Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 27 November 2007

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 Danny Kennedy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Alan McFarland
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr George Robinson

The Chairperson (Mr Donaldson):
We will proceed to the inquiry into the devolution of policing and justice matters. I think that Hansard will be in attendance.

The Committee Clerk:
We understood that Hansard would be here, but given the business yesterday and the depth of business today, their resources are stretched. We have an assurance that they will be able to provide a transcript of evidence from the recording of the public proceedings, but Hansard staff will not be in attendance. I urge members to be as clear as they can in making their contributions. As you know, Hansard staff make notes during proceedings, but they will not be able to do so on this occasion.

The Chairperson:
I invite members to declare relevant interests. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board and of the Privy Council.

Mr G Robinson:
I declare an interest as a member of Limavady Borough Council and Limavady District Policing Partnership (DPP).

Mr I McCrea:
I declare an interest as a member of Cookstown DPP.

Mr Kennedy:
I have nothing to declare.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has been looking at five outstanding matters to be dealt with in relation to the matters to be transferred under devolution of policing and justice powers. We are awaiting a response from the NIO in respect of two of those issues: the powers of the army to act in support of the police; and the powers in relation to the misuse of drugs. The Committee Clerk has been chasing that up with the NIO and will continue to do so. Therefore, we hope to be in a position to deal with those matters at our meeting on 11 December.

Members will recall that the Committee had considered awaiting the receipt of the interim report of the strategic review of parading and receiving oral evidence from the Chief Constable before dealing with parades and 50:50 recruitment. If Members are still of that mind, those issues will form part of the agenda for the meeting on 15 January. The Chief Constable will have given his evidence and we expect that the interim report of the parading body will be published by then. Are members content that parades and 50:50 recruitment are dealt with following those two events?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
We do not yet know the timing of the interim report. If members are content, I will make further inquiries as to when the report will be published. I could table a question in the House of Commons to try to elicit from the NIO a date for that. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The fifth issue to be examined relates to firearms. At our meeting on 16 October, we asked the Committee Clerk to prepare a paper on the options relating to the devolution of responsibility for firearms. That paper is available to be tabled, and we will have a look at it when it is tabled. The paper provides details on the options for the functions that might be transferred in relation to firearms. Option one follows the Scottish model in which policy and legislation for all firearms rests with Westminster. Only the authorisation of prohibited firearms would be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland department of policing and justice.

So that is the Scottish model, which is listed under option 1.

Option 2 envisages the transfer of the current functions that are exercised by the Secretary of State, with the exception of policy and legislation in relation to prohibited firearms.

Option 3 is for Northern Ireland to have full responsibility for firearms. The NIO paper did not discuss that option, and the NIO has indicated that its view is that policy and legislative responsibility for prohibited weapons should remain reserved.

Those are the three options that are available at the moment as regards devolution of responsibility for firearms. To recap; option 1 is the Scottish model, option 2 is the NIO model, if I can call it that; option 3, full devolution of all responsibility. The NIO has noted that its preference remains for the second option, which is to maintain the status quo.

Members, it would be useful if we could reach a decision on this matter today, if possible. Does anyone want to comment on any of the three options?

Mr McFarland:
We are comfortable with option 2.

[Inaudible.]

The Chairperson:
I think that the DUP also prefers option 2.

Mr G Robinson:
I would be of the same mind.

The Chairperson:
Of course, that would not prohibit the devolution of further powers in the future; it is simply a matter of deciding what will happen in the initial phase of devolution.

Carmel, does the SDLP have a strong view on this matter?

Mrs Hanna:
I am aware that the party had proposed full devolution of those powers. I usually rely on Alex to give our definitive answer as he is the party’s expert and spokesperson on these matters. However, I know that that is the party’s view.

Mr McCartney:
Sinn Fein’s preferred option will remain option 3.

The Chairperson:
So, two parties have chosen option 3, and two parties have chosen option 2. Is a way through this to deal with this matter as we may decide to deal with the wider issues and structures of devolution — the Court Service, the Lord Chief Justice’s proposals, and so on? We are edging towards a situation whereby we may decide to recommend devolution of the wider powers on the basis of the arrangements that are in place at the moment, with the understanding that this Committee would continue to review the structures of devolution — or another Committee, be it a scrutiny Committee or a Statutory Committee on policing and justice, could do so on our recommendation.

Is it possible that we could handle the devolution of responsibility for firearms in such a way? We could accept devolution on the basis of the status quo, as outlined in option two, but agree that the matter could be reviewed in the early stages of devolution. After devolution has bedded in, we could consider whether we should take on responsibility for prohibited firearms. Is that a possible compromise? It would enable option 3 to remain on the table, but it would just not be part of the first phase of devolution.

Mr McFarland:
That would seem to be quite a sensible way forward. Of course, we could reach the stage whereby we leave responsibility for prohibitive weapons with Westminster, and then Westminster could suddenly decide that shotguns are prohibited. At that stage, we would have a fairly serious problem and would have to decide whether we want all weapons legislations here. My sense is that our farmers would not wish for shotguns to be prohibited. It is a sensible way forward in that we are accepting the reality of the situation, while retaining an option for further discussion as the matter evolves.

The Chairperson:
Are the SDLP and Sinn Féin happy with the possible compromise that we, as a Committee, would agree to the devolution of the current responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office, but that we would recommend to the scrutiny committee that will take on the responsibility of scrutinising policing and justice powers that it will take an early look at the issue of prohibited weapons — firearms — and whether that matter can be devolved after the bedding-in process? It could also be done in the context of a review — although that has yet to be decided, and I do not want to pre-empt what the Committee decides. However, if the Committee were minded to recommend that it accept devolution on the basis of the model it has at the moment — being mindful of what has been said by the Lord Chief Justice, etc, — and that it wants to examine further the potential for evolving the Courts System, and so on, at arms length, then that would be the subject of an ongoing review, which might be taken forward by the policing and justice scrutiny committee or by the continued work of this Committee.

Mr McCartney:
Sinn Féin wants to see all functions transferred. Obviously, I do not think that it would become a blockage to the eventual transfer. Therefore, it would be something that Sinn Féin would come back to. I would like to see the wording that the Committee agrees to, and then Sinn Féin could look at it from that point of view — if that is OK?

The Chairperson:
OK.

Mrs Hanna:
It would be useful to be able to look at the wording. I do not want to take the decision in the absence of others. However, I understand where you are coming from.

The Chairperson:
I understand that. Are members content that I will ask the Clerk to draw up a form of words that will envisage how the matters described in the NIO discussion document of February 2006 about the responsibility for firearms should be transferred, and that something should be added about the future transfer of the powers in relation to policy and legislative responsibility for prohibited firearms? That can then be looked at at our meeting on 11 December.

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The Chief Constable has accepted the invitation of the Committee to give evidence and will appear before the Committee in the Senate Chamber on Tuesday 8 January at 11.15 am. That will be our first meeting after the Christmas recess.

Mr McFarland:
Is the Committee meeting at 11.00 am or 11.15 am?

The Chairperson:
It will meet at 11.00 am. The first 15 minutes will be taken up with housekeeping and the evidence session will begin at 11.15 am. Members can slot that date into their diaries: it is likely to attract a bit of interest.

I want to return briefly to the issue of the party papers that we had talked about preparing on the outstanding matters in relation to the structure, governance and accountability mechanisms for any new policing and justice Department. At our last meeting, we agreed that we would put those issues on hold, pending the advice that we will receive from the expert witnesses. A preparation pack was distributed to members on 7 November to assist parties in preparing those papers. How does the Committee plan to take that matter forward? I think that it is still content to await the expert advice before presenting the parties’ respective positions. However, can members bear in mind the issues raised in the briefing papers from the Clerk and the Assembly’s Research and Library Service when considering each party’s position?

We need to address not only the evidence and advice from the expert witnesses, but the issues that have been identified.

Mr McFarland:
Could the team prepare a new list of questions for the Committee, because the same question has been asked twice and sometimes three times in a slightly different guise? That may help us to clear our minds. There were also issues relating to cross-border matters. Is there any chance of getting a redefined list, as that may clarify and simplify the answers?

The Committee Clerk:
That is not a problem. In fact, we did that in the letter of invitation to the expert witnesses, so it is quite straightforward. However, PJ Fitzpatrick is coming on 18 December, and the Committee will have heard from Professor Jackson by that stage. Then the Chief Constable is coming on 8 January. There are still some bits and pieces to do around the issues of parading and 50:50 that may come up during the session with the Chief Constable.

When we spoke earlier about the timetable, I suggested, and the Chairperson expressed the same view, that the model and structures will be the key item for discussion on 15 January. Therefore, if you had the papers from the expert witnesses and shared those with your party support staff to help the development of your responses, essentially, I would need the party papers by 9 January, so that they could be issued for discussion at the meeting on 15 January.

The Chairperson:
The target is to have those papers ready by 9 January for discussion on 15 January. That gives us a reasonable amount of time. The Committee Clerk will arrange for the revised list of questions to be issued to us.

The Committee Clerk:
It would be preferable to have them by lunchtime on 9 January, so that we can get them copied and distributed.

Mr McFarland:
Are we agreed that we will receive a copy of the revised list of questions by 1.00 pm?

The Committee Clerk:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
I would be grateful if you could remind members of that in an email.

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