new clause, I wanted the Minister to address the serious issue of gaining the confidence of all parts of the community, which is a central aim of the review. In that context, it was worth opening a discussion about whether all sections of the community would have confidence in court security officers who have previous convictions. I also wanted to extract from the Minister a guarantee that persons who apply to be court security officers will be vetted, and he gave a generous reassurance on that point.

It is worth mentioning an argument against the new clause. I am perfectly aware that the vast majority of people who have been involved in terrorist activities have never been convicted of those activities, so would not fall within the remit of the new clause.

I appreciate the comments of the hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) and for Newry and Armagh, and the fact that on this rare occasion I have the support of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell)-in principle. However, he, too, gave the understanding that the Minister's reassurances would appease-if that is the right word-him and would reassure him that court security officers would be vetted. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.