Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Jimmy Spratt (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr

The Chairperson (Mr Spratt):
I have received an apology from Dawn Purvis who cannot attend today’s meeting. She attended the previous meeting.

I invite members to declare any interests. I will begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Mr McCausland:
I am a member of Belfast District Policing Partnership.

Mr A Maskey:
I am a member of the Policing Board.

The Chairperson:
Raymond, do you have anything to declare.

Mr McCartney:
No.

The Chairperson:
I ask Members to speak up a little as the meeting is being recorded. I ask members and visitors in the Public Gallery to check that their mobile phones are fully turned off, as they interfere with the recording equipment. I thank everyone for their co-operation.

I turn now to the Committee briefing paper, which has been slightly revised following discussions on the letter of 28 July 2008 from the First Minister and deputy First Minister. We will deal with that paper alongside that letter, as indicated earlier.

I also invite members to note a briefing paper from Research Services. There will not be a presentation on the briefing paper, which is about the independence and accountability of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland. That represents the last of the four papers proposed by Research Services, which were outlined at the meeting on 7 October 2008.

A supplementary research paper has also been included in the members’ pack. Again, there will be no presentation on that paper. I invite members to note the paper, which has been prepared by Research Services and is on the policing governance structures in other jurisdictions. If necessary, Research Services will attend a future meeting to answer questions that members might have on either paper. At the end of the meeting, it would be helpful if members would advise the Committee Clerk of the details of any questions that they wish to put to the researchers about the papers.

I refer members to the letter from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister dated 28 July 2008, and I also refer members to a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which was received yesterday evening and is being circulated now. The letter is brief and will not take long to read. In light of this letter, the Committee needs to consider whether it wishes to accept the offer to meet the First Minister and deputy First Minister in a private session. If members agree to that, they will then have to decide who should be invited to attend the meeting. For example, should members of the Alliance Party, the Green Party, the Independent Health Coalition and the PUP be invited to attend in observer status, as was the case before? Furthermore, the Ministers will be accompanied by special advisers, who will, obviously, also attend the meeting.

As we have done in the past, I will take the views of the parties on the letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr McCausland:
Our position has been that we wanted them to come along. It is good that we have received the letter. My party has no difficulty with the attendance of political parties that are not represented on the Committee or with the presence of the ministers’ special advisers.

Mr A Maskey:
My party is more than happy to accept the offer in the letter and agree to a meeting next week. We are happy for the other parties to attend, if they so wish.

Mr McFarland:
Yes. It has taken a year, but it will be good to have the Ministers in front of us.

Mr Attwood:
My party has other concerns arising from the letter. May I deal with those now?

The Chairperson:
Let us deal with the invitation first, and the issues that I have mentioned, after which, I will be happy to deal with any other issues that you wish to raise.

Mr Attwood:
My party feels that the observers should be invited to attend the meeting.

I propose that the meeting be held in public; the reasons for which are self-evident. It is now the best part of two months since we invited the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to appear before the Committee. For several reasons, government has been held up and put into abeyance during that time. One reason for that has been the devolution of policing and justice powers. Given the high political profile of the issue, and the heightened public awareness of the impasse, the proposed meeting will do little to ease political tensions and public anxiety surrounding the matter if we decide to meet in private. There are compelling grounds of public interest and political necessity for deciding that the meeting should be held in public.

If the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are big enough and bold enough to write to us, and to put their letter of 28 July 2008 in the public domain, they should be big enough and bold enough to explain, in public, what that letter means and any other matters arising from it.

It shows disrespect to the Committee and to the public to declare that one thing was agreed on 28 July 2008 but that the next meaningful thing from the First Minister and deputy First Minister will be heard in private. If the First Minister and deputy First Minister are prepared to put the letter of 28 July 2008 in the public domain, in the first instance, then people have a right and an expectation to hear everything.

The profile of the issue, heightened public awareness, the compelling public interest and because the First Minister and deputy First Minister decided to make public the 28 July 2008 letter makes clear to me that they must be prepared to tell the public their current beliefs, and I so propose.

Mr A Maskey:
The most compelling public interest for the Committee is that it gets on with its job. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have acceded to the Committee’s request; and we have agreed, I believe, that they will be here next week. I am happy to hold that section of the Committee meeting in private. There are important issues to be dealt with, and I think that it is wholly appropriate that we deal with them next week in private.

Mr McFarland:
In general, I support Mr Attwood’s view. However, the reality is that the Committee needs to have a detailed discussion with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, which is probably best held in private initially because we are likely to get more out of them in those circumstances. I believe that a meeting with them in public session should take place as soon as possible afterwards, rather than at the end of the process. There is an issue about seeing them explain developments on policing and justice in public.

The Chairperson:
That is an issue that can be raised with the Ministers through questions next week.

Mr Hamilton:
I have nothing in particular to add, other than to endorse the comments of the previous two members. Mr Attwood runs the risk of almost sounding begrudging — after having desired a meeting for umpteen weeks, when he gets it, he picks fault with it. However, as Mr McFarland said, serious matters must be discussed, and a more open and frank discussion is likely to be had in a private session. I believe that that is the best way forward.

Question put, That the attendance of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at the Committee’s meeting on 18 November 2008 should take place in public session.

The Committee divided: Ayes 2; Noes 8

AYES

Mr Attwood, Mrs Hanna.

NOES

The Chairperson (Mr Spratt), Mr A Maskey, Mr Hamilton, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr McFarland, Mr O’Dowd.

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has therefore agreed to meet the Ministers in private session.

As regards that private session, the Committee must agree whether the discussions will be kept confidential; for example, by applying the Chatham House rules. If that is agreed, I ask parties to abide by the decision to keep the discussions confidential. Is the Committee happy to keep those discussions confidential?

Mr Kennedy:
I always have a slight concern about the difference between the phrases “Chatham House rules” and “in strict confidence”. Chatham House rules allow information to be attributed without identifying an individual, which seems inappropriate in this case. It may be better to bind ourselves more tightly to confidentiality.

The Chairperson:
Do members agree to keep those discussions in strict confidence?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
I will reply to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister when the meeting is over and inform them of what we have agreed.

Mr Attwood:
Mr Chairperson, I wish to raise the matters that I mentioned earlier.

First, in response to Simon Hamilton — I was not being begrudging; I want everyone to share in the joy of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s attendance at our next meeting.

Secondly, the Committee has already asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to share a paper with us about the areas on which there is broad agreement on the devolution of policing and justice and the areas that they refer to as problematic. Given that they have decided to attend the Committee and share their wisdom with us, they should also share that paper with us — the Committee has agreed that everything will be conducted in confidence. As the paper, whatever its condition is important to give us an understanding of their position — it is appropriate that the Committee has sight of the paper before next Tuesday, because it will help inform our discussions and questions to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. I ask where the paper is and, depending on the answer I receive, I may make a proposal.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
It would be helpful if the member asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister those questions when they are here. If we are inviting the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to our next meeting, we could ask them whether they want to provide us with a paper that day, which could act as an aide memoire or discussion point. There have been developments since the paper was made. The member is entitled to out the question to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but whether he is entitled to have sight of their paperwork prior to the meeting, is another story.

Mr A Maskey:
I am happy to wait for the meeting and let the First Minister and deputy First Minister share their wisdom with the Committee.

The Chairperson:
I do not think that anyone will be short of questions for the both of them when they come before the Committee.

Mr Attwood:
Subject to what the Committee Clerk recalls — and this is something that pre-dated Mr Paisley Jnr and Mr Hamilton’s joining the Committee — we agreed to ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister for a paper. Following a conversation that the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson had — I am not sure whether it was with Robinson and McGuinness or their officials — they indicated that there were areas which were problematic and areas in which there was broad agreement. The Committee asked for a paper in the middle of September. I am not asking for something that the Committee has not asked for already: we asked for it before, and I am fairly certain that the Committee, the Chairperson or the Deputy Chairperson communicated that request, but we have not received the paper.

To identify the rubbing points between the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — if there are any — and to ensure that we maximise the opportunity to question them, we should honour our decision to get a report. We have asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for a document. I am not talking about working papers, Ian; it is a paper that they said that they —

Mr Paisley Jnr:
I think that they should bring an updated paper to the Committee.

The Chairperson:
Just to clarify: I made a verbal report on behalf of the Deputy Chairperson and myself to the Committee. I am not aware that it was indicated to us that there was an actual paper: I think that they said that there were other points that they would want to share with the Committee at a later stage. I am not aware that there was any suggestion of an actual paper.

Mr McFarland:
It would be helpful if we had something of that nature to help focus us next week rather than have everyone ask questions that they may have agreed or have answers to already.

The Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk will prepare a brief for the Committee, as is the normal procedure. Beyond that, I feel that the consensus from members who have spoken — taking Alex Attwood’s point into account — is that people are happy to put questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister when they are here next week. It is legitimate for Mr Attwood or Mr McFarland to ask the Ministers about the points that have been raised. The Committee Clerk’s office will send a briefing paper to members along with their packs on Thursday as normal.

Mr A Maskey:
There is a serious proposition in front of us — which we have already endorsed — to have the First Minister and deputy First Minister come here next week. Everyone is aware that the matters that we are dealing with are serious and substantive, and everyone has expressed their views on that. The purpose of having both Ministers here next week is so that we can start to press those matters directly with them. They have indicated that they want to be here next week and take part in further public sessions.

For me, this is a serious engagement, and everyone has important issues that they wish to address. I, like other members, am looking forward to addressing those issues next week when we can deal with them directly. People can ask for all the papers that they want, and they may or may not get them, but when we are dealing with Ministers directly, face to face, we can ask all the relevant questions that we need to ask.

Mr Attwood:
I ask the Committee Clerk to tell us what has been recorded in the minutes.

The Chairperson:
We will have to give the Committee Clerk a few moments. We can come back to that. It will take a minute or two to go through the minutes.

Mr Attwood:
We can come back to that.

The Chairperson:
I cannot remember how many meetings back the issue was raised.

Mr Attwood:
It was during the middle or the third week of September roughly.

Mr Kennedy:
Given what Ian Paisley Jnr has said about whether a paper is produced or made available for the meeting by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, could that be issued to members in advance, or even on the day of the meeting at 9.00 am, so that we could have a chance to look at it before the meeting to avoid duplication of questions?

The Chairperson:
I am happy to clarify that, and to indicate that if a paper is being produced, members should get it before the meeting. It is a matter for the First Minister and deputy First Minister as to how they want to handle that. I can add a line in the letter to that effect if it will help. Mr Attwood, are you happy with that?

Mr Attwood:
Subject to what the minutes of the previous meeting say.

The Committee Clerk:
I do not have all sets of minutes to previous meetings to hand.

The Chairperson:
We will clarify that.

Mr Attwood:
We will be here all day, so there is plenty of time to find out.

The Chairperson:
I suggest that the Committee Clerk draw up a revised work plan to include the meeting that will take place in closed session with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. At that meeting, there will also be a resumption of the detailed consideration of the issues on the category-one list of 18 November 2008, and subsequent meetings, and to provide time for an initial and general discussion on the handling arrangements for considering the category-two list of issues.

I seek the Committee’s agreement to make arrangements to procure some expertise on the financial issues contained in the category-two list, on which we have already touched.

It will take a wee period for that to be sorted out. I want the Committee to authorise us to allow the Committee Clerk to obtain whatever expertise is needed to facilitate those discussions — particularly around the financial issue — if he finds that the expertise is not available in-house. Do members agree to that?

Mr McFarland:
We must be sensitive when it comes to the justice issues to which the Assembly has no link. We must also be sensitive to the fact that the Policing Board will have responsibility for the financial issues on policing, and Committee members who are on the Policing Board will know that a committee of the board deals with those financial issues. We must work out how we will interface without cutting across the Policing Board’s responsibilities.

The Chairperson:
I understand that. Obviously, we will seek the views of the Policing Board officially. However, we are simply talking about the financial issues in the category-two list. Perhaps I am not explaining the matter properly. I will hand over to the Committee Clerk.

The Committee Clerk:
I am happy to produce an initial briefing paper that will address the financial issues that the Committee should consider. Mr McFarland has made a fundamental point; for example, just as the budget for the justice element of the policing and justice family in Northern Ireland rests with the Ministry of Justice in large proportion and is not part of the Northern Ireland Office budget, which looks after the policing element, there is a requirement to tease out the financial detail of all the various agencies, bodies and organisations that make up policing and justice, or that may form the newly structured Department for policing and justice. There is work to be done.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
Have you a detailed list of all of the agencies that fall into that category? Could you include in the Committee’s work plan how we might meet those agencies to find out their budgets, their current bids, what bids they were refused and where they have budget pressures. On that basis, we might get a much more accurate picture of Government spending on the justice side. Most of us who sit on the Policing Board are more familiar with the pressures on the policing budget. The justice side, however, appears to be a large black hole.

The Committee Clerk:
The briefing paper that I will provide will touch on those issues. When the Committee took evidence from the Northern Ireland Office in its original inquiry into the devolution of policing and justice matters, a fairly comprehensive letter set out the budget for each of the organisations for which the Northern Ireland Office had responsibility, but it also included financial data in on the Court Service, the Public Prosecution Service, and so on, as well. The development of that information would aid the Committee.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
There must be 12 agencies.

The Committee Clerk:
There are 28 agencies.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
Does that include the organisation that provides legal aid?

The Committee Clerk:
No, the list includes the Legal Services Commission.

The Chairperson:
We are working on the programme. However, we have got into a discussion on category-two issues. I want the Committee to authorise the Committee Clerk to bring in someone to advise specifically on the issue, if the expertise is not available in-house. It may be that the expertise is available in-house, and, if so, there is no issue. However, once we have secured expertise, we can then start work immediately, rather than wait until we move on to the category-two issues, at which point we would have to go down the same route but wait until expertise could be located. That would allow the Committee to take a short cut — arrangements could be put in place earlier. Can members agree that point?

Mr Attwood:
What are the precise arrangements?

The Chairperson:
To deal with category-two matters — those that involve financial matters — after we have dealt with category-one matters. Although I do not know the extent of the work that will be required in that specific area, it has been drawn to my attention that there may be a need to bring somebody in to assist the Committee, and, therefore, at this early stage, I am asking the Committee Clerk to make the necessary arrangements.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
Serious research into the matter is essential.

The Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk will investigate whether such work must be done and advise us on the questions that we should ask. For example, those of us who sit on the Policing Board should know whether there is a major deficit in the policing budget, and advice from a person with financial expertise would allow such a matter to be teased out. It makes sense to have someone in place in order to allow such investigations to take place. In effect, I am asking for the Committee’s approval for the Committee Clerk to make those arrangements.

Mr McCausland:
We all appreciate the pressures on policing budgets; however, when one is dealing with 28 agencies, one cannot be familiar with them all, so such expertise would be helpful.

Mr Attwood:
I agree that the Committee must seek best advice, so the suggestion that we find an independent specialist to provide such advice is reasonable. Nevertheless, to do so would further delay the entire process. Consequently, I wish to seek guidance from the Committee Clerk that he can act expeditiously.

The Chairperson:
Mr Attwood may have missed the point that I am attempting to make. I am attempting to get the expertise in place so that there will not be a delay later. That cannot be achieved overnight, so I am asking members to agree that it should be done now. Although I do not know how long it might take to get such a person in place, I suspect that it would not take too long.

Mr Attwood:
What is the time frame for appointing such a person?

The Chairperson:
Would it be a procurement matter?

The Committee Clerk:
I cannot say for sure, but if the Committee is asking me to begin preparation work for the consideration of the category-two issues, which include finance, my first port of call will be to ascertain whether the Assembly’s Research and Library Services has the capacity to provide such advice. If not, Research and Library Services will guide me in determining how to otherwise secure the support that the Committee appears to want. Providing that the Committee’s requests are in keeping with its mandate, I am sure that the secretariat will expedite any such requests, and a response should be forthcoming relatively quickly.

The Chairperson:
Do members agree to such a request?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Do members wish to raise any other matters? Correspondence was mentioned.

Mr McFarland:
My point concerns the degree of confusion about the good workings of the Committee. The minutes from our Committee meeting on 21 October record that we resolved:

“That the Committee should now adjourn and resume consideration of matters relating to the devolution of policing and justice on 4 November 2008, provided that, by then, the DUP and Sinn Féin had clarified, to the Committee, what the correct interpretation of the first sentence of the second paragraph of the letter of 28 July 2008 from the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be.”

Members should note particularly: “provided that, by then”.

Last week, some Committee members were telephoned to turn up to a meeting that ended up not being quorate. Normally, only the Chairperson can call a meeting of the Committee. The Chairperson did not call a meeting last week, so I cannot understand why the Committee Clerk should have sent members a letter saying that people turned up and that were ready to meet. In fact, my office received a call urging me to come along to make up a quorum. If the Committee is to work properly, it must have rules, and those rules state that the Chairperson calls meetings before we turn up. I am confused as to how we got to the stage at which members turned up last week for a meeting that did not exist.

The Chairperson:
I did not call a meeting last week. However, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will appear before the Committee next week. Therefore, we are moving forward. That said, if a future meeting is arranged at a previous meeting, the Committee Clerks and the Assembly team must turn up at the Committee Room on the arranged date. On that basis, the Committee Clerks and some members turned up last week, but there was no quorum. In fairness to the Committee Clerk, he provided a briefing note — not a letter — that outlined the position. It is normal procedure that if a meeting is scheduled, Committee staff will turn up, not least to inform people that it is not taking place, in case they did not receive a letter to that effect.

I do not want to get into a discussion about the matter, because it is not a major issue. However, I did not call the meeting, because no response to theissues raised had been received. On that basis, I signed off on a letter, which all members received. I do not know whether anyone got in touch with the Committee Clerk’s office about the matter, but no one got in touch with me. However, I called the meeting off, and I take full responsibility for doing so.

Mr Paisley Jnr:
I received a letter from you, which was passed to me in the Chamber last Tuesday between 10.30 am and 10.45 am. It set out the facts and stated that I was not being called; therefore, I assumed that the meeting had been cancelled. I was on standby to attend the meeting, but I did not even know what Committee Room to go to when I received the letter. That was the only area of confusion on my part.

The meeting was called off — end of story. Later in the day, we received a briefing note stating that it had been called off, and there was some media interest in the matter. However, we received a letter from you, and I accepted what it said. Therefore, to my mind, that was the end of the story. There is no doubt that there was some confusion, but things have moved on since then. It is water under the bridge, and the letter from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister has moved the matter on.

Mr Attwood:
Like Ian, I am glad that we have moved on since last week. However, technically, if you are to be consistent, you should not have convened a meeting for this week if your interpretation of the motion that was passed at the previous meeting was that no meetings should take place, as there was no clarification from Sinn Féin and the DUP regarding the correct interpretation of the first sentence of the second paragraph of the letter of 28 July from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. Therefore, technically, you should not have convened a meeting for this week, but it is water under the bridge, and I am glad that we are all here.

However, we need clarification on a couple of questions that were flagged up at last week’s ad hoc meeting. First, given the nature of the Committee’s business, if a precedent has been set, whereby decisions about meetings and other matters are decided jointly by the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson, when does that precedent not apply?

Secondly, within two or three weeks of the Assembly’s giving the Committee a mandate, a majority on the Committee, which is democratic, can, nonetheless, impede the work of the Assembly, which has made a unanimous decision. What are the rubbing points? I flagged up those matters with other members last week, and I am flagging them up again, because we may need to get further advice.

The Chairperson:
You said that there was a meeting last week, but there was no meeting.

Mr McFarland:
To return to Alex’s second point, the Committee revisited the devolution of policing and justice because the letter of 28 July tasked it with some business. It was not clear what the business was, because the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were not clear about it. On the basis of that letter, which stated that there was agreement between the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we went to the Assembly to get a new mandate. It was evident at the meeting of 21 October that the DUP and Sinn Féin disagreed over what that letter meant. The basis on which the process was to be started was unclear, so it strikes me that it was absolutely in order to go back to the authors of the letter, tell them that there is clear disagreement and ask them what the position is. It was quite in order for the Committee to ask how it can continue with its business when it is not clear about the starting position.

The Chairperson:
Of course, the authors of the letter will appear in the front of the Committee next week. The member will then have an opportunity to ask those questions of the two Ministers.

Mr McFarland:
Yes, absolutely.

The Chairperson:
All those issues can be raised with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister next week.

Are there any other comments? At this point, I intend to draw the meeting to a close. Next Tuesday’s meeting will begin with a closed session with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, after which I suggest that we resume detailed consideration of the issues on the category-one list. I think that we had reached issue G on that list at our previous meeting. Are Members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The meeting is now over.

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