Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 03 October 2007
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Jeffrey Donaldson (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Alan McFarland
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín
Mr Shaun Woodward ) The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Mr Peter May ) NIO
Ms Clare Salters )
The Chairperson (Mr Donaldson):
Secretary of State, you are very welcome to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. As you know, one of the Committee’s tasks under legislation is to prepare a report for the Assembly on the preparations for, and timing of, the devolution of policing and justice matters.
I welcome also Ms Clare Salters and Mr Peter May, who have previously spoken to the Committee. We have received from the Northern Ireland Office a discussion paper on devolving policing and justice, which has given members a good insight into the preparatory work that the Department is undertaking towards the devolution of policing and justice matters.
This is the first time that you have appeared before an Assembly Committee, Secretary of State, so, again, you are very welcome. Yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice spoke to the Committee for the first time, and, to date, we have heard evidence from the chairman and chief executive of the Policing Board and from the director of the Northern Ireland Court Service.
I am aware that you have business elsewhere this morning and that you are anxious to leave at about 11.30. The Committee will endeavour to accommodate you. The Committee invites you to make a short opening statement, and, thereafter, members will be invited to ask questions on matters that may arise from your evidence.
The Committee has concentrated the matters to be transferred in the event of devolution, the ministerial models, and the timing and preparations for devolution. We are aware that a report must be presented to the Assembly by the end of February 2008, which might allow the Assembly to report to you by March 2008. Before proceeding, I invite members to declare any relevant interests. I declare an interest as a member of the Privy Council and of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
Mr I McCrea:
I am a member of Cookstown District Policing Partnership.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Shaun Woodward):
Thank you, Chairman, it is a great pleasure for me to be here this morning, and I hope to be able to assist the Committee with its work, which the Government regard as extremely important. The Committee has taken evidence from several others, and, as a preface to everything that is said this morning, I stand ready, now and in subsequent weeks and months, to assist the Committee, in person or in writing, with any of its work on the preparation for further devolution. It is an extremely important part of the St Andrews Agreement.
As I have made clear elsewhere, I see this very much as the vital second stage, just as the first stage was absolutely vital; they are an integrated whole.
I know that there have been discussions on the timetable for devolution of powers. That is obviously relevant, but, at the end of the day, what matters is that we have successful devolution of policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland — the end is that successful devolution, not the timetable. There has been endless speculation in the press about the timetable, and I, like members of this Committee, have inevitably been asked about it. I have always responded by using a form of words that have said that there is a timetable in the St Andrews Agreement, and I can see no reason why we should not be able to work to that timetable.
Equally, it stands that if there are reasons why a different version of that timetable needs to be, and can be, agreed between the parties, that seems to me to be entirely acceptable. However, the concentration on the timetable seems to have been somewhat unhelpful at times. What matters is that there is recognition of the value and purpose of devolution of policing and criminal justice, not only as an end in itself, but as part of the whole integrated package of successful devolution in Northern Ireland.
There are huge benefits to taking forward this package as a whole. At the moment, the Committee will be aware of the work that is being carried out by my deputy, Paul Goggins, with individual Ministers in the Administration here. Even though we have not devolved policing and criminal justice, there are, inevitably, huge areas of overlap that need to be worked on together — for example, tackling healthcare in prisons or football hooliganism. Those issues cannot be tackled discretely; they cross over. Those issues would be best handled by politicians who have been elected in Northern Ireland, and not by me as Secretary of State or Paul Goggins as a Minister of State, however able we may or may not be. It just seems better that those sorts of decisions are made by Ministers here.
The critical part is to recognise that what is really at stake is not the issue of when or who, but rather what exactly will transfer. The February 2006 discussion paper sets out some of the issues to be resolved. It would clearly be helpful to me to hear a little more from the Committee about what powers it wants to be transferred. Equally true is that we need to be advised by the Committee on how it envisages these matters working, which will, sooner or later, include the model that it wants.
Other issues will be the number of justice Ministers, the way that the Department will function, the responsibilities being devolved, and whether we move on to powers in other areas that the Committee may or may not want to have transferred — for example, the issues of parades and 50:50 recruitment to the police. Those matters must be considered, and we can easily work them out well between ourselves. It is important to get them right. It is also important that we consider with the Committee all the ramifications of the transfer of powers and that we have clarity on those issues. I see that very much as a work programme that must be undertaken by the Committee and ourselves, just as a work stream is currently under way in the Northern Ireland Office in making preparations for the transfer of those functions.
The Committee will be aware of the substantial body of work being carried out by the Northern Ireland Office, and Peter May and Claire Salters from that office are here with me this morning. As I said, we stand ready to answer the Committee’s questions. If there are questions that I cannot answer today, I am happy to respond to the Committee in writing, and any questions that cannot be answered in writing today or tomorrow, I will endeavour to respond to as quickly as possible.
Secretary of State, thank you very much. Do either Ms Salters or Mr May have anything to add?
Yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice gave the Committee a very interesting insight into his views, particularly on the modalities for devolution. He expressed a preference for a non-ministerial Department for the management of the Court Service, at arms length from the Department of Justice and chaired by the Lord Chief Justice himself. Has the Northern Ireland Office considered that proposed model, which he compares to the one that is evolving in Scotland and to the one that is used in the Irish Courts Service?
The Lord Chief Justice has made those representations to the NIO, and made his views extremely clear. However, although mindful that there should be some form of timetable, I do not want to be restricted to talking about May 2008. Whether it is May, or slightly later next year, it is still a relatively short period of time. It would not be appropriate to entertain such a proposal at this stage.
However, when the functions are transferred, there would be no problem if the Executive and Assembly were to decide that the Lord Chief Justice’s model was better for the judicial system in Northern Ireland. That would be a matter for the Assembly and the Executive. I will not declare a view on this — as it is not something on which the NIO should have an opinion — other than that we have no problem with the model, but it is not appropriate to entertain it while we prepare for further devolution.
It is therefore your intention to proceed with the models outlined in the discussion paper.
Suppose that the Committee, and subsequently the Assembly in their report to you, agreed that the Lord Chief Justice’s model was the preferred option, but that a further delay in devolution was necessary. In that eventuality, would you still refuse to legislate for the preferred model and instead await devolution to leave the Assembly to legislate?
It is possible to entertain a number of hypothetical situations and, depending on a putative timetable, be speculative on a broad range of issues. The NIO does not see a problem with the model proposed by the Lord Chief Justice, but it is not appropriate for us — having committed ourselves to preparing for devolution when the Assembly asks for it — to carry it through now. That will require major legislation. The NIO does not see any problem with the model being adopted, but does not believe that it should be implemented during preparation.
Even if the Assembly states that the Lord Chief Justice’s model is the preferred option, but that it wants a further delay in devolution?
To be helpful, I want to say that if the Assembly were to make such a decision — however disappointing that would be — that would mean the delay would be for more than a few months. The NIO would have to work through that with the Executive and the Assembly. However, I have seen no evidence — not withstanding the understandable concerns that people have regarding confidence-building measures — that the balance of public opinion, or of individual Members, favours a lengthy delay in the second stage of devolution.
I know that some have concerns that May 2008 may be slightly too soon — and too far away for others — but evidence suggests that public confidence would be considerably undermined if there was a suggestion that I was entertaining the idea of a lengthy delay in the second stage of devolution.
Ms Ní Chuilín:
Fáilte rómhaibh uilig go dtí an Coiste. You are all very welcome.
Do you see any administrative obstacles to the transfer of powers? At what stage is the planning for those agencies that will be transferred?
Across the board, and including policing?
Ms Ní Chuilín:
Let me reiterate: I believe that the timetable that is laid out can be achieved. There is no question that it is ambitious and will require a huge amount of work, but if there are reasons to delay we need to examine those reasons together. So far I have heard opinions about why delay might be a good idea, or a bad idea, but I have not seen any reasons. In the extraordinary spirit in which this Assembly and Executive are managing to function, and the way that the public in Northern Ireland completely support that, it would be helpful if people who have reasons for a different timetable should lay those out.
On the matter of how we in the Northern Ireland Office are preparing, we aim to ensure that the work streams set up by my colleagues Peter May and Clare Salters and others should put in place the certainty that if the Assembly indicates in the spring of next year that it wants functions transferred, the NIO will be ready to do it. That means that the various bodies, agencies, protocols and memorandums of understanding are all being dealt with. The structures are under way that will deal with, for example, the transfer of personnel, terms and conditions, consultation with trade unions, all of which are extremely important on a personal level to the individuals involved in the transfer.
Of course, there is the wider issue of resources for the bodies that have to be transferred, but what matters to us is that we receive a clear indication of the actual functions that will be transferred as soon as it is possible for the Committee to do so, not that I can anticipate that that would be a reason for delay. Will those include parades or 50:50 recruitment to the police, for example? Those are the issues that this Committee and others must deliberate on and advise us on. We stand ready to make available the transfer of those functions, and I am making sure that that will be done within the St Andrews timetable. However, ultimately it will be for this Committee, the Assembly, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to put forward in a motion the request to us that that be done. My intention is to make sure that the bodies and functions are in a fit condition, so that we will be able to meet that timetable if it is requested.
Mr I MCCrea:
The DUP does not believe that May 2008 is an achievable deadline. There is still a considerable amount of work to be done before the unionist community is happy that republicans, and others, are fully committed to policing and justice. There must be confidence in the community, and whether that can be achieved by May is too close to call.
There have been suggestions in the past that the Secretary of State could impose policing and justice on the Assembly if it were the will of the Assembly not to commit to May. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is the case? What are his intentions if the Assembly decides not to accept the devolution of those powers?
Secondly, what is his view on the number of Departments and Ministers needed for policing and justice?
I understand the view about the timetable expressed by you and some members of your party, but I put alongside that the considerable enthusiasm among the public for completing devolution. You will be more than well aware that the poll figure for people who do not want the devolution of policing and criminal justice is around 14% or 15%.
In other words, 85% of the public want it.
There has been a shifting tide of public opinion. The Assembly and Executive have commanding support from the vast majority of the public. A few years ago, if people had been asked whether they thought that devolution could happen, and whether they would support it, nothing like those levels of support would have been achieved. The public have responded to the leadership that you, your colleagues, the Assembly and the Executive have shown. The public like devolution, they want it, and they want the momentum to continue.
We are not putting any kind of pressure on this Committee, the Executive or the Assembly. I am keen to maintain momentum, unless, as I say, there are reasons why we need to slow down the pace. I am not trying to rush the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers; I am simply trying to ensure that there is momentum. Policing and justice powers could be devolved in May 2008. However, there may be reasons why it is necessary for devolution of those powers — if it can be agreed among the parties — to be delayed.
Looking back on discussions that have taken place on the devolution of those powers, I believe that a degree of clarity, for want of a better phrase, has been lacking over the idea of what I may or may not impose. It is important to be clear that the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers will work only if it is embraced and wanted by the public, the Assembly, the Executive and the First and Deputy First Ministers. Therefore, like everything else that the Assembly and Executive have done, that can only be achieved by consensus.
There was a suggestion at one stage, before the legislation was put in place, that the Secretary of State might impose a Minister to take control of policing and criminal justice. That was never included in the legislation. Alan has fought nobly on and discussed that issue a number of times, and I understand why. However, I think that there has been a misunderstanding, because there is nothing in the legislation that gives me the power — even if I was daft enough to want to — to impose a Minister. I reassure the Committee that nothing in the legislation enables me to do that. Even if there was, I would not want to do it anyway.
The legislation does include capacity for the Secretary of State, in a certain set of conditions, to impose the departmental structure that is contained in the legislation. I do not see that situation arising, because I believe that the Assembly wants the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers.
That part of the legislation, as I understand it, was included in case the Assembly wanted the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers, but parties could not agree among themselves on the specific form that it should take. In that scenario, that part the legislation could be applied. Having seen the Executive, the Assembly and this Committee at work, it is unimaginable that such a power would have to be used. Once again, to be absolutely clear, no power exists in the legislation to impose a Minister.
Mr I McCrea:
Do you have a view on the number of Departments that the Assembly should have once policing and justice powers are devolved?
To be frank about it, the form that it should take is for this Committee, the Assembly and the Executive to decide. It is not for me, as Secretary of State, to have a view about how many Departments should or should not be involved. The legislation sets out a certain number of Departments and Ministers. Obviously, it is up to the Assembly and the Executive to decide how those portfolios should be put together. We stand ready to offer support for those decisions, but, again, I return to a firm belief in the power of devolution.
When the Assembly is ready, we want the functions transferred so that the Assembly can take full control of policing and criminal justice. To make that transfer easier, we would appreciate it if you told us as soon as you decide how the powers are to be administered and what the model will be.
Thank you. I wish to tease out a bit more about the plan B scenario.
All that we have on paper is a document from the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain. It is the only detailed document that gives us an insight into the NIO’s thinking on the issue in December 2006. I appreciate that the Secretary of State said afterwards, and Mr Woodward says now, that some circumstances have changed.
We have the St Andrews Agreement, which was supposed to be an agreement, but which, one would hear from the parties, was not an agreement. The DUP is adamant that it did not agree to the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice set out therein. Sinn Féin held its Ard-Fheis and sold it policing on the grounds that the plan in the St Andrews Agreement was inviolable.It had been promised, by the then Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, that policing and justice powers would be devolved by May 2007. There would appear to be a blockage: the two major parties that can deliver devolution of those powers have fundamentally different views on the timetable.
Mr Woodward said, early on, that agreement among the parties was necessary in order for the powers to be devolved. We will hit the first buffer on 27 March 2008, by which date the Ministers must be nominated. Mr Woodward has heard that, within that timescale, there will not be agreement, so how does he see that situation evolving? For how long can he, as Secretary of State, simply sit on the issue? The DUP may continue to believe that, right up until the end of this Assembly’s mandate in 2011, unionist confidence is not there. I am simply trying to gain some insight. We had a clear insight into how the then Secretary of State thought that the process for achieving devolution of policing and justice powers would work post-St Andrews. How does Mr Woodward see himself fulfilling his promises to Sinn Féin within the timescale, if the DUP does not agree to it?
Thank your for the question, Alan, but let me state a matter of fact. You referred to Peter Hain’s letter, which was written before the legislation was drafted. The proposal in that letter set out an option that was being considered at that time. However, that option was not pursued. You say that all that we have is Peter Hain’s letter; but we now also have the legislation. That legislation sets out what I can and cannot do, and it makes it perfectly clear that I cannot impose a Minister.
I understand that.
I want to put that on the record. Your rigorous pursuit of that issue before the legislation was made was absolutely right, because it allowed us to have clarity.
I cannot determine when one Northern Ireland political party or another will decide that it has witnessed enough confidence-building measures to manage its followers to the position at which they can accept devolution of those powers.
However, all the political parties fought an Assembly election on the basis of full devolution. There is an understanding. All my dealings, whether with MLAs or with the Executive, do not lead me to conclude that politicians are deliberately looking for an indefinite delay. The conversations that I have had with everyone in the Executive, and with a number of Assembly Members, lead me to believe that there is a recognition that we should move to the second stage of devolution and that we should not delay indefinitely, even within the lifetime of this Assembly. I see no reason why that cannot be done within the timetable. However, I am perfectly prepared to accept that reasons could arise, which could be agreed among the parties and would justify the extension of the proposed timetable.
We have not yet reached that position. I could speculate with you today, next week, and so on, on a number of scenarios. It is more useful, however, for me, as Secretary of State, to say that we will complete our side of the work within that time frame. This Committee, the Assembly and the Executive must do a great deal of work to decide on the model that should be adopted and on the specific functions that should be transferred and those that should not.
When that is done, and when people feel that there are enough confidence measures, it will be time to move forward and complete devolution. I hope that that will happen in and around the timetable set out at St Andrews. Of course, individuals, and even political parties, may choose to debate specific details, but there is overall consensus. There is certainly huge enthusiasm among the public for devolution to be completed. I stand ready to play my part in that.
Do you have a view on the Chief Constable’s opinion, expressed at the weekend, that autumn is the time for policing and justice to be devolved?
As the chairman of the Policing Board said to the Committee yesterday, Sir Hugh Orde has frank opinions and is often ready to share them with people who will listen to him. Northern Ireland is lucky to have the finest and best Chief Constable of a police service anywhere in the world. His frankness and forthrightness have been part of his success, and the fact that the PSNI is regarded around the world as one of the finest — if the not the finest — police services in the world owes no small debt to him. He has been a great leader, and with that leadership comes forthright views. At the weekend, he shared his views with the press. He is entitled to his view; it is a view that I listen to and certainly respect.
The exercise to determine what form the devolution of policing and justice might take is ongoing. However, the unionist community feels that it is premature, and there is strong opposition to any transfer of powers in the near future. Earlier, you spoke about the transfer taking place next May, or slightly later, but the general view, as I assess it in my constituency of North Belfast, is that devolution of powers by next spring or autumn is premature.
You also said that if there were a delay, it would be necessary to set out the reasons. From talking to people in my constituency, I believe that there are three reasons why they want to see a delay taking place, and would like you to comment on those reasons. First, policing has gone through a period of great transition. The Assembly has also had a period of significant change: Sinn Féin is now the largest nationalist party. The view is that, in those circumstances, the devolution of policing and justice powers would place an intolerable strain on the Assembly.
Secondly, although people may accept the current political situation, the view is that it is unpalatable and has been foisted on people. That view is taken because the Executive have a junior Minister who has been convicted of serious and atrocious terrorist crimes. People find it intolerable that such a person might have a role in the administration of policing and justice.
Thirdly, there are crimes that remain unsolved, for which no one has been convicted. Those crimes are still being investigated. Regardless of what assurances might be given, most people would have no confidence in a process in which a person who may have been implicated in those crimes was in charge of policing and justice.
Those are the three issues that are in people’s minds, and they will take a lot of reassuring before those issues can be resolved. That is why there is such overwhelming opposition within unionism to the devolution of justice and policing. The concept of transferring powers, in the abstract, is not the issue; it is the practicalities of doing so in the Northern Ireland situation, where the largest nationalist party has been associated with the IRA and its campaign over many years.
I understand where that bundle of questions is coming from, and they rightly articulate a point of view that I have heard argued elsewhere, although not always as strongly as that, and not always with those conclusions. I shall try to deal with those questions in reverse order.
I made some remarks about the Chief Constable’s forthrightness, and some of the reasons why the PSNI commands so much confidence around the world are its transparency, openness and accountability, and the fact that it has operational independence. It would be unfortunate if we were to suggest, in any way, the idea that police investigations should somehow be linked to transferring responsibilities for policing and criminal justice.
It is absolutely essential that the police’s independence continues. I see no reason why that would not continue; it is absolutely enshrined in everything that we are doing. Therefore, I would trust entirely any investigation about any individual, or any matter, to remain a matter for the Chief Constable and the police. The Chief Constable has demonstrated time and again that no one is above the law. Therefore, I have no concern about the third point that Mr McCausland made, although I understand why he made it.
Without intending to sound at all dismissive, I put my trust in the PSNI and the Chief Constable to ensure that there is operational independence. The structures that have been put in place, such as the Policing Board, or any of the other structures that currently support policing in Northern Ireland, should give everybody that confidence. We all have a duty to tell people why they should have confidence in the Police Service. I do not see operational independence being compromised in any shape or form, whether responsibility for policing lies with me or with the Assembly and the Executive.
As for the second point about devolution being foisted on people, devolution will only happen if it has cross-community support. That cross-community support seems to be already clearly vocalised by the public. In one poll after another, people show confidence, not only in the Assembly and the Executive, but in the leadership of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. There is remarkable support among the public, which, dare I say, absolutely includes the unionist community.
Poll after poll of ordinary members of the public shows that they like what they see: they like the fact that leadership is being given by the leaders of Northern Ireland’s parties. They do not think that leadership is compromised because it is offered by leaders from two very different traditions; they warmly embrace it. That has been followed through, for example, in the opinion polls that were commissioned between March and August of this year, which show the public’s confidence about the Assembly’s assuming responsibility for policing and criminal justice.
Having said that, I do not underestimate for a moment that we are asking people to move on — what has been for some — an article of faith. I know what a big demand that is for many people. It is a demand that is made from both sides of the community. Equally, everything that we have seen so far supports the fact that the progress that has been made is absolutely justified. It would be a shame if impediments to further progress were based on fear, because the evidence so far has not supported those who articulated such fears. However, that is not to say that we should not continue with confidence-building measures.
In response to Nelson McCausland’s first point, devolution of policing and justice will not place an intolerable burden on the Assembly, although I understand why some may have that fear. My view is that it will be the making of the Assembly and the Executive. When politicians who are elected in Northern Ireland have the confidence to take that next step, the public will feel that something extremely important has happened, which will mean that the entire peace process and the security and prosperity of Northern Ireland is embedded and enshrined.
I understand why some people are cautious about taking that step, but I do not see that the assumption of such a step is also a reason to assume that this will be an intolerable burden. I think that it will be the making of the Assembly and the Executive.
My third point — and the first to which you responded — related to the confidence and integrity of the process, and there are two aspects to that. You addressed one aspect, although I remain unconvinced about your answer. However, the other aspect relates to the situation in which the person with responsibility for policing and justice is the same person who, the police may say, is guilty of a particular crime. That would discredit policing and justice in Northern Ireland.
That is a hypothetical situation.
It is perhaps not quite so hypothetical.
I will venture that it is entirely hypothetical. First, it is a matter for the politicians elected in Northern Ireland to decide who the justice Minister should be. Secondly, I reaffirm what I said earlier: one reason why there is public confidence in the PSNI is because Sir Hugh Orde, the Police Service, the Policing Board, the Ombudsman and all the institutions that stand together to make today’s policing service in Northern Ireland, are clear about one thing: nobody is above the law. The operational independence and integrity of the PSNI is the hallmark of the policing service, and that will not be compromised by transferring policing and criminal justice to the Assembly.
You are welcome, Secretary of State. I have two questions and two supplementary questions. The Lord Chief Justice has made crystal clear his views on how the relationship between the Minister of justice, the judiciary and the Court Service should be structured. However, the British Government are recommending that there should be an agency relationship between those bodies. Given that the Lord Chief Justice outlined the case for his preferred option quite firmly — as you said — will you explain why the agency model should be implemented?
Are you concerned that in creating and agreeing an arm’s-length relationship between the justice ministry and the Court Service, there is a risk that the judiciary will also have an arm’s-length relationship with the rest of the community in the North — not the political community — who have views on the administration of justice and who would like their relationship with the judiciary to be such that they can convey those views? Why is the Government’s model the right model given that this is such a big call for the Committee and the Assembly?
I am not reacting to the pressure of time; I am being realistic about the timescale in which we would like to continue the process of devolution. There have been many strong and convincing arguments about future structures, but there is no reason for a radical departure from existing structures as we prepare for devolution.
As the Committee knows, the agency model has been implemented in the Courts Service in England and Wales, and there has been no suggestion of interference with the independence of the judiciary there. Therefore, the Government believe that the agency model works. If policing and justice powers are devolved, it will be a matter for the Executive and the Assembly to address subsequent issues as they arise. I have every reason to believe that the model we are using guarantees independence, and I know that that is something that the Lord Chief Justice is concerned about maintaining in any future model for the transfer of responsibilities. The agency model will best achieve that.
However, once devolution takes place, the decision will be for the Assembly and the Executive to deliberate. As we prepare for that, whatever the timescale may be, it would not be prudent to embark on a fundamental change at this juncture.
Is there a danger that the arm’s-length relationship, which is appropriate between the judiciary and a Minister for justice, may become an arm’s-length relationship that is inappropriate for the wider community? Should there not be further engagement between the judiciary and the wider community? For example, is it not the case that although the judiciary is entitled to membership of the NIO’s criminal justice board, it does not have such membership?
We are still considering the detail of that. Let me try and reassure members on some core points. We see independence as central. That is why, first of all, the Justice ( Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 put a statutory obligation on Ministers and administrators to uphold that independence. Secondly, the 2002 Act set up a Judicial Appointments Commission to take independent decisions on appointments. Yesterday, the issue was raised of representation of the community in relation to those appointments. The Lord Chief Justice was keen to demonstrate to the Committee the importance of both recognising the observation and, equally, underlining the importance of appointments’ being made on merit. There is an important balance to be struck. It is testimony to the outstanding qualities of the Lord Chief Justice and the strength of the independence of the system that we are able to have that kind of dialogue, and that you are able to make the points that you make — and we may find ways to improve it.
I believe that the safeguards are there, and that the signing of the concordat before the transfer takes place will be one of the things that will be as important to the judicial system as it should be to everyone in Northern Ireland.
I agree with much of that. The Committee must get reassurance from you today about the future budgetary arrangements in the event of the devolution of justice and policing. We know about the proposals to cut back police numbers by 2010-11. Given the size of the police budget, which is 10% of the overall Budget, there is some concern that there will be clawback by the Treasury either in the event of devolution of justice and policing, or after three years of transitional arrangements. Can you reassure the Committee as best you can, bearing in mind that none of us can anticipate the future financial frameworks, that our budget lines are secure for the next three years and to the best possible extent thereafter?
A court case is under way in London to investigate the lethal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. What happens if there is a similar incident in Northern Ireland where MI5 directs police to carry out an operation, resulting in the death of a man? In those circumstances, how will the Assembly and the justice Minister be sighted on the outcome of a critical incident where there may be enormous public concern about what MI5 have or have not done? How will the Assembly, and in particular a justice Minister, be given a standing so that they can explain incidents to the community in the North in order to moderate public concerns?
We are running out of time, and I want to bring in Raymond McCartney. A written response on the financial matters would be helpful, and you could confine your remarks to the second point that Alex raised, please.
I will, but with one qualification: I am working hard to secure a good financial settlement. We take policing very seriously, and as long as I have responsibility for that, I will fight for the best budget that I can possibly obtain.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that the policing budget that we have here is a good budget. I do not anticipate any cuts to the baseline, and I say that because it is terribly important that the press and everybody else hear that. There has been speculation that there might be such a cut, but that is not on the cards.
Equally, we are in a normalising situation, and it must be recognised that we have, in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom, a police service with very large numbers of officers and resources. There is a very strong case for them being here, and I am not taking away from that case for one second. However, no one should doubt the fact that the policing budget in Northern Ireland is a good budget. There is one police officer in Northern Ireland for every 227 people, while in England and Wales, there is, on average, one officer for every 375 people. Everyone here must recognise that continuing to fund that level of policing — which we are going to do — is a generous settlement. It is unfortunate, sometimes, that one reads that it is not described as a generous settlement.
Secretary of State, I am sorry to interrupt, but I am conscious of time.
We have written to Simon Marsh on a number of points, and it would be good to receive a written response to the second point that Alex Attwood raised, because it is quite important. It would be better to get a response in writing, in any event.
If the Committee and the Assembly agree on the powers to be transferred and, in time, agree on a suitable model, when will you be ready to declare to the public that everything is in place? In a sense, that would add to public confidence that everything is done and dusted. We would not want the reverse to happen, where we would say that we are ready for the transfer of powers and where you would tell us that you are not ready because the necessary structures have not been put in place.
I will ensure that if the Committee indicates to me on 27 March that it is going to recommend to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Executive that devolution of powers should take place in May, there will be no reason from within the Northern Ireland Office why that timetable cannot be met. We will be ready to complete devolution on 1 May.
Secretary of State, as regards the point that Alex raised, we will send you a copy of the relevant extract from the Hansard report of the meeting so that you are clear about the issue under discussion.
If members have other questions that they would have like to have answered, again, I stand ready to answer them, either in writing or the next time the Committee asks me to appear before it. I am willing to help at any time.
I will give you an idea of our forward timetable. We will continue our deliberations over the next few weeks, in particular, between the four main parties represented on the Committee. We will also receive evidence on Tuesday week from the PUP and the Alliance Party, and from the Director of Public Prosecutions. We welcome any additional information that you can provide to the Committee in written form.
Thank you and your colleagues for joining us this morning. We appreciate the candour with which you have addressed the Committee, and we hope that we, and the Assembly, will be in a position to report to you in due course.