Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 05 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jeffrey Donaldson (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr George Robinson

The Chairperson (Mr Donaldson):

The Committee requested a briefing paper summarising the legislation on the role of the Attorney General and Advocate General for Northern Ireland, including a summary of the evidence that was provided by Sir Nigel Hamilton and his officials on that matter at our meeting of 22 January. Members will find that information in their members’ pack. The paper also sets out the role of the Attorney General for England and Wales, including any relevant information provided in previous research papers and briefings from expert witnesses on the role of the Attorney General.

In addition, members will find some information on the functions of the Advocate General, which is taken from schedule 7 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which sets out those functions.

The Committee requested that the Clerk investigate whether, in their evidence, the representatives of the Northern Ireland Policing Board provided a view on the future membership of the board and any Scrutiny Committee for policing and justice. Members will recall that one of the issues that we have asked parties to consider is whether an MLA who is a member of the Policing Board should be excluded from membership of any future scrutiny Committee on policing and justice. In oral evidence to the Committee, Sir Desmond Rea, chairman of the Policing Board, expressed the view that an MLA should not serve on both the board and the scrutiny Committee.

The members’ pack also contains a letter from the Probation Board, which is dated 31 January 2008. It refers to the Committee’s recent discussions on the future status of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland. Members may wish to take that letter into account in representing their views on the Probation Board.

Do members agree that the Clerk should write to the Probation Board to indicate that the Committee has noted the terms of its letter? It would simply be an acknowledgement that we have received its letter detailing the matters on which we had sought information. Is the Committee content that we acknowledge that?

Members indicated assent.

Mr Attwood:

I want to return to the issue of whether Policing Board member should be members of the scrutiny Committee on policing and justice. A variation on that theme is whether MLAs who are members of district policing partnerships (DPPs) can also sit on the scrutiny Committee. In that case, the relationship is clearly at arm’s length, and the power of a DPP member is very different from that of a Policing Board member. Nonetheless, that issue probably needs to be considered, if not in our papers, then at least in a conversation. I do not think that such a discussion will take very long, but the issue must be addressed, because we could be hit with it in three or six months’ time. The SDLP has certainly addressed it in its position paper.

The Chairperson:

That is a fair point. I ask the Clerk to add that to the discussion note. In other words, if the Committee were to agree, in principle, that an MLA who is a member of the Policing Board should not serve on the scrutiny Committee for policing and justice, should that rule also apply to any MLA who is a member of a local district policing partnership, given the potential for a conflict of interest? We will include that point in our wider discussions on the issue.

The pack also includes a letter from Include Youth and a copy of their original submission to the inquiry in August 2007, which requests an opportunity to make an oral submission to the Committee. As members will know, requests have been made to give evidence to the Committee; in particular, there has been a request from the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

We decided that, at this stage in our deliberations, we did not have the time to grant those requests. Would it be in order for the Committee Clerk to write back on behalf of the Committee, expressing our appreciation of the interest shown by Include Youth and for their informative written submission, but that at this late stage of the inquiry it would not be appropriate to invite any further witnesses? Is the Committee content that we respond in that way?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

OK.

Mr I McCrea:

Unless we feel compassionate, and want to hear from all those from whom we have not accepted requests, and invite them all to our last few meetings.

The Chairperson:

We have already touched on the arrangements for publishing the Committee’s report, as has the Committee Clerk. Is there anything practical to add?

The Committee Clerk:

No, other than to say that time is of the essence. I have developed some sections of the report, but I cannot develop other sections until I have a clearer position. All will depend, then, on the session that we might have on Thursday afternoon, probably after the Northern Ireland Office officials give the illustrative examples of the draft legislation.

The Committee had agreed previously that those party deliberations on the papers should be in private session. Technically, that means that there would not ordinarily be an official transcript of those discussions. However, bearing in mind that they could be fundamental to the report, there is an opportunity for us to seek to have an official transcript, but for the discussions not to be broadcast around the Building. The transcript would only be published at the same time as the publication of the report. There is a slight risk with that, which we accept. We are examining the establishment of a protocol between Committees and the Office of the Official Report, because once we take this course of action and say that it is in private session, there is a slight risk that someone will get their hands on a transcript which is then leaked or released. I need to be clear whether the Committee wants a transcript of those discussions if they are to be held in private.

The Chairperson:

Do members have any strong views one way or the other?

Mr I McCrea:

If Hansard are to be here, so be it.

The Chairperson:

Which sessions have you in mind, Clerk?

The Committee Clerk:

If the paper from Sinn Féin emerged in time, then part of the session on Thursday would be held in public, with Hansard present to hear from NIO officials about the illustrative examples of the legislation. I presume that the Committee might prefer to go into private session for the consideration of the papers. The issue then is whether the Committee would like to have a transcript of those private proceedings; and, arguably, if those discussions continued, for example, next Tuesday, should they be in private session; and if so, whether Hansard should be present for the purposes of producing a transcript.

The Chairperson:

We are a Committee, not a negotiating forum. Nevertheless, we are going to have to negotiate our way through some of these issues. If we arrived at certain outcomes and someone was to read the report, would they understand how we arrived at those outcomes? Should we not at least produce a summary of the discussions that took place, and which resulted in whatever consensus might be arrived at on any particular issue?

The Committee Clerk:

As you know, Chairperson, drafts of the transcript would normally be circulated to members for correction. There is a slight risk at that stage that, with the best will in the world, discussions that were intended to be held in private may end up in the public domain. Bearing in mind that the report is due to be published on or before 29 February, the timing may also be a consideration.

Mr Attwood:

I have no problem with everything being recorded by Hansard. I am prepared to rely on people sticking to confidentiality. It would be useful to have a record of these events. I am relaxed about that.

The Chairperson:

Some other matters may arise during the meetings that the Committee Clerk referred to, in which case we might prefer not ask for a record of those occasions. Will we proceed on the basis that Hansard will provide a transcript of all other deliberations?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

The Committee Clerk has already referred to Thursday’s meeting. We hope that NIO officials will be present to provide illustrative examples of the draft legislation that is being prepared. We may also, then, be in a position to have an initial discussion about the position papers.

I remind members to bring the folders that we are working on today to Thursday’s meeting. They contain papers that we may need to refer to. Are members content with the draft press release? I doubt whether we will make it on to the front pages, but you never know. That is not the fault of those who drafted it.

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

The next meeting of the Committee will be on Thursday 7 February at 2.00 pm in room 152 in Parliament Buildings. Thank you.

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